A series of experiments was carried out to investigate the nature and controls (oxygen, microbial populations, agitation) on the degradation of soft tissues. Decay was monitored in terms of morphological change, weight loss, and change in chemical composition in the polychaete Nereis virens. Polychaetes include a range of tissue types of differing chemical composition and preservation potential: muscle, cuticle, setae, and jaws. Regardless of conditions, all the muscle had broken down and fluid loss through the ruptured cuticle had reduced the carcass to two dimensions within 8 days at 20°C. In most cases some cuticle, in addition to the jaws and setae, remained after 30 days. Where oxygen was completely eliminated, the rate of decay of the more volatile issues was significantly reduced. The degree of both osmotic uptake of water by the carcass and changes in water pH differed depending on whether the system was open or closed to oxygen diffusion. Autolytic and chemical processes are not sufficient to fully degrade the carcass in the absence of bacteria. Where internal bacteria are present, the presence or absence of water column bacteria made little difference to decay rate. Initial degradation (in the first 3 days) affects mainly the lipid fraction and the collagen of the cuticle. Later decay reduces the nonsoluble protein and increases the relative proportion of refractory structural components (tanned chitin and collagen) to more than 95% by day 30. Thus, only the sclerotized tissues are likely to survive beyond 30 days in the absence of early diagenetic mineralization. The sequence of degradation predicted from the relative decay resistance of macromolecules in the sedimentary record (protein → carbohydrate → lipid) is not, therefore, a consistent indicator of the preservation potential of structural tissues which incorporate them.
The experiments reveal five stages in the decay of polychaete carcasses; whole/shriveled, flaccid, unsupported gut, cuticle sac, jaws and setae. All are represented in the fossil record. This allows an estimation of how far decay proceeded before it was halted by the fossilization process. The most complete preservations occur in the Cambrian where the Burgess Shale preserves evidence of muscle tissues. Traces of the gut and cuticle are more widely preserved, as at Mazon Creek, Grès à Voltzia, Solnhofen, and Hakel. Preservation varies within Konservat-Lagerstätten. The most common whole body preservation includes only the more recalcitrant tissues, jaws (where present) and setae, with an impression of the body outline. The stage of decay can be used as a taphonomic threshold, to provide an indication of how significantly the diversity of an exceptionally preserved biota is likely to have been reduced by taphonomic loss.