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What Is a Paleontologist?

Paleontologists work in the field and in the lab studying organic life.
Unveiling fossils requires time and caution.
Fossils uncovered by paleontologists have been used to determine that birds descended from dinosaurs.
Neanderthal fossils uncovered by paleontologists have been used to reconstruct human evolution.
Paleontologists often study fossilized footprints to learn about extinct animals.
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  • Originally Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 27 July 2014
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A paleontologist is a scientist who studies the history of organic life on Earth with a focus on organisms that existed in the distant past. Many people associate paleontologists with the study of dinosaurs. While not incorrect, the field is actually much broader than this — researchers typically deal with the fossilized remains of all kinds of organisms, including plants and cell life. The specific work of any given paleontologist varies depending on personal interest and setting, but usually involves a combination of field work, research and lab identification, and scholarly writing and publications.

Field Work

Many paleontologists work “in the field,” which is essentially a fancy name for “outside,” usually at defined digs or sites where fossils are believed to be buried. This sort of work often requires a lot of travel, and can involve many weeks of intensive, time-consuming study out of doors. Paleontologists who uncover fossils must take care to unearth them gently, preserving as much of the original as possible. Fragments and particles are useful, but whole specimens are usually considered treasures.

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Field work typically incorporates elements of geology and biology as well as straight paleontology. Scientists need to have an appreciation for the different striations and soil conditions, which falls under geology; basic biological principles are often important for helping to set the scene and in dating and identification tasks. As exciting as it can be to uncover something new, the work of most paleontologists is very slow — it can take days or sometimes even weeks to dust off and recover even a very small fossil. This degree of precision can seem exhausting, but it is important so that the scientists have as much to work with as possible.

Intersection and Collaboration with Archaeologists

Depending on the scope of the research or discoveries at issue, a paleontologist may work very closely with archaeology teams. Archaeologists are primarily interested in ancient human civilizations — towns, cities, and long-extinct societies. Digs uncovering these elements also typically include remnants of ancient plant and animal life, too. It is not uncommon to find one or two paleontologists on an archeological team, as their findings often add richness to the discoveries as a whole.

Lab Work and Research

Though a paleontologist’s work may begin in the field, it rarely ends there. Artifacts and discoveries must be analyzed, cataloged, and studied — almost all of which happens in special laboratories. Scientists in these posts often spend most of their days studying recent findings, and comparing them to other discoveries from both near and far away. They often used specialized dating equipment to determine how old certain fossils are, and use a range of different computer programs to reconstruct fragments and visualize what plants and animals might have looked like when they were alive.

Academia and Teaching

Many of the more elite paleontologists decide to devote their careers to teaching in universities. Paleontology professors deliver lectures at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, and facilitate student seminars. They may also lead trips to digs and research labs to give students a better feel for the profession. Academic paleontologists also typically devote a great deal of their personal time to research, and most are expected to publish a certain number of books or scholarly articles over the course of their careers.

Required Training and Core Skills

People interested in fossils and ancient life usually get started with formal paleontology training in college or university courses. Many schools offer bachelor’s degree programs in the field, which is a good starting place. Classes in biology, ecology, and geology are usually often helpful. An undergraduate degree is usually enough to get started as an intern or assistant at a dig or in a lab, but more training is usually required to actually handle artifacts or conduct independent research. Most of the leaders in the field have master’s or doctorate degrees.

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Discuss this Article

GlassAxe
Post 3

@ Chicada- The course work required to become an archaeologist and a paleontologist are somewhat different. Archaeologists are actually anthropologists who specialize in the scientific aspects of the field. You could expect to take courses in a wide range of topics including economics, health, engineering, evolutionary biology, mathematics, and psychology.

Course work in paleontology will be less interdisciplinary since you are not working with the human dimension. Your course work will be more focused on the different aspects of biology and geology as well as any necessary course work and prerequisites required by the university.

chicada
Post 2

What type of courses would a paleontologist study in college? What level of education would be necessary to become a paleontologist or archaeologist that does field research? I am undeclared, but I sat in on a lecture on the ancient Mayan city of Tikal and another ancient city, Teotihuacan just outside of Mexico City. I thought that city planning would be a good source of study, but after attending this lecture, I thought that archaeology might be a little more interesting.

These cities were amazing. Tikal was laid out more like a traditional ancient city while Teotihuacan was similar to a modern city. These cities existed for about a thousand years, with a peak of about 400-600 years. They were very successful and prosperous cities, although they were governed in an extremely archaic fashion. There are very few cities today that have been around for that long, and none in the United States. Thinking about these cities in this context is amazing, and it makes me want to learn more about what becoming an archaeologist entails.

Alchemy
Post 1

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a paleontologist. I grew up in L.A and I went to all the museums as a kid. My favorite place to go was the LaBrea Tar Pits and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The tar pits were especially cool because you could actually see a paleontologist at work, restoring fossil specimens in a lab setting. If you ever wondered what do paleontologists do outside of the field, then the tar pits are a great place to visit.

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