February 15, 2011

Ology of the Month: Paleontology

Well, it’s that time again. The calendar has flipped, the sun appeared, and the groundhog did not see his shadow so spring evidently is upon us, almost.* The ‘Ology of the month is once more upon us as well, get excited! This month we will delve into…wait for it….PALEONTOLOGY!

Now, before you stop reading because you assume that of all the ‘ologies you’ve got this one pegged, I’d like us all to be clear on a few things:

Paleontology is not:
  • Archaeology (the study of past cultures)
  • Indiana Jones’ profession (yep, that’s still archaeology)

  • Irrelevant to modern humans (paleontology affects you, yes, you!) Finds such as Lucy require the expertise of anthropologists, archaeologists and paleontologists to figure out the whole story
  • Only the study of dinosaurs-basically it covers ALL old, dead, plant and animal specimens
  • A sure-fire career path to sweat and sunburns—check out this link to read about the Burke’s curator Christian Sidor and his team’s latest paleontological research in ANTARCTICA

Paleontology is the study of past life forms, based on plant and animal fossils and their geological contexts.

Here to tell you more about what paleontology is and what paleontologists actually do is the Burke’s curator of vertebrate paleontology, Christian Sidor (pictured above next to Lego Indiana).

ES: How would you describe paleontology in ten words or less?
CS: It's the study of the history of life on Earth.

ES: Most people think they may know a little about what it’s like to study paleontology--what is something unusual or random that most people would not know?
CS: The fossil record consists of more than just bones.  Some of the most interesting fossils are the fossilized remains of animal behavior- like footprints, trackways, burrows, or poop-things that paleontologists call trace fossils.

ES: When you tell people you are a paleontologist, what is usually the first thing they ask or say?
CS: Like Ross? (from Friends - but that's fading now that the show is no longer on TV.)

ES: What are some common misconceptions about paleontology?
CS: The single biggest misunderstanding is between paleontology and archaeology - THEY'RE NOT THE SAME!  (ES here: again, please refer to the above diptych of Sidor vs. the Lego if this point needs any further clarification!)

ES: What’s the most interesting research project you’ve worked on this year?
CS: My students and I just got back from looking for fossils in Antarctica.  We found lots of great material from the Early and Middle Triassic - about 245 million years ago - a time when Antarctica formed part of the supercontinent Pangea and was devoid of glaciers.
Kryostega collinsoni, a Triassic amphibian discovered by Sidor on a previous expedition to Antarctica
ES: Why should reader’s care about paleontology (outside of the fact that people seem to really dig dinosaurs)? 
CS: The fossil record documents how animals and plants responded to climate change in the past, and this type of knowledge could be very important to have in the face of future changes to the Earth. 

If you would like to learn more about the paleontological work that happens at the Burke Museum, or want to meet Christian Sidor, come to the Burke on Saturday, March 5th for Dino Day! In addition to the opportunity to see real dinosaur and dinosaur-era fossils, there will be digging, dino dress-up, and drawing occurring all day!

ES: One final question, anything you want to plug for Dino Day
CS: I think the “Expeditions” theme is great and hopefully will show people that the Burke Museum is actively collecting from all over the world.

Read more about the Burke Paleontology department here.

*please note that the Burke Museum does not take a position on the relative merits or lack thereof of groundhog shadow watching as a scientifically verifiable seasonal indicator…but we really would like spring to come soon.

Posted by: Emily Sparling


Reggie Andersen said...

Not trying to open a theological can of worms here but it's interesting that some scientists nowadays do not think it simplistic to believe there was some sort of pre-existing intelligence before life first appeared on Earth. As one of the great mysteries of the fossil record is if evolution proceeded over oodles of time, we should expect to find a plethora of intermediate organisms, or links, between the major types of living things. However, the countless fossils unearthed since Darwin’s time have proved disappointing in that regard. The missing links are, well, missing.

A physical chemist with an Oregon State University doctorate, Donald E. Chittick noted: “A direct look at the fossil record would lead one to conclude that animals reproduced after their kind as Genesis states. They did not change from one kind into another. The evidence now, as in Darwin’s day, is in agreement with the Genesis record of direct creation. Animals and plants continue to reproduce after their kind. In fact, the conflict between paleontology (study of fossils) and Darwinism is so strong that some scientists are beginning to believe that the in-between forms will never be found.”

Pamela Wheat said...

I can answer your fossil mystery while staying completely away from the "can of worms" altogether.

First, it's important to understand that the fossil record is inherently "biased", in that not all dead things become fossils.

Examples: Creatures with structures like bones or exoskeletons (hard stuff) are more likely to become fossilized than soft-bodied creatures (such as worms) because the hard material doesn't rot away quickly or get eaten by other creatures.

Also, not every environment is conducive to fossilization. Fossils are generally found in places where the dead organism is protected from the ravages of elements like sun and oxygen...which is why many are found in sedimentary rock.

With these taken into consideration, there is also a population bias. Say there's a grand total of 1,000 of organism 1 on the planet, and they live in a hot, humid jungle environment. Over time, they become extinct. When they die off, the chances of even one being fossilized are MUCH smaller than organism 2, whose population numbers in the millions, and they live in areas favorable to fossilization.

So that covers the fossil record bias.

Second, and more importantly, there ARE many, many missing links of many creatures (such as the common ancestor of hippos and whales, or *fourteen* different and distinct species of "man" in varying stages of evolution between our common ape ancestor and what we see in the mirror) which have been discovered, excavated, and carefully examined by the scientific community. They have even managed to extract enough DNA from recovered Neanderthal bones to determine the *degree* of relation they were to modern man.

In short, these so-called missing "in-between forms" are abundant in the fossil record, and can be seen online, in any good biology textbook, or in person at your friendly neighborhood natural history museum.

Lastly, I know of no scientist who is well-versed in paleontology and/or Darwinism who believes the study of fossils and the theories of Darwin are incompatible (physical chemistry has nothing to do with either). Contrarily, the fossil record is one of the strongest arguments *for* accepting Darwin's theory, and is commonly used as such.

Please do avail yourself of the knowledge that currently exists regarding the formation of, and existence of, fossils (and the opinions of the scientific community) before making claims regarding same.

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