What is Paleontology?

Paleontology is the study of the history of life on Earth. It is studied in the form of fossil records. Fossils are the traces of ancient plants, animals, fungi, and other organisms that are preserved in rocks and the surface of the Earth.

What Do Paleontologists Do?

Paleontologists have diverse tasks as part of their routine work. Some work in laboratories studying microscopic fossils or identifying field samples. Others specialize in field work and are involved in geological mapping, or leading field studies. As enticing as field work is the ratio of days in the field to days cleaning, preparing and analyzing specimens is about 1::4.

Field equipment may be as simple as a hand lens, notebook, pencil and a rock pick or fine brushes. It may be integrated with GPS and GIS programs or notebook computers and interactive distance learning.

Some hazards of field work include transportation to study locations, exposure to the elements and dehydration. Hazardous animals such as snakes, ticks, mosquitoes can contribute to uncomfortable working and living conditions in the field. Chipping rocks and hauling carts of fossils each present their own challenges for the Paleontologist.

What do qualifications do Paleontologists need?

Whether the Paleontologist works in the field, laboratory, research or education, it will almost always require working with others and having good communication skills. Computer skills are essential. A Paleontologist needs a strong background in the sciences which should include biology and geology, mathematics, chemistry and physics. Good foreign language skills are needed because many resources are written in German, French, Russian or Chinese.

College level work includes classes with lectures and labs, field work and trips, and readings. Graduate school work involves advanced courses in geology, biology, zoology, and paleontology and independent research.

The minimum requirement for professional paleontology work is a four-year undergraduate program and a Master of Science degree. Most paleontologists have doctoral degrees in which they complete original research in a particular specialty.

What areas do Paleontologists cover in their courses?

Prospective paleontologists study field and laboratory and museum work methods, and principles. The most pertinent content oriented courses include: stratigraphy, sedimentation, mineralogy, sedimentary petrology, invertebrate paleontology, ecology, invertebrate and vertebrate zoology, paleobotany, evolutionary biology, and genetics. These courses include essential content and facilitate developing skills in the areas needed for the various specialties available for Paleontologists.

What areas of specialization may Paleontologist s choose?

Paleontology has many subject areas for specialization.

  • Vertebrate paleontology paleontologists--study fish, mammals, dinosaurs and other vertebrates.
  • Invertebrate paleontology--study corals, ammonites, trilobites and mollusks
  • Micropaleontology--study organic microfossils, such as pollen and spores from plants.
  • Paleobotany—study fossil plants
  • Taphonomy - study how fossils form and are preserved,
  • Biostratigraphy--study the vertical distribution of fossils in rocks,
  • Paleoecology - study ancient ecosystems and how they developed,
  • Evolutionary biology- study the development of organisms and how they developed.
  • Where do Paleontologists work?

    Paleontologists are employed in universities, museums, government geological surveys and the petroleum industry. Most teach at colleges or universities. Some work in applied roles with surveys and companies and as consultants. Fewer are employed in museums. The competition for jobs in this field is intense with numerous applicants for each available job. Expertise and competence are essential for success. The complex blend of specialization with flexibility is rare and valuable.

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