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Paleontologists study the history of life on Earth as shown in the fossil record . Fossils are the traces of organisms that lived in the past and are preserved in Earth's crust. Paleontology involves the identification and naming of fossil species and organisms and the determination of the environment in which they lived. Paleontology is considered a subcategory of geology. It is a very broad science that uses biology, geology, chemistry, and physics. There are many subdivisions in the field of paleontology, including:

  • vertebrate paleontology, the study of fossils of animals with backbones;
  • invertebrate paleontology, the study of fossils of animals without backbones;
  • micropaleontology, the study of fossils of single-celled organisms;
  • paleobotany, the study of plant fossils;
  • paleoecology, the study of ancient environments;
  • biostratigraphy, the study of the fossils in rock layers from different areas to determine their relative ages.

As can be seen by this list, paleontology is more than just the study of dinosaurs. Modern paleontology attempts to understand life-forms as they are related to extended family trees, some of very ancient origins. Thus, paleontologists are frequently involved in studies of evolutionary biology and can be considered systematists, which means that they study the evolutionary relationships among organisms.

Most paleontologists work in geology programs of colleges or universities. They do research and teach classes. Smaller numbers of paleontologists work in museums. There, they carry out their own research and sometimes teach and assist with exhibits. A much smaller number of paleontologists work for government geological surveys. Until recently, paleontologists found work with oil companies, helping to search for oil. However, this field has declined as a source of employment for paleontologists.

Research in paleontology generally involves doing fieldwork, analyzing the fossils, and writing up one's findings for publication and presentation. Analysis of fossils begins with carefully measuring and describing them. Next, the fossils are dated by various methods. Then the fossils and the rocks in which they were found are used to learn information about the history of Earth. Finally, the fossils are used to fill in missing information about the fossil record and are related to present-day organisms.

A paleontologist must have a doctoral (Ph.D.) degree. A bachelor's degree can be obtained in either geology or biology. Graduate schools generally require a full year of chemistry, physics, and mathematics (through calculus) at the undergraduate level. It is also important to have strong writing and computer skills. After getting a bachelor's, one can get a master's and then a doctoral degree or, alternatively, enter a doctoral program directly. If an individual has not had much experience with research in college (such as writing a senior thesis), then it might be best to get a master's degree first. It generally takes from two to three years to complete the master's program. A Ph.D. program usually takes from four to six years if the candidate already has a master's, and from six to eight years if he or she does not. The courses most important to paleontology include mineralogy, stratigraphy and sedimentation, sedimentary petrology, invertebrate pale-ontology, ecology , invertebrate and vertebrate zoology, evolutionary biology, and genetics.

see also Paleontology.

Denise Prendergast


Cosgrove, Holli R., ed. Encyclopedia of Careers and Vocational Guidance, 11th ed. Chicago: Ferguson Publishing Company, 2000.

The Year 2000 Grolier Multimedia Encyclopedia. Danbury, CT: Grolier Interactive Inc., 1999.

Internet Resources

Paleontological Research Institution. Cornell University. <>.