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What is Vertebrate Paleontology? SVP and Education

Fossils pose questions as soon as they’re discovered. This is as true now as it was when the very first were picked up, and no one knew what they were. The effort to answer questions posed by fossils and to develop better methods for investigating these questions, has been inextricably entwined with the development of science itself for centuries. Today, the number of fossils found and their accessibility through museums and the media create educational opportunities at every turn.

SVP member
            award-winning artist Gary Staab conducting
            hands-on workshop
            part of
            Project Exploration's Scientist
            Residence Program
SVP member and award-winning artist Gary Staab conducting a hands-on workshop as part of Project Exploration’s Scientist in Residence Program in California. © Gabrielle Lyon, courtesy Project Exploration.

Vertebrate paleontology is exciting science, linked to geology, anatomy, genetics, embryology, ecology … the list goes on. The public’s understanding of science, how science works, its achievements and its limits, is in need of major help, and vertebrate paleontology provides many opportunities to educate about the processes of science. Most importantly, vertebrate paleontology is an evolutionary science, and while the study of evolution in the nation’s public schools is still under attack in the 21st century, vertebrate paleontologists employ evolutionary science every day in the their work. The position of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology regarding the teaching of evolution is clear:

On the Teaching of Evolution

The fossil record of vertebrates unequivocally supports the hypothesis that vertebrates have evolved through time, from their first records in the early Paleozoic Era about 500 million years ago to the great diversity we see in the world today. The hypothesis has been strengthened by so many independent observations of fossil sequences that it has come to be regarded as a confirmed fact, as certain as the drift of continents through time or the lawful operation of gravity.

Paleontology relies for its evidence on two different but historically related fields, biology and geology. Evolution is the central organizing principle of biology, understood as descent with modification. Evolution is equally basic to geology, because the patterns of rock formations, geomorphology, and fossil distributions in the world make no sense without the underlying process of change through time. Sometimes this change has been gradual, and sometimes it has been characterized by violent upheaval. These processes can be seen on the Earth today in the forms of earthquakes, volcanoes, and other tectonic phenomena. Vertebrates have also evolved at a variety of rates, some apparently gradual, and some apparently rapidly. Although the fossil record is not complete, and our knowledge of evolution will always be less than entire, the evidence for the progressive replacement of fossil forms has been adequate to support the theory of evolution for over 150 years, well before genetic mechanisms of evolutionary change were understood. Paleontologists may dispute, on the basis of the available evidence, the tempo and mode of evolution in a particular group at a particular time, but they do not argue about whether evolution took place: that is a fact.

The fossil record has long been seen as a search for “ancestors” of living forms and of other fossil forms. Some fossil vertebrates appear to have no features that debar them from ancestry to other groups, and so could be seen as potential ancestors. Nevertheless, paleontologists do not focus on a search for direct ancestors, but rather look for sets of evolutionarily derived characters that are shared by fossil taxa that can then be linked as each other’s closest known relatives. Proceeding in this way, paleontologists have clarified in recent years a great many mysteries about the origins and interrelationships of major groups of vertebrates, including birds, dinosaurs and their relatives, lizards and snakes, Mesozoic marine reptiles, turtles, mammals and their relatives, amphibians, the first tetrapods, and many groups of fishes. At the same time, techniques of geologic dating, including magnetostratigraphy, radiometric dating of many different isotopes of common elements, lithostratigraphy, and biostratigraphy, have provided independent lines of evidence for determining age relationships of the sediments in which fossils are found. This evidence from the principles and techniques of chemistry and physics support the finds of paleontology based on paleobiological and geological analyses, making the theory of evolution the only robust scientific explanation for the patterns of life on Earth.

Evolution is fundamental to the teaching of good biology and geology, and the vertebrate fossil record is an excellent set of examples of the patterns and processes of evolution through time. We therefore urge the teaching of evolution as the only possible reflection of our science. Any attempt to compromise the patterns and processes of evolution in science education, to treat them as less than robust explanations, or to admit “alternative” explanations not relying upon sound evolutionary observations and theory, misrepresents the state of our science and does a disservice to the public. Textbooks and other instructional materials should not indulge in such misrepresentation, educators should shun such materials for classroom use, and teachers should not be harassed or impeded from teaching vertebrate evolution as it is understood by its practitioners. The record of vertebrate evolution is exciting, inspirational, instructive, and enjoyable, and it is our view that everyone should have the opportunity and the privilege to understand it as paleontologists do.

WE ARE SVP (the video)


What kinds of questions about paleontology and fossils do you get from your students? Do they ask what a real paleontologist does, or how he or she got interested in digging up fossils in the first place? Do they ask what the science is behind the stories in Jurassic Park, or how we know that dinosaurs cared for their babies? Do you get questions about how huge dinosaur or mammal bones are transported from the field to be studied in a laboratory?

Learn the answers to all of these questions (and more!) from the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). SVP recently put together a documentary about vertebrate paleontology and paleontologists called "We Are SVP." Narrated by Sam Waterston, the long-time star of "Law & Order", the "We Are SVP" documentary features interviews with diverse paleontologists of all ages, nationalities and professional levels, including graduate students. You and your students will see scenes of exciting fieldwork and a lot of great pictures of fossils. You'll also see how CT-scanning helps us learn about fossils, how helicopters can be a paleontologist's best friend, and what paleontology can tell us about climate change.

These are just a few of the topics covered in the "We Are SVP" documentary, which is set up so that you can show the whole program, or use only the chapters that relate to a topic you're teaching. Watch the "We Are SVP" documentary with your students on the SVP Web site.


GLOBAL CLIMATE CHANGE: The Perspective from the Fossil Record
Videos from the Climate Change Forum in Cleveland

In these three videos from the Climate Forum at the annual meeting of SVP in Cleveland in October 2008, three global-change scientists share their insights from the fossil record for ecological and evolutionary responses of plants and animals to climate changes underway today.