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On the value of palaeontological collections

Dave Lazarus

Pp. 33-36 in: Berendsohn, W. G. (ed.), Resource Identification for a Biological Collection Information Service in Europe (BioCISE). - Botanic Garden and Botanical Museum Berlin-Dahlem, Dept. of Biodiversity Informatics.

The science of palaeontology

Palaeontology is a highly interdisciplinary discipline, standing at the interface of the biological and physical sciences. The application of palaeontological knowledge can be broadly divided into 4 main areas:

The first of these themes was also the first to be developed, and for most people is still the most significant aspect even today. Whether profound or ridiculous - from Darwin to "Jurassic Park" - fossils have fascinated and informed us of life's vast history; and through extinction, of its inherent fragility. Within the biological sciences, palaeontology also has provided much of the historical background needed to understand the opportunistically evolved characteristics and functions of currently living organisms.

Complementing these biologic applications, palaeontology has also contributed extensively to the development of the earth sciences. Palaeontology has long been the backbone on which the divisions of geologic time have been built (only in the last century has it been possible to accurately assign absolute ages to the previously largely palaeontologically established geologic time intervals). Fossils, via their implied environmental tolerances, have also been a basic tool for reconstructing past physical conditions on the earth.

In more recent years these two aspects of palaeontology - the biologic and geologic - have increasingly begun to merge in highly integrated studies of the earth and its biota. In fields such as Global Change research or Earth System science, palaeontology is one of several vital disciplinary components. Understanding climate change, or the response of the earth' biotic system to mass extinctions are examples of current significant contributions.

Palaeontology, with about 5,000 practitioners worldwide, has historically been divided into several sub-disciplines. Micropaleontology, the study of small (mostly protist-created) fossils is the largest branch and has concentrated on geologic applications such as biostratigraphy and palaeoenvironments. Other sub-disciplines include invertebrate and vertebrate palaeontology, and palaeobotany. These disciplines have contributed more strongly to biology via the study of evolution.

Types, sizes and costs of palaeontological collections

There are no really reliable estimates for the number or size of palaeontological collections worldwide. A recent number (Allmon, 1997) of about 300 million specimens is probably a substantial underestimate. Most of this material is microfossil (where only bulk samples, not the thousands of individual specimens within them, are tallied) or invertebrate material. Although the largest single type of repository are museums, academic departments, government agencies, and industrial concerns (particularly oil companies) together hold nearly equivalent numbers of specimens. While museum collections are largely concentrated in North America and Europe, many large industrial and government collections are found in developing countries as well. These numbers do not include many other extensive collections of highly fossiliferous geologic materials, such as deep-sea sediment cores (which consist largely of microfossils), even though sediments in such core repositories are often sampled for palaeontological purposes. There are no statistics at all on how much these collections cost to maintain, but, based on a subjective estimate of the percentage of overall palaeontological (and support staff) manpower devoted to collection work, the cost, worldwide, is perhaps on the order of US$ 100 million per year. Whether this is a justifiable expense depends on many things, not least the sheer intellectual value these collections provide to humanity's perception of nature. However, in a more technical, dollars and cents evaluation, one can well justify this kind of expenditure. For one, simply the replacement cost of such large collections - certainly in the US$ tens of billions range - would justify their continued maintenance, assuming that the collections still have some practical uses as well. And they indeed do.

Major uses of palaeontological collections

Palaeontological collections underpin most of the activities of palaeontological science. A small fraction of the world's collections are primarily used to teach about the history of life on earth, either via museum displays or as special "teaching collections" in university departments. Most fossil material is however collected for research, initially by industry, government or academic palaeontologists. Older materials, often stored in museums, provide the primary data documentation for published research. These older materials are often also used again as the basis of new research, particularly in larger synthetic analyses of biostratigraphy, evolution and paleoenvironments. The type specimens in these collections are particularly important, as they provide the unique, irreplaceable physical reference standard for the calibration of taxonomic names. Surveys of museums in the USA indicate that re-examination of type material is the most common way palaeontological collections are used. Much of this work is for individual basic taxonomic studies, but these investigations are often also part of broader research programs. The International Geological Correlation Program (IGCP) for example is the primary focus of the international earth science community's effort to improve the basis of geological correlation worldwide. A substantial part of this work involves re-examining fossil type material in museum collections in order to better cross-correlate biostratigraphies from different parts of the globe.

Three case studies

To illustrate the use of palaeontological collections, one specific example each is given of their application to biologic, environmental, and industrial problems.

Understanding evolution. One of the more important developments in evolution research in the last 20 years has been an increased awareness of the major role of mass-extinctions in the development of life on earth. Major episodes of extinction have long been known by palaeontologists - indeed, the major divisions of the geologic time scale, defined more than 100 years ago, are mostly based on such extinction episodes. However, only in recent years has it been possible to move beyond the anecdotal and begin to quantitatively measure and understand both mass extinction events and the evolutionary recovery that occurred after them. This analytic work, which has relevance as well to understanding modern threats to biodiversity, has been based on major taxonomic syntheses, most importantly the multivolume "Treatise of Invertebrate Palaeontology". And these syntheses have been created, through the work of hundreds of specialists over a period of 30 years, by the standardisation of taxonomic concepts, in large part by comparison of tens of thousands of specimens held in museum collections.

Understanding climate change. Concern about global warming has recently elevated academic research on past climate changes into a high-priority program in the earth sciences. One of the most fundamental pieces of knowledge on what controls climate change to have been discovered in the last several decades comes from such work, specifically from the study of deep-sea sediments. In the late 1970's, studies of these sediments proved that changes in the earth's orbital parameters control the timing and relative severity of the earth's dominant climate change signal - the ice ages. This work was in turned based on archives of deep-sea sediment cores and the numerous microfossils contained in them. These collections, often consisting of cores from thousands of locations around the world, have been built up over a period of many decades in the years after the Second World War at major marine science institutes, and form the basis even today for much climate change research. For example, one integral part of the global climate change research programme involves testing computer models of global climate against reconstructed actual past configurations of climate. These reconstructions (such as those of the CLIMAP project) are largely derived from microfossils, sampled from these extensive collections of deep-sea sediments.

Finding oil. The petroleum industry has long relied on microfossils in sediment cores obtained while drilling - for geologic age determination, and for determining the palaeoenvironmental conditions (hopefully favourable to oil formation) prevailing when the sediment was originally deposited. Most companies have had large staffs of micropalaeontologists, and exploration wells usually had a micropalaeontologist "on-site" during drilling operations. In the last decades micropaleontology has been increasingly supplemented by geochemical and particularly geophysical techniques. However, as the search for oil focuses ever more on smaller, more palaeoenvironmentally determined deposits, there has been a renewed need for the unique data provided by microfossils. In many cases, this new work is being done at least partly by re-examining older collections of microfossil material obtained during drilling from previous decades. That this can bring economic benefits has been dramatically demonstrated recently in the North Sea. There, a team of micropalaeontologists, stimulated by academic advances in microfossil taxonomy, and by the development of new preparation and imaging techniques, decided to re-examine the industry's extensive collections of microfossil material obtained from several decades of drilling for oil in the North Sea. Based on this re-examination of collection material, the scientists were able to improve the temporal resolution of the biostratigraphy used in the North Sea by a factor of 3, which was then in turn used to identify numerous new drilling targets that had not been visible to geochemical and geophysical methods alone. Although many of these targets have yet to be drilled, industry specialists estimate that up to 1 Billion barrels of new oil may have been located by this work.

Concluding remarks

The links between palaeontological collections and valuable contributions to science and society are not always visible to the public, and indeed are often made only through a long chain of intermediate steps. Yet the links are nonetheless extremely strong. Although it is possible - at least in Hollywood - to make money purely out of palaeontological imagery, real world scientists need real-world materials to support their work. Without palaeontological collections, palaeontology would be a crippled discipline, and the users of palaeontological data - geologists, biologists, climatologists, and the oil industry, among others - would be hurt as well. Whether for academic knowledge, or applied research into the environment, or in searching for natural resources, palaeontological collections are an essential, and highly cost effective research tool.


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