Why paleo? Mary Schweitzer at TEDxBozeman

Why paleo? Mary Schweitzer at TEDxBozeman


Translator: David Michiels
Reviewer: Denise RQ Thank you everybody for coming,
it’s wonderful to be home. So, what good are dinosaurs anyway? Have any of you guys
ever asked that question? Why should my tax sellers go to pay to study an animal
that no human being has ever seen? Aren’t there
more important things to study? How can dinosaurs possibly be relevant
to the massive problems we face today? These are legitimate, valid questions
that I’ve heard often in my twenty-plus-years
as a palaeontologist. They’ve caused me to think long and hard
about how the big beast that fascinates me can shed light on issues that we face
in our human dominated world. So why study the distant past? Because it’s an experiment
that has already been run. The data are there
just waiting for us to collect them. If we want to make predictions
or model the future, all we have is the past. And except for this tiny little bit
of period of time, that humans have been
on the surface of the planet, all of the data are locked
in the rock record. If we want to study climate change,
all we have is the past. And when we look to the past,
what we see is changed, is the norm on our planet,
not the exception. When we look at the values in the past, they dwarf our current values
and our current concerns. But is there a human overprint? We can’t know that unless we study
the rocks and the past before there was a time
when humans existed. By comparing the two, maybe,
we can tell if that is different. If we want to know
how organisms change over time, all we have are their fossils. How they are related to each other
and how they are related to us. All records are based on the fossils. After all, almost all of the organisms
that ever lived on earth are extinct. Without their fossils
we wouldn’t know of their existence. How did life begin? How did it change? How did it increase in complexity
and what were the triggers for this? Only the fossils can tell us. When we look at the past on our planet, we see five major extinction events that wiped out almost all
the life at that time. When we look at the rocks,
in which the fossils are interred, we see the reasons why organisms died out. They existed up to a point in time,
then they vanished globally. Volcanism, plate tectonics
and extraterrestrial impacts, the rocks record this. This is pretty important
because some data suggest we’re entering
into a sixth global extinction event. But is this event truly different
from what we have seen in the past? Or is it only seeming to be different
because we’re here to watch, to recognize? Only the rocks will tell. But why study dinosaurs in particular? By any stretch of the imagination,
dinosaurs are enormously successful. More widely distributed than mammals,
they still dominate the planet. There are over 10,000 species of birds
that are recognized currently, and only 5,000 of mammals. Longevity… Dinosaurs have ruled the world
as a dominant terrestrial organism for over 200 million years. Mammals have only dominated
for the last 50 million years, and humans just 200,000 years. Dinosaurs have us beaten. They represent the extremes
that are possible for terrestrial organisms. Some of the biggest organisms to ever walk
the surface of the planet? Dinosaurs. And also some of the smallest. Dinosaurs achieve things
mammals have never attained. They have the best
food-processing abilities ever. This dinosaur had up to 2,000 teeth
in its mouth at any one period of time. Those teeth continually
replaced each other as they wore out, so there was no need
for dinosaur dentists. Dinosaurs embedded feathers. Which bakes the question:
“Why feathers? Why not hair?” Hair works really good for mammals
and feathers are metabolically expensive. Dinosaurs tried out other things too. We found fossils
of this little flying dinosaur, that had not just two
feathered wings but four. We still don’t know how it flew, but we would not know
of its existence without the fossils. I would argue there’s another,
equally important reason, to study dinosaurs and it’s this: we are becoming increasingly
dependant on science and technology, but seeing fewer and fewer young people opt for the scientific disciplines
as a career. But dinosaurs are a gateway drug. (Laughter) They illustrate the possibilities
and process of science. You observe, you predict,
you gather data and you test. What we learn from studying dinosaurs,
can be applied to other sciences as well. It’s pretty important. It worked for me. When I was five years old, my big brother left for college
on the East Coast, but not before teaching me how to read. To continue this habit
that he started in me, he used to send me books
from the Biggie’s coast museums. My favourite book to this day
is “The Enormous Egg”. It tells the story
that I related to so well about this little farm kid
and his favourite chicken. He walked in one morning
and this little chicken was trying to brood an egg
that was three times its size. And when that egg finally hatched,
out popped the Triceratops. Trust me, I’ve gathered eggs for my aunt, and I’d much rather walk into a dinosaur
than some of those chickens. But what about my own speciality? Why study ancient molecules? It’s risky, very expensive
and there is a lot of people who say we’ll never get molecules
out of a dinosaur. But we have. Not only molecules, but we’ve gotten tissues and cells
for more than one fossil organism. So what can those molecules tell us? With further study, they can tell us more
about evolutionary relationships, so we can ever learn
from the bones themselves. But more importantly, we can learn how these animals
adapted, at the molecular level, to their own problems,
changes in the environment, varying CO2-levels,
introduction of new diseases. The dinosaurs faced all these too,
and they succeeded. So we have a lot to learn from them. As a matter of fact, some organisms
alive today are in danger of extinction because in the past they went
through a bottle-neck event, greatly reducing their genetic diversity
and the ability to adapt to change. If we could find molecules
in the fossils of these organisms, before they went
through this bottle-neck event, we would get an idea of the original
genetic diversity in those populations, and we might be able to use
this information in conservation efforts, and also learn
what made them vulnerable, while other organisms aren’t. Looking for molecules and fossils
has already resulted in advancements in comparative databases, technology
and increasing sensitivity. Just the process of it
has resulted in this. I can suggest that we have
a transparent flexible polymer. It has to be a use for that
in biomaterial science, when it lasts 80 million years. Even when we study the interactions
between molecules and their environments, we can learn information
about human diseases which in many cases
are the result of modified molecules. Even bioterrorism. What I do is look for small,
low concentration molecules that are heavily modified
in a sedimentary environment. And it requires really
sensitive instrumentation to do so. That’s what we need
when we look for bioterrorist agents. They’re highly modified,
low in concentration, and they cause a lot of problems. The same skill set is required. So I can make all roads lead to dinosaurs. For me it all began
with a children’s book. This professor is talking
to the little boy when he comes to study that Triceratops and he says: “a scientist doesn’t know
all the answers, nobody does. Not even teachers.” – They used to think highly
of teachers back then. – But a scientist keeps on trying
to find the answers. And just remember
when you’re talking about frontiers: maybe the next frontier lies in the past. Thank you. (Applause)