The history of life is documented by fossils through the past 3.5 billion years. We need this long-term perspective for three reasons: ancient life and environments can inform us about how the world might change in the future; extinct plants and animals make up 99% of all species that ever lived, and so we need to know about them to understand the true scope of the tree of life; and extinct organisms did amazing things that no living plant or animal can do, and we need to explore their capabilities to assess the limits of form and function.
Every week, astonishing new fossil finds are announced - a 1 ton rat, a miniature species of human, the world's largest sea scorpion, a dinosaur with feathers. You read about these in the newspapers, but where do these stray findings fit into the greater scheme of things? Studying fossils can reveal the most astonishing organisms, many of them more remarkable than the wildest dreams (or nightmares) of a science fiction writer. Indeed, paleontology reveals a seemingly endless catalog of alternative universes, landscapes and seascapes that look superficially familiar, but which contain plants that do not look quite right, animals that are very different from anything now living.
The last 40 years have seen an explosion of paleontological research, where fossil evidence is used to study larger questions, such as rates of evolution, mass extinctions, high-precision dating of sedimentary sequences, the paleobiology of dinosaurs and Cambrian arthropods, the structure of Carboniferous coal-swamp plant communities, ancient molecules, the search for oil and gas, the origin of humans, and many more. Paleontologists have benefited enormously from the growing interdisciplinary nature of their science, with major contributions from geologists, chemists, evolutionary biologists, physiologists and even geophysicists and astronomers. Many areas of study have also been helped by an increasingly quantitative approach.
There are many paleontology texts that describe the major fossil groups or give a guided tour of the history of life. Here we hope to give students a flavor of the excitement of modern paleontology. We try to present all aspects of paleontology, not just invertebrate fossils or dinosaurs, but fossil plants, trace fossils, macroevolution, paleobiogeography, biostratigraphy, mass extinctions, biodiversity through time and microfossils. Where possible, we show how paleontologists tackle controversial questions, and highlight what is known, and what is not known. This shows the activity and dynamism of modern paleobiological research. Many of these items are included in boxed features, some of them added at the last minute, to show new work in a number of categories, indicated by icons (see below for explanation).
The book is intended for first- and second-year geologists and biologists who are taking courses in paleontology or paleobiology. It should also be a clear introduction to the science for keen amateurs and others interested in current scientific evidence about the origin of life, the history of life, mass extinctions, human evolution and related topics.
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