Death, decay and fossilization

By Duncan Murdock, Research Fellow

Our oceans, rivers and lakes teem with life of all shapes and sizes, and have done so for hundreds of millions of years. We can get a glimpse of the wonderful diversity of life deep in the Earth’s past from fossils that can be found in the rocks beneath our feet. But the fossil record is as much a history of death as it is of life.

All animals die, in huge numbers every day, but the sea beds and forest floors of the Earth are not filling up with their remains. Decay is as inevitable as death. This is good news for those left behind, but bad news for fossil hunters.

Being preserved as a fossil is very much the exception, not the rule, and the chances of anything surviving the various processes by which the component parts of an animal are lost forever are vanishingly small, even for hard parts like shells, teeth and bones. For the ‘soft’ parts of animals, such as the muscles, eyes, guts and nerves, it is nearly impossible.

But ‘nearly impossible’ is good enough when you can consider every animal that ever lived, or more importantly, died. In exceptional circumstances ‘soft’ tissues do become fossils, and when they do they invariably give an unrivalled view of an otherwise completely lost world.

Although exceptionally well preserved, this fossil of a jawless fish is not entirely complete. Some features have been preserved, like the prominent dark eye spot and gill supports just beneath, but others, such as the guts and fins, have rotted away before they could be preserved. Image: Mark Purnell, Sarah Gabbott, Robert Sansom (University of Leicester)

We know from these exceptional fossils that the path from death to fossil is not random. Yes, you have to be lucky, but the odds are very much stacked towards certain combinations of who, what, where and when.

Furthermore, decay is not the whole story. Not only does anatomical information have to survive decay, it has to undergo parallel (but distinct) processes of preservation – conversion into materials that are stable over millions of years as part of a rock. It is the balance between the loss and retention of information that seals the fate of an organism’s remains.

Three hundred million years ago, a small worm gulped its last breath and died. Its body began to rot and, were it not for the peculiar conditions of the sediments it was laid to rest in, would have been lost forever. Fortunately for us, what remained was preserved in rock – a rotten fossil. But how much rotted away before it was fossilized? By decaying modern relatives in the lab we can model this missing history, and build better-informed reconstructions of extinct animals. Image: Duncan Murdock

Left with only the lucky few, the parts of animals where retention exceeded loss, the fossil record is profoundly biased. One way to unravel this lost history of loss is it to conduct experiments, replicating decay and preservation. However, trying to make fossils in the lab, by contriving one particular set of conditions, is fiendishly complex – there are simply too many variables to set.

I have been working with researchers from the Universities of Leicester, Bristol, Manchester and University College Cork, and together we have described an alternative approach to unpack the ‘black box’ of fossilization and take each variable in turn, individually examining the different processes that result in retaining information as potential ‘fossils’ and, crucially, those that result in loss.

This cartoon illustrates the difference between experiments that attempt to replicate fossilization, treating the process as a black box, and the approach we are taking. The black box approach reveals little about the processes of information loss and information retention, the cumulative effects and interactions which ultimately results in a fossil (or, more often, not). Image: Purnell et al. 2018.

Ultimately this approach will allow more and more complex experiments to be designed, to unpick the interactions between the who, what, where and when in the lost history of death.

The techniques described here are published in Palaeontology today as ‘Experimental Analysis of Soft-Tissue Fossilization: Opening the Black Box‘, Purnell et al. 2018.

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