Introduction to Paleontology

Paleontology was the first of the two major earth science programs to be provided by the Courtenay and District Museum. It is the scientific study of life throughout the long history of our planet, based on the evidence that is found within its sedimentary rocks, including their relationships to their prehistoric environments as well as to one another.

To do this, palaeontologists must first extract these prehistoric plants and animals from the various sequences exposed across Vancouver Island. This evidence is recovered in the form of fossils — from the Latin word fossilis — which traditionally meant anything that was dug out of the ground, whether it had been a rock, crystal, or thigh bone of some long-extinct dinosaur.

Today, however, the word fossil is used to describe the naturally preserved remains of the hard parts of a dead animal or plant that is no less than 10,000 years old, and is usually turned into solid stone (although there are some rare and spectacular exceptions, such as the preservation of the soft anatomy of invertebrates in the Burgess Shale of British Columbia, Siberian woolly mammoth frozen in Pleistocene ice, and Paleocene insects entombed forever in golden Dominican amber).

Fossils are only a part of what makes up the study of palaeontology. The discipline also involves the study of biology, which, in turn, requires a focus on taxonomy — in palaeontological terms, the identification of fossilized parts of animals and plants. Taxonomy is the science of the inter-relationships of animal and plant groups, based upon a large suite of shared characteristics of the creatures’ hard anatomy — whatever parts, that is, which have survived the rigorous process from death to fossilization to discovery. These shared characters are then used to unite animals and plants into species, and then into various progressively larger groupings. The following is an explanation of the two most important classifications.

Divisions Human Courtenay Elasmosaur
Kingdom Metazoa Metazoa
Phylum Chordata Chordata
Class Mammalia Reptilia
Subclass Theria Diapsida
Order Primates Plesiosauria
Suborder Anthropoidea Not Applicable
Family Hominidae Elasmosauridae
Genus Homo Indeterminate Elasmosaurid
Species H. Sapiens Unknown, but likely new

Note: For the sake of simplicity, this web site has intentionally abandoned many of the innumerable taxonomic subdivisions within this model.

The architect of modern systematics (the placement of animal and plant relationships into an orderly taxonomic system) was 18th-century Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). He proposed that certain characters of form and function (morphological characters) were to become the basis for arranging specimens in many of the natural history collections throughout western Europe. He therefore subdivided the multicellular (many-celled) animal and plant kingdoms (today known as the Metazoa and Metaphyta, respectively) into an ascending series of groups of ever-increasing inclusiveness. Similar species are grouped into genera, the related genera are then grouped into families, and so forth, until at last either the kingdom of Metazoa or Metaphyta encompasses them all.