Paleontologists were unable to discuss bones online due to a language filter, The Guardian reported. Slang terminology butted heads with science when a computerized language filter mistook fossil talk for naughty language. Finding fossils is hard enough without dealing with censorship.
According to The Guardian, a virtual paleontology conference ground to a halt when an overactive language filter began picking out words including “bone,” “pubic,” and many others due to their connotations in slang. “The US-based Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) held its annual meeting virtually this year due to the pandemic, but soon found its audience stifled when they tried to use particular words,” the article said.
“To root out wrongly-identified ‘naughty words,’ SVP members created a spreadsheet tracking all the words that seemed to have been banned, and shared it on Twitter. It included: damn, hell, ball, stroke, pubis, wang, jerk, knob, stream, erection, dyke, crack, and enlargement.”
In general, paleontology is already plenty difficult. The odds of anything becoming a fossil are slim at best.
Location, Location, Location
If fossils are so unlikely to be made, why are there so many?
“The fact that we have fossils at all speaks to the sheer numbers of individuals and species that have existed through time,” said Dr. Stuart Sutherland, Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia. “With their countless billions, it would only take a tiny fraction of them to fossilize to leave us with a substantial record in the rocks.”
One of the key factors in fossilization is where the plant or animal dies. Dr. Sutherland said that the worst places to look for fossils are high mountainous regions or eroding plains. A place with many scavenger species, like the African savanna, is also unlikely to yield many preserved biological leftovers.
“To form a fossil, you need to get your body buried as quickly as possible, out of the way of the scavengers and preferably sealed from oxygen, or in at least reduced oxygen conditions,” Dr. Sutherland said. “This just isn’t going to happen on an open plain, but if the subject in question happened to live close to a body of water—a river or a lake—you now have a chance of being in an environment where you might be able to bury your corpse with sediment.”
Made of Stern Stuff
Dr. Sutherland said that since living near or in a body of water helps the odds of fossilization, it makes sense that aquatic creatures have a greater potential for being preserved than land-based animals.
But it also helps if you’re tough.
“Soft-bodied, squishy organisms like the octopus will have a much reduced preservation potential compared to, for example, one of its closest relatives, the nautilus,” Dr. Sutherland said. “Of course the body parts of the nautilus will decay just like the octopus, but a significant portion of the original creature—its shell—will have a greater chance of preservation. This is why the fossil record of octopi is considerably poorer than that of their shelled relatives.”
Therefore, creatures with a significant amount of hard parts are preserved far more often than soft creatures. Dr. Sutherland noted that this is a persistent bias that paleontologists must consider when they reconstruct or reimagine an ancient ecosystem. In other words, just because hard-bodied fossils outnumber soft-bodied ones, that doesn’t mean their numbers were as uneven as they appear. Many soft-bodied creatures may have simply dissolved or been consumed.
It’s enough of a hurdle to make one want to curse.
Dr. Stuart Sutherland contributed to this article. Dr. Sutherland is a Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia (UBC). Raised in the United Kingdom, he earned an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of Plymouth and a PhD in Geological Sciences from the University of Leicester.