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paleontology

paleontology (pāˌlēəntŏlˈəjē) [key] [Gr., = study of early beings], science of the life of past geologic periods based on fossil remains. Knowledge of the existence of fossils dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, who appear to have regarded them as the remains of various mythological creatures. Because few fossils are found in rock older than the late Precambrian, paleontology is generally concerned with only the past 600 million years. Although paleontology deals with early forms of life, it is usually treated as a part of geology rather than of biology, as the environment of the animals and plants cannot be properly understood and reconstructed without knowledge of the age, structure, and composition of the rocks in which their remains are found. In addition, fossil evidence is often used for the establishment of the ages of rock strata. Micropaleontology, the study of microscopic fossils, is especially important for the recognition of subsurface strata in drilling for petroleum. The field of paleontology is often divided into paleobotany, the study of ancient plants (also known as paleophytology); palynology, which focuses on ancient spores, pollen, and microorganisms; and paleozoology, the study of ancient animals, which can further be broken down into invertebrate (no backbones, e.g., clams) or vertebrate (with backbone, e.g., dinosaurs) studies. Paleontology as a science separate from geology dates from the 19th cent., especially from the work of French naturalist Georges Cuvier on fossils and from the publication of the evolutionary hypothesis of Charles Darwin.

See U. N. Lanham, The Bone Hunters (1973); S. J. Gould, The History of Paleontology (1980); R. M. Black, The Elements of Paleontology (1989); S. Parker, Practical Paleontologist (1991).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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