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THE ANCIENT
LIFE-HISTORY
OF THE EARTH

Chapter 1:

THE SCOPE AND MATERIALS OF PALÆONTOLOGY.


The study of the rock-masses which constitute the crust of the earth, if carried out in the methodical and scientific manner of the geologist, at once brings us, as has been before remarked, in contact with the remains or traces of living beings which formerly dwelt upon the globe. Such remains are found, in greater or less abundance, in the great majority of rocks; and they are not only of great interest in themselves, but they have proved of the greatest importance as throwing light upon various difficult problems in geology, in natural history, in botany, and in philosophy. Their study constitutes the science of Palæontology; and though it is possible to proceed to a certain length in geology and zoology without much palæontological knowledge, it is hardly possible to attain to a satisfactory general acquaintance with either of these subjects without having mastered the leading facts of the first. Similarly, it is not possible to study palæontology without some acquaintance with both geology and natural history.

Palæontology, then, is the science which treats of the living beings, whether animal or vegetable, which have inhabited the earth during past periods of its history. Its object is to elucidate, as far as may be, the structure, mode of existence, and habits of all such ancient forms of life; to determine their position in the scale of organised beings; to lay down the geographical limits within which they flourished; and to fix the period of their advent and disappearance. It is the ancient life-history of the earth; and were its record complete, it would furnish us with a detailed knowledge of the form and relations of all the animals and plants which have at any period flourished upon the land-surfaces of the globe or inhabited its waters; it would enable us to determine precisely their succession in time; and it would place in our hands an unfailing key to the problems of evolution. Unfortunately, from causes which will be subsequently discussed, the palæontological record is extremely imperfect, and our knowledge is interrupted by gaps, which not only bear a large proportion to our solid information, but which in many cases are of such a nature that we can never hope to fill them up.

FOSSILS.—The remains of animals or vegetables which we now find entombed in the solid rock, and which constitute the working material of the palæontologist, are termed "fossils,"[3] or "petrifactions." In most cases, as can be readily understood, fossils are the actual hard parts of animals and plants which were in existence when the rock in which they are now found was being deposited. Most fossils, therefore, are of the nature of the shells of shell-fish, the skeletons of coral-zoophytes, the bones of vertebrate animals, or the wood, bark, or leaves of plants. All such bodies are more or less of a hard consistence to begin with, and are capable of resisting decay for a longer or shorter time—hence the frequency with which they occur in the fossil condition. Strictly speaking, however, by the term "fossil" must be understood "any body, or the traces of the existence of any body, whether animal or vegetable, which has been buried in the earth by natural causes" (Lyell). We shall find, in fact, that many of the objects which we have to study as "fossils" have never themselves actually formed parts of any animal or vegetable, though they are due to the former existence of such organisms, and indicate what was the nature of these. Thus the footprints left by birds, or reptiles, or quadrupeds upon sand or mud, are just as much proofs of the former existence of these animals as would be bones, feathers, or scales, though in themselves they are inorganic. Under the head of fossils, therefore, come the footprints of air-breathing vertebrate animals; the tracks, trails, and burrows of sea-worms, crustaceans, or molluscs; the impressions left on the sand by stranded jelly-fishes; the burrows in stone or wood of certain shell-fish; the "moulds" or "casts" of shells, corals, and other organic remains; and various other bodies of a more or less similar nature.

[Footnote 3: Lat. fossus, dug up.]

FOSSILISATION.—The term "fossilisation" is applied to all those processes through which the remains of organised beings may pass in being converted into fossils. These processes are numerous and varied; but there are three principal modes of fossilisation which alone need be considered here. In the first instance, the fossil is to all intents and purposes an actual portion of the original organised being—such as a bone, a shell, or a piece of wood. In some rare instances, as in the case of the body of the Mammoth discovered embedded in ice at the mouth of the Lena in Siberia, the fossil may be preserved almost precisely in its original condition, and even with its soft parts uninjured. More commonly, certain changes have taken place in the fossil, the principal being the more or less total removal of the organic matter originally present. Thus bones become light and porous by the removal of their gelatine, so as to cleave to the tongue on being applied to that organ; whilst shells become fragile, and lose their primitive colours. In other cases, though practically the real body it represents, all the cavities of the fossil, down to its minutest recesses, may have become infiltrated with mineral matter. It need hardly be added, that it is in the more modern rocks that we find the fossils, as a rule, least changed from their former condition; but the original structure is often more or less completely retained in some of the fossils from even the most ancient formations.

In the second place, we very frequently meet with fossils in the state of "casts" or moulds of the original organic body. What occurs in this case will be readily understood if we imagine any common bivalve shell, as an Oyster, or Mussel, or Cockle, embedded in clay or mud. If the clay were sufficiently soft and fluid, the first thing would be that it would gain access to the interior of the shell, and would completely fill up the space between the valves. The pressure, also, of the surrounding matter would insure that the clay would everywhere adhere closely to the exterior of the shell. If now we suppose the clay to be in any way hardened so as to be converted into stone, and if we were to break up the stone, we should obviously have the following state of parts. The clay which filled the shell would form an accurate cast of the interior of the shell, and the clay outside would give us an exact impression or cast of the exterior of the shell (fig. 1). We should have, then, Fig. 1
Fig. 1.—Trigonia longa, showing casts of the exterior and interior of the shell.—Cretaceous (Neocomian).
two casts, an interior and an exterior, and the two would be very different to one another, since the inside of a shell is very unlike the outside. In the case, in fact, of many univalve shells, the interior cast or "mould" is so unlike the exterior cast, or unlike the shell itself, that it may be difficult to determine the true origin of the former.

It only remains to add that there is sometimes a further complication. If the rock be very porous and permeable by water, it may happen that the original shell is entirely dissolved away, leaving the interior cast loose, like the kernel of a nut, within the case formed by the exterior cast. Or it may happen that subsequent to the attainment of this state of things, the space thus left vacant between the interior and exterior cast—the space, that is, formerly occupied by the shell itself—may be filled up by some foreign mineral deposited there by the infiltration of water. In this last case the splitting open of the rock would reveal an interior cast, an exterior cast, and finally a body which would have the exact form of the original shell, but which would be really a much later formation, and which would not exhibit under the microscope the minute structure of shell.

In the third class of cases we have fossils which present with the greatest accuracy the external form, and even sometimes the internal minute structure, of the original organic body, but which, nevertheless, are not themselves truly organic, but have been formed by a "replacement" of the particles of the primitive organism by some mineral substance. The most elegant example of this is afforded by fossil wood which has been "silicified" or converted into flint (silex). In such cases we have fossil wood which presents the rings of growth and fibrous structure of recent wood, and which under the microscope exhibits the minutest vessels which characterise ligneous tissue, together with the even more minute markings of the vessels (fig. 2). The whole, however, Fig. 2
Fig. 2.—Microscopic section of the silicified wood of a Conifer (Sequoia) cut in the long direction of the fibres. Post-tertiary? Colorado. (Original.)
Fig. 3
Fig. 3.—Microscopic section of the wood of the common Larch (Abies larix), cut in the long direction of the fibres. In both the fresh and the fossil wood (fig. 2) are seen the discs characteristic of coniferous wood. (Original.)
instead of being composed of the original carbonaceous matter of the wood, is now converted into flint. The only explanation that can be given Page 14 of this by no means rare phenomenon, is that the wood must have undergone a slow process of decay in water charged with silica or flint in solution. As each successive particle of wood was removed by decay, its place was taken by a particle of flint deposited from the surrounding water, till ultimately the entire wood was silicified. The process, therefore, resembles what would take place if we were to pull down a house built of brick by successive bricks, replacing each brick as removed by a piece of stone of precisely the same size and form. The result of this would be that the house would retain its primitive size, shape, and outline, but it would finally have been converted from a house of brick into a house of stone. Many other fossils besides wood—such as shells, corals, sponges, &c.—are often found silicified; and this may be regarded as the commonest form of fossilisation by replacement. In other cases, however, though the principle of the process is the same, the replacing substance may be iron pyrites, oxide of iron, sulphur, malachite, magnesite, talc, &c.; but it is rarely that the replacement with these minerals is so perfect as to preserve the more delicate details of internal structure.



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