Abstract

Field tests that compare living communities to associated dead remains are the primary means of estimating the reliability of biological information in the fossil record; such tests also provide insights into the dynamics of skeletal accumulation. Contrary to expectations, molluscan death assemblages capture a strong signal of living species' rank-order abundances. This finding, combined with independent evidence for exponential postmortem destruction of dead cohorts, argues that, although the species richness of a death assemblage may be a time-averaged palimpsest of the habitat (molluscan death assemblages contain, on average, ∼25% more species than any single census of the local live community, after sample-size standardization), species' relative-abundance data from the same assemblage probably constitute a much higher acuity record dominated by the most recent dead cohorts (e.g., from the past few hundred years or so, rather than the several thousand years recorded by the total assemblage and usually taken as the acuity of species-richness information). The pervasive excess species richness of molluscan death assemblages requires further analysis and modeling to discriminate among possible sources. However, time averaging alone cannot be responsible unless rare species (species with low rates of dead-shell production) are collectively more durable (have longer taphonomic half-lives) than abundant species. Species richness and abundance data thus appear to present fundamentally different taphonomic qualities for paleobiological analysis. Relative- abundance information is more snapshot-like and thus taphonomically more straightforward than expected, especially compared to the complex origins of dead-species richness.

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