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RE: The (long) future of paleontology

A practical question: is there a known depth below ground where fossils
could not be found? I assume that fossils could be found effectively
anywhere on, or beneath, the earth (or ocean surface) where a) the proper
sort of geologic processes preserved them and b)other geologic processes
moved them.  

In principle, this "how many of the fossils have we found?" question seems
like the sort of problem that is amenable to GIS - one would create a model
parameterizing various types of geological formations in terms of their
estimated likelihood for holding fossils (based on past experience) and then
use standard GIS tools to measure the area of the unsearched formations.

-----Original Message-----
From: owner-dinosaur@usc.edu [mailto:owner-dinosaur@usc.edu] On Behalf Of
Sent: Thursday, January 12, 2006 3:55 PM
To: wfz@wfzimmerman.com
Cc: dinosaur@usc.edu
Subject: 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