(from Greek: παλαιό (palaio)
, "old, ancient"; όν (on)
, "being"; and logos
, "speech, thought") is the study of prehistoric
life forms on Earth through the examination of fossils
. This includes the study of body fossils
, tracks (ichnites
, cast-off parts, fossilised faeces
and chemical residues.
Modern paleontology sets ancient life in its context by studying how long-term physical changes of global geography paleogeography and climate paleoclimate have affected the evolution of life, how ecosystems have responded to these changes and have adapted the planetary environment in turn and how these mutual responses have affected today's patterns of biodiversity. Hence, paleontology overlaps with geology (the study of rocks and rock formations) as well as with botany, biology, zoology and ecology – fields concerned with life forms and how they interact.
The major subdivisions of paleontology include paleozoology (animals), paleobotany (plants) and micropaleontology (microfossils). Paleozoologists may specialise in invertebrate paleontology, which deals with animals without backbones or in vertebrate paleontology, dealing with fossils of animals with backbones, including fossil hominids (paleoanthropology). Micropaleontologists study microscopic fossils, including organic-walled microfossils whose study is called palynology.
There are many developing specialties such as paleobiology, paleoecology, ichnology (the study of tracks and burrows) and taphonomy (the study of what happens to organisms after they expire). Major areas of study include the correlation of rock strata with their geologic ages and the study of evolution of lifeforms.
Selected article on the prehistoric world and its legacies
is a fossil primate
that lived in Myanmar
approximately 37 million years ago, during the late middle Eocene
. The only species
in the genus Afrasia
, it was a small primate
, estimated to weigh around 100 grams (3.5 oz). Despite the significant geographic distance between them, Afrasia
is thought to be closely related to Afrotarsius
, an enigmatic fossil
found in Libya
that dates to 38–39 million years ago. If this relationship is correct, it suggests that early simians
(a related group or clade
consisting of monkeys
, and humans
from Asia to Africa during the middle Eocene and would add further support to the hypothesis that the first simians evolved in Asia, not Africa. Neither Afrasia
, which together form the family Afrotarsiidae
, is considered ancestral to living simians, but they are part of a side branch or stem group
known as eosimiiforms
Afrasia is known from four isolated molar teeth found in the Pondaung Formation of Myanmar. These teeth are similar to those of Afrotarsius and Eosimiidae, and differ only in details of the chewing surface. For example, the back part of the third lower molar is relatively well-developed. In the Pondaung Formation, Afrasia was part of a diverse primate community that also includes the eosimiid Bahinia and members of the families Amphipithecidae and Sivaladapidae. (see more...)
Selected article on paleontology in human science, culture and economics
On the Origin of Species
, published in 1859, is a work of scientific literature
by Charles Darwin
which is considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology
. Darwin's book introduced the scientific theory
that populations evolve
over the course of generations through a process of natural selection
. It presented a body of evidence that the diversity of life
arose by common descent
through a branching pattern of evolution
. Darwin included evidence that he had gathered on the Beagle expedition
in the 1830s and his subsequent research findings. Ideas about the transmutation of species
were controversial as they conflicted with beliefs that species were unchanging parts of a designed hierarchy and that humans were unique and unlike animals.
The book was written for non-specialist readers and attracted widespread interest upon its publication. As Darwin was an eminent scientist, his findings were taken seriously and the evidence he presented generated scientific, philosophical, and religious discussion. Within two decades there was widespread scientific agreement that evolution, with a branching pattern of common descent, had occurred, but scientists were slow to give natural selection the significance that Darwin thought appropriate. During the "eclipse of Darwinism" from the 1880s to the 1930s, various other mechanisms of evolution were given more credit. With the development of the modern evolutionary synthesis in the 1930s and 1940s, Darwin's concept of evolutionary adaptation through natural selection became central to modern evolutionary theory, and it has now become the unifying concept of the life sciences. (see more...)
Various Late Devonian placoderms The gigantic predatory arthrodire Dunkleosteus telleri prepares to seize its smaller cousin, Gorgonichthys clarki, while a school of Ctenurella gladbachensis ptyctodonts swim by. The ptyctodonts Rhynchodus major (above D. telleri's head) and Ptyctodus compressus (below) linger around for scraps. A pair of antiarchs, Asterolepis ornata, scatter.
Photo credit: Stanton F. Fink
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