(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 paleontology world and its legacies
Coal balls, despite their name, are calcium-rich masses of permineralised life forms, generally having a round shape. Coal balls were formed roughly 300 million years ago, during the Carboniferous Period. They are exceptional at preserving organic matter, which makes them useful to scientists, who cut and peel the coal balls to research the geological past of the Earth.
In 1855, two English scientists, Joseph Dalton Hooker and Edward William Binney, discovered coal balls in England, and the initial research on coal balls was carried out in Europe. It was not until 1922 that coal balls were discovered and identified in North America. Since then, coal balls have been discovered in other countries and they have led to the discovery of over 300 species and 130 genera.
Coal balls can be found in coal seams across North America and Eurasia. North American coal balls are relatively widespread, both stratigraphically and geologically, as compared to coal balls from Europe. The oldest known coal balls were found in Germany and the former Czechoslovakia.
Selected article on paleontology in human science, culture and economics
The history of paleontology
traces the history of the effort to study the fossil
record left behind by ancient life forms. Although fossils had been studied by scholars since ancient times, the nature of fossils and their relationship to life in the past became better understood during the 17th and 18th centuries. At the end of the 18th century the work of Georges Cuvier
ended a long running debate about the reality of extinction
and led to the emergence of paleontology
as a scientific discipline.
The first half of the 19th century saw paleontological activity become increasingly well organized. This contributed to a rapid increase in knowledge about the history of life on Earth, and progress towards definition of the geologic time scale. As knowledge of life's history continued to improve, it became increasingly obvious that there had been some kind of successive order to the development of life. After Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, much of the focus of paleontology shifted to understanding evolutionary paths.
The last half of the 19th century saw a tremendous expansion in paleontological activity, especially in North America. The trend continued in the 20th century with additional regions of the Earth being opened to systematic fossil collection, as demonstrated by a series of important discoveries in China near the end of the 20th century. There was also a renewed interest in the Cambrian explosion that saw the development of the body plans of most animal phyla. (see more...)