What is paleontology?
The simplest definition of “paleontology” is “the study of ancient life”. The field seeks information about several aspects of past organisms: “their identity and origin, their environment and evolution, and what they can tell us about the Earth’s organic and inorganic past”.
What is paleontology? Paleontology, sometimes spelled palaeontology, (/peɪliɒnˈtɒlədʒi, ˌpæli-, -ən-/) is the scientific study of life that existed prior to, and sometimes including, the start of the Holocene Epoch (roughly 11,700 years before present). It includes the study of fossils to determine organisms’ evolution and interactions with each other and their environments (their paleoecology). Paleontological observations have been documented as far back as the 5th century BC. The science became established in the 18th century as a result of Georges Cuvier’s work on comparative anatomy, and developed rapidly in the 19th century. The term itself originates from Greek παλαιός, palaios, “old, ancient”, ὄν, on (gen.ontos), “being, creature” and λόγος, logos, “speech, thought, study”.
A historical science
Paleontology is one of the historical sciences, along with archaeology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, philology and history itself:it aims to describe phenomena of the past and reconstruct their causes. Hence it has three main elements: description of past phenomena; developing a general theory about the causes of various types of change; and applying those theories to specific facts. When trying to explain the past, paleontologists and other historical scientists often construct a set of hypotheses about the causes and then look for a smoking gun, a piece of evidence that strongly accords with one hypothesis over the others. Sometimes the smoking gun is discovered by a fortunate accident during other research. For example, the discovery by Luis and Walter Alvarez of iridium, a mainly extraterrestrial metal, in the Cretaceous–Tertiary boundary layer made asteroid impact the most favored explanation for the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, although the contribution of volcanism continues to be debated.
The other main type of science is experimental science, which is often said to work by conducting experiments to disprove hypotheses about the workings and causes of natural phenomena. This approach cannot prove a hypothesis, since some later experiment may disprove it, but the accumulation of failures to disprove is often compelling evidence in favor. However, when confronted with totally unexpected phenomena, such as the first evidence for invisible radiation, experimental scientists often use the same approach as historical scientists: construct a set of hypotheses about the causes and then look for a “smoking gun”.
Paleontology lies between biology and geology since it focuses on the record of past life, but its main source of evidence is fossils in rocks. For historical reasons, paleontology is part of the geology department at many universities: in the 19th and early 20th centuries, geology departments found fossil evidence important for dating rocks, while biology departments showed little interest.
Paleontology also has some overlap with archaeology, which primarily works with objects made by humans and with human remains, while paleontologists are interested in the characteristics and evolution of humans as a species. When dealing with evidence about humans, archaeologists and paleontologists may work together – for example paleontologists might identify animal or plant fossils around an archaeological site, to discover what the people who lived there ate; or they might analyze the climate at the time of habitation.
In addition, paleontology often borrows techniques from other sciences, including biology, osteology, ecology, chemistry, physics and mathema For example, geochemical signatures from rocks may help to discover when life first arose on Earth, and analyses of carbon isotope ratios may help to identify climate changes and even to explain major transitions such as the Permian–Triassic extinction event. A relatively recent discipline, molecular phylogenetics, compares the DNA and RNA of modern organisms to re-construct the “family trees” of their evolutionary ancestors. It has also been used to estimate the dates of important evolutionary developments, although this approach is controversial because of doubts about the reliability of the “molecular clock“. Techniques from engineering have been used to analyse how the bodies of ancient organisms might have worked, for example the running speed and bite strength of Tyrannosaurus, or the flight mechanics of Microraptor. It is relatively commonplace to study the internal details of fossils using X-ray microtomography. Paleontology, biology, archaeology, and paleoneurobiology combine to study endocranial casts (endocasts) of species related to humans to clarify the evolution of the human brain.
Paleontology even contributes to astrobiology, the investigation of possible life on other planets, by developing models of how life may have arisen and by providing techniques for detecting evidence of life.
As knowledge has increased, paleontology has developed specialised subdivisions. Vertebrate paleontology concentrates on fossils from the earliest fish to the immediate ancestors of modern mammals. Invertebrate paleontology deals with fossils such as molluscs, arthropods, annelid worms and echinoderms. Paleobotany studies fossil plants, algae, and fungi. Palynology, the study of pollen and spores produced by land plants and protists, straddles paleontology and botany, as it deals with both living and fossil organisms. Micropaleontology deals with microscopic fossil organisms of all kinds.
Instead of focusing on individual organisms, paleoecology examines the interactions between different ancient organisms, such as their food chains, and the two-way interactions with their environments. For example, the development of oxygenic photosynthesis by bacteria caused the oxygenation of the atmosphere and hugely increased the productivity and diversity of ecosystems. Together, these led to the evolution of complex eukaryotic cells, from which all multicellular organisms are built.
Paleoclimatology, although sometimes treated as part of paleoecology, focuses more on the history of Earth’s climate and the mechanisms that have changed it – which have sometimes included evolutionary developments, for example the rapid expansion of land plants in the Devonian period removed more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing the greenhouse effect and thus helping to cause an ice age in the Carboniferous period.
Biostratigraphy, the use of fossils to work out the chronological order in which rocks were formed, is useful to both paleontologists and geologists. Biogeography studies the spatial distribution of organisms, and is also linked to geology, which explains how Earth’s geography has changed over time.
Sources of evidence
This Marrella specimen illustrates how clear and detailed the fossils from the Burgess Shalelagerstätte are.
Fossils of organisms’ bodies are usually the most informative type of evidence. The most common types are wood, bones, and shells. Fossilisation is a rare event, and most fossils are destroyed by erosion or metamorphism before they can be observed. Hence the fossil record is very incomplete, increasingly so further back in time. Despite this, it is often adequate to illustrate the broader patterns of life’s history. There are also biases in the fossil record: different environments are more favorable to the preservation of different types of organism or parts of organisms. Further, only the parts of organisms that were already mineralised are usually preserved, such as the shells of molluscs. Since most animal species are soft-bodied, they decay before they can become fossilised. As a result, although there are 30-plus phyla of living animals, two-thirds have never been found as fossils.
Occasionally, unusual environments may preserve soft tissues. These lagerstätten allow paleontologists to examine the internal anatomy of animals that in other sediments are represented only by shells, spines, claws, etc. – if they are preserved at all. However, even lagerstätten present an incomplete picture of life at the time. The majority of organisms living at the time are probably not represented because lagerstätten are restricted to a narrow range of environments, e.g. where soft-bodied organisms can be preserved very quickly by events such as mudslides; and the exceptional events that cause quick burial make it difficult to study the normal environments of the animals. The sparseness of the fossil record means that organisms are expected to exist long before and after they are found in the fossil record – this is known as the Signor–Lipps effect.
Trace fossils consist mainly of tracks and burrows, but also include coprolites and marks left by feeding. Trace fossils are particularly significant because they represent a data source that is not limited to animals with easily fossilised hard parts, and they reflect organisms’ behaviours. Also many traces date from significantly earlier than the body fossils of animals that are thought to have been capable of making them. Whilst exact assignment of trace fossils to their makers is generally impossible, traces may for example provide the earliest physical evidence of the appearance of moderately complex animals (comparable to earthworms).
Geochemical observations may help to deduce the global level of biological activity at a certain period, or the affinity of certain fossils. For example, geochemical features of rocks may reveal when life first arose on Earth, and may provide evidence of the presence of eukaryotic cells, the type from which all multicellular organisms are built. Analyses of carbon isotope ratios may help to explain major transitions such as the Permian–Triassic extinction event.
Paleontology seeks to map out how living things have changed through time. A substantial hurdle to this aim is the difficulty of working out how old fossils are. Beds that preserve fossils typically lack the radioactive elements needed for radiometric dating. This technique is our only means of giving rocks greater than about 50 million years old an absolute age, and can be accurate to within 0.5% or better. Although radiometric dating requires very careful laboratory work, its basic principle is simple: the rates at which various radioactive elements decay are known, and so the ratio of the radioactive element to the element into which it decays shows how long ago the radioactive element was incorporated into the rock. Radioactive elements are common only in rocks with a volcanic origin, and so the only fossil-bearing rocks that can be dated radiometrically are a few volcanic ash layers.
Consequently, paleontologists must usually rely on stratigraphy to date fossils. Stratigraphy is the science of deciphering the “layer-cake” that is the sedimentary record, and has been compared to a jigsaw puzzle. Rocks normally form relatively horizontal layers, with each layer younger than the one underneath it. If a fossil is found between two layers whose ages are known, the fossil’s age must lie between the two known ages. Because rock sequences are not continuous, but may be broken up by faults or periods of erosion, it is very difficult to match up rock beds that are not directly next to one another. However, fossils of species that survived for a relatively short time can be used to link up isolated rocks: this technique is called biostratigraphy. For instance, the conodont Eoplacognathus pseudoplanus has a short range in the Middle Ordovician period. If rocks of unknown age are found to have traces of E. pseudoplanus, they must have a mid-Ordovician age. Such index fossils must be distinctive, be globally distributed and have a short time range to be useful. However, misleading results are produced if the index fossils turn out to have longer fossil ranges than first thought. Stratigraphy and biostratigraphy can in general provide only relative dating (A was before B), which is often sufficient for studying evolution. However, this is difficult for some time periods, because of the problems involved in matching up rocks of the same age across different continents.
Family-tree relationships may also help to narrow down the date when lineages first appeared. For instance, if fossils of B or C date to X million years ago and the calculated “family tree” says A was an ancestor of B and C, then A must have evolved more than X million years ago.
It is also possible to estimate how long ago two living clades diverged – i.e. approximately how long ago their last common ancestor must have lived – by assuming that DNA mutations accumulate at a constant rate. These “molecular clocks“, however, are fallible, and provide only a very approximate timing: for example, they are not sufficiently precise and reliable for estimating when the groups that feature in the Cambrian explosion first evolved, and estimates produced by different techniques may vary by a factor of two.
History of life
This wrinkled “elephant skin” texture is a trace fossil of a non-stromatolitemicrobial mat. The image shows the location, in the Burgsvik beds of Sweden, where the texture was first identified as evidence of a microbial mat.Main article: Evolutionary history of life
Earth formed about 4,570 million years ago and, after a collision that formed the Moon about 40 million years later, may have cooled quickly enough to have oceans and an atmosphere about 4,440 million years ago.There is evidence on the Moon of a Late Heavy Bombardment by asteroids from 4,000 to 3,800 million years ago. If, as seems likely, such a bombardment struck Earth at the same time, the first atmosphere and oceans may have been stripped away.
Paleontology traces the evolutionary history of life back to over 3,000 million years ago, possibly as far as 3,800 million years ago The oldest clear evidence of life on Earth dates to 3,000 million years ago, although there have been reports, often disputed, of fossil bacteria from 3,400 million years ago and of geochemical evidence for the presence of life 3,800 million years ago. Some scientists have proposed that life on Earth was “seeded” from elsewhere, but most research concentrates on various explanations of how life could have arisen independently on Earth.
Opabinia sparked modern interest in the Cambrian explosion.
Multicellular life is composed only of eukaryotic cells, and the earliest evidence for it is the Francevillian Group Fossils from 2,100 million years ago, although specialisation of cells for different functions first appears between 1,430 million years ago (a possible fungus) and 1,200 million years ago (a probable red alga). Sexual reproduction may be a prerequisite for specialisation of cells, as an asexual multicellular organism might be at risk of being taken over by rogue cells that retain the ability to reproduce.
The earliest known animals are cnidarians from about 580 million years ago, but these are so modern-looking that must be descendants of earlier animals. Early fossils of animals are rare because they had not developed mineralised, easily fossilized hard parts until about 548 million years ago.The earliest modern-looking bilaterian animals appear in the Early Cambrian, along with several “weird wonders” that bear little obvious resemblance to any modern animals. There is a long-running debate about whether this Cambrian explosion was truly a very rapid period of evolutionary experimentation; alternative views are that modern-looking animals began evolving earlier but fossils of their precursors have not yet been found, or that the “weird wonders” are evolutionary “aunts” and “cousins” of modern groups. Vertebrates remained a minor group until the first jawed fish appeared in the Late Ordovician.
At about 13 centimetres (5.1 in) the Early Cretaceous Yanoconodon was longer than the average mammal of the time.
The spread of life from water to land required organisms to solve several problems, including protection against drying out and supporting themselves against gravity. The earliest evidence of land plants and land invertebrates date back to about 476 million years ago and 490 million years ago respectively. The lineage that produced land vertebrates evolved later but very rapidly between 370 million years ago and 360 million years ago; recent discoveries have overturned earlier ideas about the history and driving forces behind their evolution. Land plants were so successful that their detritus caused an ecological crisis in the Late Devonian, until the evolution of fungi that could digest dead wood.
During the Permian period, synapsids, including the ancestors of mammals, may have dominated land environments, but this ended with the Permian–Triassic extinction event 251 million years ago, which came very close to wiping out all complex life. The extinctions were apparently fairly sudden, at least among vertebrates. During the slow recovery from this catastrophe a previously obscure group, archosaurs, became the most abundant and diverse terrestrial vertebrates. One archosaur group, the dinosaurs, were the dominant land vertebrates for the rest of the Mesozoic, and birds evolved from one group of dinosaurs. During this time mammals’ ancestors survived only as small, mainly nocturnal insectivores, which may have accelerated the development of mammalian traits such as endothermy and hair. After the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago killed off all the dinosaurs except the birds, mammals increased rapidly in size and diversity, and some took to the air and the sea.
Fossil evidence indicates that flowering plants appeared and rapidly diversified in the Early Cretaceous between 130 million years ago and 90 million years ago. Their rapid rise to dominance of terrestrial ecosystems is thought to have been propelled by coevolution with pollinating insects. Social insects appeared around the same time and, although they account for only small parts of the insect “family tree”, now form over 50% of the total mass of all insects.
Humans evolved from a lineage of upright-walking apes whose earliest fossils date from over 6 million years ago. Although early members of this lineage had chimp-sized brains, about 25% as big as modern humans’, there are signs of a steady increase in brain size after about 3 million years ago. There is a long-running debate about whether modern humans are descendants of a single small population in Africa, which then migrated all over the world less than 200,000 years ago and replaced previous hominine species, or arose worldwide at the same time as a result of interbreeding.
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