Paleontology is the study of ancient life forms plant, animal, bacterial, and others - by means of the fossil record they have left behind. Paleontologists search for, unearth, and examine fossils to determine every aspect of these ancient life forms, including their body structure, geographic distribution, adaptation to environment, interaction with other species and other members of their own species, taxonomic relationship with ancient and modern life forms, and behavioral traits. The term paleontology is a combination of three ancient Greek words, “paleo,” “ontos,” and “logos,” which mean ancient, being, and knowledge respectively.
Paleontology is closely related to geology, the study of the structure of the Earth. Indeed, the work of paleontologists often informs that of historical geologists, as fossils provide critical information for the understanding of the structure and age of the Earths crust. More specifically, paleontological finds have been critical to the geology sub-discipline of stratigraphy, or the study of how stratification or layering occurs in the Earths crust. Aside from geology, paleontology has also provided key evidence for the theory of evolution. While largely an academic discipline, paleontology has its practical side too, as the distribution of various types of fossils have proven, in some cases, to be useful guides to the discovery of hydrocarbon reserves such as oil and natural gas, which are, essentially, the compressed remains of the ancient life forms studied by paleontologists.
Paleontology is subdivided into various disciplines depending on the life forms being studied. These include paleo-zoology (the study of ancient animals, itself divided into vertebrate paleozoology and invertebrate paleo-zoology), paleo-botany (plants), micropaleontology (bacteria and other microscopic life forms), palynology (pollen and spores), and paleo-anthropology (humans), among others. (While this article will touch on this last discipline, readers can find fuller coverage in the article: “Humanity, Origins of”.) Other sub-disciplines of paleontology, including paleo-ecology, paleo-geography, and paleo-climatology, focus on the environment in which ancient life forms lived and how ancient life forms affected that environment. A new and burgeoning sub-discipline is paleo-biology, which applies the findings of modern biology, particularly those concerning the genetic makeup of life, to the study of ancient life forms.
The discipline of paleontology is one of the oldest within the natural sciences, dating back in Europe to the seventeenth century, and among the most controversial, as its basic suppositions about the great age of life on Earth and the changes in life forms over time appear to contradict biblical and other religious accounts of creation.
Historians often refer to the general period in European history in which paleontology was born as the “age of reason,” a time when thinkers began to explore the world around them and move beyond theological explanations of natural phenomena. Among the first things that caught the attention of these early naturalists were fossils, many of which bore very little resemblance to existing life forms. By the turn of the nineteenth century, scientistsmost notably the French naturalist, Georges Cuvier--were hypothesizing that the fossils were, in fact, evidence of extinct forms of life and, as such, pointed to a much more complex and lengthy history of the Earth than that offered in the biblical account of creation. The work of English naturalists Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in the middle years of the nineteenth century provided, with the idea of natural selection, the theoretical framework for the understanding of how species adaptation and extinction occurred.
Key discoveries of the twentieth century that have informed the work of paleontologists have included the asteroid theory of mass extinction, and plate tectonics, or the theory of continental drift. Key twentieth century technologies aiding paleontologists include radiometric dating, which allows precise dating of fossils based on the radioactive decay of the elements of which they are composed, and DNA analysis, which allows scientists to trace the evolution of fossilized life forms at the molecular level.
Science and Methodology
Paleontologists largely work with several types of evidence. The first are the imprints life forms have left in rock, usually by means of the sedimentation process though, occasionally, through volcanic activity as well. Such imprints are not fossils in the technical sense, though they constitute such in the popular mind. The second form of evidence used by paleontologists are true fossils, that is, the remains of life forms or, more typically, the hard parts of life forms, such as teeth and bones, in which the organic molecules have been replaced by minerals. A different process of fossilization occurs with soft tissue when mineral-rich water fills in the spaces normally occupied by liquids or gases. This mineralization process can occur even at the cellular level, leaving behind incredibly detailed fossils. Both the mineralization and imprint processes can take thousands and even millions of years to occur.
Another form of evidence utilized by paleontologists is preserved organic tissue, usually from small invertebrates such as insects, trapped in fossilized plant resin, or amber, though the organic remains of some more recently extinct species, such as mammoths, have been found in glaciers and bogs. Finally, some paleontologists work with existing life forms. Popularly referred to as “living fossils,” such species among the best known is the ancient fish species, coelacanth--have existed for up to hundreds of millions of years and are believed to resemble long extinct life forms. (For simplicity sake, all but the latter form of paleontological evidence will be referred to as fossils in this discussion.)
The first step in analyzing fossils is to find them unless, of course, the paleontologist chooses to examine fossils that have already been collected. Fossils of all types are relatively rare. That is because the conditions for fossilization depend on many factors coming together. For mineralization, there has to be just the right combination of minerals and groundwater, while, for the process that leaves imprinted fossils, just the right geological processes have to be at work soon after the organism dies. Thus, paleontologists look for telltale geological formations to guide them to fossil remains. Examination of such formations, known as topology, can also allow paleontologists to date the fossils. This methodnow outdated--is known as “relative dating” because it was best for determining the order in which fossils were created and not their precise ages.
Once fossils have been found they can be analyzed using a variety of methods. The most obvious and earliest of these methods is simple visual observation of the remains. Such observation can help the paleontologist classify the life form. For more complex life forms, such as vertebrates, paleontologist use visual observation to assemble the various parts to recreate the whole organism.
Analytical tools developed over the past 60 years have moved paleontologists far beyond simple visual observation and comparison of fossils. Perhaps the most important has been radiometric dating, that is, the analysis of the radioactive decay that naturally occurs, to one degree or another, in all elements or, more specifically, within the radioactive isotopes present in elements. Because radioactive isotopes break down at a specific ratetheir so-called half-livesscientists can note the amount of a radioactive isotope in a given element and know when it was created. Since carbon forms the basis of all life, scientists in the mid-twentieth century first focused on the decay of the isotope carbon-14. But carbon-14 proved a useful indicator for relatively short periods of time onlyroughly good for about 40,000 yearsmaking it helpful in the study of human remains but largely useless for paleontologists who work in time frames of hundred of thousands to hundreds of millions of years. Scientists soon discovered that potassium-40, a radioactive isotope of potassium, a metal found in all life on Earthbreaks down into the inert gas argon over a period of roughly 1.3 billion years, making it an ideal radiometric marker for paleontologists.
With the discovery of the structure of DNA in the 1950s, paleontologists were offered a new avenue for the analysis of fossils, at the molecular level, though it took several decades for the tools to be developed to make sense of fossilized DNA, usually found in life forms persevered in amber. Changes in the structure of the DNA molecules found in fossils allow paleontologists to examine very specific evolutionary changes within extinct species as well as the physical and even behavioral traits of those species in a way simple visual and even chemical analysis is incapable of. DNA analysis also provides key insights to evolutionary biologists, that is, scientists who examine the biology of adaptation and extinction.
Paleontologists divide Earth history into eons, eras, periods, and epochs. Eons cover billions of years, eras cover hundreds of millions of years, periods are usually in the tens of millions of years, and epochs, the shortest of these periods, is measured in millions or hundreds of thousands of years. The time spans in these eons, eras, periods, and epochs vary greatly, as they do not signify specific time periods, such as years or millennia. Instead, they are marked by great changes in the fossil records.
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