Paleontologist  What They Do

Just the Facts

Insider Info

dotPaleontology is the study of the history of life on Earth as reflected in fossil records. Fossils are the remains of plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and other living things that lived in the geological past and are preserved in the crust of the Earth. Paleontologists study fossils and their relationship to existing plants and animals.

dotThe work of these scientists helps us understand both the present and the past.

For example, using their knowledge of how fossils are distributed in sediments, paleontologists can help make accurate geological maps. These maps are essential in finding oil, water and minerals. Paleontologists may also help predict natural disasters such as volcanic eruptions and earthquakes.

dotA paleontologist may pursue any one of a number of specialties. They include:

  • 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
  • Taphonomy -- the study of how fossils form and are preserved
  • Biostratigraphy -- the study of the vertical distribution of fossils in rocks
  • Paleoecology -- the study of ancient ecosystems and how they developed

dotMost paleontologists are college and university professors who teach general geology courses in addition to paleontology. Smaller numbers work in museums carrying out research, teaching occasionally and consulting on exhibits. A much smaller number of paleontologists work for government surveys, usually in geological mapping or other applied geological problem solving. Or they may work in the petroleum industry.

Palynologists, micropaleontologists and some invertebrate paleontologists tend to work with companies or as consultants. Vertebrate paleontologists, paleobotanists and some invertebrate paleontologists are more likely to be employed in museums and universities.

At a Glance

Study fossils to uncover the past

  • Most are college and university professors
  • They must adapt to a variety of working conditions
  • A master's degree is the minimum requirement