Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Why Palaeontology?

What if you understood all the changes in the natural world, just because you looked at rocks and unlocked their secrets?

Last year I decided to change careers and become a Palaeontologist. My father has a PhD in Geology, and was an avid fossil collector in his youth, so some of his passion for rocks may have rubbed off!

Since the early 60’s, when Dad was studying, there have been some dramatic changes in Palaeontology, inlcuding:

  • A name change to ‘Palaeobiology’
  • 100's of  feathered fossils discovered in China in the 1990's
  • The confirmation that Birds are descended from Dinosaurs (Willis)
  • Proteins have been removed from fossils (Lester, 2007)
  • A protein responsible for colour was found in fossil feathers (Zhang et al. 2010)
  • The discovery that DNA will only last about 6.8 Million years (Barras, 2012)
  • The sex of some fossils has been confirmed (Chinsamy et al. 2012)
  • 65 Million years ago an asteroid wiped out the Dinosaurs, quickly. (Klotz, 2013)
It took over 100 years before scientists confirmed
that birds were dinosaur decendents (image source)

These changes and discoveries mean we are better equipped to reconstruct, and understand, ancient organisms and their environments. Although, I know some of you deplore the thought of a ‘fluffy’, feathered, T. rex!

If you study Palaeobiology you will be familiar with being asked, “Why are you studying that?” in a somewhat sceptical tone. Palaeobiology PhD student Sarah Werning recently explored this in her article ‘Why Palaeontology is Relevant’.

No doubt you recognise, several of what Sarah refers to as ‘public-friendly’ responses:
  • “Paleontologists teach anatomy at many medical schools.”
  • “Fossils play an important role in oil discovery.”
  • “Paleontology is a good ‘gateway drug’ to the other sciences.”
  • “Paleontology is a good way to teach critical thinking skills.”
  • “Paleontology is inherently interesting; it doesn’t need further justification.”  (Werning, 2013)
Unfortunately, none of these reasons explain why Palaeontology is important. Reading Sarah’s article I realised my responses have changed over time. Instead of using one of the ‘public-friendly’ reasons, I now talk about Palaeobiology in terms of understanding ancient life so we can better understand life today. For example:
  • “Knowing what happened to living things when it got hotter or colder in the past, we can understand the effects of climate change today.”
  • “We can gain greater insights into how evolution works.”
  • “The current rate of extinction can be calculated after studying past mass extinctions.”

The extinction of non-avian Dinosaurs had a big impact 
on the evolution of mammals, including humans. (image source)

Palaeobiology is not limited to a science that lists everything that came before us, it puts those organisms into context. It is the context that is important.

Palaeontology is becoming increasingly relevant. The key to the future of life and the earth is locked up in the rocks, all we need to do is decode it. Like most sciences, it is constantly evolving and being built upon. The changes and discoveries,  since the 1960’s, mean we can understand our past and present better than ever before.

What other ways do you think Palaeontology has changed, or is relevant?

You can read Sarah Werning's article at Plos Blogs http://blogs.plos.org/paleo/2013/02/19/why-paleontology-is-relevant/

Other references:

Chinsamy et al. 2012. Nature Communications 4: 1381
Zhang et al. 2010. Nature 463: 1075-1078

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