CSI: Extinction / The importance of prehistory

Paleontologists are convening in Pittsburgh this week, and Carnegie Museum of Natural History director SAM TAYLOR takes the occasion to explain why understanding prehistory is more important than ever

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From a drop of water," says Sherlock Holmes in "A Study in Scarlet," "a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other." Nowhere will the great detective's reasoning be more fully realized than in Pittsburgh this week, as the city welcomes an international group of more than 1,000 scientists to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's annual meeting.

Paleontologists study prehistoric life, seeking to piece together the story of how species evolved and how ancient ecosystems developed in response to an ever-changing Earth. And researchers do so with only the tiniest "drops" of evidence: fossilized remains of ancient life, from which we can infer much about our world as it was millions of years ago, teeming with life. In documenting evolution, paleontologists often can link the changes they see in species over time with large-scale changes in the environment of the entire planet, or of specific regions.

Examples might take the form of a great extinction of many species after a period of global cooling, or a great diversification of species after plants colonize the dry and barren surface of continents. The ability to discover such basic and fundamental principles of how the planet works takes a special kind of talent (see Sherlock Holmes, above), but indeed, insights about the evolution of life that may be deduced from small fragments of long-dead organisms are one of the central goals of the discipline.

This is also the aspect of paleontology that makes the science critically relevant in today's world. Thanks to the body of knowledge amassed by paleontologists, we often can make informed predictions about the potential impact of environmental change on biodiversity, or on the sustainability of our agriculture industry -- indeed, even on our ability to survive in a world that may be very different from the one in which humans first evolved.

Today, as society faces global issues such as climate change, the rapid degradation of habitats and accelerated extinction of species, we turn for insight not to "futurists" but to paleontologists, who often can demonstrate with empirical data from the fossil record how Earth and its inhabitants have responded to great changes -- some of them catastrophic -- in the past.

With this perspective in mind, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, with its legacy of leadership in paleontology, is perfectly positioned to see its mission of research expand. We will continue to be a scholarly organization that discovers and describes the wonders of the past. But we also will apply the knowledge we generate to inform the future.

Our collections are a unique database of life on Earth through time, and our scientists have a unique capacity to interpret these collections. Our museum's educational mission now encompasses not only the question of how life evolved, but also the question of how life can be sustained in the future.

This expansion of our perspective is a natural outgrowth of the museum's historical commitment to paleontology, which goes back to Andrew Carnegie.

This month's annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is a perfect occasion for our city to reflect on Andrew Carnegie's legendary gift to the people of Pittsburgh, with his directive to museum director William Holland to "buy this for Pittsburgh." Carnegie was referring, of course, to the giant dinosaur skeleton that had just been discovered "out West."

Thanks to Andrew Carnegie's sustained commitment, the museum's dinosaur collection is now one of the world's most significant and its curators are among the most productive scientists in the field of paleontology.

For instance, the tiny primate skull of Eosimias, discovered in China by Carnegie paleontologist Christopher Beard in the 1990s, radically challenged prevailing concepts of how primates' earliest ancestors evolved. Tracing the predecessors and the descendants of this small early primate, Mr. Beard concluded that anthropoids -- the primate group that includes monkeys, apes and humans -- originated in Asia, not in Africa as generations of paleontologists had previously believed.

Carnegie scientists continue to launch expeditions in hopes of locating the next great dinosaur find. Paleontologist Matt Lamanna is now studying a 70-million-year-old "titanosaur" -- a completely new species of 40-ton dinosaur that his team discovered south of the equator in Argentinean Patagonia. Dr. Lamanna believes this exceptional discovery holds clues about continental drift and how shifting geography may have influenced dinosaur evolution and extinction.

Equally as important as the work of our paleontologists is the excitement that their discoveries inspire in curious learners of all ages. A fascination with dinosaurs is a gateway to scientific literacy and lifelong interest. Dinosaurs ignite "aha!" moments that turn kids on to the wonder of science and to a practice of thought-based inquiry and curiosity.

Thank goodness for the museums where children can discover dinosaurs! Research cited by the National Research Council shows that, for many people, museums such as ours provide the majority of science experiences people will have over their lifetimes. Museums also engage friends and families collectively. It's this combination of science and social experience that accounts for museums' unique capacity to get people interested and involved in science. Today, the global economy is driven by science and technology, and science literacy for all citizens is crucial to the global competitiveness of our region and nation.

Mindful of the imperative of expanding the public's level of scientific literacy, Carnegie Museum of Natural History is developing plans for a Center for Evolutionary Biology. Like other new centers at the museum, it will more closely align our traditional strengths in research and collections with our public outreach efforts. This ambitious science education program is designed to inspire diverse audiences, especially school children and scientists.

Citizens who understand the need for science are those who will help answer the most pressing question of our time: How can we best sustain life on this planet?

It's hard to think of a more worthy challenge.

Sam Taylor is director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History ( www.carnegiemnh.org ). First Published October 10, 2010 4:00 AM


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