August 7, 2008

Knowledge of Fossils Pays Off

Most of us think fossils are fascinating evidence of life in the past, eons before the first person appeared. People are usually captivated by the large fossils - dinosaurs, mammals and sharks - but only a few ever look at the microfossils. Dinoflagellates, calcareous nanofossils, diatoms, pollen and numerous other microscopic plants and animals are present in the Earth's layers, or strata. In fact, each stratum has its own unique assemblage of fossils. If you learn what fossils are in each layer, you can read the Earth's history like the pages of a book.

Some people might say that's interesting, but why is this useful and relevant today? They might not be aware that the information gleaned from fossils affects everyday life.

For example, each stratum was laid down in a series, one on top of the other. Some strata are hard and dense, others are soft and easy to penetrate. Road builders have to excavate through these layers. If a paleontologist recognizes that the strata they have to cut through is soft and easy to remove, then the cost estimate is lower. If he knows they are going to run into hard rock, the cost estimate is much higher. With study, the strata are predictable and, therefore, the excavating company can tell the customer the cost ahead of time - a very practical use of paleontology.

The same is true of a landowner looking for drinkable water on his land. The paleontologist for the drilling company can tell the drillers how deep they will have to go to get to good water. It can be an inexpensive shallow well or it can be thousands of feet through hard rock, and very expensive. The result is that the paleontologist can tell the landowner if a house is practical on that land.

The most extreme examples are related to oil companies. The paleontologists can predict which strata produce oil and their depth. This can involve drill holes several miles deep and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The paleontologists' work is crucial to the success or failure of the company based on their knowledge of the succession of fossils through time.

Studying ancient organisms hidden in the Earth's layers can not only provide a wealth of knowledge, it could save you money as well.

Virginia science Standards of Learning: 5.7; ES.7; ES.10, BIO.7.

- Lauck W. Ward is curator of invertebrate paleontology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.



Originally published by W. WARD; Special Correspondent.

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