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Palaeontology

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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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What is Paleontology About?

  • Paleontology is the study of ancient life forms and their evolution.

  • Paleontologists are primarily interested in fossils, organisms that have been preserved by a process called fossilization.

  • Paleontology has helped us understand how various species evolved over time, including our own human lineage.

  • Paleontologists can also use these insights to reconstruct what life on Earth was like long ago.

In this article, we will explore the definition of paleontology, evidence for its existence, its subdivisions, and examples from different periods in history where it has been applied to better understand the past.


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, paleontologists 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. 


Some compelling examples of where paleontological research has provided valuable information about the past are as follows:

  • In 2002, scientists in China discovered a feathered dinosaur, which helped to show that birds evolved from dinosaurs.

  • Paleontology has also been used to study climate change overtime periods, such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago.

  • Paleontologists have even been able to identify new species of animals and plants by studying their fossils.


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Deducing palaeontological evidence leads to discoveries about the behavior of an organism as well. For example, a single site contained more than 10,000 fossil skeletons of Hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs), which presented the paleontologists with the social behavior hypothesis of Hadrosaurs that they lived in herds.


Subdivisions of Palaeontology

There are three main subdivisions of palaeontology:

  • Vertebrate paleontology

  • Invertebrate paleontology

  • Paleobotany

  • Micropaleotology


  • 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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An 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 cockroaches, shrimp, crab, echinoderms like sea stars, sponges, etc. are called invertebrates because they don’t have vertebrae or backbones. 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 shows 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 that proved certain areas were covered by water during that particular period.

  • Paleobotany:

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 are slowly petrified as rocks.

  • Micropaleontology:

The study of fossils of organisms smaller than four millimeters 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 paleontologists are called stromatolites. Cyanobacteria formed in the shallow oceans when the Earth was cooling down. The earliest records of stromatolites created date back 3.5 billion years ago. 


In What Historical Period is Paleontology Applied?

Paleontology is a field that has been studied for centuries, with new discoveries being made all the time. It can be applied in any period of history where there is evidence of past life.


Some Examples of Palaeontology

  • The Paleozoic era (570-251 million years ago) – During this period, many large animals evolved including fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

  • The Mesozoic era (251-65 million years ago) – During this period, dinosaurs evolved and became the dominant animals on Earth. Palaeontology has been particularly useful for understanding how they lived and evolved over millions of years.

  • The Cenozoic era (65 million years ago to the present day) – After an extinction event wiped out most life at the end of the Mesozoic era, a new wave of evolution occurred, resulting in many modern mammals including primates that lead to our own human lineage developing. Paleontologists have been able to use fossils from this time period to understand where humans originated from and what we were like as a species long ago.


Fun Facts

  • The most useful fossils for correlation are the shell 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. 

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FAQs on Palaeontology

1. What are the Ways of Modern Palaeontology?

With the advancement of time, 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. Paleontologists are even extracting genetic data from fossils and using them to answer any questions about the prehistoric environment. An example of a 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.

2. What are the Different Types of Fossils Found?

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.

3. How does Paleontology help us understand the present?

Paleontology can help us understand the present by providing insights into how different species have evolved over time. It can also show us how the environment has changed over time, and give us an understanding of which animal and plant species are related to each other.

4. What is a fossil?

A fossil is an organism that has been preserved by a process called fossilization. This usually happens when the organism dies and its body is buried in sedimentary rock, where it is slowly replaced with minerals over time until it becomes a hard mineral shell.


Paleontologists have even been able to identify new species of animals and plants by studying their fossils.

5. How much has Paleontology changed over time?

Paleontology has drastically changed over the years, with many new discoveries being made all the time. It used to be thought that evolution was extremely slow and gradual, but in recent decades it has become more accepted among scientists that extinction can happen fast and cause rapid changes in species. Paleontologists are working hard to understand how life on Earth evolved through different periods of history by studying fossils left behind from these times.

6. Why is Paleontology important for understanding the past?

Paleontological research provides us with evidence about species that lived long ago when they were alive, which helps us better understand our own human evolutionary path as well as animal behavior patterns in the past. Paleontological evidence also helps us understand how life on Earth has changed over time, which can help us predict what will happen in the future as humans continue to evolve and affect our environment.

7. What is the worth of fossils in paleontology?

Paleontology is the study of fossils and their relevance in understanding the history of life on Earth. Paleontologists use fossils to better understand taxonomy, evolution, ecology, and earth history. Although a fossil may not have a monetary value assigned to it, its worth in paleontology is immeasurable as it helps us answer some of the biggest questions about where we came from and how life has evolved over time.