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Publishing Research on Fossils in Private Collections?

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jpc

A few points....

One of the reasons for having type and figured specimens in museum hands is that if a different scientist wants to study the same specimens it is best to have them in a museum.  What if that specimens is yours, but that scientist comes along in 2078 and you are dead and your kids didn't give a darn about your fossils so they were sold and no one knows where they all are.  The science can't be done because the specimen has effectively disappeared.  Museums have curators to deal with these sorts of issues.  When the curator dies, another one will replace him/her.  That will likely not happen with private collections.  

 

Yes, museums sometimes fold, but in a perfect world, the important specimens get shifted to another museum.  Actually, in a perfect world, museums would not close.  But, I know this has happened at least once with Yale's Peabody Museum acquiring another museum's collection when that one closed  (can anyone else fill in the details here?)  There are certain levels of professionalism that museums strive for to be allowed to house important fossils.  At work, we have done all sorts of things to become an official BLM repository.  (BLM is the Federal Government's big land agency in the West).  When the Tate Museum, where I work, started up in 1980 it was nothing close to being able to curate important specimens.  As a matter of fact, a huge part of our dinosaur collections walked away at about the same time as a dinosaur paleontologist who claimed to be curator here walked away.  Coincidence?... No.  Since then the museum has become much more professional and our mother institution (Casper College) has signed up to support the museum and help keep it going in perpetuity for the people of Wyoming.   

 

Someone above also mentioned a great reason to have the actual fossil in a museum rather than a cast, because as technology moves forward there are all sorts of things you can do with fossils that we couldn't imagine decades ago.  CT scanning is an example.  If museums had simply held on to casts of specimens, there would be no CTing available of those fossils.  But now we can CT fossils that were collected a hundred years ago.  Cool stuff.  

 

Having said all that, I do have a specimen that was used to describe the postcranial skeleton of Leptictis, a White River Fm insectivore.  In this paper:

 

  • Kenneth, D. R. (2006). The postcranial skeleton of early Oligocene Leptictis (Mammalia: Leptictida), with a preliminary comparison to Leptictidium from the middle Eocene of Messel. Palaeontographica Abteilung A, 278(1-6), 37-56.
  •  

This is a German publication that does not so much care about privately owned fossils.  These sorts of publications are few and far between.  A photo of the same specimen is in Ken Rose' Early Mammals tome, The Beginning of the Age of Mammals.  

 

This is much more the exception than the rule.  

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Welsh Wizard

When we donated our dinosaur and were going through the process of getting it written up and named, I looked into most of these "rules" and to a large extent they were not real or unclear.

 

You can publish scientific papers on specimens in private collections. Some journals frown upon this and put their own barriers in the way e.g. Provision of a museum accession number. There are plenty of examples out there to prove the pointsuch as a dinosaur brain that was found on the south coast of England that was published but still remains in private hands.

 

If you are naming a specimen as it's a new species etc, then you need to obtain a name from the ICZN. To get a formal name then the specimen does need to be in a public collection eg university, museum. If it's not, then no name and no publication. Saying that you could still publish in say a magazine article and call it what you like, it just wouldn't be the accepted name.

 

Different institutions do have different protection for fossils. For example, a local museum owned by a council is still a recognised institute but in times of public financial crisis, it may be shut and the fossils sold off. Larger museums in the U.K. may also be given further protected by Royal Charter which gives specimens more protection but doesn't guarantee they won't be sold if things go wrong.

 

Hope this helps

 

Nick

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Kane

Thanks for posting this, Don. Your fictional example of Joe and Jane really make the point clear. :) 

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MarleysGh0st
7 hours ago, Tidgy's Dad said:

I would also point out that museums have been known to 'lose' specimens, leave them gathering dust for decades or have no understanding of what they have. Amateur palaeontologists visiting museums have 'discovered' new species.

 

When you use quotes in that statement, I think you're conflating two different issues.

 

First, it certainly is possible that museums can genuinely lose specimens.  Perhaps they know exactly what happened to them and when.  Perhaps they just can't find a cataloged specimen; it might still be somewhere in the collection, but if they can't find it where it's supposed to be, it is quite literally lost.

 

But if you're talking about specimens being stored in a collection that are studied years, decades or centuries after they where collected--that's not a bug, it's a feature! Not only don't museums have the resources to exhaustively study every specimen as it's received, there are always new study techniques (like the CT scans that have already been discussed) that didn't exist at the time the specimens were collected.  If you're a taxonomist who wants to describe new species, it may be a waste of time to go out in the field trying to find them; just visit a museum that already has a large collection of the taxa you're interested in.

 

To help facilitate this research, there's more that museums can do.  The cataloging standards of the 19th century (writing an entry by longhand in a big ledger book) may have continued in practice until very recently, but it's not the 21st century state of the art, which requires the use of computer databases, high quality photographs, sharing that data with aggregators like iDigBio and GBIF, etc.  All of my volunteer time is devoted to this task, but it's an overwhelming job.

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Tidgy's Dad
8 minutes ago, MarleysGh0st said:

When you use quotes in that statement, I think you're conflating two different issues.

 

First, it certainly is possible that museums can genuinely lose specimens.  Perhaps they know exactly what happened to them and when.  Perhaps they just can't find a cataloged specimen; it might still be somewhere in the collection, but if they can't find it where it's supposed to be, it is quite literally lost.

 

But if you're talking about specimens being stored in a collection that are studied years, decades or centuries after they where collected--that's not a bug, it's a feature! Not only don't museums have the resources to exhaustively study every specimen as it's received, there are always new study techniques (like the CT scans that have already been discussed) that didn't exist at the time the specimens were collected.  If you're a taxonomist who wants to describe new species, it may be a waste of time to go out in the field trying to find them; just visit a museum that already has a large collection of the taxa you're interested in.

 

To help facilitate this research, there's more that museums can do.  The cataloging standards of the 19th century (writing an entry by longhand in a big ledger book) may have continued in practice until very recently, but it's not the 21st century state of the art, which requires the use of computer databases, high quality photographs, sharing that data with aggregators like iDigBio and GBIF, etc.  All of my volunteer time is devoted to this task, but it's an overwhelming job.

Precisely the point. 

My specimen dedicated to the museum (and i would do so, to the right museum) may be one of the ones that is 'overwhelmed'. For how long? 

You can understand private collectors wanting to hang onto their prize possessions in such a situation. 

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Sagebrush Steve
5 hours ago, FossilDAWG said:

Very strange.  Must be some formatting issue in the next part of my response that keeps it from posting.

What happens when there is no holotype available for a species?  Generally, it kills the species from a scientific point of view.  This is especially a problem for rare forms for which the holotype may be the only specimen known at the time the species is described (as was the case for many of Richardson's species).  Suppose Joe finds a fossil and brings it to a researcher who makes it the holotype of a new species, say Fossilus joeii.  Joe is happy the species is named after him, and he brings the fossil home and proudly displays it in his cabinet.  After a few years he discovers it has been attacked by pyrite disease, and when he picks it up it crumbles into dust.  Some years later Jane finds a fossil she doesn't recognize and brings it to the researcher, who thinks the new specimen might be a Fossilus joeii but isn't sure because of slightly different preservation.  She (the researcher) calls up Joe to ask to see the holotype of Fossilus joeii and learns that it has been lost.  Now she has a problem.  She can assume the new specimen is a Fossilus joeii but she cannot be certain because she can't directly compare them and the photos don't show the exact view she needs.  Alternatively she can restrict the name Fossilus joeii to the now-lost holotype, designate it a nomen dubium (a dubious or unknown name), and create a new name (Fossilus janeii) for the new specimen.  This is the correct course of action, based on the rules for naming species.  Jane donates the specimen to the museum, so the holotype becomes available to future researchers.  The published record will reflect two species, which could be an error but there is no way to know.  At any rate, Fossilus joeii becomes a relic that can never be used or applied to another specimen, because once a name is used once it cannot be used again.  Even if Joe finds another Fossilus, and it turns out be be another new species, it can never be named for him because Fossilus joeii is preoccupied.  Any future research and publication will use Fossilus janeii because that species is founded on an available holotype.

 

Don

So this all sounds good, but I have a few questions.  First, I thought the whole idea of “describing” a species is to provide enough information so you can identify a specimen as being a member of that species without having to physically hold it next to the holotype for comparison.  I have Elrathia kingii trilobites and Knightia eocaena fish in my collection that have been identified without ever having to look at a holotype, the IDs came from reading the descriptions.  Now I know that not every holotype represents a typical example of the species, and holotypes that are only fragments may not provide sufficient information to unambiguously identify a specimen.  But that’s where a neotype can help, right?  It is a later sample that can provide more information or even substitute for the holotype if the original is lost or destroyed.

  None of this is meant to imply I think it’s okay for a holotype to be in private hands—I don’t, only to suggest all is not necessarily lost if the holotype goes missing.  I know this is easier to do for species that are represented by many specimens.  If the whole extent of a species is a single holotype it is problematic.  But even here, if the holotype was carefully described couldn’t you make an identification from the description?

  I’m probably oversimplifying the problem, but I thought I’d ask.

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taj
17 hours ago, Tidgy's Dad said:

I would also point out that museums have been known to 'lose' specimens, leave them gathering dust for decades or have no understanding of what they have. Amateur palaeontologists visiting museums have 'discovered' new species. 

Here, if I go to the museum with a specimen they will just shrug. Not one specimen in the university has the right label that i have seen. 

But i'm not saying one shouldn't donate worthy items to museums. Just make sure they're the right museums. 

Yep , It's interesting to read some revisions of standard books ... Here the French published a revision of d'Orbigny seminal works (i.e jurassic or cretaceous cephalopods) : the number of holotypes which are labelled as lost in 2000 is just astounding. Some horror stories also about institutions throwing out parts of collections in order to make way for other stuff.So definitively not black and white as Troodon said .

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Troodon

I don't believe anyone here ever suggested the use of replicas or imaging techniques in holotype specimens.   So I'm not sure where that gathered steam.   Let's refocus.

 

The overall objective of this topic needs to be focused on how to get private specimens in the hands of museums to be studied and published so that we can increase our knowledge base.   If that's important, which I think it is, then the current process needs to be reexamined since its counter to our objective.  We need to stop putting roadblocks in front of established methods that stifle knowledge.   I still offer that other methods like replication AFTER it's been fully studied and documented is an alternative.   This is not a perfect situation but it does get more specimens in the hands of museums.    Academics can list dozens of why not reasons just in case a certain scenarios occur and I say it's not currently perfect and the upside is there and worth taking those risks.  Sure a situation may occur that may prevent further study but what about everything that has been learned by having that specimen in hand,  so who cares.   We worry too much about the what-ifs and loose sight of what there is to be gained.  

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Troodon
2 hours ago, taj said:

Yep , It's interesting to read some revisions of standard books ... Here the French published a revision of d'Orbigny seminal works (i.e jurassic or cretaceous cephalopods) : the number of holotypes which are labelled as lost in 2000 is just astounding. Some horror stories also about institutions throwing out parts of collections in order to make way for other stuff.So definitively not black and white as Troodon said .

Interesting Did not know and I have my own story about lost holotypes.  I provided a jaw from the Hell Creek to a major museum that contained teeth in that jaw from two described dinosaurs.  Part of their investigation was to compare the teeth to the holotypes which unfortunately they could not find, yes they were old but still.  Oops...

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LordTrilobite

I think that one of the most important things that when some new specimen or even holotype is described, it should be done so as completely as possible, with as many images as possible. Whether the specimen be in museum or private hands. In many cases it would be better if the specimen is housed in a museum as it provides easier access for further research. But museums aren't perfect either, as Troodon states, sometimes specimens get lost even in museums. Or sometimes war gets in the way and can destroy a lot of knowledge. Like with the bombing of Berlin in World War II when the holotype of Spinosaurus aegyptiacus was destroyed. All we have now is the original description, photos and illustrations. Due to the many copies, the description will live on.

 

I can understand people not wanting to use privately owned specimens for study. But I think the important thing, is that when a study is done, that it can be replicated. Lets say the study makes observations about morphology. A replica of the specimen is housed in a museum, and these observations can be seen on this replica without viewing the original specimen, then the original specimen is not required for someone else to replicate the results of the study. In such a particular case, I don't see a problem with the original being owned privately since all knowledge from the study can be replicated just by using the replica specimen. The only potential problem, is that some further studies might not be possible if the original specimen is no longer available.

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piranha

The proposed formula, 'science should somehow allow replicas', is backwards.  Instead, the way it works is the collector typically receives a replica.  For those unhappy with the criteria for fossils that are published in peer reviewed journals, there are many amateur paleo publications and online publishing venues, that only require photos.  Alternatively, many collectors have opted to self-publish their fossils.  Some of these self-published collections are quite spectacular, even if they are not subject to peer review or available for future study.  Unfortunately, you can't have it both ways; "Science, please publish my fossil, but only on the condition that I get to keep it." :o :P

 

 

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FossilDAWG

 

The question becomes harder if you find a fossil at a very distant locality and in a different geological context.  Suppose you find a trilobite while doing geological survey work in Antarctica, and it looks a lot like what you know as Elrathia kingi.  First you would look at the published description and figures, of course.  However at this level some problems commonly arise.  First, the amount of detail to the description varies a lot, especially in older published work.  The point of a description has often (and especially in the earlier days of paleontology) been to state the differences between your new species and other species that are known at the time.  Many species descriptions are a paragraph or two in length, and are completely qualitative (no or few quantitative comparisons).  They consist of a string of statements like "cephalon more triangular than species X".  The description may be accompanied by one or two photos, often heavily retouched, or a line drawing.  How can you be certain your specimen from Antarctica is sufficiently close to be called Elrathia kingi based on such evidence?  These decisions have consequences as well.  From a taxonomic point of view you may end up blurring the scope of what Elrathia kingi is, confusing subsequent workers.  From a geology point of view, if you conclude (based on a vague description) that your fossil is Elrathia kingi, you will likely use that to conclude that the formation you are looking at correlates with the Marjum Formation in Utah, and base the whole dating of your Antarctic mapping on such data points, in which case your correlations are built on shaky ground.

Modern descriptions are more thorough.  However you rarely see papers that treat just one species, usually they make extensive quantitative comparisons and often they are complete revisions of genera or higher taxonomic categories.  What you will see is measurement of many features on types of all the included species in the study, so you can create a data matrix and carry out analysis that builds phylogenetic trees.  In making those measurements people are careful to correct or allow for distortion, due to flattening (common in shale formations for example) or twisting/stretching in tectonically distorted rocks.  If your specimen (say the Antarctic example) were to cluster with Elrathia kingi in this analysis, you could be confident that it was indeed that species.  If it made its own branch, you could be justified in describing a new species.  Of course, this sort of analysis means you would have to make measurements that were not included in the original description.  You could make some measurements but probably not all from photos and figures, because photos are two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional objects and so they inevitably distort, especially at the edges where features are foreshortened.  You would need to have an actual specimen in hand to make all the measurements accurately, and that specimen should be the holotype (for every species included in your analysis) to make sure you are really measuring the species you think you are.

 

continued in next post

 

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FossilDAWG

This is kind of weird, but I have been trying for hours to post a response to Sagebrush Steve's questions and the response is failing to load.  I thought maybe it was too long so I divided it up and posted in parts but the first part won't load though the second and third parts did.

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crinus
23 hours ago, Kane said:

Thanks for posting this, Don. Your fictional example of Joe and Jane really make the point clear. :) 

It isn't as fictional as you would think.  The next manuscript on the Brechin crinoids will contain this line  "Thus, we designate Glaucocrinus and G. falconeri as nomina dubia"  and it will get a new name.  It will not be called joeii.  However, this will not be because the specimen was lost.  Complicated story.

 

As some of you know, I recently deposited many crinoid specimen into a museum due to a series of papers being written.  It was hard to let them go but I do understand why.  I once read an article about Richardson and the fact that he let the collectors keep the holotype. I was stunned at the number of lost types because of this.  Hopefully this will not happen with my stuff.

 

However, 35 years ago a brittlestar was named Acinetaster konieckii and deposited into a museum.  That type cannot be found. I guess that someday Acinetaster konieckii will become nomina dubium.   Museums are not perfect.  Pick the right one.

 

Joe

 

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Paleoworld-101
On 03/03/2018 at 12:48 AM, MarleysGh0st said:

Can you make that promise binding on your children, grandchildren and so on through the generations?

No but what if that collector is willing to hand the specimen over to a museum once they themselves die? Perhaps they want the specimen in their hands during their own life, but after that they are willing to have it go to an institution. If they signed something with the museum and made it official, that's a better solution that could help make those pieces publishable because they will someday go to an institution anyway. As others have said in this thread, museums aren't immune to losing things themselves either so the 'risk' that one could argue while it is in private hands is debatable. 

 

I agree with others in this thread that have discussed 3D virtual copies and physical models of the specimens. They are in many cases just as good as the real thing, and if a database was put together that contains high resolution 3D models of those finds in private collections (which can be 3D printed), i think the rules should be changed to allow research on these virtual or physical copies of fossils in private collections to be publishable.

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Sagebrush Steve
6 hours ago, FossilDAWG said:

This is kind of weird, but I have been trying for hours to post a response to Sagebrush Steve's questions and the response is failing to load.  I thought maybe it was too long so I divided it up and posted in parts but the first part won't load though the second and third parts did.

Well, what you did post was very informative.  I understand the need for a physical specimen to be available, you can’t just depend on photos or written descriptions. As an engineer, though, I cringe thinking about  basing everything on a single sample, for all the reasons people have stated above.  As an example from the engineering world, the definition of the meter as a unit of length was once based on a single prototype specimen stored in a laboratory in France under carefully controlled conditions.  But when someone needed to calibrate their local measurements in countries around the world, France didn’t send their prototype out.  Instead, secondary calibration standards were created and sent to national laboratories around the world.  The prototype was safely stored with limited accessibility.  Is there something similar in the world of fossils?  Seems like if you only have one holotype, the first thing you should want to do is find more specimens, not only to protect against the possible loss or destruction of the holotype, but also to get a sense of the range of variability within the species.  For your example of the trilobite from Antarctica, even if you can compare it directly to the holotype, if you only have the holotype you have no idea about the range of variability in the species, and thus no idea whether any slight variations are because it is a new species or only normal variations within the species.  Here is an example.  Grande describes the Green River fish, Knightia eocaena as having between 11 and 14 pectoral fin rays.  This range of values could not have been determined from a single holotype.  Imagine a time before this level of description had been published.  Suppose the holotype had 11 pectoral fins but I found a specimen that had 14 pectoral rays.  Should I conclude this is a different species or a normal variation within the species?  That’s the struggle I am having if you base the description of a species on a single holotype.

 

Sorry for the long diatribe, I spent my engineering career designing very accurate test and measurement equipment, so the subject of uncertainty in measurement and improving accuracy was something I always had to deal with.

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FossilDAWG

Your points are all valid of course.  There is always some amount of variation within modern species.  Also there can be a lot of variation based on environmental factors.  For example in many molluscs the thickness of the shell and number/length of spines can vary depending on water temperature, salinity, amount of wave energy, etc. For a modern species we can distinguish variation within from variation between species, for example by comparing DNA.  We obviously can't do that for fossils.  Also there will be morphological change over time.  When does this variation result in a new species?  This is a big issue in trying to distinguish Otodus species for example. In a rock formations there may be hundreds or thousands of years between each layer.  Ideally description of a new fossil species should include a holotype and numerous paratypes to capture the range of variation, all collected from the same layer or narrow stratigraphic interval. That is only possible for common species though.  Most species, even in modern biological communities, are uncommon or rare, and this is amplified in fossil communities where only a small fraction of individuals that existed are preserved.  We will never know about many species that once lived, and others will be rare we are lucky to find one fossil.  It comes down to a judgement call about whether or not to describe a new species when we don't have any data on how much variation to include in our species concept because we only have one specimen.  You can publish, recognizing that the description may be modified in the future if more specimens are found. Or, you can wait until those fossils are found, though that runs the risk that that may take many years and by then memory of the first specimen may be lost.  A third alternative you see more often these days is to describe the specimen but not name it.  For example, you may call it "Fossilus new species A", and describe how it difference from other species in the genus Fossilus.  That way it is in the literature so other researchers, even decades from now, are aware of it and can be on the lookout for additional specimens.  If more are found or recognized in collections eventually the species can be formally named.

 

Don

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Kane
7 hours ago, Sagebrush Steve said:

Well, what you did post was very informative.  I understand the need for a physical specimen to be available, you can’t just depend on photos or written descriptions. As an engineer, though, I cringe thinking about  basing everything on a single sample, for all the reasons people have stated above.  As an example from the engineering world, the definition of the meter as a unit of length was once based on a single prototype specimen stored in a laboratory in France under carefully controlled conditions.  But when someone needed to calibrate their local measurements in countries around the world, France didn’t send their prototype out.  Instead, secondary calibration standards were created and sent to national laboratories around the world.  The prototype was safely stored with limited accessibility.  Is there something similar in the world of fossils?  Seems like if you only have one holotype, the first thing you should want to do is find more specimens, not only to protect against the possible loss or destruction of the holotype, but also to get a sense of the range of variability within the species.  For your example of the trilobite from Antarctica, even if you can compare it directly to the holotype, if you only have the holotype you have no idea about the range of variability in the species, and thus no idea whether any slight variations are because it is a new species or only normal variations within the species.  Here is an example.  Grande describes the Green River fish, Knightia eocaena as having between 11 and 14 pectoral fin rays.  This range of values could not have been determined from a single holotype.  Imagine a time before this level of description had been published.  Suppose the holotype had 11 pectoral fins but I found a specimen that had 14 pectoral rays.  Should I conclude this is a different species or a normal variation within the species?  That’s the struggle I am having if you base the description of a species on a single holotype.

 

Sorry for the long diatribe, I spent my engineering career designing very accurate test and measurement equipment, so the subject of uncertainty in measurement and improving accuracy was something I always had to deal with.

That level of precision may not be possible, of course (at least if we apply engineering standards). There is no way, for example, that I could apply a Kalman Filter to arrive at a useful prediction estimate of what will appear in an area in a particular layer on the basis of a holotype alone beyond possibly assigning it a non-zero probability. Your example of the unit of measure is a good one, and it is somewhat similar here. Add to this some of the older literature that has that subjective (qualitative) and descriptive feel to it as opposed to more quantitative methods (although new methods do integrate a more quantitative aspect in plotting matrices, etc.). Instead, with the fossil record, we are dealing with gaps - each of which can be considered a form of information loss (and the rocks being part of the information channel a la Claude Shannon). The "noise" that causes the information loss is as Don said above: anything to do with the environment in which the organism lived, right up to preservation conditions. We could add another layer of "noise" (i.e., information loss in a channel) by the way in which the specimen is removed and then subsequently described. Some specimens that are removed without rigorous attention to recording the context of their find results in serious information loss, of course, as it is that geologic context that functions as a kind of feedback system in a loop, (but something more akin to forensic analysis).

 

There are just so many opportunities for "noise" to introduce information loss in the fossil record and in how species are described!

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Auspex
1 hour ago, FossilDAWG said:

...there can be a lot of variation based on environmental factors...

Recognition of these variations is aided by a grounding in present-day examples, which can then be used to deduce details in the paleo environment.

The study of Paleo Ecology thus has valuable applications, where conclusions have direct value to the understanding of our future.

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Kane
6 minutes ago, Auspex said:

Recognition of these variations is aided by a grounding in present-day examples, which can then be used to deduce details in the paleo environment.

The study of Paleo Ecology thus has valuable applications, where conclusions have direct value to the understanding of our future.

They certainly can! - Of course, always with the caveat that any application is a predictive model of the future that will unlikely have a value of probability 1, and that is only as good as the data we have. Even then, there can be problems. The attempt to apply Odum's systems theory (biotic and abiotic systems) from Fundamentals of Ecology resulted in some wackily divergent results in the field. Even factoring in for an exhaustive list of variables, measured in a discrete test area of a living ecosystem over a length of time, the computation's results and nature's results came out... very differently! It goes to show that, no matter how much data we have on hand, the only stable thing is instability. :P:D 

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Auspex
5 minutes ago, Kane said:

...the only stable thing is instability.

And properly curated Holotypes. ;)

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