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Palaeontology In Peril

Few people know the thrill of finding a Velociraptor skull when digging under the scorching sun in the Gobi desert. Or the triumphant feeling of finding a cluster of intriguing rocks, only to realise they are dinosaur eggs fossilised from millions of years ago.

One might know palaeontologists as dinosaur bone experts who keep digging in the sand all day. While that constitutes a large part of their job, dealing with fossils is a little bit more complex.

Digging Into The Past

The 17th Century was brewing with new ideas, discoveries and innovations. It was during this very period that William Smith, a geologist, found out a great use for fossils. His research enabled easy identification of strata (layers of rocks and soil) with fossil discoveries which led to his law of faunal succession. Smith and Georges Cuvier are considered to be the pioneers of palaeontology. However, unlike Smith, Cuvier was not particularly a fan of the modern notions of evolution but his efforts to bring fossils into the field of zoology and anatomy set the foundation for palaeontology as a science.

Palaeontology is a spectacular coalescence of geology and biology, serving the theory of evolution. Even a tiny, seemingly insignificant mollusc can be a storehouse of millennia of information about the earth. Though each find in this field is important, some turn up as absolute marvels of time.

Monetary Mayhem

The relevancy of palaeontology has long been debated among academics and others. This discipline is even said to be waning with time as it faces a variety of obstacles in sustaining itself.

The primary issue in palaeontological research is funding. The palaeontological industry depends on the funds from either the government or from private entities to continue their projects. Thus, it is not a shocker to know that this sector is grossly underfunded. Some societies keep aside a tiny chunk of funds for exploration in science. Palaeontology gets only a small share of the pool of funds, as other sciences deemed more important take the bigger share.

On the state level, palaeontology seems like it would be on the bottom of the list of sectors to fund. This is partially justified because education, healthcare and infrastructure for basic development are objectively more important. Disappointingly, research funding is only 0.69% of the GDP in India. A large part of these funds goes towards grants for space and defence along with atomic energy. Only one-third of the money is left for other sciences and palaeontology is not the first choice among them. Overall, funding from both private and public entities is not likely to increase. This emerges as a problem, as countries are not

only losing out on the knowledge that palaeontology brings, but also on the benefits of a labour-intensive occupation.

A research expedition usually takes years, partly due to the uncertainties involving the excavation and then the tedious process of preparation and preservation of fossils.

Geoconservation and Palaeontology

In countries like India that are entangled in weak laws but boast an unexplored reserve of fossils, research is plagued by problems of illegal fossil trading and parachute science. The colonial past plus present inadequacies enable foreign expeditions into India to not use local researchers. Moreover, private fossil auctions are becoming increasingly popular – restricting scientists' access to study them. Usually, museums buy fossils but because these auctions go in millions of dollars, even the biggest museums struggle to accommodate it in their budget. The consequence of such disarray? A nation drained of its geo-heritage.

The importance of geo-heritage conservation was realised in the early 20th century for countries like the US and China but for India, it caught on very late. In fact, to this date, there is ineffective legislation and poor implementation with regards to the conservation and maintenance of geo-parks and structures. Advait Jukar, a palaeontologist from Yale University, voiced the need for a collective international effort in maintaining our shared geo-heritage.

Indian fossil sites are also exposed to the negative effects of urbanisation and the burden of population expansion on land. The sites are prone to intense weather conditions, and often just wither away. Many times, they either get destroyed in huge construction projects or get looted due to no security.

The destructive and careless actions by a few result in a collective loss for everyone on this planet. Ancient flora and fauna embedded in rocks depict a turbulent path for all life on the planet. The chronology of key events on the planet is mapped by researching the soil components and the different types of fossils found within it. With this information, we can also forecast the effects of climate change on our planet.

Growing Economies - Tourism and Oil

On their own, paleontological finds might not draw up enough revenue to keep the money flowing. But two of the most profit-making industries boost their chances of survival.

Local economies benefit when a new fossil site is discovered or a museum is set up. In a study on paleo-tourism, it was revealed that small towns shot up in popularity and grew economically when a fossiliferous site was discovered nearby. This was because more tourism means more money coming into the town, which then contributes to the businesses within it.

An example was provided of Bałtów, Poland, which was an unknown village before it turned

into a tourist-pulling dream. With the establishment of Jura Park accompanying its fossil site, the footfall grew to 400,000 in Bałtów. This proved that the right educational and amusement infrastructure backing these sites helped businesses grow along with the spread of quality information.

It is evident that understanding the market can help the people involved in this field gain employment and revenue. One can more often than not find palaeontologists working for oil companies practising biostratigraphy – in charge of hydrocarbon exploration projects. They look for micro-fossils that are indicators of possible oil fields. As demand for fossil fuels is projected to rise, the need for exploration projects will also increase. This will increase the demand for micro-palaeontologists and inject funds into fossil research.

For palaeontology, the initial costs of setting up quality infrastructure are high, which explains why a developing country like India avoids funding. However, these short term costs are worth the long term social and economic benefits.

Rather than funding superficial enterprises that add no value to the wealth of a nation, more importance needs to be given to endeavours that profit every entity involved - the government, the academia, the people and, most importantly, the environment. Palaeontological study enables a nation to sustain itself in terms of global warming mitigation efforts and also to grow by increasing employment.

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