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Concept: Taphonomy


We describe the physical context of the Dinaledi Chamber within the Rising Star cave, South Africa, which contains the fossils of Homo naledi. Approximately 1550 specimens of hominin remains have been recovered from at least 15 individuals, representing a small portion of the total fossil content. Macro-vertebrate fossils are exclusively H. naledi, and occur within clay-rich sediments derived from in situ weathering, and exogenous clay and silt, which entered the chamber through fractures that prevented passage of coarser-grained material. The chamber was always in the dark zone, and not accessible to non-hominins. Bone taphonomy indicates that hominin individuals reached the chamber complete, with disarticulation occurring during/after deposition. Hominins accumulated over time as older laminated mudstone units and sediment along the cave floor were eroded. Preliminary evidence is consistent with deliberate body disposal in a single location, by a hominin species other than Homo sapiens, at an as-yet unknown date.

Concepts: Human, Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Erosion, Geology, Fossil, Silt, Taphonomy


The Velaux-La Bastide Neuve fossil-bearing site (Bouches-du-Rhône, France) has yielded a diverse vertebrate assemblage dominated by dinosaurs, including the titanosaur Atsinganosaurus velauciensis. We here provide a complete inventory of vertebrate fossils collected during two large-scale field campaigns. Numerous crocodilian teeth occur together with complete skulls. Pterosaur, hybodont shark and fish elements are also represented but uncommon. Magnetostratigraphic analyses associated with biostratigraphic data from dinosaur eggshell and charophytes suggest a Late Campanian age for the locality. Lithologic and taphonomic studies, associated with microfacies and palynofacies analyses, indicate a fluvial setting of moderate energy with broad floodplain. Palynomorphs are quite rare; only three taxa of pollen grains occur: a bisaccate taxon, a second form probably belonging to the Normapolles complex, and another tricolporate taxon. Despite the good state of preservation, these taxa are generally difficult to identify, since they are scarce and have a very minute size. Most of the vertebrate remains are well preserved and suggest transport of the carcasses over short distances before accumulation in channel and overbank facies, together with reworked Aptian grains of glauconite, followed by a rapid burial. The bones accumulated in three thin layers that differ by their depositional modes and their taphonomic histories. Numerous calcareous and iron oxides-rich paleosols developed on the floodplain, suggesting an alternating dry and humid climate in the region during the Late Campanian.

Concepts: Reptile, Cretaceous, Pterosaur, Fossil, Dinosaur, Taphonomy, Late Cretaceous, Campanian


A newly discovered assemblage of predominantly small tracks from the Cretaceous Patuxent Formation at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland, reveals one of the highest track densities and diversities ever reported (~70 tracks, representing at least eight morphotypes from an area of only ~2 m2). The assemblage is dominated by small mammal tracks including the new ichnotxon Sederipes goddardensis, indicating sitting postures. Small crow-sized theropod trackways, the first from this unit, indicate social trackmakers and suggest slow-paced foraging behavior. Tracks of pterosaurs, and other small vertebrates suggest activity on an organic-rich substrate. Large well-preserved sauropod and nodosaurs tracks indicate the presence of large dinosaurs. The Patuxent Formation together with the recently reported Angolan assemblage comprise the world’s two largest Mesozoic mammal footprint assemblages. The high density of footprint registration at the NASA site indicates special preservational and taphonomic conditions. These include early, penecontemporaneous deposition of siderite in organic rich, reducing wetland settings where even the flesh of body fossils can be mummified. Thus, the track-rich ironstone substrates of the Patuxent Formation, appear to preserve a unique vertebrate ichnofacies, with associated, exceptionally-preserved body fossil remains for which there are currently no other similar examples preserved in the fossil record.

Concepts: Cretaceous, Fossil, Paleontology, Dinosaur, Taphonomy, Trace fossil, Fossils


The pattern and sequence of the decomposition of the Pipidae African dwarf frog (Hymenochirus boettgeri) is tracked in an experiment with microbial mats in order to explore soft tissue preservation over three years. Frog decay in microbial mats is preceded by rapid entombment (25-30 days) and mediated by the formation of a sarcophagus, which is built by a complex microbial community. The frog carcasses maintained a variety of soft tissues for years. Labile organic structures show greater durability within the mat, cells maintain their general shape (bone marrow cells and adipocytes), and muscles and connective tissues (adipose and fibrous tendons) exhibit their original organic structures. In addition, other soft tissues are promptly mineralized (day 540) in a Ca-rich carbonate phase (encephalic tectum) or enriched in sulphur residues (integumentary system). The result is coherent with a bias in soft-tissue preservation, as some tissues are more likely to be conserved than others. The outcomes support observations of exceptionally preserved fossil anurans (adults and tadpoles). Decomposition in mats shows singular conditions of pH and dissolved oxygen. Mineralization processes could be more diverse than in simple heterotrophic biofilms, opening new taphonomic processes that have yet to be explored.

Concepts: Bone, Blood, Bone marrow, Tissues, Frog, Pipidae, Taphonomy, African dwarf frog


Most forensic research that is used to better understand how to estimate the postmortem interval (PMI) entails the study of the physiochemical characteristics of decomposition and the effects that environmental factors have on the decomposition process. Forensic entomology exploits the life cycles of arthropods like Diptera (blow flies or flesh flies) and Coleoptera (beetles) deposited on the decaying carcass to determine PMI. Forensic taphonomy, from the Greek word taphos meaning burial, studies the creation of the fossils of decomposed cadavers to ascertain information as to the nature and time of death. Compared to other areas of taphonomy, there have been relatively few forensic science studies that have investigated the impact of human decomposition on the microbial changes occurring on or in a corpse or in the soil communities underneath a body. Such research may facilitate the critical determination of PMI. Therefore, the scope of this review is to provide a concise summary of the current progress in the newly emerging field of microbial diversity and the next-generation metagenomic sequencing approaches for assessing these communities in humans and in the soil beneath decomposing human.

Concepts: Death, Insect, Forensic science, Embalming, Decomposition, Death metal, Taphonomy, Histeridae


Carnivoran-dominated fossil sites provide precious insights into the diversity and ecology of species rarely recovered in the fossil record. The lower level assemblage of Batallones-1 fossil site (Late Miocene; Madrid Basin, Spain) has yielded one of the most abundant and diversified carnivoran assemblage ever known from the Cenozoic record of mammals. A comprehensive taphonomic study is carried out here in order to constrain the concentration mode of this remarkable assemblage. Another distinctive feature of Batallones-1 is that the accumulation of carnivoran remains took place in the context of a geomorphological landform (cavity formation through a piping process) practically unknown in the generation of fossil sites. Two characteristics of the assemblage highly restrict the probable causes for the accumulation of the remains: (1) the overwhelming number of carnivorans individuals; and (2) the mortality profiles estimated for the four most abundant taxa do not correspond to the classic mortality types but rather were the consequence of the behavior of the taxa. This evidence together with other taphonomic data supports the hypothesis that carnivoran individuals actively entered the cavity searching for resources (food or water) and were unable to exit. The scarcity of herbivores implies that the shaft was well visible and avoided by these taxa. Fossil bones exhibit a very good preservation state as a consequence of their deposition in the restricted and protective environment of the chamber. Batallones-1 had another assemblage (upper level assemblage) that was dominated by herbivore remains and that potentially corresponded to the final stages of the cavity filling.

Concepts: Evolution, Mammal, Geology, Fossil, Carnivora, Dinosaur, Paleobiology, Taphonomy


The La Brea Tar Pits, the world’s richest and most important Late Pleistocene fossil locality, offers unsurpassed insights into southern California’s past environments. Recent studies at Rancho La Brea document that insects serve as sensitive and valuable paleoecological and taphonomic indicators. Of the thousands of fossil bird and mammal bones recovered from the Tar Pits, insect trace damage is thus far almost exclusively confined to the foot bones of large herbivores, especially bison, camel, and horse species. Our laboratory experiments with dermestid and tenebrionid beetles establish that the larvae of both consume bone, producing different characteristic feeding traces and providing the first documentation that tenebrionids consume bone. The presence of carcass-exploiting insects in the Rancho La Brea biota provides insight into the taphonomy of the asphaltic bone masses and the environmental conditions under which they accumulated. The succession of dermestids, tenebrionids, and indeterminate traces on many of the foot elements, combined with the climate restrictions and life cycles of these insects, indicate that carcasses could remain unsubmerged for at least 17-20 weeks, thus providing the most reliable estimate to date. Attribution of these traces also suggests that the asphaltic fossils only accumulated during warmer intervals of the Late Pleistocene. Forensic studies need to reevaluate the role of tenebrionids in carcass decomposition and other additional insects that modify bone.

Concepts: Insect, Animal, Foot, Beetle, Fossil, Pleistocene, La Brea Tar Pits, Taphonomy


Although hematophagy is found in ∼14,000 species of extant insects, the fossil record of blood-feeding insects is extremely poor and largely confined to specimens identified as hematophagic based on their taxonomic affinities with extant hematophagic insects; direct evidence of hematophagy is limited to four insect fossils in which trypanosomes and the malarial protozoan Plasmodium have been found. Here, we describe a blood-engorged mosquito from the Middle Eocene Kishenehn Formation in Montana. This unique specimen provided the opportunity to ask whether or not hemoglobin, or biomolecules derived from hemoglobin, were preserved in the fossilized blood meal. The abdomen of the fossil mosquito was shown to contain very high levels of iron, and mass spectrometry data provided a convincing identification of porphyrin molecules derived from the oxygen-carrying heme moiety of hemoglobin. These data confirm the existence of taphonomic conditions conducive to the preservation of biomolecules through deep time and support previous reports of the existence of heme-derived porphyrins in terrestrial fossils.

Concepts: Evolution, Mosquito, Heme, Fossil, Paleontology, Dinosaur, Taphonomy


Many palaeobiological analyses have concluded that modern birds (Neornithes) radiated no earlier than the Maastrichtian, whereas molecular clock studies have argued for a much earlier origination. Here, we assess the quality of the fossil record of Mesozoic avian species, using a recently proposed character completeness metric which calculates the percentage of phylogenetic characters that can be scored for each taxon. Estimates of fossil record quality are plotted against geological time and compared to estimates of species level diversity, sea level, and depositional environment. Geographical controls on the avian fossil record are investigated by comparing the completeness scores of species in different continental regions and latitudinal bins. Avian fossil record quality varies greatly with peaks during the Tithonian-early Berriasian, Aptian, and Coniacian-Santonian, and troughs during the Albian-Turonian and the Maastrichtian. The completeness metric correlates more strongly with a ‘sampling corrected’ residual diversity curve of avian species than with the raw taxic diversity curve, suggesting that the abundance and diversity of birds might influence the probability of high quality specimens being preserved. There is no correlation between avian completeness and sea level, the number of fluviolacustrine localities or a recently constructed character completeness metric of sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Comparisons between the completeness of Mesozoic birds and sauropodomorphs suggest that small delicate vertebrate skeletons are more easily destroyed by taphonomic processes, but more easily preserved whole. Lagerstätten deposits might therefore have a stronger impact on reconstructions of diversity of smaller organisms relative to more robust forms. The relatively poor quality of the avian fossil record in the Late Cretaceous combined with very patchy regional sampling means that it is possible neornithine lineages were present throughout this interval but have not yet been sampled or are difficult to identify because of the fragmentary nature of the specimens.

Concepts: Evolution, Bird, Phylogenetics, Geology, Cretaceous, Fossil, Dinosaur, Taphonomy


Quantitative morphometric analyses, particularly ontogenetic allometry, are common methods used in quantifying shape, and changes therein, in both extinct and extant organisms. Due to incompleteness and the potential for restricted sample sizes in the fossil record, palaeobiological analyses of allometry may encounter higher rates of error. Differences in sample size between fossil and extant studies and any resulting effects on allometric analyses have not been thoroughly investigated, and a logical lower threshold to sample size is not clear. Here we show that studies based on fossil datasets have smaller sample sizes than those based on extant taxa. A similar pattern between vertebrates and invertebrates indicates this is not a problem unique to either group, but common to both. We investigate the relationship between sample size, ontogenetic allometric relationship and statistical power using an empirical dataset of skull measurements of modern Alligator mississippiensis. Across a variety of subsampling techniques, used to simulate different taphonomic and/or sampling effects, smaller sample sizes gave less reliable and more variable results, often with the result that allometric relationships will go undetected due to Type II error (failure to reject the null hypothesis). This may result in a false impression of fewer instances of positive/negative allometric growth in fossils compared to living organisms. These limitations are not restricted to fossil data and are equally applicable to allometric analyses of rare extant taxa. No mathematically derived minimum sample size for ontogenetic allometric studies is found; rather results of isometry (but not necessarily allometry) should not be viewed with confidence at small sample sizes.

Concepts: DNA, Scientific method, Evolution, Sample size, Biology, Type I and type II errors, Fossil, Taphonomy