Phanerozoic trends in shell and life habit traits linked to postmortem durability were evaluated for the most common fossil brachiopod, gastropod, and bivalve genera in order to test for changes in taphonomic bias. Using the Paleobiology Database, we tabulated occurrence frequencies of genera for 48 intervals of ∼11 Myr duration. The most frequently occurring genera, cumulatively representing 40% of occurrences in each time bin, were scored for intrinsic durability on the basis of shell size, reinforcement (ribs, folds, and spines), life habit, and mineralogy.
Shell durability is positively correlated with the number of genera in a time bin, but durability traits exhibit different temporal patterns across higher taxa, with notable offsets in the timing of changes in these traits. We find no evidence for temporal decreases in durability that would indicate taphonomic bias at the Phanerozoic scale among commonly occurring genera. Also, all three groups show a remarkable stability in mean shell size through the Phanerozoic, an unlikely pattern if strong size-filtering taphonomic megabiases were affecting the fossil record of shelly faunas. Moreover, small shell sizes are attained in the early Paleozoic in brachiopods and in the latest Paleozoic in gastropods but are steady in bivalves; unreinforced shells are common to all groups across the entire Phanerozoic; organophosphatic and aragonitic shells dominate only the oldest and youngest time bins; and microstructures having high organic content are most common in the oldest time bins.
In most cases, the timing of changes in durability-related traits is inconsistent with a late Mesozoic Marine Revolution. The post-Paleozoic increase in mean gastropod reinforcement occurs in the early Triassic, suggesting either an earlier appearance and expansion of durophagous predators or other drivers. Increases in shell durability hypothesized to be the result of increased predation in the late Mesozoic are not evident in the common genera examined here. Infaunal life habit does increase in the late Mesozoic, but it does not become more common than levels already attained during the Paleozoic, and only among bivalves does the elevated late Mesozoic level persist through the Holocene.
These temporal patterns suggest control on the occurrence of durability-related traits by individual evolutionary histories rather than taphonomic megabiases. Our findings do not mean taphonomic biases are absent from the fossil record, but rather that their effects apparently have had little net effect on the relative occurrence of shell traits generally thought to confer higher preservation potential over long time scales.