Paleobotanist and Palynologist  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotDeep beneath the sea, hidden from human eyes for over 2,000 years, scientists discover an ancient shipwreck. Remnants and scraps are all that remain of the 5th century BC vessel, but they're enough to learn about the ship and the era in which it sailed.

dotPaleobotanists and palynologists carefully examine pieces of large, earthen vases used to transport cargo aboard the ship and find the clues they need. Fossilized pollen and seeds, clinging to the inside of the containers, unlock the mystery of what cargo the ship carried. The fossils even provide a travelog of ports she visited while in service.

dotPaleobotanists and palynologists are detectives in the truest sense of the word. While they piece together the events of history to give us a glimpse of life in ancient worlds, they also address problems and questions facing us today.

dotPaleobotanists study relatively large fossil plant remnants, or macro-remains, such as seeds. Palynologists study microscopic plant fossils, or micro-remains, such as pollen and spores.

Paleobotanists are often divided into two specialties. The first group specializes in the study of past environments. Their subspecialties include:

  • Paleoclimatology -- the examination of the past climate to restructure past ecosystems
  • Paleoecology -- the study of ancient environments and their relationship to ancient humans and animals
  • Paleoceanography -- the study of ancient oceans

The second group concentrates on identifying the origin of specific plants and studying their evolution. These scientists are known as systematic paleobotanists and often specialize in a plant, type of organ (fruits, seeds, leaves, flowers), or the age of plants they research.

dotPalynologists are also divided into two specialties: those studying plant microfossils and those studying modern forms of pollen and spores. Palynologists studying microfossils often specialize in stratigraphic palynology or quaternary palynology:

Stratigraphic palynology is the study of pollen in rocks more than 100,000 years old to understand past environments or to locate oil. Quaternary palynology is the study of pollen from the last two million years to understand how plants and forests reacted to changing climates.

dotPalynologists and paleobotanists are often able to find career opportunities in universities, museums or national parks, or as self-employed consultants. The oil, gas and coal industries used to be significant employers of palynologists, but these opportunities have been greatly reduced in favor of contracted consultants.

"Academia rules the roost these days for paleobotanists," says Bruce Tiffany, professor of geological sciences at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

"We generally don't get hired as paleobotanists, but rather as plant systematists, morphologists or anatomists. There is one minor exception -- museums will hire paleobotanists if they have a big fossil plant collection."

dotAcademia, in general, can be very flexible, says Nan Arens, who is an assistant professor in the department of integrative biology at the University of California and curator of fossil plants at the university's Museum of Paleontology.

"It's very demanding and stressful, but one has a lot of flexibility to accommodate individual needs and preferences in the workplace."

dotOne thing is certain, though: scientists never keep conventional hours. "This is definitely not a 9-to-5 job," says paleoenvironmentalist and adjunct professor Alwynne Beaudoin.

"I work practically every evening and most weekends. When not writing papers, entering and analyzing data, or drafting diagrams, I'm trying to keep up with the mountains of literature produced in this field every month."

dotMost paleobotanists and palynologists have teaching, museum, administrative and public service responsibilities. Since academic positions are highly competitive, candidates must be proficient in each one of these areas to stand apart from the crowd. Specific obligations vary by position, but can include the following responsibilities:

  • Participating in one to 12 weeks of fieldwork collecting fossils
  • Preparing and cataloging fossils in the lab
  • Preparing and delivering undergraduate student lectures
  • Writing laboratory manuals and preparing lab exercises
  • Mentoring graduate students
  • Participating in university and departmental committees
  • Writing papers for publication in professional journals
  • Writing proposals to obtain funds for continuing research projects or new ones
  • Participating in community outreach programs

dotThere aren't any physical requirements for the administrative and teaching responsibilities associated with these positions. However, since much of the laboratory analysis involves the use of microscopes, poor or impaired vision might be a disadvantage. Additionally, lifting heavy specimens associated with fossil collections and exhibits can be physically taxing.

Fieldwork can be tremendously demanding. Hauling heavy packs of equipment and rocks over treacherous terrain often limits the type of field research a paleobotanist or palynologist does.

"Of course, these aren't requirements of the job," says Arens. "I can work in difficult field areas because I'm strong enough to do so. There are many easier options, but in general, most require some strength and agility."

At a Glance

Unlock the mysteries of the past

  • You might do fieldwork collecting fossils
  • Most of the work is in academia
  • A PhD is a must