Happy Fossil Day from Cosmos!
Palaeontologists simply can’t stop finding fossils, and leading researchers say it’s beginning to get concerning.
“We have museums bursting at the seams with specimens – every day we’re rediscovering and reclassifying species we collected centuries ago,” says Associate Professor Trevor ‘Tee’ Wrecks, a palaeontologist from the State Museum of Eastern Australia.
“We don’t need fresh fossils to add more work on top of that. Yet my colleagues still go striding off to new sites to excavate more.”
Not all palaeontologists agree with Wrecks – some are positively over the moon about the mammoth task of collecting and identifying the enormity of the Earth’s fossil record. They are, of course, buoyed by the unconditional support of every four-year-old on the planet.
“There’s just so much down there,” enthuses Professor Di Proto-Donn from the University of Boulder in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, Western Australia. “The Earth just keeps going on and on, for kilometres, and in every layer of strata we keep finding more fossils. Personally, I love leaving the lab to spend months every year in the field. It’s endlessly fascinating.”
“It’s a thousand lifetimes’ full of work,” counters Wrecks. “It’s countless hours chipping bones from rock. And there’s no end in sight.”
He adds that there’s far more to it than the public might imagine.
“Did you know that life on Earth has existed for more than four billion years? The human brain can’t even begin to comprehend just how long ago that was.
“And it’s not all dinosaurs and pterodactyls, you know – they existed basically yesterday in geological time. The earliest fossils are of single-celled organisms. We have to search back four billion years through rocks to find single-celled creatures.”
Anita Digg, emeritus professor and sponge expert at the Museum of Natural Sponge History in Loofah, Eastern Australia, agrees with Wrecks.
“Look, I do find it fascinating that early sponges might be our oldest animal ancestors, but these fossils just go back too far,” she says.
“Every year, it seems that different researchers keep finding the ‘oldest’ animal fossils, pushing the date back earlier and earlier. Just last week, a sponge specimen was found dating back nearly a billion years!
“It’s just too much. When will it stop?”
Other parties have also voiced their concerns about the proliferation of palaeontology.
“They already have enough bones – they shouldn’t keep getting more until they’ve played with the bones they already have,” says Hugh J Owings of the Historical Sciences Funding Board. “I’m concerned palaeontologists are becoming spoiled.”
In fact, as fossil dating technologies improve, concerns have also been raised about the fervent search for the world’s oldest fossil.
“This is the problem with modern dating,” remarks Eddie Ackaran, founder of the fossil dating app Findr. “Dating has just turned into a big fossil measuring contest.”
Harry Ford, a spokesperson from the Indiana Jones Centre of Excellence for Ancient Artefacts, says palaeontologists are distracting from other disciplines.
“They keep finding prehistoric animal bones in our archaeological dig sites, and then of course they receive all the funding and media attention,” he says. “But the pots are important, too!”
An exhausted-looking Wrecks says he’d welcome a funding cut. “I wish we could stop discovering fossils, just for a bit. Just for a year or two.”
Another palaeontologist, who wishes to remain anonymous, suggests a radical solution.
“Maybe we should have more mining,” he says. “If the fossils aren’t there, we won’t have to excavate them or classify them, will we?”
But thousands of rock-happy researchers are adamant that it’s vital to continue the search for fossils, citing the need to understand the Earth’s history and our place in the evolutionary tree.
And, according to Proto-Donn, there are more pressing reasons, too.
“We need to get all the bones,” she says. “All these geneticists keep sniffing around, muttering about dinosaur parks, and I worry about what will happen if they get their hands on this ancient DNA.
“Really, we are doing a public service.”
DEBORAH DEVIS contributed additional reporting to this story.
Lauren Fuge is a science journalist at Cosmos. She holds a BSc in physics from the University of Adelaide and a BA in English and creative writing from Flinders University.
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