Taphonomy: The Study of Preservation

This page was written by Ewan Wolff, Montana State University Geoscience Education Web Development Team

"The fossil skeletons that we found were not articulated, which means that the bones had come apart at some point before the fossilization process began. Otherwise, we would have found neatly arranged skeletons instead of jumbles of bones. Furthermore, there were no marks or breaks showing that the bones had been cracked or chewed by predators prior to fossilization. These bits of evidence led me to think that after their deaths the babies must have lain rotting in the nest, slowly being denuded of flesh, and then, in the second stage of decay, their skeletons must have come apart as the connecting tendons and ligaments disintegrated." Jack Horner Digging Dinosaurs (p.55)
Dispersed bones from a hawk aerie in Idaho. Details

What does preservation mean?

Preservation is a very broad category in paleontology. It is the study of the alteration of fossilized materials, either in large scale structure or the micro-anatomical or molecular level. Taphonomy, on the other hand, involves every process involved in the final condition of a specimen that is put on display in museum or found in a collection. This includes all the events that happen to an organism following death, its burial, and removal from the ground. Different examples of these processes include transport, surface weathering, and movement of elements by animals. Almost synonymous with taphonomy, preservation includes the disparate fields of geochemistry, microbiology, paleobotany, invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology and sedimentology.

The study of preservation has the potential to reveal the structure of ancient muscles, or the way a footprint of a dinosaur gets preserved, or the types of ancient proteins in a plant leaf. This field has been expanding in the last several decades as paleontology focuses more and more on discovering new frontiers.

To learn more, read Taphonomy: New Branch of Paleontology (more info) , the first article on the science of taphonomy.

What does normal preservation look like?

Ordinarily, paleontologists do not find organ impressions, skin, feathers, or any other soft tissue preserved. Fossilization usually only leaves behind the bones, and these are what science has to draw interpretations from. Fortunately, you can tell a lot from bones if you know what to look for.


What is exceptional preservation?

Exceptional preservation can refer to preservation of fine detail, preservation of soft-tissue, preservation of delicate structures or preservation of biomolecules or microbes.


Teaching Resources

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  • Roadkill as Teaching Aids in Historical Geology and Paleontology This Journal of Geoscience Education article illustrates how and why to use roadkill to teach students about paleontology. The article includes a description of the physical characteristics of fossils and roadkill; natural vs. anthropogenic agents of dismemberment and flattening; teaching aids, preparation, and methods; as well as photo examples of roadkill.
  • Experimental Investigation of the Processes of Fossilization This Journal of Geoscience Education article describes a laboratory experiment that demonstrates the relative rates of decay and disarticulation of hard-parts, nonmineralized skeletal parts, and internal soft-parts of animals, plants, and fungi.
  • Fossilization and Taphonomy (more info) This is a classroom exercise from the Idaho Museum of Natural History on the preservation of fossils. The exercise is designed for high school or introductory college classes. This activity is to be used in conjunction with the Digital Atlas of Idaho Geology. The website includes the necessary handouts and sample questions.

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