Fossils represent the remnants of biological activity preserved over thousands, millions, or billions of years. Those remnants range from direct preservation of organic matter and original biominerals, to replacement with sediment or secondarily precipitated minerals, to various forms of more or less indirect preservation of organism behavior. Long before Darwin described the mechanism of natural selection, fossils were central to the recognition of the biological reality of evolution and the immensity of geologic time. Fossils remain central to the investigation of evolutionary processes over temporal scales too large for direct observation, under environmental circumstances that no longer exist, such as anoxic atmospheres or aggregated continents, and across singular historical events, such as mass extinctions. Mammoths and tyrannosaurs may be the most common ambassadors providing entry into awareness of fossils, but at least twenty other animal phyla have contributed to the fossil record in addition to those vertebrates. The paleontological history of life spans both prokaryote and eukaryote—the latter including plants and animals, but also fungi and forams, algae and amoebae. The fossil record preserves the separate evolution of complex multicellularity in at least six different lineages and of robust skeletal elements in dozens.
Fossils played a foundational role in the recognition of biotic evolution and of geological time (Lyell 1830–1833, Darwin 1845, Darwin 1859), as recently reviewed by Rudwick 2014. Beginning with the utility of fossil succession for telling time via biostratigraphy (Berry 1968), paleontology has gone on to play a central role in understanding macroevolutionary patterns and processes (Gould 2002, Foote and Miller 2007), and it has diversified into considerations of form and function, radiation and extinction, development and physiology, and ecosystem and environment (Briggs and Crowther 2001).
Berry, William B. N. 1968. Growth of a prehistoric time scale, based on organic evolution. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
Fascinating account of the rapid establishment of biostratigraphy and the geologic timescale in the years immediately after William Smith’s recognition that evolutionary turnover in the fossil record can be used to tell time in rocks.
Briggs, Derek E. G., and Peter R. Crowther, eds. 2001. Palaeobiology II. London: Blackwell Science.
Short essays from leading experts covering the broad diversity of paleontological research. This is a second volume, rather than a second edition, to Palaeobiology, published eleven years earlier. Where there is overlap in content, comparison demonstrates the impact of the intervening years of research.
Darwin, Charles R. 1845. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. 2d ed. London: John Murray.
Commonly shortened to Voyage of the Beagle. The second edition represents an extraction of the popular Darwin volume from a multivolume set covering the voyages. The best immersion into the new intellectual possibilities opened up in natural history when the advances of Smith, Hutton, and Lyell are applied to the world by a curious and observant mind.
Darwin, Charles R. 1859. On the origin of species by means of natural selection. London: Murray.
Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution (a truth first so phrased by Theodosius Dobzhansky).
Foote, Michael, and Arnold I. Miller. 2007. Principles of paleontology. 3d ed. New York: W. H. Freeman.
A renewal of the classic text by David M. Raup and Steven M. Stanley. The best student text covering analytical paleobiology.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 2002. The structure of evolutionary theory. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press.
The summary statement from one of the great thinkers of paleontology and evolution.
Lyell, Charles. 1830–1833. Principles of geology: Being an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. London: John Murray.
The first great modern synthesis of geology, based on John Hutton’s principle of uniformitarianism—the concept that the geologic record of the distant past must have been formed via the same natural processes seen in the modern world. Extremely influential; Darwin read it on the Beagle.
Rudwick, Martin J. S. 2014. Earth’s deep history. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.
Insight from decades of work from a leading historian of the scientific discipline of paleontology.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
- Adaptive Radiation
- Ancient DNA
- Behavioral Ecology
- Canalization and Robustness
- Character Displacement
- Cognition, Evolution of
- Constraints, Evolutionary
- Convergent Evolution
- Cooperation and Conflict: Microbes to Humans
- Cooperative Breeding in Insects and Vertebrates
- Cryptic Female Choice
- Darwin, Charles
- Disease Virulence, Evolution of
- Ecological Speciation
- Epigenetics and Behavior
- Evidence of Evolution, The
- Evolution and Development: Genes and Mutations Underlying ...
- Evolution, Cultural
- Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance
- Evolution of New Genes
- Evolution of Plant Mating Systems
- Evolution of Specialization
- Evolutionary Biology of Aging
- Evolutionary Biomechanics
- Evolutionary Computation
- Evolutionary Ecology of Communities
- Experimental Evolution
- Field Studies of Natural Selection
- Founder Effect Speciation
- Frequency-Dependent Selection
- Fungi, Evolution of
- Gene Duplication
- Gene Expression, Evolution of
- Gene Flow
- Genetics, Ecological
- Genome Evolution
- Geographic Variation
- Group Selection
- History of Evolutionary Thought, 1860–1925
- History of Evolutionary Thought before Darwin
- History of Evolutionary Thought Since 1930
- Human Behavioral Ecology
- Human Evolution
- Hybrid Speciation
- Hybrid Zones
- Identifying the Genomic Basis Underlying Phenotypic Variat...
- Inbreeding and Inbreeding Depression
- Inclusive Fitness
- Innovation, Evolutionary
- Kin Selection
- Land Plants, Evolution of
- Landscape Genetics
- Landscapes, Adaptive
- Language, Evolution of
- Macroevolutionary Rates
- Male-Male Competition
- Mass Extinction
- Mate Choice
- Maternal Effects
- Medicine, Evolutionary
- Meiotic Drive
- Modern Synthesis, The
- Molecular Clocks
- Molecular Phylogenetics
- Natural Selection in Human Populations
- Natural Selection in the Genome, Detecting
- Neutral Theory
- New Zealand, Evolutionary Biogeography of
- Niche Construction
- Niche Evolution
- Origin and Early Evolution of Animals
- Origin of Eukaryotes
- Origin of Life, The
- Paradox of Sex
- Parental Care, Evolution of
- Personality Differences, Evolution of
- Phenotypic Plasticity
- Phylogenetic Comparative Methods and Tests of Macroevoluti...
- Phylogenetic Trees, Interpretation of
- Polyploid Speciation
- Population Genetics
- Population Structure
- Psychology, Evolutionary
- Punctuated Equilibria
- Quantitative Genetic Variation and Heritability
- Reproductive Proteins, Evolution of
- Selection, Directional
- Selection, Disruptive
- Selection Gradients
- Selection, Natural
- Selection, Sexual
- Selfish Genes
- Sexual Conflict
- Sexual Selection and Speciation
- Sexual Size Dimorphism
- Speciation Genetics and Genomics
- Speciation, Sympatric
- Species Concepts
- Sperm Competition
- Systems Biology
- Taxonomy and Classification
- Tetrapod Evolution
- Trends, Evolutionary
- Wallace, Alfred Russel