Q: What is paleontology?

A: Paleontology is the study of fossils. A fossil is defined as any trace of a past life form. Thus, although wood, bones, and shells are the most common fossils, under certain conditions soft tissues, tracks and trails, and even coprolites (fossil feces) may be preserved as fossils. Although most of the fossils that paleontologists study are several thousands to several billions of years old, there is no absolute minimum age for a biological structure to be a fossil.

Paleontologists study these fossils and attempt to use them to reconstruct the history of the Earth and the life on it. Some study the ecology of the past; others work on the evolution of fossil taxa. Click here to find out more about paleontology.

Q: How does paleontology differ from archaeology and anthropology?

A: Archaeologists primarily work with human artifacts -- objects that have been made by humans -- and with human remains. Anthropologists work with humans -- their cultures, societies, languages, and ways of life, in addition to their bones and artifacts. Some paleontologists do study the fossil record of humans and their relatives. However, paleontology as a whole encompasses all life, from bacteria to whales. Paleontology does not usually deal with artifacts made by humans.

However, archaeologists and paleontologists might work together. For instance, a paleontologist might identify fossil animal bones or plant pollen associated with an archaeological site, to find out what the people who lived there ate; or a paleontologist might be called on to analyze the climate at the time a particular archaeological site was inhabited.

Q: What are the practical uses of paleontology?

A: First of all, a number of natural resources are in fact fossils, or derived from fossils. Coal, oil, and peat are derived from fossil plant material; marble is metamorphosed limestone, which is often biogenically deposited; diatomaceous earth (used as an abrasive and in gardening) is made up of fossil microscopic siliceous skeletons of certain algae. To study these resources -- and to identify areas and rock layers that are likely to contain them -- requires in-depth knowledge of sedimentary rocks and of the fossils contained in them. Some paleontologists work for the petroleum industry, and use fossils to interpret sequences of sedimentary rocks.

Paleontologists who work on relatively recent fossils have developed approaches to reconstructing past climates and environments. Today, environmental change, global warming, and so on are household words. Paleontologists can provide historical data on past climates and apply it towards understanding future trends and their likely effects. If we understand the effects of climate change, for instance, on our world in the past, we can understand its probable effects in the future.

Finally, paleontology is an increasingly important component of historical biology. The life around us today has been shaped through its long history, and understanding its past is important to understanding its present situation. There are a number of techniques and fields that deal with reconstructing the past, but paleontology provides hard data on past events. Paleontology can potentially provide much data on the evolutionary relationships of organisms, which in turn gives a deeper understanding of biodiversity.

Q: How do paleontologists know how old their fossils are?

A: A complete answer to this question would require a book-length exhibit (we are planning an exhibit to answer this question in more detail). Briefly, paleontologists deal with two types of dating, absolute and relative. Absolute dating, which estimates the age of a rock or fossil in years, is most usually done by measuring the amounts of a radioactive isotope and its decay product; since isotope decay rates are known to be constant, the age can be calculated from the relative amounts of parent isotope to daughter product. Fossils up to about 40,000 years old can be dated using carbon-14 if there is enough organic matter present. Older rocks can be dated using potassium-40, which decays to argon-40, or uranium-235, which decays to lead-207. However, many sedimentary rocks cannot be dated directly by these methods; dates usually are obtained from igneous rocks within a sedimentary sequence, such as lava flows or ash beds. Such dates are maximum age estimates for fossils above the dated beds, or minimum estimates for fossils below the beds.

Relative dating has been practiced for nearly 200 years, arising from the observation that different layers of sedimentary rock contain different fossils, and that this sequence can be recognized in other rocks at other localities, even those far away. This allows fossil-bearing rocks to be dated relatively; on the basis of its fossils a rock might be placed in, say, the Ordovician, which came after the Cambrian and was followed by the Silurian. This technique does not depend on knowing the actual numerical ages of the rocks. Not all fossils are equally useful for relative dating, or correlation; some are rare, restricted to small geographic areas or to particular environments, difficult to recognize, or have such long ranges as to make precise correlation impossible. Fossils that are the most useful for correlation tend to be widespread, found in many rock types, easily recognizable, and short-lived enough to permit precise placement in the geologic column.

Learn more about carbon-14 dating! The 14C WEB-Info site, at the University of Waikato, New Zealand, provides extensive information on this important absolute dating method.

Q: Did humans and dinosaurs ever live together?

A: No.

The Flintstones and Alley Oop notwithstanding, the last of the dinosaurs -- with the exception of the birds, which are dinosaur descendants -- died about 65 million years ago. There is no reputable evidence of human life at the time, or at any time until about 2.5 million years ago, the age of the oldest known fossils in the genus Homo.

There have been periodic claims of human footprints, teeth, etc. being found together with dinosaur tracks or other fossils. None of this fossil evidence is credible; all cases of "human remains" from the time of the dinosaurs have been investigated and found to be either forgeries or misidentifications. For more detailed information, visit 'The Texas Dinosaur/"Man Track" Controversy'.

Q: What training is needed to become a paleontologist?

A: Paleontology is actually one of the few fields of science left in which amateurs can and frequently do make important contributions. Formal education is not a prerequisite for becoming a paleontologist. What's needed is a keen analytical mind, curiosity and imagination tempered by scientific rigor, and lots of patience -- to keep visiting sites, to keep good notes, and to familiarize yourself with what is known about the fossils and time period that you are studying.

Formal education, however, is generally necessary if you want employment. Museum preparators and industrial paleontologists may need only a master's degree; the doctorate is necessary for most academic paleontologists. Few universities offer degree programs in paleontology itself. Most universities that offer paleontology coursework do so through their geology departments (UC-Berkeley is an exception). However, a thorough grounding in evolution, ecology, and/or systematics is increasingly necessary for paleontologists.

Q: How can I find fossils in my area?

A:

  1. Start looking! Quarries, roadcuts, and cliffs are good places to start; just remember to get permission when necessary, and to take appropriate safety precautions (for instance, if you find a fossil 50 meters up a sheer cliff that is prone to rockfalls, leave it alone).
  2. Contact your state's, province's, or country's office of geology, geological survey, department of the environment, or equivalent. In the US, many state geological offices sell various maps and publications on all aspects of the state's geology, including paleontology. The United States Geological Survey also puts out an immense number of publications, including reports on the paleontology of various areas; analogous government offices exist in other countries. These publications can also be found in many university and well-stocked public libraries.
  3. For some regions, there may be published guidebooks available. These may be useful both for finding sites and identifying the fossils found there. If your local library or bookstore doesn't have them, try the bookstore of a natural history museum, or a natural history book dealer.
  4. Amateur paleontology organizations often keep locality lists and sponsor expeditions. Check to see if there is one in your area or in the area you plan to visit; this site lists a number of organizations. If the organization publishes a newsletter, that can be extremely useful.

Q: What equipment is needed to collect fossils?

A: It all depends on where you're going and what you plan to collect. Some fossils may be effortlessly picked up from the ground; others require dynamite or jackhammers to be extracted (not recommended for the amateur!) Many paleontologists carry a geologist's hammer or masonry hammer; rock slabs may be split with this hammer, with this hammer and a cold chisel, or with a stiff-bladed putty knife, depending on their hardness. In locations where the sediment is soft, a trowel may be more useful; soft sediment may be screened for fossils by being sifted through a screen of appropriate size. Soft-bristled paint brushes are useful for brushing dirt from your finds. When working in hard rock areas, eye protection is a very good idea. Hard hats and steel-tipped shoes may also be called for at certain sites; at some working quarries, you are required to wear these. A hand lens is quite useful for examining specimens in the field. And never go into the field without a notebook and pen or pencil, for writing down the location and local geology. Of course, if you're going to be working in a remote area, you should pack water, food, first aid, maps, sunscreen, and so on.

Most invertebrate fossils may be wrapped in paper or placed in bags for transport; delicate fossils may require more care. Large vertebrate fossils may require special techniques and teams of people to get them out of the ground without damage or destruction. If you should find a large vertebrate fossil, we urge you to leave it where it is and make an accurate report of its location to the nearest natural history museum or university department.

Q: What regulations govern fossil collecting?

A: Rules and laws governing fossil collecting vary from region to region. It is your business to find these out. In general: if you collect on private land, get permission from the owner. You will need a permit to collect on land managed by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) in the United States, or in national parks. In the United States, most roadcuts are public domain and may be freely collected; however, roadcuts that are unsafe, or that have been defaced, may be closed to collectors. Wherever you collect, the unwritten rules of ethics require that you not deface sites or "clean them out" of fossils, that you not litter, and that you not endanger yourself or others by irresponsible actions (e.g. excavating into a high, crumbling cliff). If you find something genuinely rare or worthy of study, consider depositing it in an appropriate museum, where it can be kept for reference and study for generations to come.

Take a moment to peruse the Paleontological Society Code of Fossil Collecting.

Q: What should I do with fossils that I pick up?

A: The scientific value of a fossil is largely dependent on the quality of its associated locality and geological data. Keep notes, as accurately as you can, on the location where you found the fossil - paleontologists in the USA typically use the topographic maps published by the US Geological Survey, which are available from the Survey or from many libraries, and which permit the pinpointing of a locality. Also take notes on the local geology - on the type of rock in which the fossil was found, and on the other rock layers above and below it, if they can be seen. Sketches and photographs are helpful here.

Some fossils may need preparation to be seen to best advantage. Again, the type of preparation needed depends on the nature of the material. Soft sediment may be cleaned from fossils using paint brushes, warm water, or small picks. Fossils in harder rock may be exposed by careful work with needles or with a micro-sandblaster (expensive). Broken fossils may be repaired; some collectors swear by Elmer's Glue. Vertebrate bones are often covered with acrylic; crumbling bones may need specialized techniques such as vacuum impregnation. This, and other techniques such as acid baths, are probably best left to the pros.

For more information, the book Handbook of Fossil Preparation Techniques, edited by Bernhard Kummel and David Raup, is the best resource on how to prepare fossils (it may be hard to get).

Q: What organizations exist for paleontologists?

A: The Paleontological Society is the primary North American society of paleontologists. It publishes the journals Paleobiology and Journal of Paleontology, and a newsletter, Priscum. Although geared towards professionals, the Paleontological Society also includes amateur members.

The Palaeontological Association is the primary paleontological society based in Britain; it publishes the journal Palaeontology and the Palaeontology Newsletter. Paleontologists may also join the Geological Society of America, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, and/or a number of other societies. All of these socities have an international membership.

There are many other professional societies and fossil clubs in the United States and elsewhere. We can't list all of them here; check this list of societies and clubs in the United States. Some organizations are affiliated with museums or university departments; inquiries here can point you in the right direction.

You might also consider becoming a Friend of the UC Museum of Paleontology.

Q: What are some other on-line sources for paleontology?

A: Here are a few to get you started (and hats off to Kent Noble for helping us find some of these)

General:

E-mail Mailing Lists:

Online Resources for Earth Scientists has a comprehensive list of mailing lists, with information on how to subscribe.

Newsgroups:

Note that your browser must be configured for the newserver on your system for you to be able to use the newsgroups themselves. However, several newsgroups maintain FAQs, archives, and sometimes more data on the WWW: these resources are accessible even if you cannot access the newsgroups themselves.

Vertebrates:

Paleobotany and Micropaleontology:

Several of these sites contain extensive lists of more links of interest to paleontologists. Or if none of these satisfy you, go out and put your own collection on-line, like this person did!

We've scattered yet more links to biological and paleontological sites throughout our exhibits. Or you may take our subway for much more extensive listings of museums and on-line resources in a wide variety of fields.


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