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.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.90 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Paul, C. R. C. in Problems of Phylogenetic Reconstruction (eds Joysey, K. A. & Friday, A. E.) 75–117 (Academic, London, (1982).
Solow, A. R. & Smith, W. On fossil preservation and the stratigraphic ranges of taxa. Paleobiology 23, 271–277 (1997).
Benton, M. J. & Storrs, G. W. Testing the quality of the fossil record: paleontological knowledge is improving. Geology 22, 111–114 (1994).
Benton, M. J. & Simms, M. J. Testing the marine and continental fossil records. Geology 23, 601–604 (1995).
Benton, M. J. & Hitchin, R. Testing the quality of the fossil record by groups and by major habitats. Histor. Biol. 12, 111–157 (1996).
Foote, M. & Raup, D. M. Fossil preservation and the stratigraphic ranges of taxa. Paleobiology 22, 121–140 (1996).
Foote, M. Estimating taxonomic durations and preservation probability. Paleobiology 23, 278–300 (1997).
Schopf, T. J. M. Fossilization potential of an intertidal fauna: Friday Harbor, Washington. Paleobiology 4, 261–270 (1978).
Raup, D. M. Biases in the fossil record of species and genera. Bull. Carnegie Mus. Nat. Hist. 13, 85–91 (1979).
Valentine, J. W. How good was the fossil record? Clues from the Californian Pleistocene. Paleobiology 15, 83–94 (1989).
Wills, M. A. Annelid, in The Fossil Record Vol. 2(ed. Benton, M. J.) 271–278 (Chapman & Hall, London, (1993).
Zangerl, R. in Handbook of Paleoichthyology Vol. 3A(ed. Schultze, H.-P.) 1–115 (Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, (1981).
Cappetta, H. in Handbook of Paleoichthyology Vol. 3B(ed. Schultze, H.-P.) 1–193 (Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, (1987).
Patterson, C. & Smith, A. B. Is the periodicity of extinction a taxonomic artefact? Nature 330, 248–251 (1987).
Marshall, C. R. & Ward, P. D. Sudden and gradual molluscan extinctions in the latest Cretaceous of western European Tethys. Science 274, 1360–1363 (1996).
Signor, P. W. & Lipps, J. H. Sampling bias, gradual extinction patterns, and catastrophes in the fossil record. Geol. Soc. Amer. Spec. Pap. 190, 291–296 (1982).
Fortey, R. A. & Jefferies, R. P. S. in Problems of Phylogenetic Reconstruction (eds Joysey, K. A. & Friday, A. E.) 197–234 (Academic, London, (1982).
Wagner, P. J. Stratigraphic tests of cladistic hypotheses. Paleobiology 21, 153–178 (1995).
Fisher, D. C. in Interpreting the Hierarchy of Nature: From Systematic Patterns to Evolutionary Process Theories (eds Grande, L. & Rieppel, O.) 133–171 (Academic, San Diego, (1994).
Foote, M. On the probability of ancestors in the fossil record. Paleobiology 22, 141–151 (1996).
Paul, C. R. C. The adequacy of the fossil record reconsidered. Spec. Pap. Palaeontol. 33, 7–16 (1985).
Norell, M. A. & Novacek, M. J. The fossil record and evolution: comparing cladistic and paleontologic evidence for vertebrate history. Science 255, 1690–1693 (1992).
Hitchin, R. & Benton, M. J. Congruence between parsimony and stratigraphy: comparisons of three indices. Paleobiology 23, 20–32 (1997).
Sepkoski, J. J. J in Global Events and Event Stratigraphy (ed. Walliser, O.) 35–52 (Springer, Berlin, (1996).
Harland, W. B. et al. A Geologic Time Scale 1989 (Cambridge Univ. Press, (1990).
Sepkoski, J. J. J Biodiversity: past, present, and future. J. Paleontol. 71, 533–539 (1997).
Sepkoski, J. J. J Rates of speciation in the fossil record. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 353, 315–326 (1998).
Sepkoski, J. J. J Acompendium of fossil marine animal families, 2nd edition. Milwaukee Publ. Mus. Contrib. Biol. Geol. 83, 1–156 (1992).
Benton, M. J. (ed.) The Fossil Record Vol. 2(Chapman & Hall, London, (1993).
Parker, S. P. (ed.) Synopsis and Classification of Living Organisms (McGraw-Hill, New York, (1982).
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.
About this article
Cite this article
Foote, M., Sepkoski, J. Absolute measures of the completeness of the fossil record. Nature 398, 415–417 (1999). https://doi.org/10.1038/18872
The effects of geographic range size and abundance on extinction during a time of “sluggish”’ evolution
Are Insects Heading Toward Their First Mass Extinction? Distinguishing Turnover From Crises in Their Fossil Record
Annals of the Entomological Society of America (2020)