Portal:Paleontology
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Portal:Paleontology

The Paleontology Portal

A paleontologist at work at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Paleontology, also spelled palaeontology or palæontology , is the scientific study of life that existed prior to, and sometimes including, the start of the Holocene Epoch (roughly 11,700 years before present). It includes the study of fossils to classify organisms and study interactions with each other and their environments (their paleoecology). Paleontological observations have been documented as far back as the 5th century BCE. The science became established in the 18th century as a result of Georges Cuvier's work on comparative anatomy, and developed rapidly in the 19th century. The term itself originates from Greek ?, palaios, "old, ancient", , on (gen. ontos), "being, creature", and , logos, "speech, thought, study".

Paleontology lies on the border between biology and geology, but differs from archaeology in that it excludes the study of anatomically modern humans. It now uses techniques drawn from a wide range of sciences, including biochemistry, mathematics, and engineering. Use of all these techniques has enabled paleontologists to discover much of the evolutionary history of life, almost all the way back to when Earth became capable of supporting life, about 3.8 billion years ago. As knowledge has increased, paleontology has developed specialised sub-divisions, some of which focus on different types of fossil organisms while others study ecology and environmental history, such as ancient climates.

Body fossils and trace fossils are the principal types of evidence about ancient life, and geochemical evidence has helped to decipher the evolution of life before there were organisms large enough to leave body fossils. Estimating the dates of these remains is essential but difficult: sometimes adjacent rock layers allow radiometric dating, which provides absolute dates that are accurate to within 0.5%, but more often paleontologists have to rely on relative dating by solving the "jigsaw puzzles" of biostratigraphy (arrangement of rock layers from youngest to oldest). Classifying ancient organisms is also difficult, as many do not fit well into the Linnaean taxonomy classifying living organisms, and paleontologists more often use cladistics to draw up evolutionary "family trees". The final quarter of the 20th century saw the development of molecular phylogenetics, which investigates how closely organisms are related by measuring the similarity of the DNA in their genomes. Molecular phylogenetics has also been used to estimate the dates when species diverged, but there is controversy about the reliability of the molecular clock on which such estimates depend.

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Specifiers for Dinosauria.
Dinosaurs are a diverse group of animals that first appeared during the Triassic period, 231.4 million years ago, and were the dominant terrestrial vertebrates for 135 million years, from the beginning of the Jurassic until the end of the Cretaceous (66 million years ago), when the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event led to the extinction of most dinosaur groups. The fossil record indicates that birds evolved from theropod dinosaurs and, consequently, they are considered a subgroup of dinosaurs by many paleontologists. Some birds survived the extinction event and their descendants continue the dinosaur lineage to the present day.

Using fossil evidence, paleontologists have identified over 500 distinct genera of non-avian dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are represented on every continent. Some are herbivorous, others carnivorous. While dinosaurs were ancestrally bipedal, many extinct groups included quadrupedal species. Elaborate display structures such as horns or crests are common to all dinosaur groups, and some extinct groups developed skeletal modifications such as bony armor and spines. Evidence suggests that egg laying and nest building are additional traits shared by all dinosaurs. While modern birds are generally small due to the constraints of flight, many prehistoric dinosaurs were large-bodied--the largest sauropod dinosaurs may have achieved lengths of 58 meters (190 feet). Many dinosaurs were quite small: Xixianykus, for example, was only about 50 cm (20 in) long. (see more...)

Selected article on paleontology in human science, culture and economics

Photograph of Charles Darwin.
Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 - 19 April 1882) was an English naturalist and geologist, best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and in a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection, in which the struggle for existence has a similar effect to the artificial selection involved in selective breeding.

His five-year voyage on HMS Beagle established him as an eminent geologist whose observations and theories supported Charles Lyell's uniformitarian ideas. Darwin later published his theory of evolution with compelling evidence in his 1859 book On the Origin of Species, overcoming scientific rejection of earlier concepts of transmutation of species. By the 1870s the scientific community and much of the general public had accepted evolution as a fact. However, many favoured competing explanations and it was not until the emergence of the modern evolutionary synthesis from the 1930s to the 1950s that a broad consensus developed in which natural selection was the basic mechanism of evolution. In modified form, Darwin's scientific discovery is the unifying theory of the life sciences, explaining the diversity of life.

In recognition of Darwin's pre-eminence as a scientist, he was honoured with a major ceremonial funeral and buried in Westminster Abbey, close to John Herschel and Isaac Newton. Darwin has been described as one of the most influential figures in human history. (see more...)

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An illustration of a fossil horn coral by William Martin
An illustration of a fossil of Prodryas persephone

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Copal from Madagascar bearing various fossil inclusions.

Copal from Madagascar. These specimens bear fossil inclusions including spiders, termites, ants, elaterids, hymenopterans, a cockroach and a flower.
Photo credit: Didier Descouens

Topics

General - Paleontology - Fossil - Evolution - Extinction
History - History of paleontology - Bone Wars - List of years in paleontology
Locations - List of dinosaur-bearing rock formations - List of fossil sites - Como Bluff - Coon Creek Formation - Dinosaur Cove - Dinosaur National Monument - Dinosaur Park Formation - Dinosaur State Park and Arboretum - Glen Rose Formation - Hell Creek Formation - Lance Formation - Morrison Formation - Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracksite - Two Medicine Formation
Paleontologists - Mary Anning - Robert T. Bakker - Barnum Brown - William Buckland - Edward Drinker Cope - Jack Horner - Gideon Mantell - Othniel Charles Marsh - John Ostrom - Dong Zhiming
Geologic Time - Paleozoic Era - Cambrian (Early Cambrian - Middle Cambrian - Furongian) - Ordovician (Early Ordovician - Middle Ordovician - Late Ordovician) - Silurian (Llandovery - Wenlock - Ludlow - Pridoli) - Devonian (Early Devonian - Middle Devonian - Late Devonian) - Carboniferous (Mississippian - Pennsylvanian) - Permian (Cisuralian - Guadalupian - Lopingian) - Mesozoic Era - Triassic (Early Triassic - Middle Triassic - Late Triassic) - Jurassic (Early Jurassic - Middle Jurassic - Late Jurassic) - Cretaceous (Early Cretaceous - Late Cretaceous) - Cenozoic Era - Paleogene (Paleocene - Eocene - Oligocene) - Neogene (Miocene - Pliocene) - Quaternary (Pleistocene - Holocene)
Fringe and Pseudoscience - Creationist perspectives on dinosaurs - Living dinosaurs
Popular Culture - Cultural depictions of dinosaurs - Jurassic Park (novel) - Jurassic Park (film) - Stegosaurus in popular culture -Tyrannosaurus in popular culture - Walking with...

Quality Content

Featured paleontology articles - Achelousaurus - Acrocanthosaurus - Albertosaurus - Allosaurus - Amargasaurus - Ankylosaurus - Apatosaurus - Archaeopteryx - Baryonyx - Carnotaurus - Catopsbaatar - Ceratosaurus - Chicxulub Crater - Compsognathus - Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event - Daspletosaurus - Deinocheirus - Deinonychus - Deinosuchus - Dilophosaurus - Dinosaur - Diplodocus - Dromaeosauroides - Edmontosaurus - Elasmosaurus - Giganotosaurus - Gorgosaurus - Herrerasaurus - Iguanodon - Istiodactylus - Lambeosaurus - List of dinosaur genera - Majungasaurus - Massospondylus - Megalodon - Nemegtomaia - Nigersaurus - Opisthocoelicaudia - Paranthodon - Parasaurolophus - Plateosaurus - Psittacosaurus - Seorsumuscardinus - Stegosaurus - Stegoceras - Styracosaurus - Tarbosaurus - Thescelosaurus - Triceratops - Tyrannosaurus - Velociraptor
Good paleontology articles - Abelisauridae - Alioramus - Amphicoelias - Archaeoraptor - Batrachotomus - Ceratopsia - Coelurus - Dromaeosauridae - Giganotosaurus - Gryposaurus - Heterodontosauridae - Herrerasaurus - Hypacrosaurus - Kritosaurus - Othnielosaurus - Pachycephalosaurus - Saurolophus - Sauropelta - Scelidosaurus - Species of Allosaurus - Species of Psittacosaurus - Spinosaurus - Tyrannosauroidea

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