Teach the Earth > Paleontology > Teaching Activities > Vertebrate Taphonomy

Vertebrate Taphonomy

David Goodwin
Denison University
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This activity was selected for the On the Cutting Edge Reviewed Teaching Collection

This activity has received positive reviews in a peer review process involving five review categories. The five categories included in the process are

  • Scientific Accuracy
  • Alignment of Learning Goals, Activities, and Assessments
  • Pedagogic Effectiveness
  • Robustness (usability and dependability of all components)
  • Completeness of the ActivitySheet web page

For more information about the peer review process itself, please see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This activity has benefited from input from faculty educators beyond the author through a review and suggestion process. This review took place as a part of a faculty professional development workshop where groups of faculty reviewed each others' activities and offered feedback and ideas for improvements. To learn more about the process On the Cutting Edge uses for activity review, see http://serc.carleton.edu/NAGTWorkshops/review.html.

This page first made public: Jul 22, 2009


This field exercise investigates taphonomic processes operating on a large terrestrial vertebrate carcass (whitetail deer: Odocoileus virginianus) in a temperate humid, terrestrial environment.

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Undergraduate paleontology elective

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

Students should be proficient with basic brunton skills and be able to plot data on rose diagrams.

How the activity is situated in the course

This exercise is conducted early in the semester and coincides with lectures covering taphonomy.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

1. To observe and document early postmortem processes operating on a deer carcass;

2. To compare the effects of scavenging on two carcasses, one placed in an open grassy field, the other placed in the same field but enclosed in wire mesh cage constructed to exclude macro-scavengers; and,

3. To consider the taphnomic biases imparted by scavengers on terrestrial vertebrate animal remains specifically, and on the fossil record in general.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

Other skills goals for this activity

Description of the activity/assignment

In this lab exercise, students investigate taphonomic processes operating on a large vertebrate carcass (whitetail deer: Odocoileus virginianus) in a temperate, humid, terrestrial environment (i.e., central Ohio). Prior to the lab, students read the 1991 review article on terrestrial vertebrate accumulations by A. K. Behrensmeyer. Once in the field, they familiarize themselves with the locality and note the state of the carcass and the position of any disarticulated portions of the beast. Using the stake flags they mark the location of all the elements of the carcass. Next, using the Brunton compasses and the measuring tape, create a map of the site. They then reassemble all the elements of the carcass on the tarp and identify all of the skeletal elements. Finally, the students compare the disarticulated skeleton with a control carcass placed in a wire mesh cage designed to exclude any macro-scavengers. In the lab, student synthesize their results and respond to a series of questions related to vertebrate taphonomy and the quality of the fossil record.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Student evaluations are based on lab write-ups completed after the field data is collected and subsequently analyzed.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

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