AskDefine | Define palaeontology

Dictionary Definition

palaeontology n : the earth science that studies fossil organisms and related remains [syn: paleontology, fossilology]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. A variant spelling of paleontology.

Extensive Definition

Palaeontology redirects here. For the scientific journal, see Palaeontology (journal).
Paleontology, palaeontology or palæontology (from Greek: παλαιό (palaeo), "old, ancient"; όν (on), "being"; and logos, "speech, thought") is the study of prehistoric life forms on Earth through the examination of fossils. This includes the study of body fossils, tracks (ichnites), burrows, cast-off parts, fossilised faeces (coprolites), palynomorphs and chemical residues. Studies of prehistoric hominins, their culture and their behaviour are the purview of two other disciplines, archaeology and paleoanthropology.


Modern paleontology sets ancient life in its context by studying how long-term physical changes of global geography paleogeography and climate paleoclimate have affected the evolution of life, how ecosystems have responded to these changes and have adapted the planetary environment in turn and how these mutual responses have affected today's patterns of biodiversity. Hence, paleontology overlaps with geology (the study of rocks and rock formations) as well as with botany, biology, zoology and ecology – fields concerned with life forms and how they interact.
The major subdivisions of paleontology include paleozoology (animals), paleobotany (plants) and micropaleontology (microfossils). Paleozoologists may specialise in invertebrate paleontology, which deals with animals without backbones or in vertebrate paleontology, dealing with fossils of animals with backbones, including fossil hominids (paleoanthropology). Micropaleontologists study microscopic fossils, including organic-walled microfossils whose study is called palynology.
There are many developing specialties such as paleobiology, paleoecology, ichnology (the study of tracks and burrows) and taphonomy (the study of what happens to organisms after they expire). Major areas of study include the correlation of rock strata with their geologic ages and the study of evolution of lifeforms.
Paleontology utilises the same classic binomial nomenclature scheme, devised for the biology of living things by the mid-18th century Swedish biologist Carolus Linnaeus and increasingly sets these species in a genealogical framework, showing their degrees of interrelatedness using the still somewhat controversial technique of 'cladistics'.
The primary economic importance of paleontology lies in the use of fossils to determine the age and nature of the rocks that contain them or the layers above or below. This information is vital to the mining industry and especially the petroleum industry. Simply looking at the fossils contained in a rock remains one of the fastest and most accurate means of telling how old that rock is.
Fossils were known by primitive humans and were sometimes identified correctly as the remains of ancient lifeforms. The organised study of paleontology dates from the late 18th century. For a more complete historical overview see the article History of paleontology.

Notable paleontologists

History includes a number of prominent paleontologists. Charles Darwin collected fossils of South American mammals during his trip on the Beagle and examined petrified forests in Patagonia. Mary Anning was a notable early paleontologist. She found several landmark fossils, in her home town of Lyme Regis. Although self-taught, she collected and described them in a very systematic way. William Buckland, Richard Owen, Gideon Mantell, Georges Cuvier and Thomas Huxley were important early pioneers, in the field of paleontology. Thomas Jefferson took a keen interest in mammoth bones. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh waged a famously fierce competition known as the Bone Wars in the late 19th century that involved some questionable practices, but which significantly advanced the understanding of the natural history of North America and vertebrate paleontology. Professor Earl Douglass of the Carnegie University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened the fossil quarry protected today by Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Douglass' fossils are in several Natural History Museums. Meanwhile, Baron Franz Nopcsa, a pioneer paleobiologist, argued that dinosaurs might have been both warm-blooded and ancestral to birds.
Besides looking at mammal teeth and unearthing penguin skeletons, George Gaylord Simpson played a crucial role in bringing together ideas from biology, paleontology and genetics, to help create the 'Modern Synthesis' of evolutionary biology. His book "Tempo and Mode" is a classic in the field. Prominent names in invertebrate paleontology include Steven M. Stanley, Stephen Jay Gould, David Raup, Rousseau H. Flower and Jack Sepkoski, who have done much to expand our understanding of long-term patterns in the evolution of life on earth. Large names in the field of paleoanthropology include Louis, Mary and Richard Leakey, Raymond Dart, Robert Broom, C.K. 'Bob' Brain, Kenneth Oakley, Robert Ardrey and Donald Johanson. In recent times, Mongolian paleontologist Rinchen Barsbold has done much to expand our understanding of dinosaur and bird evolution. Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago has made several important dinosaur finds in areas such as the Sahara, where fossil hunting has been uncommon.


palaeontology in Afrikaans: Paleontologie
palaeontology in Arabic: علم الإحاثة
palaeontology in Bosnian: Paleontologija
palaeontology in Breton: Paleontologiezh
palaeontology in Bulgarian: Палеонтология
palaeontology in Catalan: Paleontologia
palaeontology in Czech: Paleontologie
palaeontology in Welsh: Paleontoleg
palaeontology in Danish: Palæontologi
palaeontology in German: Paläontologie
palaeontology in Estonian: Paleontoloogia
palaeontology in Modern Greek (1453-): Παλαιοντολογία
palaeontology in Spanish: Paleontología
palaeontology in Esperanto: Paleontologio
palaeontology in Basque: Paleontologia
palaeontology in Persian: دیرین‌شناسی
palaeontology in French: Paléontologie
palaeontology in Western Frisian: Paleontology
palaeontology in Galician: Paleontoloxía
palaeontology in Korean: 고생물학
palaeontology in Croatian: Paleontologija
palaeontology in Indonesian: Paleontologi
palaeontology in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Paleontologia
palaeontology in Interlingue: Paleontologie
palaeontology in Ido: Paleontologio
palaeontology in Icelandic: Steingervingafræði
palaeontology in Italian: Paleontologia
palaeontology in Hebrew: פליאונטולוגיה
palaeontology in Georgian: პალეონტოლოგია
palaeontology in Latin: Palaeontologia
palaeontology in Lithuanian: Paleontologija
palaeontology in Hungarian: Őslénytan
palaeontology in Macedonian: Палеонтологија
palaeontology in Mongolian: Палеонтологи
palaeontology in Dutch: Paleontologie
palaeontology in Japanese: 古生物学
palaeontology in Norwegian: Paleontologi
palaeontology in Norwegian Nynorsk: Paleontologi
palaeontology in Novial: Paleontologia
palaeontology in Occitan (post 1500): Paleontologia
palaeontology in Low German: Paläontologie
palaeontology in Polish: Paleontologia
palaeontology in Portuguese: Paleontologia
palaeontology in Romanian: Paleontologie
palaeontology in Russian: Палеонтология
palaeontology in Simple English: Paleontology
palaeontology in Slovak: Paleontológia
palaeontology in Slovenian: Paleontologija
palaeontology in Serbian: Палеонтологија
palaeontology in Serbo-Croatian: Paleontologija
palaeontology in Finnish: Paleontologia
palaeontology in Swedish: Paleontologi
palaeontology in Tamil: தொல்லுயிரியல்
palaeontology in Thai: บรรพชีวินวิทยา
palaeontology in Vietnamese: Cổ sinh vật học
palaeontology in Turkish: Paleontoloji
palaeontology in Ukrainian: Палеонтологія
palaeontology in Urdu: حفریات
palaeontology in Volapük: Fösilav
palaeontology in Yiddish: פאליאנטאלאגיע
palaeontology in Chinese: 古生物学
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