Beyond the hammer and whisk broom: the technology of paleontology
Picture a paleontologist. Most likely, you will envision a bearded man, wearing a cowboy hat, excavating dinosaurs with a pickaxe and whisk broom. In reality, paleontologists are just as likely to be female or male, to spend their time in the laboratory or in front of a computer, and to study any of the other myriad organisms that have ever lived on Earth. *
Paleontology, like most other fields of science, has been transformed by the advent of the high-speed computer, large databases, and sophisticated analytical equipment. Instead of being “old and archaic,” as it was derisively described to my colleague Jackie Wittmer Malinowski, paleontology is a modern science, eager to adopt the latest technology. In some cases, it has even been ahead of the curve. A 1969 paper by David Raup and Dolf Seilacher, on a computer model of animal movement, has been identified as one of the first examples of research into artificial life.
Three main areas where technology has transformed paleontology is in the development of large online databases of paleontological data, such as the Paleobiology Database; the use of increasingly sophisticated numerical models to determine the relationships among living and fossil organisms; and the availability of increasingly precise imaging methods, not only for the form of organisms but their chemical composition. These are far from the only areas, but they are illustrative.
The origins of big data in paleontology is not tied, as it is in other areas of the Earth sciences, to the development of high-tech equipment, such as satellites, that can generate terabytes of data. Instead, it derives from the long history of the field and the patient effort over hundreds of years to describe fossils and the localities they come from. The descriptive literature of paleontology is quite literally the ground truth for all theoretical explanations of the history of life. What is possible with enough data in the proper format is to uncover the large-scale patterns in evolution. The documentation and explanations of such major episodes as the Cambrian radiation, the Great Ordovician Biodiversity Expansion, and the great extinction at the end of the Permian depend heavily upon the use of large online relational databases. Big data lets us look at the big picture.
Until the middle of the twentieth century, understanding the evolutionary relationships among fossil organisms, let along between fossil organisms and their living relatives, was very much an ad hoc science, highly dependent on expert opinion. This changed with the advent of a method known as cladistics, which gave an organized and reproducible way of determining relationships. It was not too long, however, until it was discovered that even with the new approach, the sheer number of organisms made qualitative studies virtually impossible. This led to the development, continuing to this day, of complex computer programs to handle the huge amount of data. It also leads to the ongoing debates of what data should be used, how they should be weighted, and what mathematical models should be underlying the programs. I, for one, have not been able to keep up these developments! But they are only way to answer such issues as the relationships of dinosaurs to birds.
What I find especially exciting are new analytical methods for describing fossil form and composition. 3-D scanners capture detailed images of surface form. Although paleontologists have used X-rays for decades, the advent of CT-scanning has led to detailed three-dimensional internal imaging of fossil remains, often without removing them from the surrounding matrix. This can be coupled with computer modeling of function, such as the bite force in dinosaur jaws or the swimming of extinct fish. Highly accurate 3-D models can be printed for study and teaching. Even more detail can be obtained using a synchrotron, which produce X-ray beams of incredibly high-energy. The synchrotron can also be used to produce detailed maps of the chemical composition of the fossils and the surrounding rock. This lets us answer questions about how the fossil formed and its original makeup.
Field work remains an integral part of the field, but it is only part of paleontological research. The real fun for many of us starts when we bring the fossils home to the laboratory. That is when we can use them to start to address the ‘big questions” about them and where they fit in the history of life. And we get to use really cool toys!
*the changing demographics of the science will be the topic of a future essay.