Exceptional Preservation


Exceptionally preserved fossils are rare, but are extremely important in reconstructing past life because they record details of an organism's soft tissues that are usually rapidly destroyed postmortem. Experiments on the processes of fossilization have enhanced our understanding of the biases inherent in the fossil record and allow better interpretation of morphology.

Keywords: taphonomy; conservation‐lagerstätten; preservation; fossilization

Figure 1.

Marrella splendens – the beautiful ‘lace crab’ is the most abundant of all Burgess Shale animals. Size range: 2.5 – 19 mm. From Briggs et al..

Figure 2.

Striated muscle tissue and possible cell nuclei (arrowed), preserved in calcium phosphate, from a Santana Formation fish (see Martill, ). Photograph kindly supplied by Dr DM Martill, University of Portsmouth, UK.

Figure 3.

Muscle fibres of a conodont animal, preserved in clay minerals, from the Soom Shale (see Gabbott et al., ).

Figure 4.

Kunmingella douvillei – a bivalved arthropod from the Chengjiang biota. Scanning electron microscope backscatter image in which the bright areas, on the carapace and limbs, are composed of iron oxides pseudomorphs after pyrite. Bar, = 2 mm.



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Briggs DEG (1995) Experimental taphonomy. Palaois 10: 539–550.

Briggs DEG and Kear AJ (1994) Decay and mineralization of shrimps. Palaios 9: 431–456.

Briggs DEG, Erwin DH and Collier FJ with photographs by Clark C (1994) The Fossils of the Burgess Shale. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Butterfield NJ (1990) Organic preservation of non‐mineralizing organisms and the taphonomy of the Burgess Shale. Paleobiology 16(3): 272–286.

Canfield DE and Raiswell R (1991) Pyrite formation and fossil preservation. In: Allison PA and Briggs DEG (eds) Taphonomy; Releasing the Data Locked in the Fossil Record, vol. 9, pp. 338–388. New York: Plenum Press

Gabbott SE, Norry MJ, Aldridge RJ and Theron JN (2001) Preservation of fossils in clay minerals: a unique example from the Upper Ordovician Soom Shale, South Africa. Ansel Dunham memorial volume, Proceedings of the Yorkshire Geological Society 53: 237–244.

Gabbott SE (1998) The taphonomy of the Ordovician Soom Shale lagerstätte: an example of soft‐tissue preservation in clay minerals. Palaeontology 41: 631–667.

Gabbott SE, Aldridge RJ and Theron JN (1995) A giant conodont with preserved muscle tissue from the Upper Ordovician of South Africa. Nature 374: 800–803.

Martill DM (1990) Macromolecular resolution of fossilized muscle tissue from an elopomorph fish. Nature 346: 171–172.

Müller KJ and Walossek D (1985) A remarkable arthropod fauna from the Upper Cambrian ‘Orsten’ of Sweden. Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 76: 161–172.

Orr PJ, Briggs DEG and Kearns SL (1998) Cambrian Burgess Shale animals replicated in clay minerals. Science 281: 1173–1175.

Sutton MD, Briggs DEG, Siveter David J and Siveter Derek J (2001) Methodologies for the visualization and reconstruction of three‐dimensional fossils from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstätte. Palaeontological Electronica 4(1).

Wilby PR (1993) The role of organic matrices in post‐mortem phosphatization of soft tissue. Kaupia Darmstadter Beitrage zur Naturgeschichte 2: 99–113.

Wilby PR, Briggs DEG, Bernier P and Gaillard C (1996) Role of microbial mats in the fossilization of soft‐tissues. Geology 24(9): 787–790.

Wuttke M (1983) Weichteil‐Erhaltung durch lithifizierte Microorganismen bei mitteleozanen Vertebraten aus den Olschiefern der Grube Messel bei Darmstadt. Senckenbergiana Lethaea 64: 509–527.

Further Reading

Allison PA (1988) Konversat‐Lagerstätten: cause and classification. Paleobiology 14(4): 331–344.

Allison PA and Briggs DEG (1991) Taphonomy; Releasing the Data Locked in the Fossil Record (Topics in Geobiology), vol. 9. New York: Plenum Press.

Bottjer DJ, Etter W, Hagadorn JW and Tang C (2002) Exceptional Fossil Preservation: a Unique View on the Evolution of Marine Life. New York: Columbia University Press.

Briggs DEG and Crowther PR (1990) Palaeobiology: a Synthesis. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.

Briggs DEG and Crowther PR (2001) Palaeobiology 11. Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.

Donovan SK (1991) Fossilization: the Processes of Taphonomy. London: Belhaven Press.

Hou Xian‐guang, Aldridge RJ, Bergström J et al. (2004) The Cambrian fossils of Chengjiang, China, The flowering of early animal life. Oxford: Blackwell Science Ltd.

Selden PA and Nudds JR (2004) Evolution of Fossil Ecosystems. London: Manson Publishing Ltd.

Whittington HB and Conway Morris S (1985) Extraordinary fossil biotas: their ecological and evolutionary significance. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London. Series B 311: 1–192.

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Gabbott, Sarah E(Jan 2006) Exceptional Preservation. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1038/npg.els.0004141]