The primeval ecosystem: an interview with a paleontologist

Mr Halliday, there are many books about dinosaurs and other extinct animals. Why are you writing about the primeval ecosystems?

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In science, the consideration of prehistoric ecosystems has become immensely important in recent decades. Not only new dinosaurs or prehistoric mammals are described, but also the big questions about food chains and relationships, interrelationships between flora and fauna or the climate. I wanted to bring this rethinking within paleontology closer to the general public in my non-fiction book.

What information does it take to reconstruct a prehistoric ecosystem?

In the best case, we not only find the fossilized remains of many different creatures, but also of plants. In this way, for example, approximate food webs can be identified. We also need to know how the landscape once looked and what the climate was like. The rock strata provide valuable information on this. Sometimes even individual noises can be reconstructed. For example, fossils of 165-million-year-old crickets have been discovered. Their legs already had a structure similar to that of modern-day crickets. So they were probably already making the same chirping noises. The reconstruction of a primeval ecosystem is like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle with many pieces. We’ll never understand everything, but there are amazing details that can be discovered and fill in pieces of this puzzle.

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Thomas Halliday is a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist.  He holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of Birmingham and also works for the Natural History Museum.  In 2016 he received the Linnean Society's John C. Marsden Medal and in 2018 he won the Hugh Miller Writing Competition.  His book

Thomas Halliday is a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist. He holds a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the University of Birmingham and also works for the Natural History Museum. In 2016 he received the Linnean Society’s John C. Marsden Medal and in 2018 he won the Hugh Miller Writing Competition. His book “Primeval Worlds – A journey through the extinct ecosystems of the earth’s history” (464 pages, 28 euros), translated from English by Hainer Kober, has been published by Hanser-Verlag.

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Are there particularly suitable sources for your work?

A stroke of luck are prehistoric volcanic eruptions. The animals and plants are particularly well preserved in the ashes. Sometimes we find the finest structures of skin, feathers or bark there. The most beautiful fossils of feathered dinosaurs and early mammals come from the province of Liaoning in China. Some of them are so well preserved that even the color of the feathers can be traced. It’s like we have a very detailed photo from that time, a perfect moment captured through a volcano.

The interest in newly discovered dinosaurs or mammoth bones is great. How important are these individual discoveries for understanding an entire ecosystem?

Each new find helps us to understand the prehistoric world a little better. But of course a single animal is not enough to describe an entire ecosystem. It’s just another small piece of the puzzle. At the same time, I can well understand that a newly discovered dinosaur triggers more enthusiasm in the general public than a study of family relationships or climatic changes millions of years ago. On the other hand, it is precisely these findings that help us to understand more about the way of life of dinosaurs and the like.

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To what extent does paleontology benefit from modern technologies?

Thanks to new technologies, we understand the prehistoric worlds much better and can ask more complex questions. An example of this is the analysis of complex family relationships. We often know several hundred different species within an animal group and want to know more about how they are related to each other. The possible combinations are gigantic, and good algorithms and a lot of computer power are required. Another key technology for our work is fossil scanning. Thanks to computer tomography and the like, we can now examine fossils much more precisely and non-destructively. This also opens up new perspectives, for example on the skin or color of primeval animals.

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Are there any questions that will forever remain unanswered?

We are limited in our sources. We need layers of rock that are accessible and in which we can find fossils. Sometimes they are kilometers deep in the ground or in the middle of the sea. Rock strata that depict a long period of time without gaps are extremely rare. For example, we know of great dinosaur fossils from India, but almost no finds from the Paleocene, i.e. from the time immediately after the dinosaurs became extinct. This time interval is immensely important for the evolution of mammals. Back then, India was an island, and creatures might have evolved differently than in the rest of the world. But without fossils, we don’t know how. Also, dead animals don’t become fossils in every environment. Their bodies are buried less well in the mountains, and dead animals and plants rot quickly in the forests. So, from a large part of these prehistoric ecosystems, there are no fossilized traces. Even though we are constantly discovering new things, most of the prehistoric worlds remain hidden forever.

Such finds not only inspire the experts: The dinosaur embryo Baby Yingliang, which was found in China, is probably 66 to 72 million years old.

Such finds not only inspire the experts: The dinosaur embryo Baby Yingliang, which was found in China, is probably 66 to 72 million years old.

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Is it more difficult to study ecosystems that are 500 million years old than those that are only 50 or 10 million years old?

We have far fewer fossil sites from older geological eras. Often they did not survive the long time in the stone. This makes a global picture of the various ecosystems more difficult, and our focus is more on particularly well-preserved sites. Another advantage of ecosystems from the recent past is the greater comparability with today’s animals or plants. A mammoth is related to today’s elephants, and that’s why similarities can be deduced. Birds and their close relationship to dinosaurs can also give us initial indications of their behavior, for example in the brood care of some species. On the other hand, the statements about the climate in the individual geological eras are more reliable. Temperatures, the concentration of carbon dioxide or the alternation of rainy seasons and hot periods leave their mark on the rock, and the physical laws have remained the same to this day.

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What do we learn about our future by looking at past ecosystems?

Looking at the past is good for our perspective on the world. Life is fundamentally based on the same rules. At the same time, the ecosystems and their inhabitants have changed significantly over the millions of years. Species disappeared, new ones came. No extinct creature came back, what followed was always different. Even after us humans there will be life on earth, what it looks like is difficult to say. Ecosystems used to disappear due to natural disasters and climate change. This time, we humans bear the greatest responsibility. That should give us food for thought and motivate us to turn things around.

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