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How incomplete is the fossil record?

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Systematic biologists cultivate a unique orchard. Following in the footsteps of Charles Darwin, they grow phylogenetic trees — branching diagrams that depict lines of evolutionary descent back to a common ancestor. Also known as phylogenies, these assemblies of lines and classifications chart biodiversity with varying specificity, from individual organisms to broader taxonomic rankings such as kingdoms and domains.

With each tree, these biologists come closer to uncovering something even greater: a four-dimensional model of life itself. The fossil record plays an instrumental part in reconstructing this tree of life, but how does it work? And how close are modern humans to completing the record?

Piecing Together the Fossilized Remains of Earth’s Past

Scientists use a number of tools to fill in these missing links. They depend heavily on cladistics, a method of hypothesizing relationships among organisms. Think of it as creating a family tree with blank spaces for unknown ancestors. They also turn to molecular sequencing in which they reveal the hierarchy of relationships among different organisms by comparing their molecular details.

Think of a family tree again, only this time using DNA evidence to figure out what goes where on the chart. That’s the fossil record: the preserved remains of ancient life forms imprisoned in the Earth itself. By charting where fossils occur in rock layers, scientists can note when organisms existed in geologic time.

Preserved Evidence of Ancient Life Forms

The fossil record, however, is quite incomplete. Here’s one major reason why: Sediment has to cover organic material in order for the long fossilization process to begin. Most organisms decompose before this can happen.

Fossilization odds increase if the organism happened to exist in large numbers or lived in or around sedimentary rocks. For example, trilobites, ancient marine arthropods, met both criteria, so they’re a rather common fossil species. The Tyrannosaurus rex, however, is far rarer. It was large and land-dwelling, and as a top predator made up a far smaller percentage of the population.

Even though abundant fossils form in stone, they’re far from impervious. Like all rocks, they erode, melt, and fragment. Factor in all the fossils we haven’t uncovered alongside the fossil evidence we can’t decipher properly (due to partial fossilization or insufficient technology), and the fossil record gets even spottier.

So like the mineralized bones themselves, the fossil record is an incomplete framework that scientists flesh out through additional methods. While cladistics, molecular sequencing, and the fossil record all present different data sets, systematic biologists generally find similar patterns of diversification in all three. In other words, the three methods complement each other and paint a congruous picture of what the tree of life should look like.

The Challenge to Accurately Trace Fossils

Fossil records grow more incomplete the further back in time we attempt to look. Organisms that are more recent don’t appear either. For example, freshwater mollusks of the class Bivalvia suffer up to 45 percent incompletion in some subclasses [source: Valentine et al.]. Ancient animals that represent important links in the fossil record also remain unaccounted for, such as the last common ancestors connecting entire phyla. Research into the fossilization process continues to illuminate just how much of the record we’re missing.

So, taken on its own, the fossil record is considerably lacking in many areas. Yet like fingerprints at a crime scene, it’s just one piece of the puzzle. Fossils, cladistic and molecular sequencing work together to form a larger picture that correctly documents the evolution of life [source: Benton et al.].

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about fossils and evolution.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links

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Society of Systematic Biologists


Baum, David. “Reading a Phylogenetic Tree: The Meaning of Monophyletic Groups.” Nature Education. 2008. (Aug. 19, 2010)http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/reading-a-phylogenetic-tree-the-meaning-of-41956

Benton, Michael J. “Finding the tree of life: matching phylogenetic trees to the fossil record through the 20th century.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 2001. (Aug. 19, 2010)

Benton, M.J. et al. “Quality of the fossil record through time.” Nature. Feb 3, 2000. (Aug. 19, 2010)

Clowes, Chris. “Molecular Phylogeny.” Chris’s Clowe’s Paleontology Page. (Aug. 19, 2010)http://www.peripatus.gen.nz/Biology/MolPhy.html

Dalby, Andrew and Matt Stewart. “The Fossil Record.” Evolution and Creationism. (Aug. 19, 2010)http://hoopermuseum.earthsci.carleton.ca/evolution/g.html

Guralnick, Rob . “An Introduction to Cladistics.” Journey into Phylogenetic Systematic. 2005. (Aug. 19, 2010)http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/clad/clad1.html

Society of Systematic Biologists. 2010. (Aug. 19, 2010)http://www.systematicbiology.org/

Valentine, James W. et al. “Assessing the fidelity of the fossil record using marine bivalves.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. March 6, 2006. (Aug. 30, 2010)http://www.geosci.uchicago.edu/pdfs/PNAS2006.pdf

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