Putting the dead to work

Jan 14, 2011
This map shows how North America appeared just over 12,000 years ago. During the Pleistocene, repeated glaciations occurred. Credit: Ron Blakey, NAU

Conservation paleobiologists -- scientists who use the fossil record to understand the evolutionary and ecological responses of present-day species to changes in their environment -- are putting the dead to work.

A new review of the research in this emerging field provides examples of how the fossil record can help assess environmental impacts, predict which species will be most vulnerable to environmental changes, and provide guidelines for restoration.

The literature review by conservation paleobiologists Gregory Dietl of the Paleontological Research Institution and Cornell University and Karl Flessa of the University of Arizona is published in the January, 2011, issue of the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

"Conservation paleobiologists apply the data and tools of paleontology to today's problems in biodiversity conservation," says Dietl.

The primary sources of data are "geohistorical": the fossils, geochemistry and sediments of the .

Fossil leaf from a plant that's likely a member of the family that includes poinsettias. Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

"A conservation paleobiology perspective has the unique advantage of being able to identify phenomena beyond time scales of direct observation," Dietl says.

Such data, says Flessa, "are crucial for documenting the species we have already lost--such as the of the Hawaiian islands--and for developing more effective conservation policies in the face of an uncertain future."

Geohistorical records, the authors write, are critical to identifying where--and how--species survived long-ago periods of climate change.

"Historically, paleontologists have focused their efforts on understanding the deep-time geological record of ancient life on Earth, but these authors turn that focus 180 degrees," says H. Richard Lane, program director in NSF's Division of , which funds Dietl's and Flessa's research.

"In putting the dead to work, they identify the significant impact knowledge of fossil life can have on interpreting modern biodiversity and ecological trends."

Ancient DNA, for example, has been used to show that the arctic fox (Alopex lagopus) was not able to move with shifting climates as its range contracted, eventually becoming extinct in Europe at the end of the Pleistocene.

However, the species persisted in regions of northeastern Siberia where the climate was still suitable for arctic foxes.

In another tale from the beyond, fossil evidence suggests that the birds of the Hawaiian Islands suffered large-scale extinctions around the time of the arrival of the Polynesians.

Corals and other fossils from long-ago seas tell scientists much about life on Earth today. Credit: Polish Academy of Sciences

Studies comparing the ecological characteristics of bird species before and after these extinctions reveal a strong bias against larger-bodied and flightless, ground-nesting species.

The pattern suggests that hunting by humans played a role in the extinction of the flightless species.

By the 18th century, the time of the first Europeans' arrival in the islands, most large-bodied birds had already disappeared. European colonization of the islands led to a second wave of exctinctions.

Those birds that survived had traits that helped them weather two onslaughts.

In their review paper, Dietl and Flessa cite a study of the frequency in the of insect damage to flowering plant leaves in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming dating from before, during and after the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM, some 55.8 million years ago).

The PETM, scientists believe, is one of the best deep-time analogs for current global questions.

Results from the insect research suggest that herbivory intensified during the PETM global warming episode.

"This finding provides insights into how the human-induced rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide is likely to affect insect-plant interactions in the long run," the authors write, "which is difficult to predict from short-term studies that have highly species-specific responses."

The dead can help us even in remote places like the Galapagos Islands.

Scientists have used the fossil pollen and plant record there to show that at least six non-native or "doubtfully native" species were present before the arrival of humans. 

This baseline information, says Dietl, "is crucial to a current conservation priority in the Galapagos: the removal of invasive species."

An important role of geohistorical data is to provide access to a wider range of past environmental conditions--alternative worlds of every imaginable circumstance.

Tales of the past that may lead to better conservation practices, crucial for life, not death, on Earth.

The dead, it turns out, do tell tales.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the research.

Explore further: The quick and the dead among tropical reptiles: Study suggests some faster lizards can survive climate change

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panorama
not rated yet Jan 14, 2011
The title of this article made me think of a book by Nikolai Gogol called "Dead Souls". Great book, but really has nothing to do with the subject of this article.
Skeptic_Heretic
3.3 / 5 (3) Jan 14, 2011
I don't think this will be very fruitful research for a long time. The majority of life forms leave behind no fossil trace whatsoever. Those that do rarely leave behind enough fossils to give a sense of their range or prevalence within an ecosphere. I'm not sure how well we'll be able to measure paleo-biodiversity, but I'm open to being convinced.
R_R
1 / 5 (5) Jan 14, 2011
Looking closely at the ice age picture above. When observing the map of the Laurentide ice field we find the land based outer perimeter on North America forms roughly half a completed circle. Assuming an arctic ice field would be formed from the center out, the pole being located near the center, by completng this circle we find our center point at Hudson Bay. Also we find Greenland, which still holds its ice age ice, is situated within this circle. All fossil forests that have found in the Canadian arctic, such as the one recently found on Baffin Island, lie outside this circle as do the millions of elephant remains found in Alaska and Siberia.
R_R
1 / 5 (5) Jan 14, 2011
There is only two ways this Pole Shift could have occurred, ECD or Earth Stopped Rotating (ESR). Through elimination ESR is the answer and this senerio is backed up by ancient myth. Understanding that science is addicted to presenting assumption as fact, in order to pretect the established lie, we can easily see all core evidence does support the Pole shift senario.
Terrible_Bohr
5 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2011
The title of this article made me think of a book by Nikolai Gogol called "Dead Souls". Great book, but really has nothing to do with the subject of this article.

I love that book. Just don't mention it to Ethelred ;)
panorama
5 / 5 (2) Jan 14, 2011
The title of this article made me think of a book by Nikolai Gogol called "Dead Souls". Great book, but really has nothing to do with the subject of this article.

I love that book. Just don't mention it to Ethelred ;)

I've read two different translations and thoroughly enjoyed it both times.
Ethelred
not rated yet Jan 16, 2011
It is OK to mention it. Just don't expect me to read it. I just read a review and it was supposed to have a second part. Not written. So not only is about a MISERABLE place to live in it isn't finished.

I have read ONE book that was even partially in Russia. George McDonald Fraser's Flashman at the Charge. Which is about the Crimean War and the part in Russia is after Flashman is captured in the aftermath of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

"Big place ain't it." Is the best think Flashy had to say about the place. No I don't think one Flashman book is going to say all there is to say about a place that big. However EVERYTHING I have ever seen about it is that is a remarkably nasty place climate wise and that climate is bone deep in the Russian psyche. Hope for the best expect the worst is not realism in Russia. It is massive optimism, mostly because the Russians keep making it the worst.

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Ethelred
not rated yet Jan 16, 2011
If I want read to read about miserable people trying to deal with miserable country, with a miserable culture and a hideous climate I think I will start by reading Dickens again because that doesn't need a translator. Though I suppose Gogol might very well be a much better writer than Dickens who I can't stand. Who knows maybe Gogol and I agree on my reason's for not liking Dickens or a lot of other alleged great literature. I like SOLUTIONS. Not endless misery that no one can a bloody thing about.

Comes from reading Science Fiction and being an American I suppose. We expect things to get better. I remember reading Steinbeck's The Pearl. My teacher must have hated my review as much as I hated the story. I know he wrote other stuff. I liked Cannery Row but I simply am not going to read a bunch of Slit My Wrists and Dies stuff and Russia, the Rodina, is the Mother Land of Slit My Wrists and Die(that is MY name for the Berlin song Take My Breath Away that is a key song in Top Gun

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Ethelred
not rated yet Jan 16, 2011
Horrifying that Berlin came from Orange County, where I now live. The band feels like it should have been Russian.

Oh I just remembered that I read a SF book partially set in Russia. One of Harry Turtledove's turgid alternate histories. In retrospect I can't figure out how I managed to wade through the whole damned thing but I think I have simply gotten less tolerant of sort of writing. Maybe I simply didn't have anything else to read as I had bought the whole series before I started reading any of it and was seriously short on money at the time.

Ethelred