Conservation paleobiologists--scientists who use the fossil record to understand the evolutionary and ecological responses of present-day species to changes in their environment--are putting the dead to work.
A new review of the research in this emerging field provides examples of how the fossil record can help assess environmental impacts, predict which species will be most vulnerable to environmental changes, and provide guidelines for restoration.
The literature review by conservation paleobiologists Gregory Dietl of the Paleontological Research Institution and Cornell University and Karl Flessa of the University of Arizona is published in the January, 2011, issue of the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the research.
"Conservation paleobiologists apply the data and tools of paleontology to today's problems in biodiversity conservation," says Dietl.
The primary sources of data are "geohistorical": the fossils, geochemistry and sediments of the geologic record.
"A conservation paleobiology perspective has the unique advantage of being able to identify phenomena beyond time scales of direct observation," Dietl says.
Such data, says Flessa, "are crucial for documenting the species we have already lost--such as the extinct birds of the Hawaiian islands--and for developing more effective conservation policies in the face of an uncertain future."
Geohistorical records, the authors write, are critical to identifying where--and how--species survived long-ago periods of climate change.
"Historically, paleontologists have focused their efforts on understanding the deep-time geological record of ancient life on Earth, but these authors turn that focus 180 degrees," says H. Richard Lane, program director in NSF's Division of Earth Sciences, which funds Dietl's and Flessa's research.
"In putting the dead to work, they id
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