How can the dead help the living? This is a question a lot of fossil-fanatics have bent a lot of time towards over recent years, partially due to a desire to make palaeontology ‘relevant’ as a modern science, and secondly to help guide our efforts in conservation biology. A new series, edited by my supervisor Dr. Phil Mannion and others, focusses on the way we interpret palaeobiodiversity, biodiversity in the fossil record, for different groups and the issues and solutions facing the field. The final article in the volume struck me in particular.
How can fossils help us to protect these now and in the future? Source.
There’s nothing quite like seeing something in the field. I came to this realisation about half way through my Masters course. When I started, I was a fully-fledged Geoscientist and taking on biological knowledge would have been an immense challenge if it hadn’t been for the engaging, rapid-fire seminars given by Dr Rob Hughes. He was responsible for the series of lectures dubbed the ‘rampage through the phyla’ – a crash course in invertebrate taxonomy, morphology and ecology. Many a lecture was spent sketching the characteristics of a particular family with the urgency of a Pictionary player under pressure, which is how this came about:
Among the many issues with the fossil record is the case of gender identification. In modern organisms, it is usually pretty easy to tell which members of a particular species are the males and which are the females. This can either be through consistently perving on them to figure it out during copulation, or some aspect of their morphology, such as antlers, or you know, a penis or vagina. When it comes to fossil though, we often don’t find these typical gender-distinctive aspects of morphology preserved, as they are usually lost in one form or another to the ravages of time and the process of fossilisation.
I normally really don’t like writing about theropods, especially of the feathered variety, as it just seems like I’m jumping on the bandwagon that they were awesome and every aspect of them needs extensive media coverage. Ok, yeah, they can be pretty cool. But only, for me, in the context of the larger evolutionary patterns that they can reveal to us, such as the evolution of feathers and flight. Each new fossil doesn’t exactly transform our knowledge of this, but they do help us to refine our theories to a certain extent; whether or not that’s worthy of excessive media coverage and Nature publications, is not my judgement to make (no, it’s not).