Biology & Philosophy

, 34:28 | Cite as

Crossed tracks: Mesolimulus, Archaeopteryx, and the nature of fossils

  • Leonard FinkelmanEmail author
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Paleobiology and Philosophy


Organisms leave a variety of traces in the fossil record. Among these traces, vertebrate and invertebrate paleontologists conventionally recognize a distinction between the remains of an organism’s phenotype (body fossils) and the remains of an organism’s life activities (trace fossils). The same convention recognizes body fossils as biological structures and trace fossils as geological objects. This convention explains some curious practices in the classification, as with the distinction between taxa for trace fossils and for tracemakers. I consider the distinction between “parallel taxonomies,” or parataxonomies, which privileges some kinds of fossil taxa as “natural” and others as “artificial.” The motivations for and consequences of this practice are inconsistent. By comparison, I examine an alternative system of classification used by paleobotanists that regards all fossil taxa as “artificially” split. While this system has the potential to inflate the number of taxa with which paleontologists work, the system offers greater consistency than conventional practices. Weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each system, I recommend that paleontologists should adopt the paleobotanical system more broadly.


Paleontology Paleobiology Paleobotany Fossil Ichnofossil Taxonomy Parataxonomy Archaeopteryx 



The author would like to thank Adrian Currie for planning and executing of this special issue and the various events that preceded it. Thanks also to Derek Turner and Joyce Havstad for their assistance, support, and input while working on this project. Matt Haber, Jerzy Brzozowski, Richard Javier Stephenson, and Caitlin Wylie all provided vitally helpful and specific commentary on earlier versions of this work. Derek Skillings and Amanda Bryant deserve thanks for more general commentary. Edward Davis, Samantha Hopkins, Holley Flora, Dana Reuter, Win McLaughlin, Paul Barrett, Kellum Tate, and Genevieve Purdue all contributed to understanding of the paleontological literature. Jesus Ilundain and Kaarina Beam provided early feedback and material support. Finally, thanks to John Syring and Mike Full for their interest in this project and willingness to engage relevant conversations while engaging the more entertaining task of fossil hunting.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Linfield CollegeMcMinnvilleUSA

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