Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Absolute measures of the completeness of the fossil record

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

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.

References

  1. 1

    Paul, C. R. C. in Problems of Phylogenetic Reconstruction (eds Joysey, K. A. & Friday, A. E.) 75–117 (Academic, London, (1982).

    Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Solow, A. R. & Smith, W. On fossil preservation and the stratigraphic ranges of taxa. Paleobiology 23, 271–277 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Benton, M. J. & Storrs, G. W. Testing the quality of the fossil record: paleontological knowledge is improving. Geology 22, 111–114 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Benton, M. J. & Simms, M. J. Testing the marine and continental fossil records. Geology 23, 601–604 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Benton, M. J. & Hitchin, R. Testing the quality of the fossil record by groups and by major habitats. Histor. Biol. 12, 111–157 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Foote, M. & Raup, D. M. Fossil preservation and the stratigraphic ranges of taxa. Paleobiology 22, 121–140 (1996).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Foote, M. Estimating taxonomic durations and preservation probability. Paleobiology 23, 278–300 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Schopf, T. J. M. Fossilization potential of an intertidal fauna: Friday Harbor, Washington. Paleobiology 4, 261–270 (1978).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Raup, D. M. Biases in the fossil record of species and genera. Bull. Carnegie Mus. Nat. Hist. 13, 85–91 (1979).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Valentine, J. W. How good was the fossil record? Clues from the Californian Pleistocene. Paleobiology 15, 83–94 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Wills, M. A. Annelid, in The Fossil Record Vol. 2(ed. Benton, M. J.) 271–278 (Chapman & Hall, London, (1993).

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Zangerl, R. in Handbook of Paleoichthyology Vol. 3A(ed. Schultze, H.-P.) 1–115 (Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, (1981).

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Cappetta, H. in Handbook of Paleoichthyology Vol. 3B(ed. Schultze, H.-P.) 1–193 (Gustav Fischer, Stuttgart, (1987).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Patterson, C. & Smith, A. B. Is the periodicity of extinction a taxonomic artefact? Nature 330, 248–251 (1987).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Marshall, C. R. & Ward, P. D. Sudden and gradual molluscan extinctions in the latest Cretaceous of western European Tethys. Science 274, 1360–1363 (1996).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Fortey, R. A. & Jefferies, R. P. S. in Problems of Phylogenetic Reconstruction (eds Joysey, K. A. & Friday, A. E.) 197–234 (Academic, London, (1982).

    Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Wagner, P. J. Stratigraphic tests of cladistic hypotheses. Paleobiology 21, 153–178 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    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).

    Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Foote, M. On the probability of ancestors in the fossil record. Paleobiology 22, 141–151 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Paul, C. R. C. The adequacy of the fossil record reconsidered. Spec. Pap. Palaeontol. 33, 7–16 (1985).

    MathSciNet  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Norell, M. A. & Novacek, M. J. The fossil record and evolution: comparing cladistic and paleontologic evidence for vertebrate history. Science 255, 1690–1693 (1992).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Hitchin, R. & Benton, M. J. Congruence between parsimony and stratigraphy: comparisons of three indices. Paleobiology 23, 20–32 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Sepkoski, J. J. J in Global Events and Event Stratigraphy (ed. Walliser, O.) 35–52 (Springer, Berlin, (1996).

    Book  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Harland, W. B. et al. A Geologic Time Scale 1989 (Cambridge Univ. Press, (1990).

    Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Sepkoski, J. J. J Biodiversity: past, present, and future. J. Paleontol. 71, 533–539 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Sepkoski, J. J. J Rates of speciation in the fossil record. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 353, 315–326 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Sepkoski, J. J. J Acompendium of fossil marine animal families, 2nd edition. Milwaukee Publ. Mus. Contrib. Biol. Geol. 83, 1–156 (1992).

    Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Benton, M. J. (ed.) The Fossil Record Vol. 2(Chapman & Hall, London, (1993).

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Parker, S. P. (ed.) Synopsis and Classification of Living Organisms (McGraw-Hill, New York, (1982).

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Mike Foote.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

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

Download citation

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing