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Fossils are not only fun to collect, they also give us a unique window into the history of life on Earth. Therefore much research is done on fossils. One of the most obvious results of this study for the amateur collectoris that fossils can be named. Species get a place in the taxonomy and evolutionary history. But the study of fossils provides us with even more insights.
The scientific importance of fossils
We are lucky that fossils exist, and that in this way, though it is often fragmentary , we can get insight in the development of life on Earth in the 3.5 billion years that we know that life existed. The total of species living today is only a small fraction of the species that ever lived. This inevitably means that species are constantly developing, and eventually become extinct. This is no different for humans and the ecosystems of which man belongs. We depend on them for our survival . So we can better know well how species have evolved, and where the story is going. Fossils give us insight into the evolution of species, and also in their extinction.
The main motivator for searching and studying fossils is curiosity. Since insights into evolution were commonplace, we know that the study of fossils is a study to our own past , and the origin of the species that populate the Earth today. In this way, fossils provide part of the answer to some fundamental questions of humankind, like 'where do we come from?' . Evolution is perhaps one of the most groundbreaking scientific discoveries of the past centuries. Fossils play an important role in the understanding of the mechanisms of evolution.
Fossils also testify about how life can be in different circumstances. Insects in the Carboniferous for example, could assume enormous proportions, partly because of the extremely high concentrations of oxygen in the atmosphere. Now we are becoming increasingly aware that the world around us is not static, but has a dynamic character. These dynamics can be accelerated by human exploitation of natural resources (e.g. climate change), thus insights into evolution and adaptation of ecosystems is very important.
Fossils proved very useful in stratigraphic research. The fossil content of rock layers allows us to compare these layers and find similarities. Layers with the same fossil content (approximately) are of the same age. In some cases, we are able to very accurately date layers on the basis of the fossil content. Index fossils are very important. These fossils are abundant and occur over a wide area geographical (preferably global), are recognizable, and have a very limited stratigraphic range. The latter means that they rise quickly in the fossil record, and disappear quickly, and thus the species was only was present for a short time. These kind of fossils we can assign to a particular (short) period of time. From this perspective, it does not surprise that fossils also play a role in the detection of new gas and oil reserves in the Earth's crust.
Finally fossils can teach us a lot about extinctions. Since we are currently experiencing a new wave of extinction in the Anthropocene, for which we are responsible for a significant part our selves, insights into how extinctions happen and what are the consequences are very valuable.
Can I investigate or participate in research as an amateur?
For a professional paleontologist it is impossible to do all necessary fieldwork himself. Although knowledge of the terrain itself is considered as a very important, a professional has to be able to divide time between fieldwork, analysis and publication, with emphasis on the last two. So, amateur fossil hunters, just like quarry workers, excavator operators , ... can play an imprtant role for the scientific world, simply because they are in the field where potential discoveries can be made. However, not all amateurs actually realize this responsibility. Just as there are excavator oprerators who plow through a skeleton without hesitation, there are plenty of amateur collectors who do not significantly contribute to science. Either unwillingness or ignorance can be the cause. However, contributing to scientific research can be one of the aspects of fossil collecting which is the most satisfactory.
Do you want your collection to play a role in research, or do you want to do research yourself, then first begin with a systematic collection. Systematic collection means that you do not pick fossils at random, in order to store them away in a shoe box, but you're going to work systematically, both in the field and in building the collection. In the field, this means that you collect as many stratigraphic information as possible, and store this data for each fossil, and review the context in which the fossil is found. With preparation and preservation you use as much as possible non-destructive and reversible techniques. With storage and collection, this means that meticulous attention to proper labeling, inventory and storing information. Ideally you should be able to provide all information needed to link a fossil to the specific location and layer it was found. The accuracy and reliability of these data largely determine the scientific value that your collection can have.
Another important aspect of the scientific validation of your collection is communication. If you have made ??an important discovery, but no one knows about it, then nothing happens. The Internet is an important medium to post potentially relevant finds. As an amateur, you can do research yourself. This often happens in practice in conjunction with a professional. Conducting research and publishing is not easy, and it helps tremendously if you can get guidance from a professional scientist. And you may be connected in one way or another to an institution (e.g. as volunteer). If you want to cantact an expert, keep in mind that researchers are typically highly specialized. So it can take some time to find the scientist specialised in the type of fossils of your discovery.
I found a fossil that may be scientifically important, what should I do?
Depending on the context and condition of the fossil on the ground, the best action can be anything from 'hands off' to 'take'. Important to know is that the removal of the fossil from the initial layer is accompanied by the loss of information. Good notes and pictures are necessary. Log the exact location with a GPS, but do not underestimate the importance of your notes. A classic GPS on site with good reception only has 10 to 3 meter accuracy. This is not just about the layer in wich the fossil is found, but also the precise orientation and context are important. Let the fossil preferably inside a big coat of matrix. In the matrix micro -and macro- fossils may be present that can tell us more about the depositional environment. The excavation of larger fossils requires a more technical approach . Often, it is better to call for help than to start excavating with light tools.
Best you should contact a local research institution. This can be a local museum or university. In addition, you can also turn to a geological or paleontological association in the neighborhood. If you've found a new species, the new species may be described. You can read more about that in the article about scientific nomenclature.
Do you have additional information for this article? Please contact the Fossiel.net Team.