Does exceptional preservation distort our view of disparity in the fossil record?

Joseph T. Flannery Sutherland, Ben Moon, Tom Stubbs, Michael Benton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)
193 Downloads (Pure)


How much of evolutionary history is lost because of the unevenness of the fossil record? Lagerstätten, sites which have historically yielded exceptionally preserved fossils, provide remarkable, yet distorting insights into past life. When examining macroevolutionary trends in the fossil record, they can generate an uneven sampling signal for taxonomic diversity; by comparison, their effect on morphological variety (disparity) is poorly understood. We show here that lagerstätten impact the disparity of ichthyosaurs, Mesozoic marine reptiles, by preserving higher diversity and more complete specimens. Elsewhere in the fossil record, undersampled diversity and more fragmentary specimens produce spurious results. We identify a novel effect, that a taxon moves towards the centroid of a Generalized Euclidean dataset as its proportion of missing data increases. We term this effect ‘centroid slippage’, as a disparity-based analogue of phylogenetic stemward slippage. Our results suggest that uneven sampling presents issues for our view of disparity in the fossil record, but that this is also dependent on the methodology used, especially true with widely used Generalized Euclidean distances. Mitigation of missing cladistic data is possible by phylogenetic gap filling, and heterogeneous effects of lagerstätten on disparity may be accounted for by understanding the factors affecting their spatio-temporal distribution.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20190091
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1897
Publication statusPublished - 27 Feb 2019


  • lagerstatten
  • disparity
  • missing data
  • centroid slippage
  • generalized Euclidean distance

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