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What is a Paleontologist?

A Paleontologist is a specialized type of Scientist. Also known as: Palaeontologist.

Paleontology is more than just dinosaurs! A paleontologist is a scientist who studies the fossilized remains of all kinds of organisms (plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and other single-celled living things), and is interested in knowing the history of organic life on earth. Specific work will vary depending on the scope of research or discoveries, and may involve working closely with archeology teams.

How to Become a Paleontologist

What does a Paleontologist do?

A paleontologist works out the relationships between extinct plants and animals and their living relatives today. They study fossils, using them to put together pieces of history that made up the earth and life on it. Fossils are defined as any trace of a past life form, and most fossils are several thousands to several millions or billions of years old. In trying to understand extinction events of the past, they hope to apply their scientific conclusions to extinction in the modern world as environments and global climates change.

There are several areas of study within paleontology that aspiring paleontologists can choose from:

Biostratigraphy - The study of the vertical distribution of fossils in rocks
Invertebrate Paleontology - The study of fossils of animals without backbones
Paleobotany - The study of plant fossils
Micropaleontology - The study of fossils of single-celled organisms
Vertebrate Paleontology - The study of fossils of animals with backbones
Paleoecology - The study of ancient ecosystems and how they developed
Taphonomy - The study of how fossils form and are preserved

Typical things a paleontologist does:

  • determines location of fossils
  • excavates layers of sedimentary rock to locate fossils
  • gathers information on the fossils (age, location, etc)
  • uses specific tools to excavate (chisels, drills, picks, shovels, brushes)
  • evaluates any discoveries by using specialized computer programs
  • compares new data to existing data
  • analyzes findings in the lab
  • identifies time period of fossils found
  • shares results with colleagues from other scientific disciplines

Note the differences between Paleontologists, Archaeologists and Anthropologists:

Paleontologists - study all life forms, and all types of organisms
Archaeologists - study objects, or artifacts, that have been made by humans
Anthropologists - study ancient cultures, societies, ways of life, and languages

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How to become a Paleontologist

A doctoral degree or Ph.D is almost always necessary for any serious professional career in paleontology, especially as a researcher or a professor. A strong educational background in the natural sciences is required, specifically focusing in the areas of biology and geology. Having a major in one of these areas and a minor in the other is a great way to gain necessary background knowledge. Having a double-major is of course ideal. Statistical analysis and computer skills are also necessary, and it is recommended that these be pursued during the undergraduate years.

A bachelor's degree will take fours years to complete, a masters degree will usually take two to three years to complete, and a Ph.D usually takes four to six years to complete.

It is important to speak to your professors early on to see if they can point you in the direction of volunteer or paid fieldwork and research opportunities, as it is an important element of paleontological training. It is also a great way to network with professionals in the field.

What is the workplace of a Paleontologist like?

A paleontologist can work in museums and historical exhibits, oil, gas and mining companies, the government, colleges, universities, and as a consultant. Many paleontologists travel around the world digging up fossils and preserving them.

What is the difference between a geologist and a paleontologist?

A geologist is someone who is involved in the study of the outer layer of the earth's crust, and who works to understand the history of the planet we live on, to better predict the future, and to explain current occurrences.

A paleontologist, on the other hand, looks at fossil remains on many types of organisms on the earth's surface in order to study primitive life (these organisms can be plants, animals, fungi, bacteria etc.)

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Further Reading

  • 10 Tips for Aspiring Paleontologists www.huffingtonpost.com

    Paleontology is inherently a crowd-pleasing science - it's mysterious, bizarre, and catches your attention as a kid. But you don't have to find a dinosaur in your backyard to get involved in paleontology.

  • Working with Dinosaurs: The Secret Life of a Paleontologist careers.theguardian.com

    I don't think the few caricatures of paleontologists depicted in movies and TV shows are quite accurate. We're mostly normal people.

  • What Do Paleontologists Do? commonfossilsofoklahoma.snomnh.ou.edu

    Paleontologists study the record of life on Earth left as fossils. More than 99 percent of all species that have ever lived are extinct, so paleontologists will not run out of work any time soon.

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