Ichnotaxonomy as a science

Andrew K. Rindsberg


If ichnotaxonomy is to be scientific, then its results must be repeatable. While some ichnotaxa are identified consistently, others are not, suggesting that ichnotaxonomy is not a mature science. When researchers disagree on the identification of a specimen, it suggests that closer examination is needed: an intermediate stage in the scientific method. But when ichnologists publish different names for the same trace fossils, multiple trials of classification have yielded different results, suggesting a failure of the hypotheses that led to the names.

The burgeoning of invertebrate ichnology from the 1960s onward was made possible by emonstrating its utility to the petroleum industry; in part, this was accomplished by simplifying the ichnotaxonomy of common trace fossils to the point where a specialist was not required to make use of them in sedimentology and stratigraphy. The biological aspect of trace fossils, albeit of great interest, was downplayed in favour of a severely geometric approach. Ironically, this has had the effect of obscuring basic relationships of trace fossils and their palaeoenvironments that could be of great use to sedimentologists.

Previous researchers have emphasized the value of a uniform approach in ichnotaxonomy. To accomplish this, ichnologists should take inspiration from the taxonomy of body fossils. Making ichnotaxonomy more replicable will take time and effort among investigators. In the long run, this can be accomplished by a holistic approach that includes close observation of trace fossils, standardized procedures of description and diagnosis, reinvestigation of type material, attention to bioprint (morphological traits that reveal the anatomical and ethological characteristics of the tracemakers; Rindsberg and Kopaska-Merkel, 2005), avoidance of taphonomic and human bias, and above all, cooperation.

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.14241/asgp.2018.012