Word Wednesday: Paleontology

I’ve talked a little about paleontology before, but I think it deserves a post of its own.

paleontology

Paleontology breaks down into two parts: paleo and –ontologyPaleo comes from the Greek word palaio‘ which means ancient and ontology comes from the Latin word ‘ontologia‘ which means “metaphysical science or study of being”. Simply put, paleontology is the study of ancient life.

Paleontology is a broad and diverse field. There are vertebrate paleontologists who study ancient vertebrates, which can mean anything from the earliest fish to dinosaurs to mammoths. Then there are invertebrate paleontologists who study ancient invertebrates and paleobotanists who study ancient plants. After that, the fields get more complicated and interconnected: paleoecologists study the interactions of ancient communities, paleoclimatologists reconstruct the ancient climate, and paleoceanographers study the ancient oceans. Paleontology draws heavily from geology, biology and other physical sciences.

People frequently ask me “What’s the point of paleontology”. They don’t understand why we should study plants, animals and environments that might no longer exist today. And that’s just it: it’s important to understand the past. For a concrete example, consider global climate change. Global temperature and carbon dioxide levels have sky-rocketed in recent history. In human history, we have nothing to compare this to. That’s where paleontology comes in. During the Pliocene global temperatures and carbon dioxide levels were a little higher than today. Scientists can study those ancient plant and animal communities and use that information to predict a possible future trajectory for climate change. Simply put, the past is the key to the future.

Paleontologists and astronomers are surprisingly similar: we will probably never actually see what we study (until we go to Mars or clone a mammoth). In a sense, we’re time travelers. To be honest, sometimes learning about an ancient fossil site can feel like stepping back in time. By visiting places like The Mammoth Site and The Gray Fossil Site the average person can get an idea of what life was like millions of years ago. Just think, without paleontology we would have virtually no understanding of dinosaurs, the last Ice Age or where fossil fuels come from! There’s a reason why so many children want to be paleontologists: it appeals to a sense of curiosity and imagination.

Just for fun, here’s a song about paleontology by They Might Be Giants.

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