Wooster’s Fossils of the Week: New review paper on architectural design of trace fossils

January 13th, 2017

screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-2-59-29-pmLast year my friend Luis Buatois led a massive project to review essentially all trace fossil invertebrate ichnogenera (523!) to place them in a series architectural design categories (79). This is a new way to assess patterns of ichnodisparity (variability in morphology of trace fossils). I was proud to have a role in this work, along with Max Wisshak and Gabriela Mángano. The paper has now appeared in Earth-Science Reviews (Buatois et al., 2017).

My contributions were mostly with the bioerosion traces (along with Max), so I show Figure 65 from the paper above. Its caption: Examples of pouch borings (Category 65). A: Petroxestes pera, Ordovician, Whitewater Formation, Ohio, USA. B: Rogerella isp. in a belemnite rostrum. Jurassic, Spain. C: SEM of Rogerella isp. in an epoxy resin cast of an Echinocorys echinoid test. Upper Cretaceous, Palm Bay, Thanet, Kent, UK. D: Umbichnus inopinatus in a bivalve shell. Lower Pliocene, Huelva, Spain. Photograph courtesy of Jordi Martinell. E: SEM of Aurimorpha varia in an epoxy resin cast, including the holotype in the upper right. Middle Pennsylvanian, Desmoinesian, Boggy Formation, Buckhorn Asphalt Quarry, Oklahoma, USA.

The abstract of the paper explains the work and our ambitions for it: Ichnodisparity has been recently introduced as a concept to assess the variability of morphologic plans in biogenic structures, revealing major innovations in body plan, locomotory system and/or behavioral program. Whereas ichnodiversity is measured in terms of the number of ichnotaxa (i.e. ichnogenera or ichnospecies), ichnodisparity is evaluated based on the identification of categories of architectural design. Seventy-nine categories of architectural designs (58 for bioturbation structures and 21 for bioerosion structures), encompassing 523 ichnogenera (417 for bioturbation structures and 106 for bioerosion structures), are defined. They are restricted to invertebrate ichnotaxa, whereas vertebrate trace fossils were not included. Although the scheme is designed to be comprehensive, the proposed categories are necessarily works in progress because of the state of flux in ichnotaxonomy and the need to adjust the definitions of categories according to the scope and scale of the analysis. Although it may be said that the establishment of categories of architectural design is to a certain degree a subjective enterprise, this is not different from ichnotaxonomy because classifying trace fossils from a taxonomic perspective implies observing the morphology of the trace and interpreting it in terms of behavior. The concept of ichnodisparity is free of some of the vagaries involved in ichnotaxonomy. The fact that ichnodiversity and ichnodisparity exhibit different trajectories during the Phanerozoic underscores the importance of adding the latter to the ichnologic toolkit.
screen-shot-2016-12-04-at-3-03-44-pmFigure 80 above contrasts ichnodisparity and ichnodiversity. The five different ichnogenera illustrated in the upper portion of the diagram represent minor variations of the same architectural design. The lower portion of the diagram represents the same ichnodiversity level, but with a much higher ichnodisparity. The two hypothetical situations bear different implications regarding the extent of evolutionary innovations.

We hope that this work is long useful in paleontology, especially for projects sorting out the evolution of invertebrate communities.


Buatois, L., Wisshak, M., Wilson, M.A. and Mángano, G. 2017. Categories of architectural designs in trace fossils: A measure of ichnodisparity. Earth-Science Reviews 164: 102-181.

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