Stratigraphic paleobiology: understanding the distribution of fossil taxa in time and space by Mark E. Patzkowsky and Steven M. Holland. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012. No. of pages: xi+259. Price: $35-00. ISBN 978-0-226-64938-2 (paperback).


The fossil record lies at the heart of understanding the history of life on Earth, but interpreting this history poses a major challenge. This is because fossils are preserved in a rock record that is structured by cycles of deposition and erosion, and is thus systematically biased. While major advances have been made in understanding the architecture of sedimentary successions and deposystems through the development of sequence stratigraphy, the effects this structuring has in shaping the fossil record has only recently begun to be recognised. The recurrent theme of this excellent little book is that if palaeontologists are to interpret the fossil record correctly then they need to understand the stratigraphical and geological context in which their fossils occur.

Patzkowsky and Holland are pioneers in this field, and write with a clear and easy style. The book starts with a discussion of the resolution that can be achieved from the fossil record and provides a succinct summary of sequence stratigraphic principals that govern how the sedimentary record is built up. There then follows a section on how organisms (primarily marine invertebrates) are controlled by environmental gradients and how palaeontologists try to document these patterns in the fossil record. The next chapter adds a further level of complication by showing how environmental sampling is constrained by sequence stratigraphic and basin architecture so that the fossil record only ever captures a partial picture. The critical point here is that sequence stratigraphical architecture generates predictable biases to the fossil record, which can therefore be taken into account. The latter part of the book then deals with how best to approach the fossil record in the light of these problems, focusing on large-scale patterns of change through time in ecological community structure, morphological disparity and taxic diversity.

This book presents a well-argued case for why all palaeontologists should have a wary eye on the geological context of their fossil collections before drawing conclusions about any sort of pattern that they observe. While the problems are many, the authors strive to show how these can be tackled successfully when the geological context of data is understood and appropriate methods are applied. Their focus throughout is on section- to basin-scale patterns, and so unfortunately they miss the opportunity to outline the really large-scale biases that afflict the geological record. These are certainly important when it comes to interpreting global diversity or making generalisations about community evolution in general. Nevertheless, this book is essential reading for all post-graduate and professional palaeobiologists, and makes an excellent introduction to the subject for advanced undergraduate courses.