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Absolute measures of the completeness of the fossil record


Measuring the completeness of the fossil record is essential to understanding evolution over long timescales, particularly when comparing evolutionary patterns among biological groups with different preservational properties. Completeness measures have been presented for various groups based on gaps in the stratigraphic ranges of fossil taxa1,2 and on hypothetical lineages implied by estimated evolutionary trees3,4,5. Here we present and compare quantitative, widely applicable absolute measures of completeness at two taxonomic levels for a broader sample of higher taxa of marine animals than has previously been available. We provide an estimate of the probability of genus preservation per stratigraphic interval6,7, and determine the proportion of living families with some fossil record8,9,10. The two completeness measures use very different data and calculations. The probability of genus preservation depends almost entirely on the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic records, whereas the proportion of living families with a fossil record is influenced largely by Cenozoic data. These measurements are nonetheless highly correlated, with outliers quite explicable, and we find that completeness is rather high for many animal groups.

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Figure 1: Absolute measures of completeness for higher taxa of marine animals.
Figure 2: Genus-level completeness for subgroups within higher taxa that deviate from the trend presented in Fig. 1.
Figure 3: Genus-level completeness for major, extinct higher taxa.


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We thank E. G. Hunt, A. McGowan, A. I. Miller, and P. J. Wagner for comments. This work was supported by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the US National Science Foundation.

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Correspondence to Mike Foote.

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Foote, M., Sepkoski, J. Absolute measures of the completeness of the fossil record. Nature 398, 415–417 (1999).

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