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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 παλαιός, palaios, "old, ancient", ὄν, on (gen. ontos), "being, creature" and λόγος, 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.
The simplest definition of "paleontology" is "the study of ancient life".The field seeks information about several aspects of past organisms: "their identity and origin, their environment and evolution, and what they can tell us about the Earth's organic and inorganic past".
William Whewell (1794-1866) classified paleontology as one of the historical sciences, along with archaeology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, philology and history itself:paleontology aims to describe phenomena of the past and to reconstruct their causes. Hence it has three main elements: description of past phenomena; developing a general theory about the causes of various types of change; and applying those theories to specific facts. When trying to explain the past, paleontologists and other historical scientists often construct a set of one or more hypotheses about the causes and then look for a "smoking gun", a piece of evidence that strongly accords with one hypothesis over any others. Sometimes researchers discover a "smoking gun" by a fortunate accident during other research. For example, the 1980 discovery by Luis and Walter Alvarez of iridium, a mainly extraterrestrial metal, in the Cretaceous–Tertiary boundary layer made asteroid impact the most favored explanation for the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event - although debate continues about the contribution of volcanism.
A complementary approach to developing scientific knowledge, experimental science, [ by whom? ] to work by conducting experiments to disprove hypotheses about the workings and causes of natural phenomena. This approach cannot prove a hypothesis, since some later experiment may disprove it, but the accumulation of failures to disprove is often compelling evidence in favor. However, when confronted with totally unexpected phenomena, such as the first evidence for invisible radiation, experimental scientists often use the same approach as historical scientists: construct a set of hypotheses about the causes and then look for a "smoking gun".is often said
Paleontology lies between biology and geology since it focuses on the record of past life, but its main source of evidence is fossils in rocks.For historical reasons, paleontology is part of the geology department at many universities: in the 19th and early 20th centuries, geology departments found fossil evidence important for dating rocks, while biology departments showed little interest.
Paleontology also has some overlap with archaeology, which primarily works with objects made by humans and with human remains, while paleontologists are interested in the characteristics and evolution of humans as a species. When dealing with evidence about humans, archaeologists and paleontologists may work together – for example paleontologists might identify animal or plant fossils around an archaeological site, to discover what the people who lived there ate; or they might analyze the climate at the time of habitation.
In addition, paleontology often borrows techniques from other sciences, including biology, osteology, ecology, chemistry, physics and mathematics.For example, geochemical signatures from rocks may help to discover when life first arose on Earth, and analyses of carbon isotope ratios may help to identify climate changes and even to explain major transitions such as the Permian–Triassic extinction event. A relatively recent discipline, molecular phylogenetics, compares the DNA and RNA of modern organisms to re-construct the "family trees" of their evolutionary ancestors. It has also been used to estimate the dates of important evolutionary developments, although this approach is controversial because of doubts about the reliability of the "molecular clock". Techniques from engineering have been used to analyse how the bodies of ancient organisms might have worked, for example the running speed and bite strength of Tyrannosaurus, or the flight mechanics of Microraptor. It is relatively commonplace to study the internal details of fossils using X-ray microtomography. Paleontology, biology, archaeology, and paleoneurobiology combine to study endocranial casts (endocasts) of species related to humans to clarify the evolution of the human brain.
Paleontology even contributes to astrobiology, the investigation of possible life on other planets, by developing models of how life may have arisen and by providing techniques for detecting evidence of life.
As knowledge has increased, paleontology has developed specialised subdivisions.Vertebrate paleontology concentrates on fossils from the earliest fish to the immediate ancestors of modern mammals. Invertebrate paleontology deals with fossils such as molluscs, arthropods, annelid worms and echinoderms. Paleobotany studies fossil plants, algae, and fungi. Palynology, the study of pollen and spores produced by land plants and protists, straddles paleontology and botany, as it deals with both living and fossil organisms. Micropaleontology deals with microscopic fossil organisms of all kinds.
Instead of focusing on individual organisms, paleoecology examines the interactions between different ancient organisms, such as their food chains, and the two-way interactions with their environments. For example, the development of oxygenic photosynthesis by bacteria caused the oxygenation of the atmosphere and hugely increased the productivity and diversity of ecosystems. Together, these led to the evolution of complex eukaryotic cells, from which all multicellular organisms are built.
Paleoclimatology, although sometimes treated as part of paleoecology, – which have sometimes included evolutionary developments, for example the rapid expansion of land plants in the Devonian period removed more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing the greenhouse effect and thus helping to cause an ice age in the Carboniferous period.focuses more on the history of Earth's climate and the mechanisms that have changed it
Biostratigraphy, the use of fossils to work out the chronological order in which rocks were formed, is useful to both paleontologists and geologists.Biogeography studies the spatial distribution of organisms, and is also linked to geology, which explains how Earth's geography has changed over time.
Fossils of organisms' bodies are usually the most informative type of evidence. The most common types are wood, bones, and shells.Fossilisation is a rare event, and most fossils are destroyed by erosion or metamorphism before they can be observed. Hence the fossil record is very incomplete, increasingly so further back in time. Despite this, it is often adequate to illustrate the broader patterns of life's history. There are also biases in the fossil record: different environments are more favorable to the preservation of different types of organism or parts of organisms. Further, only the parts of organisms that were already mineralised are usually preserved, such as the shells of molluscs. Since most animal species are soft-bodied, they decay before they can become fossilised. As a result, although there are 30-plus phyla of living animals, two-thirds have never been found as fossils.
Occasionally, unusual environments may preserve soft tissues. These lagerstätten allow paleontologists to examine the internal anatomy of animals that in other sediments are represented only by shells, spines, claws, etc. – if they are preserved at all. However, even lagerstätten present an incomplete picture of life at the time. The majority of organisms living at the time are probably not represented because lagerstätten are restricted to a narrow range of environments, e.g. where soft-bodied organisms can be preserved very quickly by events such as mudslides; and the exceptional events that cause quick burial make it difficult to study the normal environments of the animals. The sparseness of the fossil record means that organisms are expected to exist long before and after they are found in the fossil record – this is known as the Signor–Lipps effect.
Trace fossils consist mainly of tracks and burrows, but also include coprolites (fossil feces) and marks left by feeding.Trace fossils are particularly significant because they represent a data source that is not limited to animals with easily fossilised hard parts, and they reflect organisms' behaviours. Also many traces date from significantly earlier than the body fossils of animals that are thought to have been capable of making them. Whilst exact assignment of trace fossils to their makers is generally impossible, traces may for example provide the earliest physical evidence of the appearance of moderately complex animals (comparable to earthworms).
Geochemical observations may help to deduce the global level of biological activity at a certain period, or the affinity of certain fossils. For example, geochemical features of rocks may reveal when life first arose on Earth,and may provide evidence of the presence of eukaryotic cells, the type from which all multicellular organisms are built. Analyses of carbon isotope ratios may help to explain major transitions such as the Permian–Triassic extinction event.
Naming groups of organisms in a way that is clear and widely agreed is important, as some disputes in paleontology have been based just on misunderstandings over names.Linnaean taxonomy is commonly used for classifying living organisms, but runs into difficulties when dealing with newly discovered organisms that are significantly different from known ones. For example: it is hard to decide at what level to place a new higher-level grouping, e.g. genus or family or order; this is important since the Linnaean rules for naming groups are tied to their levels, and hence if a group is moved to a different level it must be renamed.
Paleontologists generally use approaches based on cladistics, a technique for working out the evolutionary "family tree" of a set of organisms. – groups that share a common ancestor. Ideally the "family tree" has only two branches leading from each node ("junction"), but sometimes there is too little information to achieve this and paleontologists have to make do with junctions that have several branches. The cladistic technique is sometimes fallible, as some features, such as wings or camera eyes, evolved more than once, convergently – this must be taken into account in analyses.It works by the logic that, if groups B and C have more similarities to each other than either has to group A, then B and C are more closely related to each other than either is to A. Characters that are compared may be anatomical, such as the presence of a notochord, or molecular, by comparing sequences of DNA or proteins. The result of a successful analysis is a hierarchy of clades
Evolutionary developmental biology, commonly abbreviated to "Evo Devo", also helps paleontologists to produce "family trees", and understand fossils.For example, the embryological development of some modern brachiopods suggests that brachiopods may be descendants of the halkieriids, which became extinct in the Cambrian period.
Paleontology seeks to map out how living things have changed through time. A substantial hurdle to this aim is the difficulty of working out how old fossils are. Beds that preserve fossils typically lack the radioactive elements needed for radiometric dating. This technique is our only means of giving rocks greater than about 50 million years old an absolute age, and can be accurate to within 0.5% or better.Although radiometric dating requires very careful laboratory work, its basic principle is simple: the rates at which various radioactive elements decay are known, and so the ratio of the radioactive element to the element into which it decays shows how long ago the radioactive element was incorporated into the rock. Radioactive elements are common only in rocks with a volcanic origin, and so the only fossil-bearing rocks that can be dated radiometrically are a few volcanic ash layers.
Consequently, paleontologists must usually rely on stratigraphy to date fossils. Stratigraphy is the science of deciphering the "layer-cake" that is the sedimentary record, and has been compared to a jigsaw puzzle.Rocks normally form relatively horizontal layers, with each layer younger than the one underneath it. If a fossil is found between two layers whose ages are known, the fossil's age must lie between the two known ages. Because rock sequences are not continuous, but may be broken up by faults or periods of erosion, it is very difficult to match up rock beds that are not directly next to one another. However, fossils of species that survived for a relatively short time can be used to link up isolated rocks: this technique is called biostratigraphy. For instance, the conodont Eoplacognathus pseudoplanus has a short range in the Middle Ordovician period. If rocks of unknown age are found to have traces of E. pseudoplanus, they must have a mid-Ordovician age. Such index fossils must be distinctive, be globally distributed and have a short time range to be useful. However, misleading results are produced if the index fossils turn out to have longer fossil ranges than first thought. Stratigraphy and biostratigraphy can in general provide only relative dating (A was before B), which is often sufficient for studying evolution. However, this is difficult for some time periods, because of the problems involved in matching up rocks of the same age across different continents.
Family-tree relationships may also help to narrow down the date when lineages first appeared. For instance, if fossils of B or C date to X million years ago and the calculated "family tree" says A was an ancestor of B and C, then A must have evolved more than X million years ago.
It is also possible to estimate how long ago two living clades diverged – i.e. approximately how long ago their last common ancestor must have lived – by assuming that DNA mutations accumulate at a constant rate. These "molecular clocks", however, are fallible, and provide only a very approximate timing: for example, they are not sufficiently precise and reliable for estimating when the groups that feature in the Cambrian explosion first evolved, and estimates produced by different techniques may vary by a factor of two.
Earth formed aboutand, after a collision that formed the Moon about 40 million years later, may have cooled quickly enough to have oceans and an atmosphere about . There is evidence on the Moon of a Late Heavy Bombardment by asteroids from . If, as seems likely, such a bombardment struck Earth at the same time, the first atmosphere and oceans may have been stripped away.
Paleontology traces the evolutionary history of life back to over, possibly as far as . The oldest clear evidence of life on Earth dates to , although there have been reports, often disputed, of fossil bacteria from and of geochemical evidence for the presence of life . Some scientists have proposed that life on Earth was "seeded" from elsewhere, but most research concentrates on various explanations of how life could have arisen independently on Earth.
For about 2,000 million years microbial mats, multi-layered colonies of different bacteria, were the dominant life on Earth.The evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis enabled them to play the major role in the oxygenation of the atmosphere from about . This change in the atmosphere increased their effectiveness as nurseries of evolution. While eukaryotes, cells with complex internal structures, may have been present earlier, their evolution speeded up when they acquired the ability to transform oxygen from a poison to a powerful source of metabolic energy. This innovation may have come from primitive eukaryotes capturing oxygen-powered bacteria as endosymbionts and transforming them into organelles called mitochondria. The earliest evidence of complex eukaryotes with organelles (such as mitochondria) dates from .
Multicellular life is composed only of eukaryotic cells, and the earliest evidence for it is the Francevillian Group Fossils from, although specialisation of cells for different functions first appears between (a possible fungus) and (a probable red alga). Sexual reproduction may be a prerequisite for specialisation of cells, as an asexual multicellular organism might be at risk of being taken over by rogue cells that retain the ability to reproduce.
The earliest known animals are cnidarians from about, but these are so modern-looking that must be descendants of earlier animals. Early fossils of animals are rare because they had not developed mineralised, easily fossilized hard parts until about . The earliest modern-looking bilaterian animals appear in the Early Cambrian, along with several "weird wonders" that bear little obvious resemblance to any modern animals. There is a long-running debate about whether this Cambrian explosion was truly a very rapid period of evolutionary experimentation; alternative views are that modern-looking animals began evolving earlier but fossils of their precursors have not yet been found, or that the "weird wonders" are evolutionary "aunts" and "cousins" of modern groups. Vertebrates remained a minor group until the first jawed fish appeared in the Late Ordovician.
The spread of animals and plants from water to land required organisms to solve several problems, including protection against drying out and supporting themselves against gravity.The earliest evidence of land plants and land invertebrates date back to about and respectively. Those invertebrates, as indicated by their trace and body fossils, were shown to be arthropods known as euthycarcinoids. The lineage that produced land vertebrates evolved later but very rapidly between and ; recent discoveries have overturned earlier ideas about the history and driving forces behind their evolution. Land plants were so successful that their detritus caused an ecological crisis in the Late Devonian, until the evolution of fungi that could digest dead wood.
During the Permian period, synapsids, including the ancestors of mammals, may have dominated land environments,but this ended with the Permian–Triassic extinction event , which came very close to wiping out all complex life. The extinctions were apparently fairly sudden, at least among vertebrates. During the slow recovery from this catastrophe a previously obscure group, archosaurs, became the most abundant and diverse terrestrial vertebrates. One archosaur group, the dinosaurs, were the dominant land vertebrates for the rest of the Mesozoic, and birds evolved from one group of dinosaurs. During this time mammals' ancestors survived only as small, mainly nocturnal insectivores, which may have accelerated the development of mammalian traits such as endothermy and hair. After the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event killed off all the dinosaurs except the birds, mammals increased rapidly in size and diversity, and some took to the air and the sea.
Fossil evidence indicates that flowering plants appeared and rapidly diversified in the Early Cretaceous betweenand . Their rapid rise to dominance of terrestrial ecosystems is thought to have been propelled by coevolution with pollinating insects. Social insects appeared around the same time and, although they account for only small parts of the insect "family tree", now form over 50% of the total mass of all insects.
Humans evolved from a lineage of upright-walking apes whose earliest fossils date from over. Although early members of this lineage had chimp-sized brains, about 25% as big as modern humans', there are signs of a steady increase in brain size after about . There is a long-running debate about whether modern humans are descendants of a single small population in Africa, which then migrated all over the world less than 200,000 years ago and replaced previous hominine species, or arose worldwide at the same time as a result of interbreeding.
Life on earth has suffered occasional mass extinctions at least since. Despite their disastrous effects, mass extinctions have sometimes accelerated the evolution of life on earth. When dominance of an ecological niche passes from one group of organisms to another, this is rarely because the new dominant group outcompetes the old, but usually because an extinction event allows new group to outlive the old and move into its niche.
The fossil record appears to show that the rate of extinction is slowing down, with both the gaps between mass extinctions becoming longer and the average and background rates of extinction decreasing. However, it is not certain whether the actual rate of extinction has altered, since both of these observations could be explained in several ways:
Biodiversity in the fossil record, which is
shows a different trend: a fairly swift rise from, a slight decline from , in which the devastating Permian–Triassic extinction event is an important factor, and a swift rise from to the present.
Although paleontology became established around 1800, earlier thinkers had noticed aspects of the fossil record. The ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes (570–480 BC) concluded from fossil sea shells that some areas of land were once under water.During the Middle Ages the Persian naturalist Ibn Sina, known as Avicenna in Europe, discussed fossils and proposed a theory of petrifying fluids on which Albert of Saxony elaborated in the 14th century. The Chinese naturalist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) proposed a theory of climate change based on the presence of petrified bamboo in regions that in his time were too dry for bamboo.
In early modern Europe, the systematic study of fossils emerged as an integral part of the changes in natural philosophy that occurred during the Age of Reason. In the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci made various significant contributions to the field as well depicted numerous fossils. Leonardo's contributions are central to the history of paleontology because he established a line of continuity between the two main branches of paleontology—ichnology and body fossil paleontology.He identified the following:
At the end of the 18th century Georges Cuvier's work established comparative anatomy as a scientific discipline and, by proving that some fossil animals resembled no living ones, demonstrated that animals could become extinct, leading to the emergence of paleontology.The expanding knowledge of the fossil record also played an increasing role in the development of geology, particularly stratigraphy.
The first half of the 19th century saw geological and paleontological activity become increasingly well organised with the growth of geologic societies and museumsand an increasing number of professional geologists and fossil specialists. Interest increased for reasons that were not purely scientific, as geology and paleontology helped industrialists to find and exploit natural resources such as coal.
This contributed to a rapid increase in knowledge about the history of life on Earth and to progress in the definition of the geologic time scale, largely based on fossil evidence. In 1822 Henri Marie Ducrotay de Blanville, editor of Journal de Physique, coined the word "palaeontology" to refer to the study of ancient living organisms through fossils.As knowledge of life's history continued to improve, it became increasingly obvious that there had been some kind of successive order to the development of life. This encouraged early evolutionary theories on the transmutation of species. After Charles Darwin published Origin of Species in 1859, much of the focus of paleontology shifted to understanding evolutionary paths, including human evolution, and evolutionary theory.
The last half of the 19th century saw a tremendous expansion in paleontological activity, especially in North America.The trend continued in the 20th century with additional regions of the Earth being opened to systematic fossil collection. Fossils found in China near the end of the 20th century have been particularly important as they have provided new information about the earliest evolution of animals, early fish, dinosaurs and the evolution of birds. The last few decades of the 20th century saw a renewed interest in mass extinctions and their role in the evolution of life on Earth. There was also a renewed interest in the Cambrian explosion that apparently saw the development of the body plans of most animal phyla. The discovery of fossils of the Ediacaran biota and developments in paleobiology extended knowledge about the history of life back far before the Cambrian.
Increasing awareness of Gregor Mendel's pioneering work in genetics led first to the development of population genetics and then in the mid-20th century to the modern evolutionary synthesis, which explains evolution as the outcome of events such as mutations and horizontal gene transfer, which provide genetic variation, with genetic drift and natural selection driving changes in this variation over time.Within the next few years the role and operation of DNA in genetic inheritance were discovered, leading to what is now known as the "Central Dogma" of molecular biology. In the 1960s molecular phylogenetics, the investigation of evolutionary "family trees" by techniques derived from biochemistry, began to make an impact, particularly when it was proposed that the human lineage had diverged from apes much more recently than was generally thought at the time. Although this early study compared proteins from apes and humans, most molecular phylogenetics research is now based on comparisons of RNA and DNA.
A chordate is an animal of the phylum Chordata. During some period of their life cycle, chordates possess a notochord, a dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, and a post-anal tail: these four anatomical features define this phylum. Chordates are also bilaterally symmetric, and have a coelom, metameric segmentation, and circulatory system.
The Cambrian Period was the first geological period of the Paleozoic Era, and of the Phanerozoic Eon. The Cambrian lasted 55.6 million years from the end of the preceding Ediacaran Period 541 million years ago (mya) to the beginning of the Ordovician Period 485.4 mya. Its subdivisions, and its base, are somewhat in flux. The period was established by Adam Sedgwick, who named it after Cambria, the Latin name of Wales, where Britain's Cambrian rocks are best exposed. The Cambrian is unique in its unusually high proportion of lagerstätte sedimentary deposits, sites of exceptional preservation where "soft" parts of organisms are preserved as well as their more resistant shells. As a result, our understanding of the Cambrian biology surpasses that of some later periods.
This timeline of the evolutionary history of life represents the current scientific theory outlining the major events during the development of life on planet Earth. In biology, evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organization, from kingdoms to species, and individual organisms and molecules, such as DNA and proteins. The similarities between all present day organisms indicate the presence of a common ancestor from which all known species, living and extinct, have diverged through the process of evolution. More than 99 percent of all species, amounting to over five billion species, that ever lived on Earth are estimated to be extinct. Estimates on the number of Earth's current species range from 10 million to 14 million, of which about 1.2 million have been documented and over 86 percent have not yet been described. However, a May 2016 scientific report estimates that 1 trillion species are currently on Earth, with only one-thousandth of one percent described.
A fossil is any preserved remains, impression, or trace of any once-living thing from a past geological age. Examples include bones, shells, exoskeletons, stone imprints of animals or microbes, objects preserved in amber, hair, petrified wood, oil, coal, and DNA remnants. The totality of fossils is known as the fossil record.
A trace fossil, also ichnofossil, is a fossil record of biological activity but not the preserved remains of the plant or animal itself. Trace fossils contrast with body fossils, which are the fossilized remains of parts of organisms' bodies, usually altered by later chemical activity or mineralization. Ichnology is the study of such trace fossils and is the work of ichnologists.
The Doushantuo Formation is a fossil Lagerstätte in Weng'an County, Guizhou Province, China that is notable for being one of the oldest beds to contain minutely preserved microfossils, phosphatic fossils that are so characteristic they have given their name to "Doushantuo type preservation". The formation is of particular interest because a part of it appears to cover the boundary between the enigmatic organisms of the Ediacaran geological period and the more familiar fauna of the Cambrian explosion where lifeforms recognizable as ancestors of later and recent lifeforms first emerged. Taken as a whole, the Doushantuo Formation ranges from about 635 Ma at its base to about 551 Ma at its top, predating by perhaps five Ma the earliest of the 'classical' Ediacaran faunas from Mistaken Point on the Avalon peninsula of Newfoundland, and recording conditions up to a good forty to fifty million years before the Cambrian explosion.
Kimberella is an extinct genus of bilaterian known only from rocks of the Ediacaran period. The slug-like organism fed by scratching the microbial surface on which it dwelt in a manner similar to the gastropods, although its affinity with this group is contentious.
Joseph John Sepkoski Jr. was a University of Chicago paleontologist. Sepkoski studied the fossil record and the diversity of life on Earth. Sepkoski and David Raup contributed to the knowledge of extinction events. They suggested that the extinction of dinosaurs 66 mya was part of a cycle of mass extinctions that may have occurred every 26 million years.
David M. Raup was a University of Chicago paleontologist. Raup studied the fossil record and the diversity of life on Earth. Raup contributed to the knowledge of extinction events along with his colleague Jack Sepkoski. They suggested that the extinction of dinosaurs 66 mya was part of a cycle of mass extinctions that may have occurred every 26 million years.
The history of Earth concerns the development of planet Earth from its formation to the present day. Nearly all branches of natural science have contributed to understanding of the main events of Earth's past, characterized by constant geological change and biological evolution.
The evolution of the molluscs is the way in which the Mollusca, one of the largest groups of invertebrate animals, evolved. This phylum includes gastropods, bivalves, scaphopods, cephalopods, and several other groups. The fossil record of mollusks is relatively complete, and they are well represented in most fossil-bearing marine strata. Very early organisms which have dubiously been compared to molluscs include Kimberella and Odontogriphus.
Andrew Herbert Knoll is the Fisher Professor of Natural History and a Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University. Born in West Reading, Pennsylvania in 1951, Andrew Knoll graduated from Lehigh University with a bachelor of arts in 1973 and received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1977 for a dissertation entitled "Studies in Archean and Early Proterozoic Paleontology." Knoll taught at Oberlin College for five years before returning to Harvard as a professor in 1982. At Harvard, he serves in the departments of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology and Earth and Planetary Sciences.
The Ediacaranbiota is a taxonomic period classification that consists of all life forms that were present on Earth during the Ediacaran Period. These were composed of enigmatic tubular and frond-shaped, mostly sessile, organisms. Trace fossils of these organisms have been found worldwide, and represent the earliest known complex multicellular organisms.
The evolutionary history of life on Earth traces the processes by which living and fossil organisms evolved, from the earliest emergence of life to the present. Earth formed about 4.5 billion years (Ga) ago and evidence suggests life emerged prior to 3.7 Ga. The similarities among all known present-day species indicate that they have diverged through the process of evolution from a common ancestor. Approximately 1 trillion species currently live on Earth of which only 1.75–1.8 million have been named and 1.6 million documented in a central database. These currently living species represent less than one percent of all species that have ever lived on earth.
The evolution of fungi has been going on since fungi diverged from other life around 1.5 billion years ago, with the glomaleans branching from the "higher fungi" at ~, according to DNA analysis. Fungi probably colonized the land during the Cambrian, over , but terrestrial fossils only become uncontroversial and common during the Devonian, .
Evidence suggesting that a mass extinction occurred at the end of the Ediacaran period,, includes:
The Ordovician radiation, or the great Ordovician biodiversification event (GOBE), was an evolutionary radiation of animal life throughout the Ordovician period, 40 million years after the Cambrian explosion, whereby the distinctive Cambrian fauna fizzled out to be replaced with a Paleozoic fauna rich in suspension feeder and pelagic animals.
The small shelly fauna, small shelly fossils (SSF), or early skeletal fossils (ESF) are mineralized fossils, many only a few millimetres long, with a nearly continuous record from the latest stages of the Ediacaran to the end of the Early Cambrian Period. They are very diverse, and there is no formal definition of "small shelly fauna" or "small shelly fossils". Almost all are from earlier rocks than more familiar fossils such as trilobites. Since most SSFs were preserved by being covered quickly with phosphate and this method of preservation is mainly limited to the Late Ediacaran and Early Cambrian periods, the animals that made them may actually have arisen earlier and persisted after this time span.
The Cambrian explosion or Cambrian radiation was an event approximatelyin the Cambrian period when practically all major animal phyla started appearing in the fossil record. It lasted for about 13 – 25 million years and resulted in the divergence of most modern metazoan phyla. The event was accompanied by major diversification of other organisms.
Before photosynthesis evolved, Earth's atmosphere had no free oxygen (O2). Photosynthetic prokaryotic organisms that produced O2 as a waste product lived long before the first build-up of free oxygen in the atmosphere, perhaps as early as 3.5 billion years ago. The oxygen they produced would have been rapidly removed from the oceans by weathering of reducing minerals, most notably iron. This rusting led to the deposition of iron oxide on the ocean floor, forming banded iron formations. Thus, the oceans rusted and turned red. Oxygen only began to persist in the atmosphere in small quantities about 50 million years before the start of the Great Oxygenation Event. This mass oxygenation of the atmosphere resulted in rapid buildup of free oxygen. At current rates of primary production, today's concentration of oxygen could be produced by photosynthetic organisms in 2,000 years. In the absence of plants, the rate of oxygen production by photosynthesis was slower in the Precambrian, and the concentrations of O2 attained were less than 10% of today's and probably fluctuated greatly; oxygen may even have disappeared from the atmosphere again around 1.9 billion years ago. These fluctuations in oxygen concentration had little direct effect on life, with mass extinctions not observed until the appearance of complex life around the start of the Cambrian period, O
2 provided life with new opportunities. Aerobic metabolism is more efficient than anaerobic pathways, and the presence of oxygen created new possibilities for life to explore. Since the start of the Cambrian period, atmospheric oxygen concentrations have fluctuated between 15% and 35% of atmospheric volume. The maximum of 35% was reached towards the end of the Carboniferous period (about 300 million years ago), a peak which may have contributed to the large size of insects and amphibians at that time. Whilst human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, affect relative carbon dioxide concentrations, their effect on the much larger concentration of oxygen is less significant.
To structure my discussion of the historical sciences, I shall borrow a way of analyzing them from the great Victorian philosopher of science, William Whewell [...]. [...] while his analysis of the historical sciences (or as Whewell termed them, the palaetiological sciences) will doubtless need to be modified, it provides a good starting point. Among them he numbered geology, paleontology, cosmogony, philology, and what we would term archaeology and history.
[Whewell] distinguished three tasks for such a historical science (1837 [...]): ' the Description of the facts and phenomena; - the general Theory of the causes of change appropriate to the case; - and the Application of the theory to the facts.'
Historical scientists successfully learn about the past by employing a 'smoking-gun' approach. They start by formulating multiple, mutually exclusive hypotheses and then search for a “smoking gun” that discriminates between these hypotheses [...].
Philosophers of science draw a distinction between research directed towards identifying laws and research which seeks to determine how particular historical events occurred. They do not claim, however, that the line between these sorts of science can be drawn neatly, and certainly do not agree that historical claims are any less empirically verifiable than other sorts of claims. [...] 'we can separate their two enterprises by distinguishing means from ends. The astronomer's problem is a historical one because the goal is to infer the properties of a particular object; the astronomer uses laws only as a means. Particle physics, on the other hand, is a nomothetic discipline because the goal is to infer general laws; descriptions of particular objects are only relevant as a means.'