As a paleontologist, I often mention taphonomy to my friends and fellow scientists. Unfortunately, I tend to forget that most people, scientists included, don’t often come across this term. Just like most other scientific terms, it can be broken down and easily understood.
Taphonomy breaks down into two parts: tapho and –nomy. Tapho comes from the Greek words taphos, which means tomb or burial, and -nomy comes from the Greek word nomos, which means rule or law. In other words, taphonomy means the laws of burial. The term was coined by Russian scientist Ivan Efremov in 1940 to describe the study of what happens to an organism from the time that it dies until it is unearthed by scientists.
Taphonomy allows scientists to develop reasonable hypotheses as to the life, and death, history of fossils. Because only a small percentage of organisms are actually fossilized, it is essential to get the most out of every specimen. If an impression of a dinosaur’s skin is preserved, it is reasonable to assume that it died, or was at least buried, in soft and undisturbed sediments. If a collection of bones are all oriented in the same direction and appear to be sorted by size, it is reasonable to assume that the bones were moved by water after the death of the organism.
For example, if a bear were to die in the middle of a path through the woods, it would be subject to biological and physical processes. Exposed in the road, bits and pieces of the bear might be scavenged by other animals and the body would be decomposed by microorganisms. If it happened to stay there over the winter, the changing temperatures could cause the bones to break, as could water filling the pores of the bones and expanding as it freezes. The ideal situation for fossilization requires that after an organism dies it is quickly buried and not disturbed. The less an organism is disturbed after death, the more likely it is to become a fossil. (To learn more about what happened to the bear bones in the path, watch “Most of a Bear” from The Brain Scoop.)
For more information about taphonomy, check out the links below! If you have any suggestions of scientific terms that you would like me to explain, let me know in the comments.