Posted on Categories Discover Magazine
Most people perceive paleontology as a frivolous sort of science. To them, the study of fossils is nothing more than the investigation of the planet’s trivial, far-flung past, making it impossible to appreciate the practical applications of the field.
That said, the findings of paleontology apply to the present and the future of the planet much more than most people probably imagine. So, what, specifically, do paleontologists do, and why is their work so important?
In the simplest of terms, paleontology is the study of ancient animals and other organisms through the analysis of their fossils. Scrutinizing these traces of past life, the field explains almost every aspect of an ancient organism’s existence, including its anatomy, activity, evolution and environment.
Take, for instance, the fossilized shells of mollusks, such as oysters, scallops and snails. While the inner structures of these fossils reveal the strange systems of organs that the mollusks previously possessed, the outer structures of these fossils reveal their stunningly long lifespans.
In fact, the ridges on the surface of these specimens represent single seasons of their growth, allowing paleontologists to ascertain the exact number of growing seasons and the exact amount of growth that each ancient mollusk experienced. This, in turn, exposes the state of a mollusk’s marine surroundings, with thicker ridges representing seasons of greater growth and, as a result, warmer waters.
The chemical compositions of these fossils are also informative, with the presence of certain chemical isotopes signifying the seasonal shifts of ocean temperatures. Thus, the tiniest fossil mollusk can reveal important information about ancient life. And it isn’t just shelled-sea creatures that are instructive, with the traces of a variety of other organisms, from ferns to fireflies, providing similar insights into the prehistoric planet.
Read More: What Are the Oldest Fossils in the World?
Though paleontologists all share an interest in fossils, their work tends to fall within one or two distinct paleontological disciplines, dedicated to specific types of fossils or specific types of fossil information.
Among these disciplines are invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology, as well as paleobotany, paleoecology and paleoclimatology.
Invertebrate Paleontology: The study of the fossils of invertebrate animals, including animals such as sea sponges, sea stars, insects, slugs and squids.
Vertebrate Paleontology: The study of the fossils of vertebrate animals, including salamanders, swallows and saber-toothed tigers, among others.
Micropaleontology: The study of fossilized microorganisms.
Paleobotany: The study of fossilized fungi and plants.
Taphonomy: The study of the formation of fossils.
Ichnology: The study of fossil tracks and trails.
Paleoecology: The study of the interactions between organisms, as revealed by fossils.
Paleoclimatology: The study of climates and climate changes, as revealed by fossils.
Read More: Are the Oldest Fossils Real — Or Just Rocks?
No matter their particular paleontological discipline, the ambition of the paleontologist boils down to two basic aims. The first is to discover and describe the fossils of ancient organisms. And the second is to use those fossils to understand how organisms have adapted and transformed through time.
Of course, achieving these two aims is far from simple.
To start, paleontologists consult geological charts containing information about the age, accessibility and type of stone in specific areas to select the most suitable sites for finding fossils. The sites that they select tend to feature sedimentary stone, which forms when the weathered fragments of rock and organic remains are accumulated, compacted and cemented over thousands, if not millions, of years.
Once a suitable site is identified, paleontologists search the surface of the sediment in an attempt to spot fossil fragments. If fragments are found, the specialists then dig through the deposit to determine whether bigger, fuller fossils are buried below.
It can take anywhere from a single day to several seasons to dig up these fossils, depending on the amount and density of the sediment. But, regardless of the duration of their digs, paleontologists use a combination of pickaxes, shovels, trowels, brooms and brushes to scoop out their specimens.
In time, paleontologists free their fossils from the stone. Then they use tools such as mass spectrometers to ascertain the age and chemical composition of their finds, while computers and computed tomography allow them to analyze the shape and structure of their specimens.
Ultimately, the use of these tools allows paleontologists to develop theories about the bodies and behaviors of ancient organisms, about their transformations over time, and about the broader processes of evolution and extinction that defined the planet’s past.
Read More: Why Are Fossils Only Found in Sedimentary Rocks?
Though both disciplines involve the study of objects dug out of the dirt, paleontology and archeology do differ. In the simplest terms, while paleontology involves the scientific study of non-human fossils, archaeology involves the scientific study of human fossils and artifacts.
All in all, the ability of the field to trace organisms and their evolution places paleontology at the center of contemporary climate change research and policy. More than anything, the field allows us to appreciate the seriousness of the current climate crisis, now and in the future.
Read More: These 200-Million-Year-Old Snails Have Serious Survival Skills
Of course, assessing the severity of current climate changes calls for an appreciation of the climates of the past, as well as their tendencies to transform. And paleontology plays an important part in producing that knowledge.
Just as the thickness of the ridges on fossilized mollusk shells can indicate the temperature of ancient oceans, the thickness of the rings inside fossilized tree trunks can indicate the temperature of ancient forests. So too, can clumps of ancient pollen, which also impart information about the frequency of precipitation and the composition of soil, thanks to the variety and amount of pollen preserved in particular areas.
In fact, the presence of all types of ancient fossils serves as an important indicator of the climate in certain places and at certain times. While the traces of tropical trees suggest that Antarctica was filled with forests some 90 million years ago, the fossils of alligators and lemur-like animals suggest that the Arctic was warm and swampy, around 50 million years ago.
When combined together, these sorts of paleontological observations can create a complete record of the planet’s past, revealing the sheer scope of the current climate crisis.
And that’s not all. By revealing the ways that climate change affected organisms in the past, paleontologists can also play a part in predicting the ways that climate change will affect organisms in the future, indicating which species, ecosystems and traits are most vulnerable to extinction.
As such, the process of paleontology is much more than a tour of the planet’s prehistory, providing opportunities to appreciate, anticipate and manage climate change for today, and for tomorrow, too.
Read More: Take a Tour of These Incredible Living Fossils