Paper No. 5
Presentation Time: 9:15 AM
FROM PALEONTOLOGY TO PALEOBIOLOGY: A HALF-CENTURY OF PROGRESS IN UNDERSTANDING LIFE HISTORY
Paleontology has undergone a renaissance in the past 50 years, expanding from an empirical field focused on stratigraphic context and environmental reconstruction to the theoretically grounded discipline of paleobiology. This transformation has been propelled by conceptual advances in two broadly construed areas, evolution and paleoecology. Phylogenetic systematics has revised our understanding of the evolutionary relationships among organisms. New understanding of tempo and mode in evolution, evolutionary hierarchies, the role of mass extinctions and recoveries, and developmental evolution has led to unexpected insights on evolutionary processes. Within paleoecology, taphonomy has led to greater understanding of the nature and quality of the fossil record. Evolutionary paleoecologists have unearthed temporal and spatial patterns, at various scales, in diversity and community organization and have investigated the processes responsible for them. Other advances in paleoecology involve trace fossils; paleobiogeography; novel uses of fossils in understanding the environment; and the new discipline of conservation paleobiology. New concepts have been furthered by incorporating tools from other disciplines, including quantitative analytical methods, biostratigraphic innovations, geochemical and molecular tools, and advanced microscopy techniques. Fueling these advances are fossil discoveries revealing previously unknown worlds. Microfossils now take us back 3.5 billion years to reconstruct the Archean planet and through the Proterozoic to the explosion of multicellular life. Studies of remarkable Ediacaran and Cambrian faunas have revealed “weird wonders” and provided insight into causes of metazoan diversification. Fossil discoveries have yielded surprising and unexpected insights into the origins and evolution of important plant and animal groups, from angiosperms to birds to whales to humans. Understanding of groups such as dinosaurs has changed radically, leaving them barely recognizable to workers of 50 years ago. New discoveries, new tools, and new theories have created the vibrant, relevant field of paleontology as we know it today.