Research Initiative: Past and Future Dynamics of the Biosphere

Marie-Pierre Aubry (Institut des Sciences de l'Evolution, Universite, Montpellier II, Place Eugene Bataillon, 46-34095 Montpelier, France)

Michael J. Benton (Dept. of Geology, University of Bristol, Wills Memorial Building, Queen's Road, Bristol BS8 1RJ, UNITED KINGDOM)

Richard K. Bambach (Dept. Geological Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic and State University, Blacksburg, VA 24061-042)

Douglas H. Erwin (Smithsonian Institution, Department of Paleobiology, MRC 121, Washington DC 20560-0001 USA)

John Flynn (Field Museum of Natural History, Department of Paleontology, Roosevelt at Lakeshore Drive, Chicago, IL 60605-2496 USA)

John Hayes (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Dept. Of Geology and Geophysics, Woods Hole, MA 02543)

David Jablonski (University of Chicago, Dept. of Geophysical Science, 5734 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago, IL 60637 USA)

Andrew Knoll (Harvard University, Botanical Museum, 26 Oxford Street, Cambridge, MA 02138 USA)

Judith Totman Parrish (Dept. of Geosciences, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721)

Norbert Schmidt-Kittler (Institut fuer Geowissenschaften, Universitaet Mainz, Johann-Joachim-Becherweg 21, 55099 Mainz GERMANY)

Hans Thierstein (Geologisches Institut der ETH, ETH-Zentrum, Sonneggstr. 5, CH-8092 Zurich, SWITZERLAND)

Peter Westbroek (Gorlaeus Laboratories, Leiden University, P. O. Box 9502,2300 RA Leiden, THE NETHERLANDS)



Beginning in 1998 the paleontological community will launch a process-oriented, interdisciplinary analysis of the interactions between life and Earth through geologic time, with particular emphasis on the causes of global stasis and of accelerated biotic, geological, and geochemical change. We wish to obtain a better understanding of how past changes in the biota have resulted from and driven changes in the global environment and how they gave rise to the biological diversity that surrounds us today. Life has been a major factor in the development of the Earth system, thus placing those who have studied the geological history of life in a strong position to lead this endeavor.

Each of the six research initiatives outlined below is primarily concerned with the structure of the biosphere and the history of life on earth. By definition, they fall within the broad domain of paleontology, and it is the task of our discipline to take the lead in this endeavor.

We intend to reach the following goals by the year 2020.

  • To establish a precise temporal framework necessary for historical analysis thorough development of a high-resolution time-scale for the entire Phanerozoic and Neoproterozoic with a resolution of 100,000 years or better. Only with such a temporal framework can scientists determine the rates and relationships of tectonic, climatic, oceanographic, and biological processes. This will require an integration of biostratigraphy with radioisotope dating, chemostratigraphy, and geophysical and astronomical data.

  • To quantify the history of life at a previously unattainable level of precision through a synthesis of phylogeny and morphology of important biological groups within a well-constrained temporal framework. The phylogenetic analysis will be accomplished through collaboration with biologists, with paleontologists providing the data necessary to resolve and calibrate the evolutionary trees. An integration of phylogeny and a quantitative description of shape and form will provide a more powerful description of evolutionary patterns than either can alone and will yield new understanding of biogeographic shifts, patterns of survival across extinction intervals, patterns of innovation, and ecological change.

  • To determine the relationships between evolutionary innovation and environmental change. Physiological innovations such as photosynthesis, bioturbation, and biomineralization have exerted strong influence on the physical and geochemical environment that can be understood only by integrating paleobiological data with information from sedimentary geology and geochemistry. In turn, the changing environment influences the generation and persistence of evolutionary innovation.

  • To elucidate the evolution of major biogeochemical pathways and reservoirs, their coupling with global geochemical cycles, and the effects on the environment and on the further evolution and proliferation of life. This will require a coherent suite of numerical models describing geosphere-biosphere interactions at a variety of scales. Interactive experimental and modeling research is required on a limited number of extant systems representative of the major biogeochemical processes, with the geological and paleontological records providing extensive validation of the models.

  • To establish the causes of the major perturbations in the history of life and predict their likely effects. Analyses of biological consequences of environmental perturbations will allow paleontologists to establish the environmental context of biological evolution during times of both stability and rapid change and to determine the dynamics of the biota, oceans, and atmosphere and their interrelationships.

  • To combine insights gained from past natural extinction rates and selectivities with those from ongoing studies of the genetic, organismic, and ecological diversity of threatened species, populations, and habitats. This will provide a rational foundation for future decisions on setting conservation priorities and other policy decisions.

Each of these steps is necessary to achieve the overall goal of developing a set of predictive rules and models for the biotic response to and generation of changes in the global environment. The development of integrated databases of paleontological, paleogeographic, climatological, geochemical, geophysical, and geological information will allow scientists to establish the dynamics of the biosphere and from them to derive and test predictive rules for the operation of the biosphere.

Although focused on intervals of dynamic change, this research initiative is also a necessary first step toward a broader set of aspirations for the study of the history of life in the coming century. While these are not specific goals of this research initiative, they should focus and revitalize paleontology and related disciplines in the transition to a more process-oriented discipline. Understanding past variations of life and of the global environment will provide a rich testing ground for predictive models of the dynamics of the Earth and its life. We can achieve these goals through emphasis on the following aspiration: to achieve a broad integration of phylogeny and diversity into Earth-system history.

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