The fossil record has great untapped potential for contributing to our understanding of contemporary extinction. This is true for shallow as well as deep time. In deep time, considering Phanerozoic time as a whole, the most pressing and relevant priorities are closer investigation of the timing of the great mass extinctions (Did the major events take place in a matter of days, years, or millions of years?) and more analysis of the biological selectivity of extinction (Who were the survivors, who were the victims, and why?).

In shallow time, concentrating on the last few hundred thousand years, we need more direct, empirical data on the physical environmental history of the Pleistocene epoch and the biological consequences, with emphasis on species extinction, of the environmental changes. If we can substantially increase our knowledge of the Pleistocene record, we will be in a much better position to evaluate the consequences of the activities of humans in tropical regions.

Without consideration of the time perspective available from the geological record, a full evaluation of the contemporary extinction problem may prove as difficult as would be the case if a land-use planner were to attempt projections without benefit of historical experience or if an epidemiologist were to treat an infectious disease without medical records.


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