Dinosaurs as an Example of Scientific Inquiry

The main purpose of this book is to introduce the study of dinosaurs as a scientific endeavor. What is and is not science is a major theme of this book, and the study of dinosaurs is an appropriate way to show how scientific methods are applied to real-world situations (Chapter 2). Because dinosaurs have been studied through scientific methods since at least the early part of the nineteenth century (Chapter 3), many examples are given of how these methods increased knowledge of dinosaurs. Furthermore, subjects in the various chapters are covered to provide a sense of the historical continuity of the science. Science, by design, is always changing and updating itself, and the nearly unprecedented new discoveries and subsequent insights about dinosaurs, in just the past 30 years, have provided an exhilarating example of this dynamism. In fact, research on dinosaurs published in only the four years since the first edition of this book necessitated some major revisions for this second edition (e.g., Chapters 8, 9, and 15).

Although the study of dinosaurs is interesting and fun, it is not easy. Those who think that reading this book and maybe a few other references will be adequate preparation for "going on a dig" and discovering new dinosaur species are probably being overly romantic and naïve. For example, people who are interested in serious study of dinosaurs may need to, at various times, apply geology, biology, chemistry, physics, math, or computer science. All of these fields (and more) are not only used but are necessary in order to make any meaningful sense out of the fossil record. An integrative use of these sciences can help in gaining an appreciation for application through a common theme of dinosaurs, as well as reaching a better understanding of the eclectic and integrative nature of science in general.

The best-known sciences connected to dinosaur studies are geology and biology, which are sometimes united through paleontology, the study of ancient life. In fact, many paleontologists who study dinosaurs also call themselves geologists, whereas others were trained as biologists. As a result, distinctions between these two seemingly separate fields are sometimes blurred. Paleontology is studied mostly through the examination of fossils, any evidence of ancient life, which can consist of body fossils or trace fossils. A body fossil is any evidence of ancient life as represented by preserved body parts, such as shells, bones, eggs, or skin impressions. In contrast, a trace fossil is any evidence of ancient life other than body parts that reflects behavior by the animal while it was still alive, such as tracks, nests, or toothmarks. How fossils are preserved in the geologic record is the science of taphonomy, important when appraising any dinosaur body fossil or trace fossil (Chapter 7).

Many paleontologists have considerable knowledge of biological principles or perform experiments and field study of modern organisms to gain better insights into their long-dead subjects. Paleontologists tend to study a specific group of organisms and some of the most common subdivisions are:

1 invertebrate paleontology, the study of fossil animals without backbones, such as insects;

2 vertebrate paleontology, the study of fossil animals with backbones;

3 micropaleontology, the study of fossil one-celled organisms and other microscopic fossils; and

4 paleobotany, the study of fossil plants.

With these categories in mind, dinosaur paleontologists will often call themselves vertebrate paleontologists. Nevertheless, not all vertebrate paleontologists are dinosaur specialists - some study fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals.

For a paleontologist, a more complete understanding of organisms, fossil or living, can be gained by studying them in the context of their environments, which includes all biological, chemical, and physical factors, such as other organisms, nutrients, and sunlight. The study of organisms and their interactions with environments is ecology. Ecologists specifically examine a group of organisms as an ecological community that interacts with a habitat, called an ecosystem. The equivalent practiced by

LE 1.2 Commonly encountered elements and compounds in geology, with their chemical symbols and formulas.

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