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Keywords:

  • taphonomy;
  • anthropogenic;
  • ecosystems;
  • meta-analysis;
  • molluscs;
  • mammals

Abstract

Ecosystems today are under growing pressure, with human domination at many scales. It is difficult, however, to gauge what has changed or been lost – and why – in the absence of data from periods before human activities. Actualistic taphonomic studies, originally motivated to understand preservational controls on deep-time fossil records, are now providing insights into modern death assemblages as historical archives of present-day ecosystems, turning taphonomy on its head. This article reviews the past 20 years of work on the temporal resolution and ability of time-averaged skeletal assemblages to capture ecological information faithfully, focusing primarily on molluscs from soft-sediment seafloors. Two promising arenas for ‘applied taphonomy’ are then highlighted: (1) using live-dead mismatch – that is, observed discordance in the diversity, species composition, and distribution of living animals and co-occurring skeletal remains – to recognize recent anthropogenic change, and (2) using time-averaged death assemblages as windows into regional diversity and long-term baselines, as a supplement or substitute for conventional live-collected data. Meta-analysis and modelling find that, in unaltered habitats, live-dead differences in community-level attributes can be generated largely or entirely by time-averaging of natural spatial and temporal variability in living assemblages, on time frames consistent with the range of shell ages observed in death assemblages. Time-averaging coarsens the temporal and spatial resolution of biological information in predictable ways; by comparison, taphonomic bias of information arising from differential preservation, production and transport of shells is surprisingly modest. Several challenges remain for basic taphonomic research, such as empirical and analytical methods of refining the temporal resolution of death assemblages; assessing the fate of resolution and fidelity with progressive burial; and expanding our understanding of the dynamics of skeletal accumulation in other groups and settings. Rather than shunning human-impacted areas as inappropriate analogues of the deep past, we should capitalize on them to explore the fundamental controls on skeletal accumulation and to develop robust protocols for bringing time-averaged death assemblages into the toolkits of conservation biology and environmental management.