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The preservation of cause and effect in the rock record

Cite this dataset

Ibarra, Daniel; D'Antonio, Michael; Boyce, C. Kevin (2022). The preservation of cause and effect in the rock record [Dataset]. Dryad.


Evolutionary events may impact the geological carbon cycle via transient imbalances in silicate weathering, and such events have been implicated as causes of glaciations, mass extinctions, and oceanic anoxia. However, suggested evolutionary causes often substantially predate the environmental effects to which they are linked—problematic when carbon cycle perturbations must be resolved in less than a million years. What is more, the geochemical signatures of such perturbations are recorded as they occur in widely distributed marine sedimentary rocks that have been densely sampled for important intervals in Earth history, whereas the fossil record—particularly on land—is governed by the availability of sedimentary basins that are patchy in both space and time, necessitating lags between the origination of an evolutionary lineage and its earliest occurrence in the fossil record. Here, we present a simple model of the impact of preservational filtering on sampling to show that an evolutionary event that causes an environmental perturbation via weathering imbalance should not appear earlier in the rock record than the perturbation itself and, if anything, should appear later rather than simultaneously. The Devonian Hangenberg glaciation provides an example of how evolutionary events might be more fruitfully considered as potential causes of environmental perturbations. Just as the last samplings of species lost in mass extinction are expected to come before the true environmental event, first appearance should be expected to post-date the geological expression of a lineage’s environmental impact with important implications for our reading of Earth history.