Strength in Numbers

"If you already have 100 horse teeth in your collection, why do you need 101?"

This question, or something similar to it, is a common one when I take non-paleontologists through our collection or when training volunteers in fieldwork. And, it's not an unreasonable question. What good are a whole bunch of similar fossils, particularly if many of them aren't that complete?

Fossils in a museum collection have many, many purposes. Particularly exceptional fossils may be put on display to educate the general public, as shining examples of our planet's past life. The more complete the fossil, the more it can tell us about an animal's appearance, evolutionary relationships, and behavior. But, not every discovery is a complete fish skeleton or uncrushed dinosaur skull. In fact, these are rare finds in most rocks. The image below of a museum drawer shows a more typical situation--numerous individual teeth and partial jaws from a single rock exposure.
Fossil teeth in a museum drawer
Isolated teeth probably won't wow most museum visitors, but these bits and pieces tell just as powerful of a story about our history. A single tooth might tell you the species it belonged to, the diet of the individual animal, and whether it was a teenager or elderly adult at death. That's pretty cool--but it is far less rich story than if you have a much larger sample.

With dozens (or even hundreds) of teeth from a single rock layer, you can learn something about what all of the animals in that area were eating at a particular time. How old was the average animal when it died? What species were most common? This tells you something about a particular snapshot in time.

But it can get even better! If you have big samples from multiple rock layers representing multiple times in earth's history, you can start to look at real changes in organisms. Do the teeth change their typical shape from layer to layer? Do the wear patterns indicate something about how diets changed? If you start to add in fossil plants and geochemistry (which can offer clues on temperature, rainfall, and local environment), you can build up a picture of species responding (or not responding) to environmental change. Every fossil adds something to the picture.

So, there really is strength in numbers. Vertebrate paleontologists and the museums housing the history of our planet use these numbers to reconstruct our rich global past. The better we know the past, the better we can understand the present and look forward to whatever the future holds.

-- Andrew A. Farke
Image credit: Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, specimens collected under permit from US Bureau of Land Management
Posted: 6/3/2015 9:00:00 AM by host | with 0 comments
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