What is the Science of Paleontology? Unknown Facts About the History of Paleontology
Paleontology is the study of the history of life on Earth by using fossils. Fossils are the remains of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and unicellular organisms that have replaced impressions of rock material or organisms preserved in rock. Paleontologists use fossil remains to understand different aspects of extinct and living organisms.
Individual fossils may contain information about an organism’s life and its environment. Like the rings of a tree, for example, each ring on the surface of an oyster shell represents one year of its life. Studying oyster fossils could help paleontologists discover how long and under what conditions the oyster lived.
If the climate were favorable for oysters, oysters would likely grow faster and their rings would be thicker. If the oyster struggled to survive, the rings would be thinner. The thinner rings indicate an unsuitable environment for organisms such as oysters. For example, whether it is hot or too cold for oysters, or whether they lack the nutrients necessary for them to grow.
Some fossils show how an organism lived
For example, amber is a hardened, fossilized wood resin. Occasionally, the sticky resin drips down a tree trunk, trapping small insects and organisms as large as frogs and lizards, as well as air bubbles. Paleontologists study amber called “fossil resin” to observe these complete specimens.
Amber can preserve texture as delicately as dragonfly wings. Some ants were trapped in amber while eating leaves, allowing scientists to know exactly what they ate and how they ate. Even air bubbles trapped in amber are valuable to paleontologists. By analyzing the chemistry of the weather, scientists can tell if there is a volcanic eruption or other atmospheric changes nearby.
The behavior of organisms can also be deduced from fossil evidence. Paleontologists, for example, suggest that hadrosaurs, duck-billed dinosaurs, lived in large flocks. They made this hypothesis after observing a single area of about 10,000 skeletons and evidence of social behavior.
Fossils can also provide evidence of the evolutionary history of organisms. For example, paleontologists think whales evolved from animals living on land. Extinct animal fossils closely related to whales had shovel-like front legs. They even had small hind legs. The front legs of these fossil animals are somewhat like legs. In other ways, they also showed a strong resemblance to the fins of modern whales.
Subdisciplines of Paleontology
Paleontology has many sub-disciplines. A sub-discipline is a specialized field of study within a broader subject or discipline. In the case of paleontology, sub-disciplines may focus on a particular fossil species or a specific aspect such as the earth’s climate.
It is the study of vertebrate animal fossils. Paleontologists have discovered and reconstructed the skeletons of dinosaurs, turtles, cats, and many other animals to show how these creatures lived and their evolutionary history. Using fossil evidence, they found that pterosaurs, a group of flying reptiles, could fly by flapping their wings rather than just soaring.
Reconstructed pterosaur skeletons have hollow and light bones like modern birds. Quetzalcoatlus is considered one of the largest flying creatures in history. Its wingspan is 11 meters. Paleontologists have competing theories about whether and how Quetzalcoatlus flew. Some paleontologists claim it is too heavy to fly. Others claim that it can distribute its weight well enough to fly slowly. Still, other scientists say Quetzalcoatlus was muscular enough to quickly fly short distances. These theories show how vertebrate paleontologists interpret fossil evidence differently.
Invertebrate paleontologists study invertebrate animal fossils. Mollusks, corals, arthropods like crabs and shrimp, echinoderms, and starfish-like sand dollars, sponges, and worms. Unlike vertebrates, invertebrates do not have bones. Fossilized shells and exoskeletons leave behind evidence of their existence in the form of impressions of soft body parts and traces of their movement across the ground or ocean floor. Invertebrate fossils are particularly important for the study and reconstruction of prehistoric aquatic environments. For example, large communities of 200-million-year-old invertebrate marine fossils found in Nevada deserts in the United States tell us that certain parts of the state were covered with water during this time.
Paleobotanists study fossils of ancient plants. These fossils may be impressions of plants left on rock surfaces, or they may be parts of the plants themselves preserved by rock material such as leaves and seeds. These fossils help us to understand the evolution and diversity of plants, as well as being an important part of the reconstruction of ancient environments and climates, sub-disciplines knew as paleoecology (the study of ancient environments) and paleoclimatology (the study of ancient climates).
In a small area in Argentina’s Patagonia region, paleobotanists have discovered fossils of more than 100 plant species dating back about 52 million years. Before this discovery, many scientists had said that South America’s biodiversity was the result of glaciers splitting the continent into isolated ecosystem “islands” two million years ago. Patagonian leaf fossils may refute this theory. Because now Paleobotanists have evidence that the diversity of the continent’s plant species existed 50 million years before the end of the last Ice Age.
It is the study of fossils of microscopic organisms such as protists, algae, tiny crustaceans, and pollens. Micro paleontologists use powerful electron microscopes to examine microfossils that are usually smaller than four millimeters. Micro fossil species tend to be short-lived and are abundant in their location, which helps them identify rock layers of the same age, a process known as biostratigraphy.
The chemical structure of some microfossils can be used to learn about the environment while the organism is alive, making them important for paleoclimatology. Micro paleontologists study the shells of deep-sea microorganisms to understand how the Earth’s climate has changed. After organisms die, the shells accumulate on the ocean floor. Because organisms get the elements of their shells from the ocean water around them, the composition of the shells reflects the present composition of the ocean.
Then the shells can be compared from one period to another or from one geographic region to another. Differences in the chemical composition of the ocean can be good indicators of climate differences.
Micro paleontologists often study the oldest fossils in the world. The earliest fossils belong to cyanobacteria, sometimes referred to as blue-green algae or pond scum. Cyanobacteria grew in shallow oceans billions of years ago while the Earth was still cooling. Fossils formed by cyanobacteria are called stromatolites. The oldest fossils in the world are 3.5 billion-year-old stromatolites discovered in Western Australia.
History of Paleontology
Fossils have been used, studied, and understood in different ways throughout human history. Early civilizations used fossils for decorative or religious purposes, but they did not always understand where they came from. Although some Ancient Greek and Roman scientists admitted that the fossils were the remains of life forms, many early scientists believed the fossils were evidence of mythological creatures such as dragons. From the Middle Ages to the early 1700s, fossils were widely regarded as artifacts of the devil or a higher power.
Many people believed that the remains had special healing or destructive powers. Many scientists believed the fossils to be remnants of Noah’s Flood and other catastrophes documented in the Hebrew scriptures. Some ancient scientists figured out what fossils were and were able to construct complex hypotheses based on fossil evidence. On land, the Greek biologist Xenophanes discovered shells and concluded that the land was once the seafloor. Remarkably, Chinese scientist Shen Kuo was able to use fossilized bamboo to construct a theory of climate change.
The official science of paleontology – fossil collection and identification
It started in the 1700s, a period is known as the Age of Enlightenment. Scientists began to identify the rock formations, map, and classify fossils. Geologists have discovered that rock layers are the product of the prolonged accumulation of sediment rather than the result of individual events or disasters. In the early 1800s, Georges Cuvier and William Smith, considered the pioneers of paleontology, found that rock layers in different regions can be compared and matched to their fossils. Later that century, the work of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin strongly influenced how society understands Earth’s history and organisms.
Lyell’s Geology Principles stated that the fossils in one rock layer are similar, but the fossils in other rock layers are different. This sequence can be used to show relationships between similar rock layers separated by large distances. Fossils discovered in South America may have more in common with fossils from Africa than fossils obtained from different layers of rock nearby.
Origin of Species;
He observed a somewhat similar sequencing of Darwin’s “Origin of Species” in the living world. Darwin suggested that new species evolved. New fossil discoveries supported Darwin’s theory that creatures living in the distant past are different from living creatures today, but are sometimes linked to them. This theory allowed paleontologists to study living organisms for clues to understanding fossil evidence. Archeopteryx, for example, had wings like a bird, but it also had other features – such as teeth – typical of a dinosaur species called theropod.
Archeopteryx, now considered a very early bird, bears more resemblance to theropods than modern birds. Studying the physical properties of Archeopteryx is an example of how paleontologists and other scientists have set up a sequence or sequence of when one species evolved relative to another. The dating of rock layers and fossils revolutionized after the discovery of radioactivity in the late 1800s. Using a process known as radiometric dating, scientists can determine the age of a rock layer by examining how certain atoms in the rock have changed since the rock was formed.
As atoms change, they emit different levels of radioactivity. Changes in radioactivity are standard and can be accurately measured in time units. Scientists can calculate how much time has passed by measuring radioactive material in an ancient sample and comparing it with a current sample. Radiometric dating allows ages to be assigned to rock layers, which can then be used to determine the age of the fossils.
Paleontologists used radiometric dating to examine the fossilized eggshells of Genyornis, an extinct bird from Australia. They found that Genyornis became extinct between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago. Fossil evidence from plants and other organisms in the area suggests that the large, flightless bird had plenty of food at the time of its extinction. Climate changes were too slow to explain the relatively rapid extinction. By studying human fossils and ancient Australian cave paintings dating to the same period, paleontologists hypothesized that humans, the oldest people living in Australia, may have contributed to the extinction of Genyornis.
Modern paleontologists have a variety of tools that help them discover, study, and identify fossils. Electron microscopes allow paleontologists to examine the smallest details of the tiniest fossils. X-ray machines and CT scanners reveal the internal structures of fossils. Advanced computer programs can analyze fossil data, reconstruct skeletons, and visualize the bodies and movements of extinct organisms.
Paleontologists and biologists used a CT scan to examine the preserved body of a baby mammoth discovered in Siberia in 2007. A CT scanner allows scientists to create 3D representations of the organism’s bones and tissue. Using this technology, scientists were able to see that the baby mammoth had healthy teeth, bones, and muscle tissue. However, the animal’s lungs and body were filled with mud and debris. This suggested to scientists that the animal was healthy but likely drowned in a muddy river or lake.
Genetic material may come out of bones
Scientists can even extract genetic material from bones and tissues. Paleontologists made a remarkable genetic discovery when the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex were broken during an excavation in the 1990s. Soft tissue was found inside the bones. Soft tissue is the true connective tissue of an organism like muscle, fat, and blood. Soft tissue is rarely preserved during fossilization. Paleontologists often have to rely on fossilized remains – rocks. Paleontologists now hope to use this rare discovery in 68-million-year-old tissue to study biology and possibly T. rex’s DNA.
Despite all these advances, paleontologists are still making important discoveries using simple tools and basic techniques in the field. The National Geographic Community supports fieldwork in paleontology worldwide. Rising Explorer Zeresenay “Zeray” Alemseged conducts studies in Northern Ethiopia.
There, Alemseged and his colleagues uncover and study fossils that contribute to understanding human evolution. The Emerging Explorer Bolortsetseg Minjin is a paleontologist who found fossils of dinosaurs, ancient mammals, and even corals in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. He also works to teach Mongolian students about dinosaurs in their backyards and hopes to establish a paleontology museum in the country.
Many excavation sites offer visitors the chance to watch paleontologists work on the field, including the following US sites: Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee; La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California, and Ashfall Fossil Beds in Royal, Nebraska.
Many paleontologists are also evolutionary biologists. Evolutionary biology is a study that examines the origin, development, and changes – evolution – in species. Other scientists contributing to evolutionary biology are geologists and geneticists.
Awakening to History
The oldest fossils ever discovered are stromatolites, the remains of ancient cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae. The oldest animal fossils discovered are sponges. Prehistoric sponges have been discovered in the Arabian Peninsula and Australia.
Fossils and Myths
Ancient cultures did not always understand what fossils were and adapted their discoveries to fit myths and stories. China is rich in dinosaur fossils. Dinosaurs are ancient reptiles whose bones have the same features as both reptiles and birds. The ancient Chinese often interpreted dinosaur skeletons as the remains of flying dragons. Fossilized remains of dwarf elephants have been found on several Mediterranean islands. Dwarf elephants only grew up to 2 meters in height. The skulls are approximately the same size as a human skull. There is a big hole in the middle where the body of the live animal is. In ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome, the remains of dwarf elephants were often interpreted as the remains of cyclops, a sort of feared, one-eyed giant.
19th-century British fossil collector Mary Anning proved that you don’t have to be a paleontologist to contribute to science. Anning was one of the first to collect, display, and accurately describe ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, and pterosaur fossils. His contributions to the Jurassic understanding of life were so impressive that in 2010 Anning was named among the ten most influential British women in the history of science.
Lords of the Brazilian Sky
Alexander Kellner and local museum founder Placido Cidade Nuvens show a new generation of small paleontologists a pterosaur fossil found near their village on the Araripe Plateau in northeastern Brazil. Kellner helps to illustrate how pterosaurs became “Lords of the Brazilian Sky” – the title of one of his books.
Some coral specimens, such as the one in this photo, were fossilized over 450 million years ago. The presence of coral fossils in areas such as the US state of Kansas or Mongolia helps show that such landlocked areas were once part of the great inland seas.
These spiral shells are fossils of an extinct marine animal species called ammonite. Ammonite fossils are quite common and serve as perfect index fossils. Index fossils are fossils used to reliably describe periods of geological time. The presence of ammonite fossils generally indicates a Jurassic or Triassic period.
The current global warming era is not the first example of the world’s climate crisis. This huge clam fossil shows that the temperate climate of Spatsizi Plateau Wild State Park, British Columbia, Canada, where this photo was taken, was once much warmer and underwater.
This fossil of an ancient fern was collected in San Juan, Argentina. San Juan has extensive fossil records from the Triassic Period (250-200 million years ago). The fossil record includes plants like this, dinosaurs, and ancient mammals.
This footprint was left more than 3.5 million years ago by an ancient hominid in Tanzania’s Great Rift Valley. That humanoid walked on soft volcanic ash. The rain hardened the ash without damaging the footprints, and this footprint survives.
Paleontologist, Kamoya Kimeu, examines a hominid – humanoid – jaw fragment found on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya. In 1984, Kimeu helped discover the most complete early human skeleton ever found. “Turkana Boy”.
Richard Leakey exhibits four extraordinary findings, all from the Lake Turkana region, in the fossil cellar of the Kenya National Museum. The skull of an intact Australopithecine (far left) is part of the hominid family tree but is on a separate branch. Skulls dating back to 300,000 years are closely related to modern humans.
Pterodactyl Fossil This fossil of Pterosaur Pterodactylus Kochi has been preserved in limestone. Pterodactyl fossils such as this have been found mostly in the Bavaria region of Germany.
Imprisoned in Amber
This insect was trapped in amber or “fossil resin” about 50 million years ago. Because amber is an excellent preservative, paleontologists can examine the animal’s delicate features such as wings and eyes.
Fossil collectors like this man in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert are an important part of paleontology. Fossil collectors collect fossils for their collection or sale.
Excavation at john day
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in northeast Oregon is a popular site for paleontology excavations. Paleontologists use simple tools like shovels and brushes to unearth millions of years old fossils.
Paleontology in Pakistan
A paleontology team from the Khanabadosh Research and Discovery Association unearthed an ivory fossil near the Soan River in Pakistan. The Khanabadosh Research and Discovery Society is dedicated to scientific research and fieldwork near Pakistan’s Potohar Plateau.
According to Hearst-museum conservator Williams, high-resolution scans of the wrapped mummy (pictured) showed that the body parts were covered with papyrus stalks before being wrapped. This helped determine which community the mummy belongs to. According to the museum, the ancient Egyptians prepared two types of crocodile mummies: sacred mummies thought to belong to the crocodile god Sobek, and votive mummies that were openly raised for sacrifice. Votive crocodiles lived in lakes near temples, particularly in the Egyptian city of El Faiyum (see pictures of “beautiful” human mummies found in El Faiyum).
The ritual took place as follows: A visitor to the temple donates. Later priests would sacrifice, mummify and bury a crocodile in the name of the benefactor. According to Lewis, it is not yet known whether the two mummies were sacred or votive. However, the irregular inside of the wrapped mummy may mean that she is a votive animal.
French paleontologist Jean-Jacques Hublin conducts a CT scan of a Neanderthal skull. Using X-ray technology, paleontologists have discovered that although Neanderthals and modern humans had brains, brains were differently shaped.