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Why Paleontology Is Relevant

In these times of budget cuts and belt-tightening, you might wonder why our government,  universities, and museums should fund paleontological research. After all, there are bridges to repair, children to educate, and fires to put out. Few would disagree the latter problems all deserve our attention and our tax dollars. But what about paleontology?

When trimming budgetary fat, why isn’t paleontology something that falls clearly in the “non-essential” column? Is it even relevant to today’s world? Does it provide value to other scientific fields? Professional paleontologists understand why our field is relevant and can articulate that to an academic audience, but I don’t know how well we communicate its value to the public. These are the five “public-friendly” justifications I hear most often:

  • “Paleontologists teach anatomy at many medical schools.”
  • “Fossils play an important role in oil discovery.”
  • “Paleontology is a good ‘gateway drug’ to the other sciences.”
  • “Paleontology is a good way to teach critical thinking skills.”
  • “Paleontology is inherently interesting; it doesn’t need further justification.”

These responses are pretty abysmal, in my opinion. Yes, they’re all true, but I personally wouldn’t blame the government, university, or natural history museum who instantly defunded paleontological science based on any of them.

I didn't go to medical school to be called MISTER T, buddy.
I pity the fool who didn’t learn  anatomy from a paleontologist.
Image accessed here.

I think there is a better way to articulate the importance of paleontology, one that focuses on its scientific necessity and directly links our field to today’s world:

Paleontology is the study of the history of life. Because that history is written in the fossil and geological record, paleontology allows us to place living organisms in both evolutionary (life-historical) and geological (earth-historical) context. It is this contextual background that allows us to interpret the significance of characteristics of living organisms, and the significance of biological events occurring today.

The benefits of having such context are not limited to:

  • Determining the evolutionary identity of living and past organisms
  • Determining cause-and-effect relationships (How do things actually change under x, y, z conditions? )
  • Gaining predictive power with regards to rare events that have been experienced in the past, and may be experienced again in the future
  • Understanding the relative magnitude of changes happening in today’s world

These are above and beyond any of the fringe benefits that paleontology also facilitates (“gateway science”, critical thinking skills, anatomy instructors, it’s inherently cool, etc.).

And tonight Mr. Kite is topping the bill
You *might* think my feathers originally evolved to enable flight, if all my non-flying dino-ancestors didn’t have them too.
Image (c) 2006 Thomas Kraft CC BY-SA 2.5; accessed on Wikipedia.

Now, I’m not arguing that you can’t figure out some of these things without paleontology. We use many lines of evidence in addition to the fossil record of anatomy to determine the evolutionary identity and relationships of organisms, including DNA and developmental sequences, which often aren’t preserved in fossils (but sometimes are!). You can infer the evolutionary history of some body parts or characteristics when you the understand relationships among organisms, and you can often test function of individual body parts directly. But in all these cases, your data are improved by observing the direct record of change through time that only the fossil record provides.

The fossil record is the only source of natural (as opposed to experimental or theoretical) examples of what happens to living organisms under conditions the Earth is not experiencing today. For example, let’s say you want to know what happens to animals when the Earth gets much hotter – maybe five or seven degrees warmer than today’s average annual temperature. The last time this happened was during the Miocene (~14.8 million years ago), but it’s been that hot several times in Earth’s history. The fossil record shows that temperature increases have similar effects every time they happen. For example, warm-adapted animals expand their range north- and southward from tropical regions, so animals like crocodylians and monitor lizards live happily in places like Canada and Europe (Böhme 2003). Ectotherms get much, much bigger (think 42-foot snakes; Head et al. 2009).

Because these changes happen when temperatures go up and the reverse happens when temps go down, we can infer a cause-and-effect relationship between global temperature and various aspects of animal biology based on actual evidence. It happened before. It will happen again, if conditions are right. This is why paleontology is critical for predicting the effects of climate change at several scales.

Canadian croc
An expat from the Miocene.
Image accessed here.

In cases where you want to understand the magnitude of current change, the fossil record is again your only source of context. For example, many vertebrate species have gone extinct in the last 500 years. Some of these extinctions resulted from habitat loss (e.g., the dodo) or overhunting (the dodo and the moa), some indirectly from climate change, and some from disease (chytrid fungus in amphibians, or white-nose fungus in bats). Many, many more species are threatened with extinction (“critically endangered” means they’re not likely to last long, folks). If all of these species do go extinct in the next century, how bad would that be? Are we experiencing normal levels of extinction, or are we experiencing a mass extinction? The answer requires knowing what the normal rates are, and how mass extinctions are different. That understanding can only come from the fossil record.

To answer the above question, in 2011, Anthony Barnosky and colleagues published a study in Nature that compared the modern rates of extinction to those during the “Big Five” mass extinctions (times where 75% of the world’s species went extinct in a short amount of time). They determined that if only the species we consider critically-endangered go extinct over the next 100 years, at that rate would mean it would take 890-2270 years to reach 75% extinction (mass extinction levels). If, however, all the species we consider “threatened” also go extinct, we’ll hit that point within 540 years. Both of these are blinks of an eye in geological terms (faster than the end-Cretaceous extinction that wiped out the non-bird dinosaurs), but over two hundred years or two millenia we might be able to reverse some of these trends. They also showed the duration required to get to 75% is longer than the duration of some (though not all) of the “Big Five” extinctions. Some good news: we’re not experiencing mass-extinction level rates right now.

Extinction rates for different types of animals. White numbers: % of species in each group that went extinct in the last 500 years. Black numbers: % of threatened species, plus those that have gone extinct in the wild. Asterisks indicate groups with data for only a few species.
Image from: Barnosky et al. (2011), Nature.

I think if we were asked why studying American history or world history is important, we could make all of these same arguments and come up with a similar list of benefits. In fact, The American Historical Association did just that. This parallel between the relevance of life’s history and the relevance of our cultural history is a good one. When paleontology is reduced to cataloging the weird things that once were, it instantly becomes as irrelevant to our own time as cultural or political history would be, if it were reduced to a list of things that once happened.


Barnosky AD, et al. 2011. Nature 471: 51-57.

Böhme M. 2003. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 195: 389-401.

Head JJ, et al. 2009. Nature 457: 715-717.

  1. Hey Sarah, neat article. I have one question though, and it’s sort of the elephant in the room I think when it comes to Palaeontology.

    These trends, these patterns and processes that we can observe in the fossil record, to what extent are they reconcilable with future events that will be operating on a time-scale that is not preserved in the fossil record. You quote that in 540 years we could hit the 75% mass extinction threshold (which is totally arbitrary btw, and doesn’t consider ecosystem functionality or what isn’t preserved in the fossil record) if all threatened species go kaput. If we want to do anything more than measure this magnitude, as in mitigate it or understand the internal dynamics of extinction, we can’t consult the fossil record which (e.g., using the PalaeoDB) will only give you a maximum resolution of about 1 million years, not accounting for error margins. If we scale these, it’s reduction (or expansion) on 4-5 orders of magnitude, so the uncertainty cripples any correspondences we can make between the two temporal resolutions.

    Do you see any way of resolving this temporal issue, which everyone seems to acknowledge as a fundamental flaw in ‘making Palaeontology relevant’, but hasn’t been rigorously addressed as of yet (apart from a few points in Barnosky’s paper, which is totally awesome).


  2. Very useful article, especially as at the moment I know several universities and museum that are culling their palaeontology staff, partly because ”what happened millions of years ago is interesting, but it’s not going to influence the government’s current thinking,” – arguments such as yours show how wrong this thinking is, especially when it comes to understanding the historically unprecedented climate change.
    I would also add the necessity of the well-dated fossil record to calibrate genetic clocks.

  3. Hi Jon, Thanks for the comment.

    The temporal resolution of the fossil record is much finer than a million years in many cases (for example, the error bars on the end-Cretaceous impact are down to 37,000 years), and it is improving both steadily and rapidly as radiometric dating techniques advance. The closer you get to the modern record, the better that resolution becomes, so I think the answer to your question depends a lot on what time period in the fossil record you’re talking about.

    Even beyond the finer resolution provided in more recent fossil collections, the timing of the “Big Five” is a hot research topic right now exactly because of climate change concerns. Work by Rolanmd Mundil and colleagues on the end-Permian, work by Paul Olsen and colleagues on the end-Triassic, and work by Paul Renne and colleagues on the end-Cretaceous have greatly improved our understanding of the temporal scale, and how well they line up with events in Earth history. Furthermore, new research by paleoclimatologists and geochemists (e.g., Jessica Whiteside) suggests that we can use isotopes in combination with radiometric dates to figure out Malankovitch cycles in the fossil record, which gives us very fine resolution (11,000 years, even). Once you’re within an order of magnitude of the scales we’re talking about for today’s changes, I think you can make very sound statements about pace of change the fossil record.

    The whole point of the Barnosky paper was to do a better job of trying to take into account the differences among dataset – differences in types of taxa compared, regionality of the data reporting, temporal scale, etc. I think they did the best job to date trying to reconcile these different aspects. While the 540 or 2270 year estimates are not likely to be perfectly accurate, I think we’re closer to comparability than before. So while I am a little nervous about some aspects of comparing the fossil and modern records, the temporal issue concerns me much less than the comparability of fossil species and extant species (I think they’re not really comparable). Barnosky and colleagues do comment on that, but it is the weakest part of their paper.

    The PBDB is a whole different ballgame, probably worth its own blog post. I haven’t made up my mind about its utility. It’s certainly the best database we have for diversity dynamics through time, but here are a lot of biases and a lot of holes in the data. It works better for some taxa and some time periods than others, and I don’t think it’s always apparent where those biases lie.

    So, short answer: temporal resolution in the fossil record isn’t ideal, but getting better.

  4. Thanks for this comment Sarah – it’s gone some way back towards reassuring me of the value of macroevo using the fossil record. Totally agree with you on resolution increasing the younger the fauna/rocks are – there’s some awesome stuff coming out the Pleistocene with real value I think for modern issues.

    I’m still a little unconvinced though that we’ll ever have sufficient resolution to make predictions about modern organisms/environments in terms of pace and time scale. This is still happening on a decadal scale or finer in some cases, and we just can’t track that kind of detail in the past records. It’s good to hear that things are getting better, but there are limits to just how good that can get. Rocks can only tell us so much 😉 (heresy!)

    I think a lot of my angst was aimed at the Mesozoic, and I guess the Palaeozoic but I know the material less well for that era.

    I agree again with the concepts of functional comparability between past and present. Again, I think resolution and ecological/environmental selectivity correspondences are putative associations at best most of the time in the FR, when you get stuck into the detail anyway.

    The PBDB, ahh. I’m working on that atm as the core of my PhD (hence the concern about all of this stuff, and also that it’s used really widely). Plenty to be done. It would be a totally awesome PhD project just to do ‘reconciling the past with the present – limitations and solutions’, or something. Would really strengthen the ‘applied’ role of Palaeo.

    Nonetheless, I also think that irrespective of these shortcomings and potential unresolvable issues, the real value of Palaeo lies in what we do with the science outside of science too. I’m stalwart in the statement that no science has as much love in the public domain (including education) than Palaeo, and think this is something we can all continue to be heavily involved and and proud of. I think this makes up tenfold for the potential lack of ‘applicability’ that some aspects of Palaeo might be short of.

    Cheers again for the comments – I think Palaeontologists need to be having these discussions in a public domain more often 🙂

    P.s. Tenontosaurus is totally the coolest dinosaur ever

  5. In the comments section of one of my previous posts, I mentioned that we don’t know the modern record as well as we think we do. The number of new amphibians has exploded in the last few years – 3000 in the last 25 years! And many, many new species every year by exploring new places and and identifying cryptic taxa (species that look the same to humans but are clearly genetically divergent) . However, even with all the undescribed diversity we know must be out there, we also know that amphibians are especially threatened by climate change and chytrid fungus right now, and that their numbers are declining. So it’s more difficult to tell what the effect of extinction is right now, at least for some groups.

    I’m not sure how to reconcile this with the fossil record – just pointing out that we don’t even know the pattern of current diversity for some groups, complicating things further. We have to make the best estimates for modern and past diversity and then refine and refine again as new data and new analytic tools become available.

  6. Yep, agree 100%. I find it ironically depressing when ‘neontologists’ or whatever say that the fossil record is useless for this sort of analysis for being too biased, then their own sampling is so horrific that it practically defies science. *glares at molecular systematists*

    I wrote about some of this stuff the other day for Things We Don’t Know Yet. (if you have 5 mins) http://blog.thingswedontknow.com/2013/02/mass-extinction.html

    I think your last sentence highlights the future direction we need to take for Palaeontology.

  7. What in the world is a photo of “Mr. T” doing publicizing this article? Dumbing down and trivializing paleontology, that’s what. A little professionalism is called for here, and this was a bad choice, depicting an ancient media magnet from the last century that few readers will even recognize.

  8. Don’t be so rude. Read the caption and maybe you’ll understand why it was included. People have many ways of getting points across. Your opinion does not give validate your insults. Take your snark away from constructive discussion please.


  9. Jon, I disagree that molecular sampling is so “horrific it practically defies science” (although I recognize you were exaggerating for effect). It’s the same problem we deal with in pale0 – leaps and bounds made when large blocks of new data become available, whether by discovery of new critters, advances in methods, or reductions in cost. When I started my PhD, I couldn’t make or edit gigapixel images. There wasn’t a way to get enough RAM to stitch 500 images together, and every major piece of imaging software had 30,000 pxl (or less) dimension limits. Today, I regularly create jpgs that are 50,000 pixels in both dimensions.

    For molecular systematics, we’re just now getting to the age where it’s cost-effective to sample large numbers of specimens. We’re also only recently gotten to the point where computers could handle huge sample numbers – I remember computers hanging on analyses of 400 species not but five years ago (because each additional taxon produces many more new possible combinations of relationships). Then you get 64bit machines (that can handle much more RAM) and all of a sudden you can run a dataset of nearly 3000 species (e.g., the newest analysis of amphibian relationships).

    Perhaps this is because only recently have I become so painfully aware of how hard it is to get even, say, 7 genes’ worth of data from (hypothetically) just 104 samples of …I don’t know… sunbeam snakes using traditional [Sanger] sequencing methods (more on that later, maybe). Ten years ago, I could not have done that type of sampling on $1000 or less, but last year I did. In ten years we’ll be able to run genomic comparisons from my sample set. It’s not really fair to blame people when computers, money, and sample availability (harder than it sounds! Formalin-preserved specimens are really hard to get DNA out of, because formalin ties DNA up in little knots) were significantly limiting factors. And still are.

  10. Hi Sarah,

    Yeah, I acknowledge all of this! I totally should have been more specific, as I meant with respect to temporal taxonomic sampling. The issue I meant isn’t that enough extant taxa are being sampled nowadays, it’s just that that’s all that’s sampled by molecular systematists, and thereby ignores the >99% of life that’s already been and gone on this planet. Bit of an issue when it comes to reconstructing evolutionary histories!

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