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What is Vertebrate Paleontology? What You Should Know About Vertebrate Fossils

Fossil vertebrates are usually unique or rare, nonrenewable resources that constitute part of our natural heritage. They provide data by which the history of vertebrate life on Earth may be reconstructed and are one of the primary means of studying evolutionary patterns and processes as well as environmental change.

Becoming a fossil is extremely unlikely to begin with

Many kinds of fossils, including those of most vertebrates, are rare for several reasons. Far less than 1% of the organisms that have ever lived become fossils. Many organisms are not readily preserved as fossils because they do not have hard parts that can preserve well in rock. Only rather unusual sedimentary environments preserve soft parts long enough to become fossilized. The remains of small organisms are more readily destroyed by mechanical and biological processes than the remains of large organisms with sturdy bones.

Also, organisms can only be preserved where sediments accumulate at a fairly high rate. Most organic remains are not buried fast enough to contribute to the fossil record. In addition, vertebrate fossils are generally less common than invertebrate fossils because there have been fewer living vertebrates than invertebrates over geologic time. Although we are fortunate to have some exceptions to these generalizations, spectacular deposits of diverse and complete organisms are rare over the history of the earth. All of this means that the chances of any vertebrate becoming a fossil are very small. Thus, vertebrate fossils are extremely valuable as bearers of information about the past. Furthermore, fossils of extinct groups are not renewable. More fossils will be discovered and collected, but always from a finite supply.

Where the fossil is found is as important as what it preserves

The rocks in which the fossils are found provide information about the environment of preservation and its climate, position in a historical sequence, and paleogeographic location. Fossil assemblages provide information about ecological interactions and communities.

A fossil collected without this information has lost much of its value, and we know little more than that this animal lived and died. In contrast, when contextual data are collected and studied, we begin to understand how the animal lived. As paleontologists and geologists learn more ways to interpret ancient environments and ecological communities from fossil assemblages in their original context, this information becomes more and more valuable and important.

Access to fossils is crucial for scientists

The understanding of evolutionary processes and relationships comes primarily from comparing the skeletons from different animals to each other. In order to do this; researchers must be able to compare new specimens with those previously unearthed. Only when specimens are properly collected and curated in public institutions can researchers access these specimens in order to make these comparisons. And when these comparisons and interpretations are made, education and the general public greatly benefit by having access to this new interpretive knowledge.