Published on February 19th, 2024 | by Nik Lupše


Episode 159: An Introduction to Palaeontology

In 12 years of podcasting, we have never actually taken the time to address the fundamentals of our field. Such questions could include: what is palaeontology, what is a fossil, how does one become a palaeontologist, and why is palaeontology important?

For what should have been our very first episode, we’ve invited Prof. Roy Plotnick, University of Illinois Chicago, to help us outline everything you need to know about the field of palaeontology. Roy has had a long and varied palaeontological career, he maintains a blog all about the field, and he is author of the book Explorers of Deep Time.

Before becoming a palaeontologist, Prof. Plotnick was initially interested in being an astronomer. Whilst many palaeontologists have always been in love with the subject, finding a passion for palaeontology later in life isn’t that uncommon and many palaeontologists have unique backgrounds and routes into the field.
Roy began his palaeontological career working on eurypterids (sea scorpions), such as this Acutiramus (pictured), but has really diversified into pretty much every other area with the exception of dinosaurs. Image: Field Museum of Natural History.
In some of his most recent work, Roy has been reinterpreting Essexella asherae from Mazon Creek, Illinois. When viewed from this way up, the fossil resembles a jellyfish, with a bell shape and tentacles below. This interpretation has stood for decades.
Questioning this, Roy turned the fossil upside down, where it better resembles an anemone. Both jellyfish and anemones are relatively closely related, are are essentially just bags of water, meaning that the interpretation of their fossils is exceptionally difficult.
Mazon Creek is an incredibly significant Carboniferous lagerstätte from Illinois, USA. Such sites of special preservation (whether through better quality fossils or simply just lots more of them) provide palaeontologists with additional information that might otherwise be lost during the fossilisation process. It is only through exceptional sites, such as Mazon Creek, that delicate organisms like Essexella are able to be preserved and interpreted at all!
But what is a fossil? Behrensmeyer, Kidwell, and Gastaldo (2000) described a fossil as “any non-living biologically generated trace or material that palaeontologists study as part of the record of life.”
Image: Trace fossil from the Cambrian of Wisconsin, USA.
Palaeontologists could be defined as ‘anyone that studies the history of life on Earth using fossils to do so.’
The question of where palaeontology ends and history begins is a difficult one to answer. Traditionally, this would be taken at the point that historical records begin, but this can be seen by many to be an artificial distinction.
Palaeontologists can use their insights in the modern day and even make predictions about the future. Recently, Roy has been considering what might be preserved in the future fossil record. With around 90% of the modern mammalian biomass being composed of humans and their domesticated animals, will current biodiversity levels be reflected in the geological record?
Image: Vitor Miranda – stock.adobe.com
Palaeontology continues to benefit from high levels of interest and popularity within the public. Dinosaurs are a mainstay of popular culture, featuring in numerous films, games and TV shows, whilst natural history museums will often put dinosaur mounts front and centre. This is popularity is important since palaeontology is a great gateway subject for the wider STEM field.
Prof. Plotnick in the field looking for Pennsylvanian fossils in Illinois.

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