The past can help us shape the future

This field – conservation biology – uses the fossil record to inform today's conservation practices. Here we'll cover a series of examples that demonstrate how fossils can add our understanding of ecosystems today, in particular how those ecosystems react to stress. We'll then finish by looking at something called geoheritage – conserving our geological systems.


Today's topic is split into the following chunks:

  • What is conservation palaeobiology? – Section 1.
  • A deep time perspective – Section 2.
  • Environmental stressors – Section 3.
  • Multiple environmental stressors – Section 4.
  • Geoheritage – Section 5.

This all matters, of course, a great deal. Humans are causing significant stress to ecosystems globally. It is only by understanding the deep history of life and its reaction to stressors that we can place what is happening today in context. In addition to that, we need to look after our fossil record as a resource for future generations who will want to continue asking such questions.

1 – What is conservation palaeobiology?

Some people out there make jokes about palaeontologists. We're like the drummers of the science band (I speak from experience, having been both a palaeontologist and a drummer). That is, perhaps, one reason palaeo-types love conservation palaeobiology: we – and fossils – can actually be useful. It is a new, and highly interdisciplinary field, that is growing in importance given the significant human impacts on the majority of earth's ecosystems. Let's meet the field, and cover some context.


  • Conservation palaeobiology uses data from palaeobiology and palaeoecology (=geohistorical data) to meet address challenges in conservation.
  • The fossil record is valuable because it provides big spatial and temporal scales, and endless natural experiments we can study.
  • When we're thinking about conservation, given that ecosystems are, and have, always changed, and thus geohistorical data can help us make nuanced decisions.
  • We can apply this to the relatively recent (geological) past to help us understand today's ecosystems, and deeper in time to understand underlying principles.

2 – Why conservation palaeobiology?

Yey! Palaeontologists are a useful bunch. Well done us. But you don't have to just take my word for it (obviously, I have skin in this game) – in this next video I'll provide a series of examples that will hopefully convince you too!


  • There are many examples where, without palaeo data, we risk reaching incorrect conclusions about conservation topics.
  • Fossils can help us:
    • Identify invasive species!
    • Measure historical variability!
    • Understand the context for modern day biodiversity!
    • Understand species dynamics in deep(er) time!
    • Maintain our expectations for conservation practice!

I'm aware I got a bit exclamation mark heavy just there, but damn, it's exciting. You know what else is exciting? Quizzes.

3 – Environmental stressors

Many, verging on most, of the problems impacting today's ecosystems can be summed up as environmental stressors. Let's meet a few of these and then look at their impact on ecosystems.


  • Stressors include:
    • Changes to, for example, habitat area
    • Climate change
    • Human exploitation
    • Biological invasions
  • Fossils can demonstrate:
    • Lags in response to stressors
    • Biotic responses to environmental changes
    • The impact of human exploitation and species extinctions
    • The nature of biological invasions
  • I didn't explicitly say so in the video, but I consider a better understanding of all of these key to a broad range of conservation efforts, in many ecosystems.

4 – Multiple stressors

Like busses, stressors rarely come alone. But when we have multiple stressors, how do they interact with each other, and how does life interact with that combination? These are big questions, and we don't have as many answers as we would like. But the case studies in this video provide an overview of where we currently are.


  • Work to date shows that multiple stressors tend to drive biological outcomes that are starkly different to those produced by single stressors.
  • Fossils can help us to:
    • Identify warning signs in ecosystems that speak of imminent collapse or delayed recovery
    • Understand feedbacks that can either stabilize or exacerbate the impact of stressors on ecosystems
    • Predict lag effects in ecosystem responses
    • Get a better handle on slow processes in ecosystems
    • Better understand the frequency and impact of, and recovery processes associated with, rare events in ecosystems

5 – Geoheritage

We've talked a lot about protecting today's ecosystems. But when it comes to preserving important elements of the natural world, we probably also want to look after non-living systems and elements. We find out more about how this is achieved in our last video.


  • Geoheritage can be defined as intrinsically important geological features. Geoconservation is the preservation of geoheritage.
  • Often our geoheritage is at risk as a result of human activities – for example, these include smuggling and illegal collecting of fossils, and urban development
  • There are complex legal frameworks surrounding the protection of geoheritage sites, which vary across regions and countries.

Bonus stuff!

Woohoo. You made it! Well done. That was conservation palaeobiology. Here is some bonus conservation palaeobiology.

The absolute latest, from some of the greatest

I've referred to a number of awesome colleagues throughout this course – there are many super smart people doing really cool research across the gamut of palaeo-related topics. And conservation palaeobiology is no different.

A bunch of those colleagues that work at the interface of conservation and palaeo, got together for a meeting recently, then published a series of papers related to this area. If your interests lie in the conservation area, why not take a look? You can find the contents of this special issue by clicking on the link below:

The past is a foreign country: how much can the fossil record actually inform conservation?



If understanding climate change is your bag, then the PETM is a really interesting and relevant topic. You can learn more about it, and the impact it had on plants, in the Palaeocast podcast linked below:

Fossil plants and the Paleocene Eocene thermal maximum.


Whilst we need to conserve living communities, fossils are also important for many reasons. We need to conserve these too. Doing so is in the realm of geoheritage. This is a different field to conservation palaeobiology but this lecture felt like the correct place to include it! If you want to learn more, the best place to look is chapter five of this freely available book:

Vasconcelos, C., Schneider-Voß, S. and Peppoloni, S., 2020. Teaching Resources for Higher Education Geoethics.