The quality of the fossil record: Populations, species, and communities

Susan M. Kidwell, Karl W. Flessa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

193 Scopus citations


Paleontologists have always been concerned about the documentary quality of the fossil record, and this has also become an important issue for biologists, who increasingly look to accumulations of bones, shells, and plant material as possible ways to extend the time-frame of observation on species and community behaviors. Quantitative data on the postmortem behavior of organic remains in modern environments are providing new insights into death and fossil assemblages as sources of biological information. Important findings include: 1. With the exception of a few circumstances, usually recognizable by independent criteria, transport out of the original life habitat affects few individuals. 2. Most species with preservable hardparts are in fact represented in the local death assemblage, commonly in correct rank importance. Molluscs are the most durable of modern aquatic groups studied so far, and they show highest fidelity to the original community. 3. Time-averaging of remains from successive generations and communities often prevents the detection of short-term (seasons, years) variability but provides an excellent record of the natural range of community composition and structure over longer periods. Thus, although a complex array of processes and circumstances influences preservation, death assemblages of resistant skeletal elements are for many major groups good to excellent records of community composition, morphological variation, and environmental and geographic distribution of species, and such assemblages can record temporal dynamics at ecologically and evolutionarily meaningful scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)269-299
Number of pages31
JournalAnnual Review of Ecology and Systematics
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 1995



  • Ecology
  • Paleoecology
  • Taphonomy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology

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