There are more active, professional paleontologists working today than ever before in the history of the discipline, and the insights derived from the field have become particularly important, not just in the field of evolutionary biology, but also as they relate to climate science. Yet, paleontology is today at a cross-roads, with new skill sets required that would have been utterly foreign to paleontologists of a generation ago.
In evolutionary biology, it has become very clear, thanks to the work of scientists like Jacques Gauthier, that the present-day biota does not give us a complete enough picture of the past record of evolution. Deeper insights are afforded by the fossil record; indeed, how would we ever know that birds are dinosaurs if we only knew the living representatives of Dinosauria?
Yet, modern evolutionary biology has acquired powerful new tools for unraveling the course of evolution, including: (a) molecular evolution, in which the molecular difference between two organisms is measured to determine how distantly or closely they are related (see Box 11.1); (b) evolution and development (or evo-devo), in which sophisticated genetic and embryological studies are revealing the way the organisms evolve new features and produce diversity; and (c) molecular clocks, in which the rate of molecular evolution can be used to date the time that two living organisms first diverged from a single (long-extinct) ancestor (see Box 11.1). In each of these cases, deep insights into the fossil record are necessary to understand and interpret the results. So paleontology's contributions continue to be on the forefront; yet, modern paleontologists need a far greater sophistication and specialized training - more than was ever even imagined by the old timers - in the biosciences generally and in molecular genetics and embryology in particular.
Paleontologists, too, have much to offer the world about global climate change. The Earth, of course, has gone through many episodes of global warming associated with greenhouse conditions, not the least of which was, as we've seen, during the mid Cretaceous. What
6. Clemens, W. A., Jr, Archibald, J. D. and Hickey, L. J. 1981. "Out with a whimper not a bang." Paleobiology, 7, 297-298.
7. See Powell, J. L. 1998. Night Comes to the Cretaceous. W.H. Freeman and Company, New York, 250pp.
was that world like? More importantly, how did the biota respond to that climate? Since the Earth has experimented with greenhouse conditions in the past, it behooves us to consider how it and its biota responded to these events - information that may give us insights about what we may expect in the future. In this case, advanced expertise in geochemistry and climate modeling could serve as an important part of the toolkit of future paleontologists.
It's true that the days of pulling dinosaurs from the ground with no thought about their implications have probably passed. But in a way, the questions are more interesting, and the stakes far greater. It's a brave, new, and exciting world out there.
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