Written in the Past

This essay is a nostalgic tribute to one of the early wonders of the evolving internet from just a decade or so ago that provides an important insight into deep time.

The history of our planet is encoded in the rocks. The chemistry and structure conveys their age and the environment in which they formed. But the language is limited until life adds a complex new alphabet to the rocks in the Cambrian. The fossils of Life dictate the story of the Earth and all life upon it, as it has evolved over more than 500 million years.

This is how Cladistics and the hyperlink combined to provide a deep insight into our place within Earth history in which form and content reach an elegant synergy.


 Computer communication had existed before the 1990s. But the emergence of a common standard, the DNA of the World Wide Web, with html caused an explosion in the amount of digital structured information. Around this time two palaeontologists saw the similarity between Cladistics and the hyperlink on a web page. They conceived the idea of arranging the known branching structure of the history of life on Earth into a matching branching structure of web pages, residing in this new environment, the Internet. Here is a sample of the description of the life forms we now know of as sea urchins and starfish, and how they evolved after the major PETM extinction ;-


“The End-Permian extinction at the end of the Paleozoic Era took a heavy toll on the stemmed echinoderms. The blastoids became extinct at that time and the crinoids suffered heavy losses. In general, Paleozoic echinoderms were epifaunal suspension and detritus feeders. Like so many high school students, their strategy was to sit more or less stationary on the sea bottom with their mouths open and wait for food to come to them. In the Mesozoic and Cenozoic, the echinoderms became more like undergraduates — still bottom-feeders, but now willing to dig for it (infaunal detritus feeders) or, if sufficiently pressed, to go and hunt for it (armored herbivores and carnivores). This use of rather heavy armor runs counter to a general trend among Mesozoic life forms to shed heavy plates and to depend more on speed, or on other behavioral adaptations for survival. However, behavioral strategies depend on having the neural equipment to select a response and adapt it to local conditions. Echinoderms are poorly adapted for this sort of thing because they are attractive, but brainless. So as time went on, echinoderms, like other attractive but brainless organisms, were increasingly forced to rely on heavy make-up, intimidating ornament, and a thick skin.”

So this is a nostalgic tribute to PALAEOS perhaps one of the best early sites to emerge in the Cambrian explosion of the internet. Its fossil form can still be found, eroded, inactive and derelict just under the living surface of the net. I was pleased to find in the second half of 2017 that it was again accessible. Or at least partly so. Many links lead to the ‘under construction’ page. Sometimes it is possible to follow the old text links when the newer graphical links do not work.

The pay-off for persistence is encountering exhaustive explanations of what is known, and what is doubtful about the climate, plants, animals and patterns of change in any period of Earth history from the Hadean onward.  Discussions of the evolution of animal anatomy over deep time that are backed up by specific reference to the detailed fossil record. All rooted in Cladistics, an organising principle that explained the patterns seen in the fossil record. It conformed with the genetics, and enables the fossil record to be organised into a coherent and useful map of historical evolutionary change over deep time.

The early Web was driven by the ability to compose a page, of any length or size, with text and pictures that could contain links to other pages detailing more information. The way in which this could duplicate the Cladistic structure of the fossils in palaeontology was obvious to anyone who was exposed to both.

Early on two cladisticaly inclines palaeontologists started the Paleos project to list, link and codify the history of life on Earth contained in the fossil record. They did not succeed. Similar attempts made around the same time also failed to be comprehensive or match the web page linkage to the biological relationships. The first iteration of PALEOS was almost all text. The few pictures were inserted into the text with little formatting, no margins between text and picture, or often between text and page edge. The menu system was entirely text based. The cladistic structure was duplicated by having text formatted to Emulate the evolutionary hierarchy.

Like our knowledge of the past, it would always be incomplete and uncertain with missing links and doubtful areas, but by listing all fossils and linking them back to ancestors in cladistic hyperlinks they could capture the knowledge about the past in the very structure of it depiction, making it easier to read. They were academically rigorous, but not above dry wit and with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Now PALEOS is a shadow of its active heyday. The graphical improvements have broken many links. It has become as difficult to navigate as the real field geology it describes. It was the go-to site for any species or information on Earth history. It combines a credible and comprehensive reference to the best information with a dry wit and refreshing skepticism of the more ambiguous and controversial aspects of the subject. Links are broken, much of the site always was placeholder pages for fossils the writers had not yet got round to finishing, or decided were too uninteresting to bother with. But now any navigation is uncertain. Often you can no longer get from a major group down to the individual species, or up from a specific fossil to the overarching genera. It is difficult to move through the apparent history of life forms because of the missing links. The site, neglected has become in some ways even more of a simulacrum of the fossil record and derived organisation of the history of life on Earth it was originally intended to depict.

The delight in wandering through the fossil layers of the PALAEOS site are the knowledgeable and witty essays that they write about key aspects of the past or significant fossils and life forms.  The discussion about the incidence and extent of a ‘Snowball Earth’ is erudite and exhaustive. They later refer back to it to ‘strongly defend’ their position of complete confusion and uncertainty when it is raised to defend a particular interpretation of a past fossil transition.

It has the only coherent description of the anatomy and evolution of the tribosphenic cusp in tooth anatomy. An important issue and many fossils are teeth, some species are only defined by a few collections of teeth. It still leaves one utterly confused, but with the sense that such confusion is a valid and justifiable position. I spent many hours in decades past wandering the far reaches of the PALAEOS site and serendipitously discovering forms of life unknown in a history that was unimaginable. Stumbling across enormously informative and delightfully entertaining essays on obscure corners of the fossil hunter and biologists world illuminated with a rare wit and wisdom. I urge anyone with a sense of curiosity and wonder to try exploring what is left of PALAEOS, attempting to find the hidden gems lurking at the end of sparse and broken links. Somewhere there is a half remembered essay on Socrate’s wife and shrimp…




3 responses to “Written in the Past

  1. G’day Izen, interesting parallels with geological history. My own specialty back in my geologist days was the Late Permian coal measures of the Sydney Basin (we didn’t get coal in Gondwanaland until millions of years after you Laurasians). Like the rock stratigraphy very much, though I doubt Steno’s Law of Superposition has been observed!

    Been very busy down in Tas with a new career. Will try commenting more here as soon as I get a chance – Oz 😉


  2. Well the temporal sequence beyond the bedrock/old rock layers is certainly open to doubt.
    The diagram fails to show the high degree of Allochthonous layers, Angular unconformity from thrust faults and Diapir intrusions.
    In fact given the high degree of mixing and cross-contamination between different rock forms, such a reified schema is probably misleading.


  3. Ozboy – The PALAEOS site has a number of pages about fossils in Australia, and the people that find them.
    Usually complimentary with a sense of amazement at the dedication and quality of the work done.
    Try this !


    Liked by 1 person

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