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How many fossils, how to count them, and where to collect them: Examinations of the most appropriate methods for community paleoecological research Open Access


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Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Forcino, Frank L
Supervisor and department
Leighton, Lindsey (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences)
Examining committee member and department
Schneider, Chris (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences)
Cahill, JC (Biological Sciences)
Patzkowsky, Mark (Pennsylvanian State University)
Chatterton, Brian (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences)
Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Paleoecology researchers have employed an array of methods for collecting, counting, and identifying fossil data; no standard protocol exists for conducting community paleoecological research. The lack of a standard protocol could lead to inaccurate conclusions. In addition, paleocommunity research is labor- and time-intensive, as it requires expertise in multiple taxonomic groups and geological sub-disciplines. Therefore, it is important not to over-sample (individuals per sample or number of total samples), because an increasingly large sample size and number of samples will eventually result in diminishing returns in terms of improving any pattern revealed by the data. Resources should be allocated appropriately to learn as much as possible about the Earth’s history. Here, I examined (1) the spatial and temporal resolution of fossil sample collection, (2) the counting methods most appropriate for community paleoecological research (abundance or biomass), (3) the groups of fossil organisms that should be examined in order to gain an accurate picture of past ecosystems, (4) the taxonomic level of identification, and (5) sample size (number of individual fossil specimens collected per sample). The ultimate goal of this research is to provide a set of “best” or most accurate methods for use in community paleoecological research. I found that a sample size of 50 is sufficient for community paleoecological research that employs multivariate statistical techniques. This value is supported more definitively when using fossils (30 datasets), but is still supported using 44 modern datasets. In addition, I demonstrate that fewer lateral samples are required when conducting community paleoecological research at relatively greater temporal scales. These data could potentially allow researchers to save time and money. Research efforts and resources can be focused gaining a greater number of samples per study or conducting additional studies. There are areas where greater paleontological resources should be allocated. (1) Genus (or species) identification is required for an accurate representation of paleocommunities. (2) Whenever possible, researchers should tally the abundance of fossil taxa in concert with a biomass proxy (i.e., point counts). (3) In addition, researchers should examine all available taxa, as opposed to single taxonomic groups, such as only brachiopods.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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