Paleontology

Paleontology or palaeontology ( /ˌpælɪɒnˈtɒlədʒi/) is the study of prehistoric life. It includes the study of fossils to determine organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments (their paleoecology). As a "historical science" it attempts to explain causes rather than conduct experiments to observe effects. Palaeontological observations have been documented as far back as the 5th century B.C.E. The science became established in the 18th century as a result of Georges Cuvier's work on comparative anatomy, and developed rapidly in the 19th century. The term itself originates from Greek: παλαιός (palaios) meaning "old, ancient," ὄν, ὀντ- (on, ont-), meaning "being, creature" and λόγος (logos), meaning "speech, thought, study".

Palaeontology lies on the border between biology and geology, and shares with archaeology a border that is difficult to define. It now uses techniques drawn from a wide range of sciences, including biochemistry, mathematics and engineering. Use of all these techniques has enabled palaeontologists to discover much of the evolutionary history of life, almost all the way back to when Earth became capable of supporting life, about 3,800 million years ago. As knowledge has increased, paleontology has developed specialized sub-divisions, some of which focus on different types of fossil organisms while others study ecology and environmental history, such as ancient climates.

Body fossils and trace fossils are the principal types of evidence about ancient life, and geochemical evidence has helped to decipher the evolution of life before there were organisms large enough to leave fossils. Estimating the dates of these remains is essential but difficult: sometimes adjacent rock layers allow radiometric dating, which provides absolute dates that are accurate to within 0.5%, but more often palaeontologists have to rely on relative dating by solving the "jigsaw puzzles" of biostratigraphy. Classifying ancient organisms is also difficult, as many do not fit well into the Linnean taxonomy that is commonly used for classifying living organisms, and palaeontologists more often use cladistics to draw up evolutionary "family trees". The final quarter of the 20th century saw the development of molecular phylogenetics, which investigates how closely organisms are related by measuring how similar the DNA is in their genomes. Molecular phylogenetics has also been used to estimate the dates when species diverged, but there is controversy about the reliability of the molecular clock on which such estimates depend.

Read more about PaleontologyOverview, Classifying Ancient Organisms, Estimating The Dates of Organisms, Overview of The History of Life, History of Paleontology

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History of Paleontology
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Joseph T. Gregory
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