The simplest definition is "the study of ancient life". Paleontology seeks information about several aspects of past organisms: "their identity and origin, their environment and evolution, and what they can tell us about the Earth's organic and inorganic past".
A historical science
Paleontology is one of the historical sciences, along with archaeology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, philology and history itself. This means that it aims to describe phenomena of the past and reconstruct their causes. Hence it has three main elements: description of the phenomena; developing a general theory about the causes of various types of change; and applying those theories to specific facts.
When trying to explain past phenomena, paleontologists and other historical scientists often construct a set of hypotheses about the causes and then look for a smoking gun, a piece of evidence that indicates that one hypothesis is a better explanation than others. Sometimes the smoking gun is discovered by a fortunate accident during other research. For example, the discovery by Luis Alvarez and Walter Alvarez of an iridium-rich layer at the Cretaceous–Tertiary boundary made asteroid impact and volcanism the most favored explanations for the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.
The other main type of science is experimental science, which is often said to work by conducting experiments to disprove hypotheses about the workings and causes of natural phenomena – note that this approach cannot confirm a hypothesis is correct, since some later experiment may disprove it. However, when confronted with totally unexpected phenomena, such as the first evidence for invisible radiation, experimental scientists often use the same approach as historical scientists: construct a set of hypotheses about the causes and then look for a "smoking gun".
Paleontology lies on the boundary between biology and geology since paleontology focuses on the record of past life but its main source of evidence is fossils, which are found in rocks. For historical reasons paleontology is part of the geology departments of many universities, because in the 19th century and early 20th century geology departments found paleontological evidence important for estimating the ages of rocks while biology departments showed little interest.
Paleontology also has some overlap with archaeology, which primarily works with objects made by humans and with human remains, while paleontologists are interested in the characteristics and evolution of humans as organisms. When dealing with evidence about humans, archaeologists and paleontologists may work together – for example paleontologists might identify animal or plant fossils around an archaeological site, to discover what the people who lived there ate; or they might analyze the climate at the time when the site was inhabited by humans.
In addition paleontology often uses techniques derived from other sciences, including biology, osteology, ecology, chemistry, physics and mathematics. For example, geochemical signatures from rocks may help to discover when life first arose on Earth, and analyses of carbon isotope ratios may help to identify climate changes and even to explain major transitions such as the Permian–Triassic extinction event. A relatively recent discipline, molecular phylogenetics, often helps by using comparisons of different modern organisms' DNA and RNA to re-construct evolutionary "family trees"; it has also been used to estimate the dates of important evolutionary developments, although this approach is controversial because of doubts about the reliability of the "molecular clock". Techniques developed in engineering have been used to analyse how ancient organisms might have worked, for example how fast Tyrannosaurus could move and how powerful its bite was. It is relatively commonplace to study fossils using X-ray microtomography A combination of paleontology, biology, and archaeology, paleoneurobiology is the study of endocranial casts (or endocasts) of species related to humans to learn about the evolution of human brains.
Paleontology even contributes to astrobiology, the investigation of possible life on other planets, by developing models of how life may have arisen and by providing techniques for detecting evidence of life.
As knowledge has increased, paleontology has developed specialised subdivisions. Vertebrate paleontology concentrates on fossils of vertebrates, from the earliest fish to the immediate ancestors of modern mammals. Invertebrate paleontology deals with fossils of invertebrates such as molluscs, arthropods, annelid worms and echinoderms. Paleobotany focuses on the study of fossil plants, but traditionally includes the study of fossil algae and fungi. Palynology, the study of pollen and spores produced by land plants and protists, straddles the border between paleontology and botany, as it deals with both living and fossil organisms. Micropaleontology deals with all microscopic fossil organisms, regardless of the group to which they belong.
Analyses using engineering
techniques show that Tyrannosaurus
had a devastating bite, but raise doubts about how fast it could move.
Instead of focusing on individual organisms, paleoecology examines the interactions between different organisms, such as their places in food chains, and the two-way interaction between organisms and their environment. One example is the development of oxygenic photosynthesis by bacteria, which hugely increased the productivity and diversity of ecosystems. This also caused the oxygenation of the atmosphere. Together, these were a prerequisite for the evolution of the most complex eukaryotic cells, from which all multicellular organisms are built.
Paleoclimatology, although sometimes treated as part of paleoecology, focuses more on the history of Earth's climate and the mechanisms that have changed it – which have sometimes included evolutionary developments, for example the rapid expansion of land plants in the Devonian period removed more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing the greenhouse effect and thus helping to cause an ice age in the Carboniferous period.
Biostratigraphy, the use of fossils to work out the chronological order in which rocks were formed, is useful to both paleontologists and geologists. Biogeography studies the spatial distribution of organisms, and is also linked to geology, which explains how Earth's geography has changed over time.