Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Ask the Experts: How did paleontology start?

The study of animals' remains, both living and extinct, goes back to the beginning of human civilization itself. Several ancient cultures such as the Greeks, Chinese and Persians studied the natural world, including preserved animal remains, and made many discoveries, such as that climates and environments could change over time. However, the modern science of paleontology did not emerge until the 1800s.

Fossils themselves have been found throughout history around the world - what modern paleontology provides is the understanding of what they are and what they can tell us. What we call dinosaurs and mastodons today, ancient cultures called dragons and cyclopes, because they lacked all the basic information needed to understand their true nature.

Throughout the 19th Century, the understanding of the natural sciences in Europe became increasingly more advanced as scientists made discoveries that let them explore more and more complex questions. Scientists began putting forth ideas that would become the foundations of the modern sciences: James Hutton in Scotland put forth theories about rock formation that would lead to the understanding of geologic time; George Cuvier of France would provide conclusive evidence that animals could go extinct; and Charles Darwin would propose the idea of natural selection and adaptation. Even President Thomas Jefferson had a keen interest in paleontology and was perhaps the first vertebrate paleontologist in America, with a species of giant ground sloth named for him (Megalonyx jeffersoni, which can be seen at the Western Center).

As more and more of the pieces fell into place, the picture we understand today of the biologic and geologic history of Earth became more clear. This gave scientists the background they needed to figure out what all those dragon and cyclops bones really were. Comparisons to other animals let scientists classify fossil animals and determine their relationships with other organisms. Geology provided a timeframe for the fossil record and suggested how bones might be preserved as fossils. The ideas of extinction and evolution suggested that animals could change over time, and that not all animals that ever existed are still alive today.

The modern fossil craze that continues through today can trace its origins back to 1822, when an English doctor and paleontologist named Gideon Mantell first described a dinosaur, Iguanodon. This started a public fascination with dinosaurs that continued through the Great Exhibition of 1851, when concrete statues of dinosaurs were displayed - the first major paleontology exhibit - and the Bone Wars in America in the 1870s-1890s, when rival paleontologists O. C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope fought bitterly to see who could describe more new species of dinosaurs, discovering almost 140 between them.

From there, understanding of Earth's paleontological history became ever more thorough as more new discoveries and studies were made, leading to the level of knowledge we have today and share at the Western Center.


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