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Fossil fishPaleontology is the fascinating study of an array of life forms on earth, and how they became extinct or evolved throughout time.

Although dinosaurs remain a fascinating subject of study, this branch of science covers a lot of ground (and oceans!) in revealing what life was like before recorded time.

Luckily, paleontology helps fill in the blanks with revealing snapshots of evidence revealed in rocks, fossils and bones, and other remnants of plants, shellfish, insect and animal life.

Charting major periods - snapshots in geologic history

Australopithecus, an early human
species before Homo sapiens.

In practice, paleontology is divided into vast swaths of geologic time.

This timeline is classified by era (Cenozoic, Mesozoic, and Paleozoic) then subclassified into periods (e.g., the Mesozoic era includes the Cretaceous, Jurassic and the Triassic) — all identified using a hi-tech process called radiometric age dating.

Along with fossilized plants and animals, rocks and strata are properly dated and placed into their proper geologic "bins" for comparative studies. These include a look back at the weather or ecological disasters, the rise and fall of oceans, how land masses shifted and moved, or how animals evolved during different time periods.

Even modern humans - who are currently living within the Quaternary Period continue to play a part in the evolving timeline of paleontology.

And, thanks to Hollywood, renewed interest in paleontology has exploded in the past decade thanks to the Jurassic Park movie franchise. Paleontology educational programs and travel tours are also available for those who want a real hands-on experience with the Earth's ancient past.

DID YOU KNOW? Fun with fossils

Precious the Coprolite Courtesy of the Poozeum
Fossilized dinosaur poop.

Fossilized poop is called coprolite. From preserved samples paleontologists can trace what and how much humans and animals ate, and even identify intestinal parasites.

• Awww... how cute. Studies of dinosaur skulls show that baby dinosaurs had bigger eyes and rounder faces than fiercer-looking adults.

Gray wolves probably became domesticated by humans much earlier than was previously thought, according to recent DNA findings. Today, modern dogs are direct descendants of gray wolves who first hung around with humans in an effort to keep warm.

• Although fascinating, paleontology can also be very intimidating to those with deeply-held religious beliefs. While Biblical references date the planet back 6,000 years, carbon dating shows that the Earth is actually 4.54 billion years old. What's more, humans have only been around for a couple of million years, a mere blip on the timeline of paleontology.

More about paleontology around the Web:

Around the Web, find out more about paleontology at some of the best sites offering pictures & multimedia presentations, timelines, facts and information, student & teacher resources, along with educated guesses and intriguing theories on the history of life on earth ...

The Paleontology Portal - An extensive guide to North American paleontology by state or time period including a fossil photo gallery, a directory of K-12 teaching resources.

Wonders of Paleontology - Seriously entertaining online exhibit from the Hooper Virtual Natural History Museum with a special look at fossils, dinosaurs, the Cambrian period, evolution, as well as life on other planets.

UK Fossils Network - Online community of UK enthusiasts with a guide to fossil hunting throughout England, Scotland and Wales with news & reports on recent finds, related event calendar, busy online forum, educational resources.

Fossil Pictures - Dozens of photo galleries from the Virtual Fossil Museum illustrating fossilized insects, fish, mammals, worms, sponges, plants, fossil amber and more.

OZ fossils - Colorful, interactive guide to Australian fossils, dinosaurs and sea monsters with related timelines, illustrations, and streaming video, downloadable wallpaper.

ScienceDaily: Paleontology News - The latest photos and headlines from the field, reporting on new discoveries of dinosaur bones, fossils, and related finds.


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