Scientists Say: Taphonomy

This is the study of organisms after they die

This dead hare, a tragic roadkill victim, can tell scientists how decomposing animals contribute to their ecosystem.

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Taphonomy  (noun, “Ta-FAHN-oh-mee”)

The study of what happens to an organism’s body after death. Scientists may examine how bacteria, fungi and insects break down an animal’s body, or how a dead organism might become a fossil over time.

In a sentence

Studying taphonomy can reveal how bacteria help to preserve a dead body.

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Power Words

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decomposition  The process by which compounds in once-living things are broken down and returned to the environment; the process by which something decays or rots.

fossil  Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils. The process of forming fossils is called fossilization.

taphonomy  The study of what happens in plants and animals after they die, including the processes of decay and fossilization.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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