EGU Blogs

palaeontology

Palaeontology in the 21st Century

Palaeontology is the study of the history of life on Earth. Whenever I get asked what I do, my answer always gets a predictable response: either “Oh, like Ross from Friends?” “So Jurassic Park?” or “So you dig dinosaurs?”

Neither of these are close to what myself, my colleagues, or the broader field are doing. Well, apart from the digging dinos. We have to have some perks (not that I’ve actually ever been on a dig…).

What I want to highlight are a couple of recent developments in the field that show that palaeontology is just as technically advanced as any other major domain of science out there. They both involve the genesis and analysis of large data sets that we’re constantly using to test large-scale patterns and processes through time – known as macroevolution. Trying to decipher the patterns and processes of evolution leading towards the modern, extant fauna we have today is key in predicting their future as we destroy the planet.

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Let’s have a discussion about live-tweeting academic conferences

Tl,dr version: I think we need more appropriate guidelines for live-tweeting conferences, specifically regarding the broadcasting of sensitive research. This should be at the discretion of the author, and ideally stated at the beginning of each talk.

Suzie Maidment, a colleague and friend of mine, recently started a major discussion on and off the internet with the following tweet: “I do think we need to have a discussion about live tweeting unpublished results & conclusions though. It’s just not cool.” (@Tweetisaurus)

The ensuing debate has lasted for four days now, and is on-going. Clearly, we need to have a discussion about live-tweeting at conferences. What followed from the initial tweet was a great debate, punctuated by a series of misunderstandings, ridiculous statements, partially offensive tweets, and what I think from some shows an attitude of disrespect towards colleagues. This was not from everyone involved – the dialogue was overwhelmingly progressive, but cut by a lot of opinions that could clearly do with thinking through a bit more, especially from those a bit new to the twitter game.

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IPC4 Day 1 – Using the past to inform the present

Welcome to the fourth International Palaeontology Congress! 900 palaeontologists have piled into the land of steak, sun, and malbec in Mendoza, Argentina, for the biggest palaeontology conference that draws from all parts of the field.

What I want to do with these posts is just provide snapshot summaries of the talks I’ve been at to provide a window into the conference and the amazing diversity of research being conducted by a global team of awesome researchers. It’s not all just dinosaurs you know! Results will not be discussed in any detail for obvious reasons.

The first symposium I attended was on the “Coevolution of the Earth and life: the role of the physical environment in species’ evolution.”

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The greatest mass extinction in the history of life

In palaeontology, there are so many things more important than dinosaurs. For example, the study of large-scale patterns in the history of life on Earth, commonly known as macroevolution, is all about uncovering patterns of speciation and extinction. We are currently about to enter the sixth mass extinction within the last 542 million years of life on Earth, so figuring out exactly what happened during periods of elevated extinction and ecosystem catastrophe is pretty damn important if we want to offset as much damage as possible.

Recently, a suite of new papers have been published giving detailed insight into the environmental and biological patterns and processes throughout the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, an event 252 million years ago that saw the demise of greater than 90% of life on this planet (numbers vary depending on which measure you use). What I’d like to offer here are bitesize summaries of each, and show that there is much more important research out there in palaeontology than just ‘woo new dinosaur’.

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