P. Edronkin

Palaeontology And Survival



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From palaeontology, which is the science that essentially studies fossils from plants and animals, we can learn a lot about survival in its broadest terms. Palaeontology teaches us about the history of life in our planet and maybe, if in the future we discover other planets capable of sustaining life, it will also explain about the survival of living entities there too, wherever that may be.

But at least in our world, the history of life is one of evolution and competence; thus, it is the story of the survival of the fittest, the ones that struggle, resist, persist and then dominate. Life, it seems so far, originated here about 3.500 million years ago (that is 3.500.000.000 years!); some fossils of bacteria of that age have been found, so we know this as a scientific fact.

More complex life began about 800 million year ago and the main classes of plants and animals which gave way to our present-day flora and fauna began to evolve during the Cambrian period, about 580-505 million years ago, and since then, everything has been evolving and changing quite rapidly; however, some species, classes and groups of organisms remain quite unchanged because they evolved one day into their ideal form. Even since the Cambrian, there are living beings that have remain essentially the same, like in the case of lampreys, a kind of jawless fish that belongs the group of 'Agnathans,' the most primitive fishes on Earth's history. They still live and thrive.

Brachiopods, superficially similar to the molluscs that we usually find while on seaside holidays appeared also during the Cambrian but remain the same, and there are others: conifers, for example, evolved around 360 million years ago, during the Carboniferous. The araucarias or monkey puzzle trees belong to this group, and they have retained their DNA essentially intact since then.

Birds are also extremely successful survivors: they do not just evolved from dinosaurs; in fact, they are the only dinosaur family left after the great extinction than took place 66,4 million years ago; birds retain all the essential characters of dinosaurs, and dinosaurs that were not birds per se had showed all the characteristics that even modern birds have. So they are the last of the great reptiles, after all. Mammals also lived in the shadows of dinosaurs for a long time: since the Triassic, when the first mammals appeared, 230 million years or so ago, our most direct ancestors live discretely until the dinosaurs, the dominant group of land animals almost disappeared - remember: birds are still here.

From all these stories that we can learn about thanks to palaeontology, we can extract a few survival lessons:

First of all, survivors never pretend to become dominant in an ecosystem unless they reach a certain size, physical strength or sheer numbers that would enable them to preserve what they conquer.

Then, survivors always keep a low profile, waiting for the right opportunity to pass by. Survivors never act in haste.

And then, survivors remain flexible and travel light: a bird that finds that the ecosystem does not provide support anymore simply migrates elsewhere.

So, even while learning survival techniques for the challenges that we humans might face, we have to learn fro all this: travel light, be flexible, wait and remain in the shadows. Nature is the best survival instructor that we have at hand, for it has been experimenting for a time so long that it is even hard to imagine.




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