What Is Palaeontology?

The study of fossils is called Palaeontology (also spelt as Paleontology). The definition of palaeontology is that it is the scientific study of prehistoric life on Earth, especially the species that are extinct and it focuses on the study of fossils by using a variety of chemical, physical, and biological analytics techniques. The study of fossils includes the determination of the evolution and prehistoric structure of extinct plants, animals, single-celled living organisms, fungi, and bacteria, by analyzing the paleontological evidence from the impressions on the deposited rock strata in which the remains of the species are found. An interesting fact is that the study of fossils of dinosaurs is also called palaeontology which belongs to the branch of geology. 

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Paleontological Evidence

Fossils are the geological remains and scientific traces of organisms in the past excavated from the soil. The individual study of fossils is beneficial because the fossils or skeletons contain information about the life of an organism and its environment. An example of paleontological evidence is the presence of rings on the surface of an oyster which represents the number of years of its life. From the shell of this same oyster, palaeontologists can tell the climate and conditions in which it developed. 

Resin is a sticky substance that drops down the tree and hardens, and sometimes it also traps air bubbles, insects, lizards, or other small organisms. Hence, Paleontologists also call this ‘fossil resin’ because it contains the paleontological evidence of ancient substances and can tell a lot about the conditions of the time it was formed. 

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Deducing paleontological evidence leads to discoveries about the behaviour of an organism as well. For example, a single site contained more than 10000 fossil skeletons of Hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs) which presented the palaeontologists with the social behaviour hypothesis of Hadrosaurs that they lived in herds.

Subdivisions Of Palaeontology

  • Vertebrate Palaeontology: 

The animals with a backbone or as per the more scientific term the Vertebrata are called vertebrates, and the study of fossils of the prehistoric vertebrates is called vertebrate palaeontology. 

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Example of vertebrate palaeontological evidence is the discovery from the Pterosaurs’ bones that they could fly, as it was also discovered that Pterosaurs had hollow and light bones much like modern birds which were found in their reconstructed skeletons.

Invertebrate Palaeontology: 

Organisms like Mollusks, worms, corals, arthropods like the cockroach, shrimp, crab, echinoderms like sea stars, sponges, etc. are called invertebrates because they don’t have a Vertebrate or backbone. And the paleontological evidence of the invertebrates are the impression of their fossilized soft body parts, remains of their exoskeleton, shells, and even the tracks of their movement in the ocean or sea bed. 

An example that will show the importance of invertebrate palaeontology is that in the deserts of Nevada of the USA palaeontologists found 200-million-year-old invertebrate marine fossils in large quantities proved that certain areas were covered by water during that particular period.

  • Palaeobotany:

The study of fossils or rocks with impressions of ancient plants or parts of plants on them is called Paleobotany. From the preserved fossil data, diversity and evolution can be understood by paleobotanists. Coal balls are found near coal deposits and are the plant remains of the forest or swamps that could not wholly decompose into forming coal but slowly petrified as rocks.

  • Micropaleontology:

The study of fossils of organisms smaller than four millimetres is called micropaleontology. These organisms include algae, pollen, protists, etc. Microfossils are short-lived and are observed under the electron microscope. The oldest fossils found by palaeontologists are called stromatolites. Cyanobacteria formed in the shallow oceans during when the Earth was cooling down. The earliest records of stromatolites created dates back to 3.5 billion years ago. 

Solved Examples

What is the palaeontological evidence of evolution?

Answer: Fossilization is a rare process that sometimes takes a million years to be formed. And the fossils are the traces of prehistoric organisms which are palaeontological evidence that provides data about the evolution of life on Earth. 

Fun Facts

  • The most useful fossils for correlation are the shelly fossils such as that of brachiopods or lamp shells and trilobites.

  • In the Earth’s layer of sedimentary rocks, almost all fossils are found. 

  • Sedimentary rocks are formed of single flat layers called strata. 

  • Bones, teeth, horns, etc. do not decompose such as the fleshy parts because the protected layers of sediments surround them. 

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

What are the Ways of Modern Palaeontology?

Answer: With the advancement of time, the technology has evolved immensely; hence the data extraction from fossils now is also massive and impactful. Tools like Electron microscope, X-ray machines, and CT scanners when incorporated with computer programs like VR and 3D imagery provide better opportunities for eureka. Palaeontologists are even extracting genetic data from the fossil and using them to answer any questions about the prehistoric environment. An example of terrific discovery made by incorporating modern methodologies is the discovery of soft connective tissue from the broken bones of Tyrannosaurus rex because, during fossilization, soft tissues are rarely preserved. From this 68 million years old and rare tissue of T.rex, scientists can study biology as well as the DNA of the organism.

What are the Different Types of Fossils Found?

Answer: The fossils can be classified into distinct categories based on specific criteria of formation. The types of fossils are-

Direct Fossils: Formed by the burial of dead living organisms and their skeletons.

Chemo-Fossils: Fossils formed of chemical deposits of prehistoric life.

Ichno - Fossils: Formed because of the parts that do not belong to a living organism like a footprint, faeces, nests, eggs, etc.

Resin Fossils: Formed by organisms getting trapped wholly inside the amber resin. 

Body Fossils: Formed in the hard parts of the body like bones, claws and teeth.

Living Fossils: These are the fossils of prehistoric organisms that carry a strong resemblance with some present species.