Paleoecology is the study of fossil organisms and their relationship to ancient environments. Paleoecology falls under the broader category of paleontology (the study of fossils). A person who studies and investigates paleoecology is called a paleoecologist. The study of paleoecology is important to scientists because it reveals so much about such natural aspects of ancient history as wind conditions, climates, temperatures, and ocean activity. Critical to the field of paleoecology is the intense concentration of chemicals found in fossils; such chemical data reveals much information about the world of long, long ago.

The field of paleoecology was developed by American geologist (a person who studies the history of Earth) Kirk Bryan (1888–1950). Bryan focused his investigations on weather changes from the past by using information from ancient soils and pollen. His work gathered enough interest from the scientific community to help develop the field of paleoecology.

Paleoecologists can find clues about the ancient environment and the organisms that lived during a particular time on Earth by examining fossil organisms, the different varieties of those fossils, and the sediment in which they were found. Sediment is made up of rock particles, minerals, and fossil organisms that, due to the forces of weather and time, have deposited on top of each other, forming layers. These layers compress and harden, forming sedimentary rock.

Sediment also collects at the bottom of an estuary (area of water where the sea meets a river). Each layer of sediment represents a piece of time in history. Paleoecologists take core samples of the sediment—by pushing a tube down into the estuary and pulling out a sample of the muddy bottom—that provide a historical record of the past. Material found closest to the top of the tube is the youngest sediment; material near the bottom of the tube sample is the oldest. (The idea of sediment layers is similar to that of tree rings, which reveal the age of a tree.)

For example, marine (sea-dwelling) fossils have a significant accumulation of chemicals in their skeletons. By studying these chemicals, paleoecologists can draw conclusions about what was happening in the environment and what was living in the areas surrounding oceans. Because

A Devonian plant fossil. (Reproduced by permission of the Corbis Corporation [Bellevue].)
A Devonian plant fossil. (Reproduced by permission of the
Corbis Corporation [Bellevue]

of what is recorded in fossils found in water environments, paleoecologists most frequently study these types of fossils.

Words to Know

Fossils: The remains, traces, or impressions of living organisms that inhabited Earth more than ten thousand years ago.

Paleontology: The scientific study of the life of past geological periods as known from fossil remains.

Sediment: Sand, silt, clay, rock, gravel, mud, or other matter that has been transported by flowing water.

Sedimentary rock: Rock formed from compressed and solidified layers of organic or inorganic matter.

[ See also Fossil and fossilization ; Paleontology ]

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