Lagerstätten, The Best of the Best

Exceptional Fossil Preservation - A Unique View on the Evolution of Marine Life by David J Bottjer, Walter Etter, James W. Hagadorn, and Carol M. Tang, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. $100.00 cloth, $45.00 paper; 403 pp; numerous B&W photographs and illustrations.

Exceptional Fossil Preservation begins with an introductory chapter that explains the rarity and importance of exceptional forms of fossil preservation called “Lagerstätten.” Two forms of Lagerstätten are defined: “Concentration Lagerstätten” in which fossils are preserved in abundance and “Conservation Lagerstätten” in which soft tissues are preserved or fully articulated vertebrate remains are preserved. Specific marine examples of the Conservation Lagerstätten type are the focus of this book. The introductory material includes discussion of the processes required to produce Conservation Lagerstätten and why some of these processes may no longer occur in modern seas. The authors point out the contributions that fossil Lagerstätten studies have made toward the understanding of evolutionary relationships.

The authors, who, with one exception are also the editors of Exceptional Fossil Preservation, present the book as an overview of the topic. As such, the book does not contain extensive detail on any of the localities covered. The 20 chapters essentially cover 20 specific Lagerstätten localities worldwide. The sole exception is the fifth chapter that deals with worldwide Burgess Shale-type fauna. The coverage encompasses Lagerstätten from 600 million to 34 million years before the present.

The organization of each chapter is consistent throughout. A bit of the history of the Lagerstätten is presented first followed by the geology of the locality, paleoenvironmental analysis, mode of preservation, and paleobiology and paleoecology. A conclusion and extensive reference section follow for those wishing to dig beyond the scope of this book.

While many of the localities discussed are readily recognized, there will be some that are unfamiliar as well. Chapter length coverage of North American Lagerstätten includes: The Cambrian Burgess Shale of Canada; the Ordovician Beecher’s trilobite beds of New York; the Mississippian Bear Gulch of Montana; the Pennsylvanian Mazon Creek of Illinois; the Upper Triassic Berlin - Ichthyosaur beds of Nevada; and the Cretaceous Smoky Hill Chalk of Kansas. Worldwide Lagerstätten coverage consists of sites in England, Sweden, Italy, Switzerland, France, Australia, China, and Germany. Sweden, Poland, Greenland, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Pennsylvania, Vermont, California, and Utah have sites briefly discussed within Chapter 5, “Burgess Shale - Type Localities: The Global Picture.” The Burgess Shale and Burgess Shale type fossils are discussed in three of the 20 chapters. [The Solnhofen Limestone, the Burgess Shale, and the Hunsrück Slate have each had entire books written about them (reviewed in previous editions of Jack’s Stacks 3/94, 1/99, 2/99) and should be consulted for a more detailed presentation of these Lagerstätten.]

Exceptional Fossil Preservation provides the reader with the opportunity to see and read about exceptional fossils that normally appear only in professional journals. One example is the illustration of newly hatched or larval trilobites and other arthropods 0.5 mm and smaller from Swedish Cambrian deposits. The Swiss site, Monte San Giorgio, contains Triassic marine vertebrates with preserved skin impressions. Cephalopod muscle patterns, color patterns in worms, the stomach contents of arthropods, and skin and stomach contents of a dinosaur have all been preserved at the Jurassic Osteno site in Italy. Another Jurassic site in France, La Voulte-sur-Rhône, exhibits the best specimens of cephalopods with soft part preservation.

Readability - Undergraduate level. Use of phylogenetic terminology may confuse readers with no biological background. Non-biology majors will still be impressed with the book. Other than this, Exceptional Fossil Preservation also contains sedimentological terms that will be unintelligible to non-geology buffs.

On the Upside - High quality publication on acid-free paper. Good quality black & white photographs of outstanding fossils. Presentation of materials not easily accessible to amateurs. Excellent list of references at the end of each chapter.

On the Downside - Quality costs money. The purchase price will limit the audience to book fanatics and library users. While the included photographs of fossils are outstanding, the reader will lament that the authors could not include photographs of even more spectacular sounding examples mentioned in the text. The technical terminology, while not extensive, may turn off the general reader.

Overall Rating - A recommended book for those willing to lay out the cash or visit a well stocked library. Exceptional Fossil Preservation can be read and appreciated by the general reader even without full understanding of the technical terminology.

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