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Re: The (long) future of paleontology

> The conversation prompted me to wonder: what is the (long) future for
> paleontology?   In some ways, it's a zero-sum game with an 
> achievable end
> point.  After all, all the fossils that ever will be discovered 
> alreadyexist.  Will paleontology eventually become like classic 
> literature, where
> scholars argue over the interpretation of an almost static corpus 
> of data?

Nice thought provoking question (I think it's interesting, anyway, for what 
that's worth).  For my part, I would toss in the caveat that it is only the 
field collection portion of paleontology that is technically zero-sum (though, 
realistically, I agree that such a situation will probably never even be 
approached).  A single element is a single data point only for some specific 
analyses.  For most studies, a single element from a single organism still 
yields a vast range of information, and having many individuals adds yet more 
possibilities (beyond just having more elements).  

As in any other
 scientific discipline, the data pool is effectively infinite, even if the 
available material is not.  By way of example, I would point to the vast array 
of research projects completed using museum specimens already known and 
examined.  In some cases, comparative analyses, functional analyses, etc are 
utilizing fossils that have been known and recognized for a long time.  Old 
specimens regularly produce new information.  Such information is truly novel, 
not just an interpretation of static data (since the data extracted and the 
analyses can both be unique).

Of course, as I already suggested, it seems unlikely that even a majority of 
the possible specimens will ever be discovered.  And with regards to what sorts 
of processes/technologies will make more fossils available in the future, one 
powerful force will be the same one that has also destroyed or covered 
countless sites: human population growth and expansion.  While many valuable 
sites have been tragically destroyed by hu
man actions, more will also be made accessible by our continued construction 
(road cuts, canal dredging, mining etc).


--Mike Habib