Further Reading

Condie, Kent C., and Robert sloan. Origin and Evolution of Earth, Principles of Historical Geology. upper saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1997. Moores, Eldridge M., and Robert Twiss. Tectonics. New

York: W. H. Freeman, 1995. Windley, Brian F. The Evolving Continents. 3rd ed. Chich-ester, England: John Wiley & sons, 1995.

paleontology Paleontology is the study of past life based on fossil evidence, with a focus on the lines of descent of organisms and the relationships between life and other geological phenomena. Information from fossil distributions is used to understand ancient environments and climates and to determine the boundaries of former ties between landmasses that are now separated. many paleontologists are also concerned with mechanisms of extinction and the appearance of new organisms, as well as the mode of life of organisms and their evolution. In the past, paleontology was mostly a descriptive science describing the morphology of fossils, but in recent years it has become much closer to biology, with a new science of geobiology emerging. In this approach, many biological methods are applied to the study of fossils, including cladistic methods, functional morphology, and even paleogenetic studies.

The preservation of the remains of organisms as fossils is a rare event and therefore represents unusual conditions, not necessarily representative of life at the time the organism lived. Despite this limitation, fossils are the best way to understand the past history of life on Earth. To correctly interpret the fossil record paleontologists must use statistical techniques to try to interpret the bias in the record and to understand the variations in the environment that may have led to some organisms being preserved while others were destroyed.

organisms may leave traces of their former existence in body fossils, in which the body of the organism itself is preserved or replaced with other elements and preserved in shape, or as trace fossils, in which footprints, burrows, or other vestiges of the organism's having influenced the environment are left behind in the geological record. An organism may also leave evidence of its influence through geochemical tracers that can yield clues about the life-forms and how they interacted with their environment.

The science of paleontology experienced major changes in the 1970s and 1980s. In past centuries paleontology was mostly concerned with the taxonomy and anatomy of fossils, with tremendous efforts spent on describing and classifying small details of fossil morphology. The revolution in paleontology resulted from the mixture of taxonomy with biology, to form a new field of paleobiology in which the paleontologists asked new questions, such as how much of a preservational bias is there in the geological record, and what does the fossil record reveal about evolution. Some paleontologists began investigating the causes of mass extinctions, whereas others study the interactions of plate tectonics and the development and evolution of life in the field of paleobiogeography.

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