A new power is rising…

People always under-estimate the power of the fossil record. There has always been this stigma surrounding it that it is too poor, or too biased to read ‘properly’, and is consequently of no use. I still hear this quite a bit, and there are a couple of reasons for it.

Over the last ten years or so, there has been a substantial increase in the methods we can use to interpret the fossil record, based on an increased understanding of the interaction between large fossil data sets, the geological record, and the way in which we as humans have sampled these archives. This has dramatically changed the way in which we think of, and use, the fossil record – we see its imperfections, but we also know how to compensate for them, making the fossil record a new rising power for understanding biological patterns in deep time.

However, this has not really been picked up in the media. Nor has it really been utilised by other related branches of science. Molecular systematists still hail the ‘DNA revolution’ as making the fossil record obsolete, when in fact the truth couldn’t be further away. Molecular systematists need fossils to calibrate their evolutionary trees, and make them, well, useful. DNA tells us little about extinction, and nor does it give is information on what animals of the past were actually like. Without fossils, we would know little about evolutionary rates, or the timing of origins of major groups of animals, such as those around us today.

Feathered dinosaurs are the bane of many a palaeontologist. Nine times out of ten, when asked what we do, the response is either ‘like Ross from Friends?’, or ‘Dinosaurs?’ The media are the sole perpetrators of this misconception – every time a new feathered dinosaur is found, it makes the front page headlines, when in fact scientifically, they actually tell us very little individually, and only then about a particular group of animals.

So why do these two points matter? Well, in a time of squeezed research budgets, many other fields of palaeontology that are developing mature applications that can be used in, for example, climate prediction or conservation efforts by telling us how animals respond in time to environment shifts, these are being dismissed in favour of perceived ‘news-worthy’ headlines. In fact, and scientific reality, things couldn’t be further from what we, as a field, would like.

We’d like to show people that we are doing relevant science, that their taxes are going towards something functional, something useful, and something important. Yeah, new dinosaurs are cool, but the representation that we have in popular society and the media is totally misleading. The over-sexifying of aspects of palaeontology is hurtful for our community. What needs to be communicated more are the important aspects of palaeontology, such as macroevolution, biostratigraphy, or palaoeclimatology.

So this new wave of palaeontology is actually more commonly being called palaeobiology – instead of grey-haired men sitting in labs doing taxonomy, much vigour is being pumped into new fields such as functional morphology, mass extinctions, or biomechanics. We now know more than ever thanks to new technologies, new thinking, and new methods to test questions we couldn’t even dream of asking 30 years ago.

Bringing this back to biodiversity, and the incomplete nature of the fossil record, we now know that historical trends of biodiversity are closely tracked by the availability of fossils in the geological record – we call these sampling biases. It makes sense to think that if we have more fossil-bearing rocks to sample from, we get more species, or more species’ occurrences, and in general this is what we see.

While some see this as a way to dismiss the value of the fossil record, it has, in fact, spurred on a new wave of understanding of fossils. For example, one modelling technique commonly used now creates a measure of biodiversity based on an assumed perfectly sampled record, which if we take away from an observed measure of biodiversity, we get what is called a residual diversity – the component of biodiversity which cannot be explained by sampling biases, and reflects biological patterns. This is but one of a host of methods currently being used to disentangle trends in biodiversity in deep history, and reveal much to us about the shifting dynamics of diversity, and its distinct coupling with the environment. Clearly, such discoveries are of considerable more worth, both to scientists, biologists, zoologists and conservationists in this rapidly changing world of ours.

I guess in some ways this is subjective – some might see the significance that a new dinosaur brings in terms of attention more valuable to the field, but all this does is perpetrate the misconception that palaeontologists just, well, dig dinosaurs.

This has, to a degree, reinvented the fossil wheel, and with this has its dissenters – but dissent is good, it helps us to strengthen our theories, and seek new ways to solve old problems. Palaeobiology has never been more dynamic as a field, and it’s time that we cracked out of the dinosaur-chrysalis and showed everyone what a colourful range we’ve been hiding. Of course, this involves more engagement between scientists and science reporters, which is probably something every field could ask for more of. I just know about palaeontology, and I hope this conveys why I think a paradigm shift is needed for us all.

Now witness the power of this armed and fully-analytical fossil record!