Molecular taphonomy of animal and plant cuticles: selective preservation and diagenesis

Derek E. G. Briggs


The nature of organic material and the environment in which it is deposited exert a major influence on the extent to which biomacromolecules are preserved in the fossil record. The role of these factors is explored with a particular focus on the cuticle of arthropods and leaves. Preservation of the original chemistry of arthropod cuticles is favoured by their thickness and degree of sclerotization, and the presence of biominerals. Decay and burial in terrestrial as opposed to marine, and anoxic rather than oxygenated conditions, likewise appear to enhance preservation. The most important factor in the long–term preservation of the chemistry of both animal and plant cuticles, however, is diagenetic alteration to an aliphatic composition. This occurs even in amber, which encapsulates the fossil, eliminating almost all external factors. Some plants contain an original decay–resistant macromolecular aliphatic component but this is not the case in arthropods. It appears that the aliphatic components of many plant as well as animal fossils may be the result of diagenetic polymerization. Selective preservation as a result of decay resistance may explain the initial survival of organic materials in sediments, but in many cases longer–term preservation relies on chemical changes. Selective preservation is only a partial explanation for the origin of kerogen.