Paleontology is the study of how life on earth existed through the study of fossils. Fossils are the remains of plants, animals or living things that lived many years ago but transformed into rock material or are either impressions of these species on a rock. Paleontology is an interesting field that encompassies collecting of evidences from the fossils of extinct species and analyzing it to derive information about the lives of those species. Here’s a compiled list of fun facts about paleontology-
Paleontology is a combination of Biology (study of plants and animals) and Geology (study of rocks).
- Much like many other fields of science, paleontology has several subdisciplines. These are vertebrate paleontology, invertebrate paleontology, paleobotany, Palynology, Paleoanthropology, Taphonomy, Ichnology and, micropaleontology.
- Vertebrate paleontology is the study of fossils of animals with backbones. The best example of this would be study of fossils of dinosaurs or neanderthals.
- Invertebrate paleontology is the study of fossils of animals that did not have a backbone. For example, corals and arthropods.
- Paleobotany, as evident enough is defined as the study of plants’ impressions or their remains/fossils.
- Paleoanthropology deals with the study of prehistoric humans and the process to study the early development and evolution of humans.
- Taphonomy explains how the organisms decay and fossilize including their burial in the rocks and the chemical changes that take place in them with time.
- Ichnology is the branch of paleontology that deals with traces individual organism behavior and tracks their burrows, footprints, borings, etc.
- Micropaleontology, on the other hand, deals with analyzing the fossils of microscopic organisms, such as, algae, crustaceans, pollen, etc.
Some early civilizations who couldn’t understand what these peculiarly shaped stones meant used to employ the fossils as tools of daily assistance that helped them in hunting or for decorative purposes.
Until the 17th century, fossils were a mystery and were in fact considered as works of the devil by many people.
The first ever modern point of view about fossils was given by Leonardo Da Vinci in the 15th century. He said that the fossils found in oceans are the remains of some early life.
In the 15th century, Leonardo Da Vinci analyzed and identified the rock-like shapes as the petrified remains of living organisms, however, he never published his studies.
A Chinese palaeontologist Shen Kuo put forward a revolutionary theory of climate change by studying the fossils of bamboo in the 11th century.
Later in mid 18th century, Charles Darwin wrote his book “Origin of the Species” that helped simplify our understanding of evolution and helped us explore further the field of paleontology
The first major breakthrough in paleontology happened with the discovery of radioactivity in 1896, which helped determine the age of the fossils and estimate how long ago did those extinct species exist.
Radiometric Dating is a process used to determine the age of the rocks by determining how certain atoms were arranged in the rock and how their pattern changed with time. The change in the atoms leads them to respond differently to radioactive rays.
By observing the change in the rays emitted, the scientists are able to predict how old the fossil might have been.
In today’s date, the technology used by the paleontologists to study the fossils has evolved to the use of electron microscopes, X-rays and CAT-scanners.
Petit birds that were once dinosaurs
With Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution came another breakthrough when the fossil of archaeopteryx was found and studied. Archaeopteryx formed the missing link between the dinosaurs and the petite birds that we see today.
“The origin of species”
Charles Darwin proposed that a group of different species have a single originator species. How the offspring species evolve is answered by the theory of natural selection
Paleontology has much attributed to the success of humans in knowing themselves by the study of fossils of early humans.
Fossils found in water are best preserved
Fossilization of dead organisms happens best when they die in water as it is said to insulate them from complete deterioration.
Paleontologists search for fossils usually in sedimentary rocks which formed due to accumulation of sand and water over time and is softer and easier to excavate than igneous rocks which are formed due to volcanic eruptions.
Since fossils are best found in water, marine fossils make up the majority of fossils excavated and studied by paleontologists.
Broken fossils are fixed by a special glue known as PaleoBond.
How fossil’s age is determined
A fossil’s age can be determined using various ways. Relative dating is done by analyzing the layers above and below the fossil and gives an estimate of the geological period when the organism was alive. Absolute dating is done using Carbon dating and other such methods.
Who actually is the hero in “Jurassic Park”
The general people are well acquainted with the “Jurassic Period” owing to the famous movie “Jurassic Park”. Sam Neil who is an important character in the movie is actually known in the paleontology world for his discovery of nesting grounds of Maiasaura.
The missing link between reptiles and dinosaurs
An interesting discovery of paleontology is about evolution of dinosaurs was made with the discovery of the fossil of Asilisaurus. Asilisaurus formed the missing link between archosaur (reptile family) and dinosaurs.
Fossils proved that the earth was once entirely submerged
The entire earth was once covered with water – A breakthrough discovery is in fact an outcome of studying fossils. In the 6th century BC, a Greek philosopher Xenophanes argued that the some fossils found on land proved that the fossil was once present in water which signified that the dry land was once covered with water. Later in the 11th century, a Chinese Scientist Shen Kuo studied the fossils in the Taihang mountains to infer that the sea shores drifted over time.
You can tell whether the thing you are holding is a fossil or a rock by licking it. If your tongue sticks to the thing, you know that you have found a fossil.
What produced petroleum
Fossil fuels that we humans use to power our cars were created by microscopic organisms called diatoms. These organisms died in huge numbers and were buried under layers of sand and stone which caused immense pressure and led to the production of fossil fuels.
Neanderthal lived about 40,000 years ago in Eurasia. The name “Neanderthal” is derived from the Neander Valley which is now in Germany.
Of all the extinct human species, we know the most about Neanderthals because we have found thousands of their fossils and other tools used by them.