Wednesday, October 15th is National Fossil Day. And in case you didn't know it, this is the 5th annual National Fossil Day. In 2010, The National Park service joined together with museums, institutions, organizations, and other educational and natural history groups to initiate a nation-wide celebration of our fossil resources. This day is held annually on the Wednesday of Earth Science Week.
As a paleontologist, I think that having a National Fossil Day is pretty darn cool. But justifying the need for a "National Fossil Day" is much like justifying the need for paleontologists in today's society - the need is very clear to us in the profession or with a passion for Earth's history, but often not as obvious to the average citizen. Paleontology has historically been described as a "pure science" or "fundamental science", meaning that the focus is knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This is different from applied sciences like engineering, biomedical sciences, and behavioral sciences. The need for cancer researchers is clear to anyone who has watched a loved one fight cancer, but the need for someone who studies the anatomy and behavior of an organism that went extinct 80 million years ago is a little less obvious. When I was a student just breaking into the field, I often felt the need to justify my passion and career path.
Over the years, I've found that there are many reasons why studying past life on Earth is important. Most basically, it's important to understand our planet's past and where we, as a species that evolved on this Earth, came from. Additionally, fossils are not renewable resources. Much like we talk about fossil fuels running out, there is also a limited number of fossils. Less than 1% of all living organisms are fossilized to begin with, so we already start at a huge disadvantage when trying to understand past ecosystems and evolutionary history. Preserving what IS left in the fossil record is very important for saving these resources for future generations of citizens, students, and scholars. There are also applied uses for fossils that are important, such as the the fact that dead organisms form oil and gas resources (our fossil fuels); we can also use fossils to find these resources. Understanding earth processes can also help with engineering and building safe structures. There's also the personal passion and thrill. Knowing that when you dig up a fossil you are the first person EVER to see that fossil is a pretty incredible thing. There are so many questions, answers, mysteries, and adventures ahead just with that one fossil - not to mention what questions may be asked and answered when you add the new fossil to our growing datasets available for research and education.
I generally emphasize two reasons for why understanding and protecting fossil resources is important: understanding Earth's future and education. There is a reigning paradigm in the earth sciences called Uniformitarianism or Actualism: The Present is the Key to the Past. This means that the processes that shape Earth today are the same that operated in the past. Thus, to understand the events and sequences preserved in the rocks and fossils, we need to understand how different environments work today. Understanding how rivers and streams erode and deposit sediments, understanding how environmental and genetic pressures affect the evolution of a bird's beak, understanding how the decay of organic carbon produces oil, etc. I think that the concept of Uniformitarianism is reversible, too: The Past is the Key to the Present and Future. This means that by studying changes in Earth's past, we can understand where we are now AND we can begin to predict the future. Understanding how organisms responded to climate change, sea level rises, habitat changes, invasive species, etc. in the past is the only way to realistically predict how plants and animals will respond to current changes into the future. This understanding comes from studying fossils. Consequently, paleontology is becoming more and more relevant in discussions of global climate change (including climate modelling) and conservation biology. These discussions may often seem esoteric or politically-driven, but they are essential to the future of the human race.
Unfortunately, the discussion of education - and especially science education (and especially science education related to evolution) - can be just as politically charged as talking about climate change and endangered species. But the role of fossils in education can be distilled to the simple fact that at some point, most children are fascinated by dinosaurs. The success of Dinosaur Train speaks to this. Extinct animals are big, foreign, sometime terrifying, and utterly cool. To this end, I often refer to fossils as a "gateway drug" to science. This awe and fascination is a great way to get kids engaged in science and interested in the world around them. Not every kid is going to grow up to be a scientist (which is a good thing - I've been to enough professional conferences to know that a world of scientists would be completely dysfunctional); but just because you aren't a scientist, doesn't mean that you should stop asking questions. People of all ages should spend their lives as students of science - asking questions about nature and forming logical answers by making observations and gathering evidence. The more people interested in science and technology and engaged in becoming life-long learners, the better the world will be.
Essentially, National Fossil Day is a wonderful opportunity to provide engaging educational programming using fossils as a vessel to inspire an interest in science. Although how and why we study fossils is the focus of the day, the real lessons are how science works, to explore the mysteries of the natural world, the importance of preserving and protecting limited resources, and to inspire the next generation of question-askers and answerers. It's wonderful to see so many museums, organizations, agencies, and institutions embrace the opportunity to immerse children, students, adults, and families in innovative programs. And it's wonderful to see the public get excited about it. So contact your local museum to find out how you can participate in National Fossil Day 2014!