Tuesday, 8 November 2011

How did the dinosaur cross the road....

Taphonomy is the study of what happens when something is buried, literally meaning ‘burial-laws’ (‘taphos-nomos’). Ivan Efremov (1907-1972) can be considered the father of taphonomy, since his groundbreaking work in 1940 invented this often-smelly approach to paleontology. Most studies since then have been undertaken by organizations such as the FBI, who have a keen interest in the grave secrets of humans, especially those who end up in shallow graves as a result of foul play. Diagnosing the length of time and time of year that a body was buried can be crucial to solving a grisly crime. The temperature, moisture content, and insect activity are but a few of the variables that have to be considered when deciphering the decomposition history of a body. The soil and microbial communities it contains are also critical to understand if we are to disentangle the taphonomic tale of a body (or preserved fossil). Almost all terrestrial plants and animals end up in a patch of soil, whether that is in the parch-baked sands of a desert or the sodden channel sands of a river. We have to examine the above and below ground ecology and microbiology to identify the key players in the recycling process. Many studies have shown that the process of decomposition of large bodies into soil is primarily regulated by the size of the said body and the activity of scavengers and humble insects. Surprisingly, insects are key players in processing some of the largest animals that walk on the earth’s surface today. Our taxonomic friend Linnaeus from the 18th century commented on this fact, saying, “Three flies could consume a horse cadaver as rapidly as a lion.” More recent work has supported this view, indicating that insects can consume a body before a scavenger has fully utilized it. The complex intertwining roles of microbes, insects, and scavengers are also affected by season, for some species are more active at specific times of year. When one or more of the decomposition processes is inhibited, a cadaver can persist for much longer on a surface or near surface...here is a rather fun experiment we did with a chicken, for National Geographic. Dr Dino Frey and I were trying to work-out how the exquisite remains of Archaeopteryx survived 150 million years. Just be grateful you cannot smell what we had to inhale...


  1. This is fantastic! You can almost smell it, even.

  2. lovely! haha
    nice way to illustrate the process!

  3. It´s very interesting!
    I think I´ll remember this video when I eat chicken...