“The fossil hunter does not kill, he resurrects. And the results of this sport is to add to the sum of human pleasure and to the treasures of human knowledge.”
George Gaylord Simpson
(1902 – 1984)
The study of the fossil record is known as Paleontology. Understanding ancient organisms may not seem useful in pragmatic Singapore at first sight, yet on closer inspection educators will find Paleontology to be an immensely useful field to help make numerous fields come alive.
1. Beginnings of Life. Apart from the sheer wonder of beholding the morphology of giant creatures from millions of years ago from studying their fossil remains, fossils teach us about the beginnings and transformations of life itself. For instance, the fossil record shows us traces of the first bacterial life on Earth among the stromatolites in Western Australia, vividly illustrate the first ‘explosion’ of numerous forms of fauna in the Cambrian period, show us how lifeforms grew without limits from the Jurassic to the Cretaceous and even in the Pleistocene period (among megafauna), and bring to life the journey of our tiny mammalian ancestors.
2. Ecosytems. Fossils help us understand the environment where extinct lifeforms once existed. For example, the coral, brachiopod, cephalopod or echinoderm fossils found with a particular species indicate that they could only have lived in shallow brackish waters where sunlight can reach the corals, as do the presence of small fish fossils that indicate that they were juveniles and just as likely to have thrived near the shore. Similarly, mass mortality plates of fish fossils that show no signs of rotting may indicate that they might have been inhabiting a lake that was frozen over. Likewise, the presence of fleas indicate that mammals had been in the vicinity.
Fossil taxonomy or classifications help us to understand how closely various lifeforms were interrelated, the sheer diversity of various ecosystems, the climate their hunting, feeding, nesting, locomotion speed, and travelling habits, means of digestion, energy requirements and metabolisms, their respiration, locomotion, timing and causes of extinction. For instance, we can tell that the dinosaurs were a particularly well-designed species simply from the hundreds of millions of years that they ruled the planet, compared to the thousands of years that Man has been the dominant species.
3. Human origins. Paleo-anthropologists study hominid fossils to understand the beginnings of human life, from the tools our ancestors used, the food they ate, their physical adaptations, to their social behavior and migration patterns.
4. Geology. Fossils are used to illustrate earth processes. For instance, fossils of the freshwater reptile Mesosaurus and land reptile Cynognathus are both found in South America and Africa strata of the same age, and indicate to geologists that these two continents used to be one and evidence plate tectonic shifts. The presence of trilobite fossils in the Highlands of Scotland are also proof of how plate tectonics involved uplifts of land masses that pushed up the ocean floor to become mountainous ranges.
5. Climate studies. Fossils allow paleontologists to reconstruct ancient environments by studying features preserved in the rocks – such as roots, soil horizons, or stream deposits – and by comparing them with features known in modern sediments and modern environments. For instance, the presence of marine fossils has taught us that warm shallow seas once covered much of the inland United States, just as the presence of fossilized swamp plants in polar rocks indicate that the North and South Poles once featured tropical climates!
6. Earth’s age. All living organisms inhabited the Earth only during certain time intervals and are reflected in the fossil record in sequence according to each layer of rock sediment. Index fossils such as trilobites and ammonites, which are readily-preserved, widespread, easily-recognized, and rapidly-evolving – and thus discernable – are used as markers of relative geological age. Biostratigraphy, or the study of relative time periods of fossils, is of vital economic relevance as they aid geologists in dating rock and are useful indicators that organic fuel deposits are present in exploratory oil drilling.
7. Our past and future. The study of fossils also leads to discoveries and understanding of Earth’s processes which can benefit mankind. Study of the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event led to the hypothesis that a large asteroid hit the Earth, and astronomers resultantly searching for and seeking ways to avoid possible impact asteroids that could destroy humanity in our future.
8. The rigor of science. Paleontology allows us to trace the root causes of how ancient perceptions shaped cultural beliefs, ranging from how numerous civilizations believed in dragons, devils, giants, to how ancient sailors reported sea monsters and giant fish. Paleontology provides us with hard tools, frameworks, and specimens to physically test our conjectures and perceptions, confirm or disprove hypotheses put up by other scholars, provide a ‘time machine’ into the past to discover lifeforms and behaviors that have never been observed before, and push the boundaries of our understanding of the world.