The impact of taphonomic processes on interpreting paleoecologic changes in large lake ecosystems: Ostracodes in Lakes Tanganyika and Malawi

Lisa E. Park, Andrew S. Cohen, Koen Martens, Rebecca Bralek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Nonmarine ostracodes are often used as proxy indicators for the biotic response to climate as well as anthropogenic changes in large lakes. Their large numbers, small size and sensitivities to environmental conditions make them ideal for assessing how organisms respond to environmental perturbations. However, little is known about the various taphonomic processes related to preserving these organisms in the lacustrine fossil record. Without understanding the amount of time averaging associated with these assemblages, any interpretation of their biodiversity and paleoecology may be problematic. To address these issues, we conducted actualistic experiments to determine transport, time-averaging, and the amount of taphonomic bias in ostracode sub-fossil assemblages. Sand transport experiments revealed significant mixing at all sites at shallower depths and significant mixing on rocky substrates but not sandy ones. Comparisons with ostracode material collected along the experimental transects support this model and demonstrate time averaging in both the sandy and rocky substrates. Preservational models were derived from the experimental data and applied to interpreting the paleobiologic record of ostracodes from piston cores in both Lake Tanganyika and Malawi. The core record reveals assemblages that have undergone significant time-averaging, and in the case of Lake Malawi, preservational degradation. In the core examined from Tanganyika, most assemblages resemble the time-averaged experimental model with respect to species richness, percentage of articulated shells and heavy bias towards adult dead individuals. In the Malawi cores, most of the valves were preserved only as internal molds. The taphonomic signature of these samples resemble the time-averaged assemblages of Tanganyika cores, even though carapaces are not often present. Both the experimental and live/dead valve data suggest significant time-averaging and transport, smearing seasonal-yearly data in some environments involved in using ostracodes to assess biotic changes as a result of climate and or anthropogenically-induced environmental change. Ostracode species richness estimates were impacted by time averaging because transport of dead valve material occurs at high percentages in the shallow depths and on the rocky substrates, suggesting that the ostracode death assemblages in these areas will not reflect living populations. In addition, ecologic models based only upon death assemblages will be less resolved than those based upon live assemblages. A time averaging index was derived using the % dead juveniles ratio, as well as sedimentation rate and information on the population dynamics, if known.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)127-138
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Paleolimnology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2003


  • Lake Malawi
  • Lake Tanganyika
  • Ostracoda
  • Taphonomy
  • Time averaging

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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