Paleontology and The Origins of Biodiversity

 

I'm interested in using the fossil record to understand major events in the history of life, and the origins and evolution of biodiversity in the broadest sense. The
 diversity we see all around us today is a fraction of 1% of all the species that have ever lived. To understand the origins of this diversity we need fossils. Fossils tell us things about evolution we would otherwise could not know. When, and where, organisms originated. The tempo of evolution. What intermediate forms looked like. The existence of extinction, of mass extinction, recovery.


 Evolutionary biology has long focused on the idea that the present is the key to the past, but it's the other way around. The past is the key to the present- you can't infer the existence of the Chicxulub asteroid impact, four-winged birds, or the Northern Hemisphere origin of marsupials from the modern biota; and you can't understand the origins of modern diversity without the fossil record.
    Paleontology is sometimes thought of as a minor offshoot of evolutionary biology, but it's far from it. Evolutionary biology as a discipline is less than 200 years old, but it's a process that's been going on for almost 4.5 billion years. Trying to understand evolution from the fraction of species available to us today is like trying to understand the history of the world by skimming today's newspaper, or modern music without knowing the existence of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. It's an incomplete understanding.
    Only a handful of all the species that have existed in the past are represented by living relatives today. Everything else is the domain of the paleontologist.