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September 4, 2014
University of Bristol
Do all the millions of fossils in museums around the world give a
balanced view of the history of life, or is the record too incomplete to be
sure? This question was first recognized by Charles Darwin and has
worried scientists ever since.
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How good is the fossil record? New study casts doubt on their
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Credit: Dr Alex Dunhill [Click to enlarge image]
A map showing the geology of Great Britain spanning the past 550 million years.
ethods have been developed to try to identify and correct for bias in
the fossil record but new research from the Universities of Bristol and
Bath, suggests many of these correction methods may actually be
The study, led by Dr Alex Dunhill, formerly at the
Universities of Bristol and Bath and now at the
University of Leeds, explored the rich and well-studied
fossil record of Great Britain. Professional geological
work has been done in the British Isles for over 200
years and the British Geological Survey (dating from
the 1830s) has amassed enormous, detailed
knowledge of every inch of the rocks and fossils of
the islands.
Together with collaborators from the Universities of
Bristol and Bergen, Dr Dunhill compared biodiversity
through the last 550 million years of the British fossil
record against a number of geological and
environmental factors including the area of
sedimentary rock, the number of recorded fossil
collections and the number of named geological
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'formations'. All of these measures have been used as
yardsticks against which the quality of the fossil record can be assessed -- but the
new study casts doubt on their usefulness.
Dr Dunhill said: "We suspected that the similar patterns displayed by the rock and
fossil records were due to external factors rather than the number of fossils being
simply dictated by the amount of accessible rock. Our work shows this is true.
Factors such as counts of geological formations and collections cannot be used to
correct biodiversity in the fossil record."
The study benefits from the application of advanced mathematical techniques that not
only identify whether two data sets correlate, but also whether one drives the other.
The results show that out of all the geological factors, only the area of preserved rock
drives biodiversity. Therefore, the other geological factors -- counts of fossil collections
and geological formations -- are not independent measures of bias in the fossil record.
Co-author, Bjarte Hannisdal from the University of Bergen, said: "We can learn more
by analysing old data in new ways, than by analysing new data in old ways."
This discovery fundamentally alters the way we view the diversity of life through time. It
shows that both the preservation of rock and the preservation of fossils were probably
driven by external environmental factors like climate change and sea level. This better
explains the similarities between the rock and fossil records, as both responding to the
same external factors. The alternative idea, that rock preservation was driving the fossil
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University of Bristol. "How good is the fossil record? New study casts doubt on
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same external factors. The alternative idea, that rock preservation was driving the fossil
record is now strongly queried by this study. Perhaps the record of biodiversity in the
fossil record is more accurate than previously feared.
Professor Michael Benton from the University of Bristol, another co-author of the study,
said: "Palaeontologists are right to be cautious about the quality of the fossil record,
but perhaps some have been too cautious. The sequence of fossils in the rocks more
or less tells us the story of the history of life, and we have sensible ways of dealing
with uncertainty. Some recent work on 'correcting' the fossil record by using formation
counts may produce nonsense results."
The research is published in Nature Communications.
Story Source:
The above story is based on materials provided by University of Bristol. Note:
Materials may be edited for content and length.
Journal Reference:
1. Alexander M. Dunhill, Bjarte Hannisdal, Michael J. Benton. Disentangling rock
record bias and common-cause from redundancy in the British fossil record.
Nature Communications, 2014; 5: 4818 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms5818
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