01 July 2007

Analytical Paleobiology

Hans' comment on my last post made me realize not only that I probably sounded like I was complaining about my coursework this summer, but that I never did a very thorough job of explaining exactly why I'm spending my summer in Southern California to begin with. My (almost) all-expenses-paid trip to Santa Barbara is courtesy of the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, a think-tank affiliated with UC Santa Barbara that each summer offers what I believe is the only course in analytical paleobiology in the world. The subject matter may sound less than thrilling, but it is extremely relevant. For decades, paleontology - and in particular vertebrate paleontology - has languished in the realm of observational science: people would go out to the field, collect some fossils, describe them, and leave it at that. Even the so-called "Dinosaur Renaissance" of the late 20th Century consisted mainly of an increase in discovery and description rather than being marked by a shift in analytical techniques (and for all you smart-asses out there, yes, I realize this is an oversimplification and that researchers such as G.G. Simpson were outstanding theoretical paleontologists long before the modern era; still, on the whole, I think my assertion stands). Fortunately, in recent years a greater emphasis has been placed upon interpretation of data in an effort to discern large-scale trends in ecology and evolution. Of course, any such effort requires statistics, and lots of them (though, as always, quality is much more important than quantity). Such methods are anathema to many of the old guard in paleontology (partly, I expect, because they lack the glamor of field work), but they are essential in detecting patterns in the fossil record (which, as I've argued before, really is the point of science). The purpose of this course is to give us all a baptism by fire into the the world of analytical paleobiology. Several paleontologists from across the country are flown in to teach five-day modules, each focusing on a particular field. This week's topic, for example, is morphometrics, the quantitative study of fossil shape. It's a field I came into the course knowing very little about, and even a couple of lectures have made it clear to me that it's far more complex than I had ever realized (the highlight so far has been making silhouettes of rodent jaws for analysis, such as the one above). In later sessions we start delving into the far more convoluted world of ecology and evolution. It will no doubt get very confusing, but don't for a minute get fooled into thinking I hate the experience. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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