Invertebrate Paleontology

The Growth and Development of the Section of Invertebrate Paleontology

The 100-year-old section of Invertebrate Paleontology of Carnegie Museum of Natural History currently houses more than 800,000 invertebrate fossil specimens. This collection is one of the top ten invertebrate fossil collections in the country. More than 12,000 of the specimens are types (specimens on which a fossil species is based) or figured specimens that have been illustrated in more than 400 scientific papers. The section’s type collection is the largest in the museum.

A natural history museum’s animal, plant, and fossil collections are like a library’s books. Andrew Carnegie understood this and proposed that “the Carnegie Institute will be the final home of every worthy collection,” and that collections should be held as a resource for posterity (Carnegie Institute Bulletin, v. 1, p.2). The earliest invertebrate fossil collections were purchased by Andrew Carnegie from the Baron de Bayet in 1903. This collection of more than 130,000 specimens was made from classic European localities during the late 19th century. Since that purchase the invertebrate paleontology collection has steadily grown through contributions of private collections and field excursions of the section’s staff.

Invertebrate Paleontology: a subdiscipline of geology
In the past century the discipline of paleontology has grown and evolved from a science of "collect and name" to one that integrates sedimentological, ecological, and evolutionary principles into a cohesive discipline that merges life science and earth history. As such, modern paleontologists must be as proficient in geology as they are in the biological sciences. The history of invertebrate paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, its collections, staff, and their backgrounds parallel the history of paleontology.

Although their names seem similar, vertebrate paleontology and invertebrate paleontology are disciplines having very different emphases and origins. Vertebrate paleontologists are typically trained in anatomy within biology departments and medical schools. In contrast, invertebrate paleontologists typically specialize in geology and are trained in geology departments. Consequently, workers in each discipline have very different educational backgrounds and view fossils differently.

The Cataloguing Period
Since the first fossils from North America were collected, illustrated, and described from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in the 1770s, invertebrate paleontology has played an integral part in the sciences of geology, biology, and evolution. Early paleontologists were little more than collectors who described and illustrated fossils. This stage in the development of paleontology might be called "the cataloguing period." Paleontological publications from this period are filled with beautiful illustrations of new species that had been collected from rocks of various ages from around the globe. Proof of the immensity of these endeavors can be found in the extensive collections of the US National Museum and US Geological Survey where tens of thousands of cases of collected material are housed (J. Paleont., 65, p. 171 and Guide to the Smithsonian Archives, 1983, no. 4, 431 p). Unfortunately, the collecting phase far outdistanced the description efforts and many collections were never thoroughly studied. Nonetheless, by the 1940s efforts had been made to compile the described species into comprehensive volumes. This compendium became the Treatise of Invertebrate Paleontology, most volumes of which were published in the 1950s and 1960s. The Treatise included illustrations of nominal species of each genus known at the time. The Treatise is recognized as the standard reference for the working paleontologist.

These impressive works were to find some of their most widespread use by paleobiological theoreticians, who, without ever examining a fossil specimen themselves, extracted diversity and range data to produce elegant, but often fallacious, evolutionary and extinction hypotheses. For all of their efforts, the paleobiologists failed to heed the warnings of Shaw (1971, J. Paleontology) that paleontologists had become "butterfingered handmaidens" who rarely concerned themselves with the critical stratigraphic information with which to constrain their taxonomy. By the time this was realized in the 1990s most of the systematics included in the initial Treatise had been supplanted by more up-to-date works.

Next: Biostratigraphy & Paleobiology