Assessing the Control of Preservational Environment on Taphonomic and Ecological Patterns in an Oligocene Mammal Fauna from Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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Plos One


Department of Earth Sciences


Comparisons of paleofaunas from different facies are often hampered by the uncertainty in the variation of taphonomic processes biasing the paleoecological parameters of interest. By examining the taphonomic patterns exhibited by different facies in the same stratigraphic interval and area, it is possible to quantify this variation, and assess inter-facies comparability. The fossil assemblages preserved in Badlands National Park (BNP), South Dakota, have long been a rich source for mammalian faunas of the White River Group. To investigate the influence of the variation of taphonomic bias with lithology whilst controlling for the influence of changes in patterns of taphonomic modification with time, taphonomic and paleoecological data were collected from four mammal-dominated fossil assemblages (two siltstone hosted and two sandstone hosted) from a narrow stratigraphic interval within the Oligocene Poleslide Member of the Brule Formation, in the Palmer Creek Unit of BNP. Previous work in the region confirmed that the two major lithologies represent primarily aeolian- and primarily fluvial-dominated depositional environments, respectively. A suite of quantifiable taphonomic and ecological variables was recorded for each of the more than 800 vertebrate specimens studied here (857 specimens were studied in the field, 9 specimens were collected and are reposited at BNP). Distinctly different patterns of taphonomic biasing were observed between the aeolian and fluvial samples, albeit with some variability between all four sites. Fluvial samples were more heavily weathered and abraded, but also contained fewer large taxa and fewer tooth-bearing elements. No quantifiable paleofaunal differences in generic richness or evenness were observed between the respective facies. This suggests that while large vertebrate taxonomic composition in the region did vary with paleodepositional environment, there is no evidence of confounding variation in faunal structure, and therefore differences between the assemblages are attributed to differing preservational environments producing a taphonomic overprint on the assemblages. The lack of apparent taphonomic bias on paleofaunal structure suggests that such paleoecological data can be compared throughout the Poleslide Member, irrespective of lithology.