Monday, September 08, 2008

Notable paleontologists

History includes a number of prominent paleontologists. Fossils were systematically studied in the 11th century by the Persian naturalist, Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna in Europe), in The Book of Healing (1027), and by the Chinese naturalist, Shen Kuo (1031-1095). In particular, Ibn Sina's theory on fossils was accepted by most naturalists in medieval Europe and the medieval Near East by the 16th century.

The modern discipline of paleontology begins in the 19th century, when Charles Darwin collected fossils of South American mammals during his trip on the Beagle and examined petrified forests in Patagonia. Mary Anning was a notable early paleontologist. She found several landmark fossils, in her home town of Lyme Regis. Although self-taught, she collected and described them in a very systematic way. William Buckland, Richard Owen, Gideon Mantell, Georges Cuvier and Thomas Huxley were important early pioneers, in the field of paleontology. Thomas Jefferson took a keen interest in mammoth bones. Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh waged a famously fierce competition known as the Bone Wars in the late 19th century that involved some questionable practices, but which significantly advanced the understanding of the natural history of North America and vertebrate paleontology. Professor Earl Douglass of the Carnegie University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, opened the fossil quarry protected today by Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. Douglass' fossils are in several Natural History Museums. Meanwhile, Baron Franz Nopcsa, a pioneer paleobiologist, argued that dinosaurs might have been both warm-blooded and ancestral to birds.

Besides looking at mammal teeth and unearthing penguin skeletons, George Gaylord Simpson played a crucial role in bringing together ideas from biology, paleontology and genetics, to help create the 'Modern Synthesis' of evolutionary biology. His book "Tempo and Mode" is a classic in the field. Prominent names in invertebrate paleontology include Steven M. Stanley, Stephen Jay Gould, David Raup, Rousseau H. Flower and Jack Sepkoski, who have done much to expand our understanding of long-term patterns in the evolution of life on earth. Large names in the field of paleoanthropology include Louis, Mary and Richard Leakey, Raymond Dart, Robert Broom, C.K. 'Bob' Brain, Kenneth Oakley, Robert Ardrey and Tim White. In recent times, Mongolian paleontologist Rinchen Barsbold has done much to expand our understanding of dinosaur and bird evolution. Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago has made several important dinosaur finds in areas such as the Sahara, where fossil hunting has been uncommon.

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