Friday, October 24, 2014

Paleontology Without Dinosaurs

In the fossil world, T. rex is Elvis.  He's the King.  Everybody knows him, and when the subject comes up, he's the one everyone thinks of first.

Something very similar happens with the Mesozoic.  That's the era lasting roughly from 250 to 65 mya, during which dinosaurs arose, thrived, and fell into extinction.  But there's a lot of interesting prehistory, On Beyond Elvis.  There's the Eoarchean Era, when life (probably)arose on Earth.  Or the early Cambrian when life ceased being a relatively placid process and abruptly got funky with armor, claws, and myriad offensive and defensive armaments.

And there's the Eocene Epoch, late in the Cenozoic Era.  Recently I visited the Florissant Fossil Beds National monument which preserves an astonishing assemblage of fossils and microfossils from 34 million years ago.  The fossilized redwood stumps are enormous, but most of the fossils are very small -- hickory leaves, mayflies, spiders and the like.  Many of which are still around.  So it's not as sexy a time as the Cretaceous.  But collectively, the fossils offer a finely grained glimpse into the distant past, and can tell us a great deal about the evolution of life on our planet.  They're not tourist bait, the way Rexie is.  But for those of us who love science, it is genuinely fascinating.

The crown jewel of the collection is a beautifully detailed tsetse fly.  It is the only fossil tsetse fly ever found.  And it was found not in Africa, but in Colorado.



Lars said...

I did some field work in western Nebraska, which is underlain largely by rocks of the Miocene, if I recall correctly. Fossil sites are common there, and one of the commonest fossils was seeds of the hackberry - no different from those found in the present.
I don't think of hackberries as a prehistoric plant, and seeing these seeds made me feel as though I was living in sort of a very long day, in which, while a lot has changed, fundamentals haven't.
It's the fossils of the little things - magnolia leaves, scorpions, ants - that we can really grasp the present's profound continuity with the past.

Michael Swanwick said...

Very nicely put, Lars. That was a great deal of what I felt looking at those small and intimate fossils.

Lars said...

Thank you, Michael.