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Faulty fossil record analysis plagues studies of evolution, biodiversity

"This assumption is based on no evidence," said researcher Mike Benton.

By Brooks Hays
Studies of evolution and biodiversity conducted over the last decade have been operating on flawed assumptions, paleontologists in Britain argue in a new research paper. UPI Photo/HO
 | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/778d29242dff4d54ce8288bbf19748f8/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Studies of evolution and biodiversity conducted over the last decade have been operating on flawed assumptions, paleontologists in Britain argue in a new research paper. UPI Photo/HO | License Photo

READING, England, Oct. 25 (UPI) -- Researchers in England believe at least 150 studies on evolution and biodiversity penned since 2007 stand on shaky scientific ground -- built on poor analysis and flawed assumptions.

The authors of a new study, published in the journal Methods in Ecology and Evolution, argue recent attempts to "correct" the fossil record have further perverted it.

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The correction method operates on the assumption that the wealth of fossils recovered from a given area are a reflection of the amount of rock available for animals to become preserved in. This line of thinking posits discrepancies in abundance and biodiversity is an illusion.

Researchers from the University of Bristol and University of Reading say that's simply not true.

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"The core assumption is that any portion of fossil diversity that can be explained by variations in rock volume should be explained by variations in rock volume," Mike Benton, a paleontologist at Bristol, said in a news release. "This assumption is based on no evidence."

But that assumption has inspired dozens of studies of the fossil record, yielding supposed insight into the nature of biodiversity and evolution.

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Benton and his colleagues ran simulations to see if they could get the fossil correction method to produce results similar to the reality of a dig site and the facts of the fossil record. They failed.

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Authors of the latest study say the relationship between the amount of rock and the fossil yield is of nominal importance.

"At the extreme, if you have no rock you get no fossils," Benton explained. "However, there are many cases where two time intervals are represented by the same amount of rock worldwide, and yet fossil diversity varies massively. Explain that."

The flawed analysis has inspired paleontologists to suggest the planet's ecosystems operated at full biological capacity for long periods of time. Benton and his partners from Reading, Manabu Sakamoto and Chris Venditti, suggest evolutionary history features greater variety in biodiversity -- ups and downs, explosions of speciation followed by periods of extinction.

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The message to evolutionary biologists: back to the drawing board.

"Our work calls into question nearly a decade's worth of scientific reports and interpretations on the way life on Earth has evolved," Sakamoto concluded.

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