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Paleontology is the study of earth-bound remains as a means of explaining and exploring the history of man and nature. It is the study of time's biological footprints. Paleontology is the scientific study of life-forms existing in former geological time periods. Fossils, the remains or imprint of a plant or animal preserved from prehistoric times by natural methods and found mainly in sedimentary rock, asphalt, coal, and amber, are the chief data upon which paleontological study is based.
To most people paleontology means dinosaur hunting. The grandness of their existence and the mystery surrounding their extinction have made them very popular. However, while dinosaurs and dinosaur hunting is definitely a part of what a paleontologist might do, there is much more to paleontology than just dinosaurs. In fact, paleontology isn't just the study of ancient forms of life. It is also a comparative science that explores and tries to map out how various life forms changed over the millions of years in between Earth's beginning and now, and how the plants and animals we have today are related to those ancient species.
If paleontology is the investigation of the history of life's development, then fossils are the road markers by which they plot their course. Fossils are defined as the remains or traces of plants and animals which before the beginning of the present geological era found their way into the earth and were preserved there. The fossilization of the remains was not common and could take place only under very specific conditions. Ordinarily, the normal process of decay would leave only the hard parts of the living thing, i.e., bones, teeth, and shell. In time, even these gradually disappear as nature and the process of disintegration continue its work.
Fossilization requires a quick burial of the living organism before the processes of decay begin. Once buried, the organism becomes completely mineralized or petrified. Carbonization, another process of preservation, is most common with plant matter and takes place solely under water without the presence of air. Other sources of fossilized material include, bugs and other arthropods that have been found encased in amber, skeletal remains from California La Brea tar pits, and whole specimens found frozen in tundra.
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They tell us where different types of geological and geographical indicators were, such as coasts, bodies of fresh and salt water, tropical forests, tundra, glaciers, etc. They tell us where individual species flourished, their physical characteristics, what they ate, their migration patterns, even what their social patterns, i.e., family life, was like.
They help paleontologists to map the locations of the landforms and bodies of water over time. Over time the land masses that make up the Earth's continents have moved and shifted. It is believed that at one time all of the Earth's land masses were combined into a single landform, known as Pangea. The distribution of fossil types across the continents has helped scientists to support this theory.
Unfortunately, fossil remains are not enough to give us a complete picture of the progression of life forms over time. While it is true that there are some species whose development can be followed across hundreds of thousands of years, or more, there are also species remains that are unconnected to anything known before or seen after. Their existence can be documented because their remains exist; but, where they came from or where they went sometimes remains shrouded in missing pieces of information.
The origins of life on Earth remain a mystery to be studied, theorized, and maybe, just maybe, solved.