Effaced preservation in the Ediacara biota and its implications for the early macrofossil record

Alexander G. Liu*, Duncan Mcilroy, Jonathan B. Antcliffe, Martin D. Brasier

*Corresponding author for this work

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

62 Citations (Scopus)


Abstract: Ediacaran structures known as 'pizza discs' or Ivesheadia have long been considered enigmatic. They are amongst the oldest known members of the Ediacara biota, apparently restricted to the Avalonian successions of Newfoundland and the UK, c. 579-560Ma. Here, we suggest that these impressions are taphomorphs, resulting from the post-mortem decay of the frondose Ediacaran biota. Ediacaran fossils range from well-preserved, high-fidelity variants to almost completely effaced specimens. The effaced specimens are inferred to have undergone modification of their original morphology by post-mortem microbial decay on the sea floor, combined with sediment trapping and binding. In this style of preservation, morphological details within the organism became variously subdued as a function of the extent of organic decay prior to casting by overlying sediments. Decay and effacement were progressive in nature, producing a continuum of grades of preservation on Ediacaran bedding planes. Fossils preserved by such 'effaced preservation' are those that have suffered these processes to the extent that only their gross form can be determined. We suggest that the lack of detailed morphology in effaced specimens renders such fossils unsuitable for use as type material, as it is possible that several taxa may, upon degradation and burial, generate similar morphological taphomorphs. We here reinterpret the genus Ivesheadia as a taphomorph resulting from extensive post-mortem decay of frondose organisms. Blackbrookia, Pseudovendia and Shepshedia from beds of comparable age in England are likewise regarded as taphomorphs broadly related to Charnia or Charniodiscus spp. To reflect the suggestion that such impressions are likely to be taphomorphs, and not taxonomically discrete, we propose the term ivesheadiomorphs to incorporate all such effaced taphonomic expressions of Ediacaran macrofossil taxa in Avalonian assemblages. Our recognition of effaced preservation has significant implications for Ediacaran taxonomy, and consequently for measures of Ediacaran diversity and disparity. It is implied that Avalonian assemblages preserve both organisms that were alive and organisms that were already dead at the time of burial. As such, the fossil assemblages cannot be taken to represent census populations of living organisms, as in prior interpretations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)607-630
Number of pages24
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2011


  • Avalonia
  • Cambrian Explosion
  • Early evolution
  • Ediacara
  • Ivesheadia
  • Taphonomy

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