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.
The origin of bird flight is one of the greatest stories evolution has ever told us in the history of life on this planet. To imagine how organisms that once ran around on the ground have descendants that soar through the skies is truly phenomenal, and represents a truly great leap in increasing the awesomeness of these animals. The secret of how it came about though is hidden away in the fossil record, with the mysterious tale ever-shifting as our understanding of early birds and feather precursors evolved.
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).
The fossil record is brutally frustrating; it mostly preserves only vestiges of deaths long past as body fossils, with occasional glimpses of life being gleaned from their surroundings and any trace fossils, or activity fossils that we might find. One question palaeontologists have long been seeking the answer for is how good were dinosaurs as parents? Modern birds are descended from dinosaurs, and are pretty awesome parents in their nesting, brooding, and raising of their chicks from birth until they can quite literally fly the nest. But birds are the only extant group of dinosaurs out of three major lineages.
Partial skeleton of an oviraptorid dinosaur brooding over a nest of eggs. Source.