Building Links Between Ecology and Paleontology Using Taphonomic Studies of Recent Vertebrate Communities

  • Anna K. BehrensmeyerEmail author
  • Joshua H. Miller
Part of the Springer Earth System Sciences book series (SPRINGEREARTH)


Ecologists and paleontologists share a common interest in the natural cycles of life and death, but their viewpoints on living organisms and the processes that recycle or preserve their remains are different. The goal of this chapter is to explore the common ground between these fields through taphonomy, the sub-field of paleontology that examines how organisms are preserved as fossils. From studies of recent bone assemblages, taphonomists have assembled information about diversity and abundance, animal behaviour, predator–prey interactions, habitat utilization, mortality (how and where animals die), and nutrient recycling. These studies were initiated to strengthen paleontological understanding of the information content and biases in the fossil record, but the methods and discoveries of taphonomic research in modern ecosystems are also of potential value to ecologists. Both paleontology and ecology would benefit from increased exchange of ideas and perspectives, and this chapter provides examples showing why such exchange is worth pursuing and offers suggestions to encourage future dialogue and collaboration.


Taphonomy Vertebrate Actualistic Paleoecology Bone surveys Diversity Ecological baselines 



We are very grateful to Julien Louys for the invitation to contribute to this volume and appreciate his encouragement and patience throughout the process. Many people have contributed to the ideas and methods in actualistic vertebrate taphonomy reviewed in this chapter, and it is not possible to pay proper tribute to all of them. However, we would like to thank Catherine Badgley, Alan Cutler, Andrew Du, Tyler Faith, Karl Flessa, Diane Gifford-Gonzalez, Gary Haynes, Sue Kidwell, Fred Lala, Ray Rogers, Martha Tappen, Rebecca Terry, Amelia Villasenor and Sally Walker for many stimulating discussions about taphonomy, and especially ecologist David Western, who has from the mid-1970s been a partner in the exploration of a new interface between past and present in the Amboseli ecosystem. In the same vein, we thank P.J. White, Doug Smith, Rick Wallen, David Payer, and Eric Wald for their interest in exploring the ecological insight contained in the bone accumulations of Yellowstone National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We also thank Mary Parrish, who provided the original artwork for the taphonomic cycle, and Karl Flessa, who kindly permitted reproduction of his classic taphonomic bumpersticker.


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© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Paleobiology and Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems ProgramSmithsonian InstitutionWashingtonUSA
  2. 2.Florida Museum of Natural HistoryUniversity of FloridaGainesvilleUSA

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