2008 Joint Meeting of The Geological Society of America, Soil Science Society of America, American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies with the Gulf Coast Section of SEPM

Paper No. 1
Presentation Time: 1:30 PM

Quantitative Approaches In Precambrian Paleontology - Numbers, Numeracy, Data, and Information

HOFMANN, Hans J., Dept. of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and Redpath Museum, McGill University, 3450 University St, Montreal, QC H3A 2A7, Canada, hofmann@eps.mcgill.ca

Most paleontologists have been preoccupied with the richly fossiliferous sequences in the Phanerozoic. Those few who, in the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, ventured into the realm of the “unfossiliferous” pre-Cambrian furnished mainly descriptive, qualitative accounts of the few known occurrences of remains. These early reports, often disputed, present information on geographic and stratigraphic positions, morphology, size ranges, and abundances, taxonomy and systematics. Mathematical treatment did not come till much later. A slowly increasing number of practitioners became more numerate and confident in the 1950s and 1960s, exploring different approaches to quantify various fossil attributes, and searching for meaningful patterns. The utilization of computers and versatile electronic image analyzers by the end of the 1960s yielded more precise new data regarding aspects such as variability in morphology, and systematic position, mode of life, environment, taphonomy, and biostratigraphy. Both analytical (e.g., image analysis, data mining) and synthetic digital approaches (model simulation) were pursued, yielding new information which led to new hypotheses.

The study of early life and its evolution became decidedly more interdisciplinary and quantitative in the past three decades. This was facilitated by advances in technology, instrumentation, communication, and software engineering. Also contributing were developments in allied fields, growing databases, and the greater visibility and the rapidly expanding number of researchers interested in early life and the derived field of astrobiology. Lessons learned in Precambrian paleontology and its methodologies are eminently applicable to the latter, and vice versa.

Attributes of Precambrian fossils of all categories (megafossils, microfossils, chemofossils, trace fossils, stromatolites, and dubiofossils) are amenable to quantification. Like ecological niches for organisms, there are numerous unexplored possibilities for the mathematically inclined to work on aspects related to ancient life, though one must remember to look beyond just the numbers.