Molluscan shell condition after eight years on the seafloor – taphonomy in the Gulf of Mexico and Bahamas

Eric N. Powell
Carlton E. Brett
Karla Parsons-Hubbard, Oberlin College
W. Russell Callender
George M. Staff
Sally E. Walker
Anne L. Raymond
Kathryn A. Ashton-Alcox


In 1993 and 1994, the shelf and slope experimental taphonomy initiative (SSETI) deployed shells of a suite of molluscan species in a range of environments of deposition (EODs) representing a range of depths, sediment types, and environmental conditions with the goal of measuring taphonomic rates over an extended period of time. In 1999 and 2001, SSETI retrieved skeletal remains from 41 locations in the Bahamas and on the Gulf of Mexico continental shelf and upper slope that had been on the seafloor for eight years. Here, we compare taphonomic processes in two different ocean basins, across 24 environments of preservation (EOP) to evaluate the influence of species, sedimentary environment, degree of burial, and water depth on the preservational process. Taphonomic signature after eight years was almost exclusively a function of location of deployment and, frequently, taphonomically-distinctive locations of deployment were subsumed within distinctive EODs. EOD-level characteristics were insufficiently discriminative to delineate environments of preservation. EOPs and EODs are not synonymous concepts. Across all sites and species, the dominant taphonomic process was discoloration. Dissolution was of penultimate importance; nevertheless the cumulative impact over eight years was insufficient to produce a significant loss in shell weight in any EOP. Maximum dissolution intensity was normally observed on the outer shell surface; the inner and outer shell surfaces are inherently different in their time course of shell deterioration. Principal components analysis (PCA) demonstrated limited co-occurrence of discrete taphonomic processes among the 24 EOPs. Breakage and edge rounding fell on the same PCA axis, but these two processes were independent of all others. PCA divided dissolution into three independent components that discriminated the inner and outer shell surface of bivalves (and spire and body whorl of gastropods) and pitting from the development of a chalky surface. Discoloration was dissembled into five distinctive discoloring processes: fading without subsequent discoloration, the development of a brown-to-red coloration, orange/orange mottled discoloration, development of a green/green mottled color, and gray-to-black discoloration. The only concordance of ostensibly distinctive taphonomic processes was the association of small pits on the shell surface with orange discoloration on the shell. Depth did not exert a single significant effect on any of the eight primary taphonomic factors resolved by PCA, likely because of burial processes. The trends in taphonomic signature cannot be explained by any simple combination of sediment type and degree of exposure. A comparison between two-year and eight-year deployments suggests that important revelations can be gleaned from short-term experimental deployments, yet the same comparison discloses the spuriousness of other inferences. Thus, long-term experiments are essential to understand the time course of preservation. The taphonomic process is, in general, slow, and nonlinearity in rates over time constrains the subset of inferences that can be deduced accurately from short deployment periods.