Why palaeontology needs all the World’s research funding

I do like the odd thought experiment and this is one that cropped up in my mind a while back and I think is worth expounding on. It’s a joke, of course, but the underlying point is both important and true so hopefully it will be illustrative.

So, my contention: all of the World’s money for research should be direct to palaeontology – chemistry, medicine, physics, biochemistry, biology, geology, engineering, the arts, the lot. All of it. Every penny, cent, yen, bhat, and franc. But more specifically, it should go to funding prospecting, excavation and curation.

How can I possibly justify this? Well, hopefully quite easily. The simple fact is that tomorrow there will still be planets to discover, sub-atomic particles to analyses, proteins to sequence, new organic compounds to test, new beds of rock to date, new oil deposits to find, new engines to design, new books to be written and more. But, and it is one hell of a big but. By tomorrow a few hundred or even a few thousand, fossils will be gone forever from the Earth. Built over by roads, used as building foundations, stolen by collectors, eroded from cliffs and more. They will never come back. The only single record of that one organism is lost for all time. And in many cases, we must, pretty much by definition, be losing the only record of species, genera, families, classes, orders, probably even whole *phyla* are being erased from the fossil record and thus Earth’s history. Huge and important parts of the history of this planet are gone forever.

How can we stop this? Dig them up! Go and find them and dig them up. The physicists can look for the Higgs-Boson next year. They don’t need that hundred billion dollar particle accelerator this year. Another probe to Mars? After the last five? For the money from those two projects alone we can dig up tens of thousands of *tons* of fossils. We just need to find them and get them out of the ground. Once we have got them, we have all the time in the world to study them, but right now they are being lost. So there you go. For every fossil that exists on this planet right now, there is a finite time in which it can be collected before it is eroded, buried or destroyed. Since we can’t know which that will happen to and when, we need to get hold of them all now.

So there you have it. Give us the money. For tens of thousands of fossils, this is their one and only chance to be considered as part of the history of our planet. The very history of life is being eroded by the day, by the minute and yet most of us (understandably, perhaps) spend our time in the office, not in the field. What remains undiscovered and soon to be lost? The next Jehol? The next Morrison? The next Burgess? Act now, and not only will we lose this forever, we won’t even know it was lost.

Ok, so as I said this is a deliberate exaggeration and a thought experiment – I can’t really suggest that we should stop urgent research into HIV, cancer, renewable energy and so on, but there is a serious point to be made here. We are losing fossils constantly through all kinds of actions, and while there is a limit to how many Jurassic brachiopods we need in the World’s palaeontological collections, there are doubtless huge things we are missing. Take a look at the Solnhofen, with pretty intense collecting (and including the surrounding formations) we have found two dinosaurs and ten specimens of Archaeopteryx. What else might lie there? It is the right time and conditions that there could be some more important clues to the origins of birds. Thousands of critical specimens are already in private hands and may never see the light of day, what else are we missing? Those places that are not exposed are not being checked and many quarries are being mined for industrial purposes – what bird and dinosaur specimens are being fed through bulldozers on a daily basis? Not to mention plants, insects, fish, lizards, crocodiles, squid and more. It is a genuine and unrecoverable loss.

There seems to me to be a mindset with some people that since these things are made of rock they will last forever, but that is simply not the case. I have seen footprints erode pretty much before my eyes in Bolivia, Fodonyx the new rhynchosaur skull I recently described had the lower jaws almost eroded away. If someone had not collected it by chance in a few weeks there would probably have been nothing left. There are so many examples of only half a dinosaur being found in a hillside because the rest has already been eroded away it is barely worth a mention. Researchers have whole skeletons jacketed in the filed that they cannot remove through lack of funding and it is just a matter of time till the elements get to them now that they are exposed. In a very real sense, this is a race of funding versus geological time and meteorology and we are on the wrong end of it.

This is a modified Mk.1. post, to see the original plus comments etc., go here.


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