Updated: Mar 9
This is a question that long time readers of this blog will probably know by now, but if your're new here, first of all, welcome! Second of all, you may be wondering what this 'paleontology' you keep hearing of is.
Well, in a nutshell, paleontology is the study of the natural history of life on planet Earth. So yes, it's a very big subject. So much so, in fact, that many do not realise how much it encompasses and how much overlap there is with other subjects, such as geology. In this post, I will go over exactly what paleontology is, what a paleontologist actually does and what we can find out from paleontology.
What is paleontology?
Paleontology (also spelled palAeontology if you're from the UK), encompasses a lot. Here, I have broken down just a few of the key elements:
The first thing people normally think of (if it isn't Ross Geller from Friends) is a fossil. Studying physical fossils only makes up around a third of what paleontology is, with another third made up of cladistic and data-based studies on every single group of life you can name (including animals, plants and microscopic life).
The remaining 30% of study is dedicated to looking at the rock record, studying mainly the sedimentary rocks that exist. In a nutshell, sedimentary rocks are the best record we have about what has happened on the Earth's surface, since it encapsulates fossils, physical geographical features and atmospheric changes that have occurred. Even though body fossils are handy, they can seldom tell us much about the environment. It is the rocks that surround these beasties that tell us what life was actually like in the given environment. Once we know that, it makes inferring things much easier for the current fossil and also for all other people that find fossils from the same rock unit later down the line.
Supplementary study also includes literature research. Arguably, literature research actually makes up most of the work in terms of paleontological research, but only serves as giving a background knowledge for the real meat of the research (so if you're an actual research paleontologist, please don't throw things at me, I'm only talking about end results here).
While the history of life on our planet is rich and vast, there are only a finite amount of ways to skin a cat. Basically, the present is a window into the past. Many behavioural and anatomical traits draw many parallels between the past and present meaning that something seen in modern life could give us a good idea about what the deal was with extinct life. The most common example of this is something known as convergent evolution. This is were two animals that have no immediate relation evolve very similar traits for similar purposes, for example a giraffe and a Brachiosaurus. Both have long necks for (presumably) the same purpose, yet both evolved these traits independently, without inheriting it from one and other. As far as evolution is concerned, you shouldn't re-invent the wheel, so a trait you see in an extinct organism may look similar to what we see existing today, meaning it may have served the same purpose.
This is possibly the shortest blog post in the history of mankind, but the question 'what is paleontology' can be summed up very quickly as 'the study of past life'. Given this broad definition, many people would like to know more, which requires a much more in-depth explanation.
Read more: A history of paleontology