D.E.G. Briggs, W.L. Crepet, D. Goujet, andG. Plodowski
The emphasis in paleontological research has long shifted from the purely descriptive to the analysis of pattern and process. The fundamental data for any investigation of the evolution of life on earth, however, remain those of systematics, which also underpin biostratigraphy. Without the dynamic of morphological and systematic research, paleontologists cannot rely on the rigor of the data base that they analyze. Apart from providing and refining raw data on ancient diversity, research in systematics involves developing techniques for determining relationships between taxa and reconstructing their phylogeny or evolutionary history.
Given the central role of systematics, there is hardly an area of paleontology on which it does not impact. However a number of developments will rely particularly on taxonomic data.
The Reconstruction of Relationships; Phylogenetic Analysis. - Paleontological data are essential to unravelling the phylogeny of groups of organisms. Fossils may represent combinations of character states that have been lost, and they may significantly modify phylogenies derived without them. An important interdisciplinary link is the use of molecular data to generate phylogenies that can be tested by comparison with those based on morphological data from both fossil and living organisms.
Biodiversity in the Past. - Documentation of biodiversity in the past is fundamental to any investigation of the evolution of the biosphere. Ancient diversity attracts interdisciplinary interest where it relates to investigations of the impact of human activities and climate change on present biodiversity, and to the field of exobiology (=astropaleobiology, herein). Thus patterns of diversification and extinction illuminate not only the course of evolution, but also allow predictions of the likely impact of major global perturbations in the future.
The Adequacy of the Fossil Record. - There is burgeoning interest in the adequacy of the fossil record to test different kinds of evolutionary hypothesis. Such research requires the development of methods for quantifying completeness and identifying bias.
High-Resolution Biostratigraphy. - High resolution biochronology is critical to a wide range of earth science research, notably hydrocarbon exploration, the investigation of ocean floor sediments (ODP) and geological mapping. Fundamental to this is an understanding of species-level taxonomy, including rates and trends of morphological change.
The Maintenance of Fossil Collections. - Museums are fundamental to systematic paleontology as repositories for type specimens and for research material. The latter is increasingly important as sites are worked out or no longer accessible. As the science of paleontology develops new questions and techniques can be considered and applied using existing collections. The shift in museums away from systematic toward theme-based interactive exhibits means that many such institutions no longer regard their collections as a resource for ìfront-of-houseî displays. This exacerbates a long-standing problem of inadequate funding for the preparation, curation, conservation and maintenance of paleontological collections.
The Documentation of Fossil Collections. - Clearly collections are only useful where adequate documentation of the material exists. It is essential that not only taxonomic, but stratigraphic and paleoecological data are gathered and retained with specimens. Ideally the available information should be accessible internationally on an interactive web site.
Retaining Expertise. - The decline of funding for research in systematics means that universities are less inclined to hire taxonomists than before. This loss of expertise is compounded by the fact that many museums no longer perceive the need to employ a range of specialists in different groups. In addition oil-companies have cut back on in-house biostratigraphers relying, instead, on consulting companies. These developments combine to militate against the replacement of specialists when they retire, and thus the range of expertise in the taxonomy of fossil groups is declining within those countries with a strong paleontological presence, and internationally.
Taxonomic Publications. - Fossil systematics depends on procedures in taxonomy and nomenclature which in turn rely on an extensive historical literature. Systematic paleontologists, alone among earth scientists, require regular access to papers over 25 years old (see Nudds and Palmer In Briggs and Crowther, Paleobiology a Synthesis, Blackwell Scientific, 1990). This type of access is not presently covered by the increase in electronic based information and must be safeguarded in future provision. It is also important to ensure that funding for the small number of vehicles presently available for monographic publication is maintained.
Training Systematists. - The decline in expertise in paleontological systematics is potentially self perpetuating. The ìtheoryî of systematics can be taught by non-experts but not the taxonomy of specific taxa. Where senior figures go unreplaced following retirement, training in the taxonomy of particular groups lapses. The reduction in funding for taxonomic research also has an inevitable impact on the training of graduate students. These difficulties are partly balanced by the greater mobility of researchers and students internationally (within the EU, for example).
Perceptions of Systematic Paleontology. - Much research into the alpha taxonomy of fossils continues to be viewed as a poor relation, not only among earth scientists, but also among paleontologists themselves. It is regarded as low cost and not particularly challenging intellectually. Generally, only more unusual (or unusually well preserved) fossils are immune to this attitude. This view is exacerbated by an increasing emphasis on evaluating research output quantitatively, using measures such as numbers of publications, citation indices and the impact factors of journals. Taxonomic papers have long shelf lives and low citation rates (thus the 1995 impact factor for Journal of Paleontology was 0.392 compared to 2.371 for Paleobiology: Racki, G., Lethaia 30, 17-18, 1997). A large monographic treatment is regarded in some quarters as a single excessively time-consuming publication with a vanishingly low citation rate. Such figures act as a disincentive to a strong research effort in systematic paleontology.
Fossils as a Commercial Product. - The profession of paleontology continues to benefit enormously from the activities of amateur and commercial collectors. Much material comes to light that would otherwise never be discovered. There is a potential conflict, however, where scientifically important material resides in private hands. Some editors take the view that journals should only publish on specimens that are readily accessible to other scientists. Is it acceptable to find a holotype on display in someoneís home? The increasing commercial value of fossil material necessitates a greater emphasis on the security of collections in institutions.
Fossil Systematics And The Future
Electronic media offer a very powerful resource for systematic paleontology, with their potential for making large amounts of text and images available on CD-ROM and the World Wide Web. This is a potential route for future publication (perhaps in parallel with conventional methods) and for archiving older papers in readily searchable formats.
Although effort in alpha taxonomy has suffered a decline there is evidence of resurgence. This is fuelled by some recognition of the importance of systematic paleontology by the wider scientific community, and predicated by awareness of the current global biodiversity crisis and the vulnerability of the planet to extinction events.
When, over 20 years ago, David Raup, Jack Sepkoski and others started
plotting patterns of diversity through time some of their peers were aghast
that paleontologists dared to address evolutionary questions by counting
taxa without having expertise in the detailed systematics of the fossil
groups. In the event, the search for pattern has provided one of the most
important and exciting justifications for taxonomic research. It needs
to be emphasized, however, that the patterns that emerge from these studies
are only as robust as the systematic (and stratigraphic) data upon which
they are based. Analysis of the fossil record must be complemented by systematics
as an integrated research strategy. A decline in research and expertise
in systematics (and the concomitant stagnation of the database) will jeopardize
all future macroevolutionary and biostratigraphic studies.
Prof. Derek E.G. Briggs--Topic Coordinator
Department of Geology
Wills Memorial Building
Queen's Road, Bristol, BS8 1RJ
Dr. William Crepet
Director of the Bailey Hortorium
462B Mann Library Building
Ithaca, NY 1485
Dr. Gerhard Plodowski
D-60325 Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Dr. Daniel Goujet
Institute de Paleontologie
Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle
8, Rue de Buffon
F-757005 Paris, FRANCE
This page is maintained for the Paleo21 Organizing Committee by Norman MacLeod and H. Richard Lane. Corrections, inquiries about, and updates to any of the information shown above should be directed to Norm and/or Rich.