What is a Paleontologist?

Paleontologists study the fossilized remains of all kinds of organisms — plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, and other single-celled living things — so as to understand the history of organic life on earth.

A paleontologist's work will vary depending on the scope of research or discoveries, and may involve working closely with archeology teams.

What does a Paleontologist do?

Paleontologists study the relationship between extinct plants and animals and their living relatives today. They study fossils, and use them to put together pieces of history that made up the earth and life on it.

A paleontologist laying on the ground looking at fossils.

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, paleontologists 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

Are you suited to be a paleontologist?

Paleontologists have distinct personalities. They tend to be investigative individuals, which means they’re intellectual, introspective, and inquisitive. They are curious, methodical, rational, analytical, and logical. Some of them are also enterprising, meaning they’re adventurous, ambitious, assertive, extroverted, energetic, enthusiastic, confident, and optimistic.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if paleontologist is one of your top career matches.

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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 searching for fossils.

Frequently Asked Questions

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. The objective of geology is to understand the history of the planet we live on; to better predict the future and to explain current occurrences of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides.

A paleontologist, on the other hand, looks at the fossil remains of many types of organisms on the Earth's surface. Paleontology is the study of primitive life, including plant and animal organisms, fungi, bacteria, etc.

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See Also

Paleontologists are also known as: