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THE ANCIENT
LIFE-HISTORY
OF THEĀ EARTH

Chapter 5:

CONCLUSIONS TO BE DRAWN FROM FOSSILS.


We have already seen that geologists have been led by the study of fossils to the all-important generalisation that the vast series of the Fossiliferous or Sedimentary Rocks may be divided into a number of definite groups or "formations," each of which is characterised by its organic remains. It may simply be repeated here that these formations are not properly and strictly characterised by the occurrence in them of any one particular fossil. It may be that a formation contains some particular fossil or fossils not occurring out of that formation, and that in this way an observer may identify a given group with tolerable certainty. It very often happens, indeed, that some particular stratum, or sub-group of a series, contains peculiar fossils, by which its existence may be determined in various localities. As before remarked, however, the great formations are characterised properly by the association of certain fossils, by the predominance of certain families or orders, or by an assemblage of fossil remains representing the "life" of the period in which the formation was deposited.

Fossils, then, enable us to determine the age of the deposits in which they occur. Fossils further enable us to come to very important conclusions as to the mode in which the fossiliferous bed was deposited, and thus as to the condition of the particular district or region occupied by the fossiliferous bed at the time of the formation of the latter. If, in the first place, the bed contain the remains of animals such as now inhabit rivers, we know that it is "fluviatile" in its origin, and that it must at one time have either formed an actual riverbed, or been deposited by the overflowing of an ancient stream. Secondly, if the bed contain the remains of shellfish, minute crustaceans, or fish, such as now inhabit lakes, we know that it is "lacustrine," and was deposited beneath the waters of a former lake. Thirdly, if the bed contain the remains of animals such as now people the ocean, we know that it is "marine" in its origin, and that it is a fragment of an old sea-bottom.

We can, however, often determine the conditions under which a bed was deposited with greater accuracy than this. If, for example, the fossils are of kinds resembling the marine animals now inhabiting shallow waters, if they are accompanied by the detached relics of terrestrial organisms, or if they are partially rolled and broken, we may conclude that the fossiliferous deposit was laid down in a shallow sea, in the immediate vicinity of a coast-line, or as an actual shore-deposit. If, again, the remains are those of animals such as now live in the deeper parts of the ocean, and there is a very sparing intermixture of extraneous fossils (such as the bones of birds or quadrupeds, or the remains of plants), we may presume that the deposit is one of deep water. In other cases, we may find, scattered through the rock, and still in their natural position, the valves of shells such as we know at the present day as living buried in the sand or mud of the sea-shore or of estuaries. In other cases, the bed may obviously have been an ancient coral-reef, or an accumulation of social shells, like Oysters. Lastly, if we find the deposit to contain the remains of marine shells, but that these are dwarfed of their fair proportions and distorted in figure, we may conclude that it was laid down in a brackish sea, such as the Baltic, in which the proper saltness was wanting, owing to its receiving an excessive supply of fresh water.

In the preceding, we have been dealing simply with the remains of aquatic animals, and we have seen that certain conclusions can be accurately reached by an examination of these. As regards the determination of the conditions of deposition from the remains of aerial and terrestrial animals, or from plants, there is not such an absolute certainty. The remains of land-animals would, of course, occur in "sub-aerial" deposits—that is, in beds, like blown sand, accumulated upon the land. Most of the remains of land-animals, however, are found in deposits which have been laid down in water, and they owe their present position to the fact that their former owners were drowned in rivers or lakes, or carried out to sea by streams. Birds, Flying Reptiles, and Flying Mammals might also similarly find their way into aqueous deposits; but it is to be remembered that many birds and mammals habitually spend a great part of their time in the water, and that these might therefore be naturally expected to present themselves as fossils in Sedimentary Rocks. Plants, again, even when undoubtedly such as must have grown on land, do not prove that the bed in which they occur was formed on land. Many of the remains of plants known to us are extraneous to the bed in which they are now found, having reached their present site by falling into lakes or rivers, or being carried out to sea by floods or gales of wind. There are, however, many cases in which plants have undoubtedly grown on the very spot where we now find them. Thus it is now generally admitted that the great coal-fields of the Carboniferous age are the result of the growth in situ of the plants which compose coal, and that these grew on vast Fig. 19
Fig. 19.—Erect Tree containing Reptilian remains. Coal-measures, Nova Scotia. (After Dawson.)
marshy or partially submerged tracts of level alluvial land. We have, however, distinct evidence of old land-surfaces, both in the Coal-measures and in other cases (as, for instance, in the well-known "dirt-bed" of the Purbeck series). When, for example, we find the erect stumps of trees standing at right angles to the surrounding strata, we know that the surface through which these send their roots was at one time the surface of the dry land, or, in other words, was an ancient soil (fig. 19).

In many cases fossils enable us to come to important conclusions as to the climate of the period in which they lived but only a few instances of this can be here adduced. As fossils in the majority of instances are the remains of marine animals, it is mostly the temperature of the sea which can alone be determined in this way; and it is important to remember that, owing to the existence of heated currents, the marine climate of a given area does not necessarily imply a correspondingly warm climate in the neighbouring land. Land-climates can only be determined by the remains of land-animals or land-plants, and these are comparatively rare as fossils. It is also important to remember that all conclusions on this head are really based upon the present distribution of animal and vegetable life on the globe, and are therefore liable to be vitiated by the following considerations:—

a. Most fossils are extinct, and it is not certain that the habits and requirements of any extinct animal were exactly similar to those of its nearest living relative.

b. When we get very far back in time, we meet with groups of organisms so unlike anything we know at the present day as to render all conjectures as to climate founded upon their supposed habits more or less uncertain and unsafe.

c. In the case of marine animals, we are as yet very far from knowing the exact limits of distribution of many species within our present seas; so that conclusions drawn from living forms as to extinct species are apt to prove incorrect. For instance, it has recently been shown that many shells formerly believed to be confined to the Arctic Seas have, by reason of the extension of Polar currents, a wide range to the south; and this has thrown doubt upon the conclusions drawn from fossil shells as to the Arctic conditions under which certain beds were supposed to have been deposited.

d. The distribution of animals at the present day is certainly dependent upon other conditions beside climate alone; and the causes which now limit the range of given animals are certainly such as belong to the existing order of things. But the establishment of the present order of things does not date back in many cases to the introduction of the present species of animals. Even in the case, therefore, of existing species of animals, it can often be shown that the past distribution of the species was different formerly to what it is now, not necessarily because the climate has changed, but because of the alteration of other conditions essential to the life of the species or conducing to its extension.

Still, we are in many cases able to draw completely reliable conclusions as to the climate of a given geological period, by an examination of the fossils belonging to that period. Among the more striking examples of how the past climate of a region may be deduced from the study of the organic remains contained in its rocks, the following may be mentioned: It has been shown that in Eocene times, or at the commencement of the Tertiary period, the climate of what is now Western Europe was of a tropical or sub-tropical character. Thus the Eocene beds are found to contain the remains of shells such as now inhabit tropical seas, as, for example, Cowries and Volutes; and with these are the fruits of palms, and the remains of other tropical plants. It has been shown, again, that in Miocene times, or about the middle of the Tertiary period, Central Europe was peopled with a luxuriant flora resembling that of the warmer parts of the United States, and leading to the conclusion that the mean annual temperature must have been at least 30° hotter than it is at present. It has been shown that, at the same time, Greenland, now buried beneath a vast ice-shroud, was warm enough to support a large number of trees, shrubs, and other plants, such as inhabit temperate regions of the globe. Lastly, it has been shown upon physical as well as palæontological evidence, that the greater part of the North Temperate Zone, at a comparatively recent geological period, has been visited with all the rigours of an Arctic climate, resembling that of Greenland at the present day. This is indicated by the occurrence of Arctic shells in the superficial deposits of this period, whilst the Musk-ox and the Reindeer roamed far south of their present limits.

Lastly, it was from the study of fossils that geologists learnt originally to comprehend a fact which may be regarded as of cardinal importance in all modern geological theories and speculations—namely, that the crust of the earth is liable to local elevations and subsidences. For long after the remains of shells and other marine animals were for the first time observed in the solid rocks forming the dry land, and at great heights above the sea-level, attempts were made to explain this almost unintelligible phenomenon upon the hypothesis that the fossils in question were not really the objects they represented, but were in truth mere lusus naturœ, due to some "plastic virtue latent in the earth." The common-sense of scientific men, however, soon rejected this idea, and it was agreed by universal consent that these bodies really were remains of animals which formerly lived in the sea. When once this was admitted, the further steps were comparatively easy, and at the present day no geological doctrine stands on a firmer basis than that which teaches us that our present continents and islands, fixed and immovable as they appear, have been repeatedly sunk beneath the ocean.



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