Paleontology and PaleontologistWhat is paleontology and what does a paleontologist do?

Most people perceive paleontology as a frivolous science. For them, the study of fossils is nothing more than a study of the trivial, distant past of the planet, making it impossible to appreciate the practical applications of the field.

However, the discoveries of paleontology relate to the present and future of the planet far more than most people probably realize. So what exactly do paleontologists do and why is their work so important?

What is paleontology?

Simply put, paleontology is the study of ancient animals and other organisms through the analysis of their fossils. By examining these traces of past life, the field explains nearly every aspect of an ancient organism’s existence, including its anatomy, activity, evolution, and environment.

Paleontological discoveries

Take, for example, the fossilized shells of molluscs such as oysters, clams and snails. While the internal structures of these fossils reveal the strange organ systems that molluscs once possessed, the external structures of these fossils reveal their amazingly long lifespans.

In fact, the ridges on the surface of these specimens represent single seasons of their growth, allowing paleontologists to determine the exact number of growing seasons and the exact amount of growth that each ancient mollusk experienced. This in turn reveals the state of the mollusk’s marine environment, with thicker ridges representing seasons of greater growth and, as a result, warmer waters.

The chemical compositions of these fossils are also informative, with the presence of certain chemical isotopes signifying seasonal changes in ocean temperatures. In this way, the smallest fossil of a mollusk can reveal important information about ancient life. And it’s not just sea creatures with shells that are instructive, with the traces of various other organisms, from ferns to fireflies, providing similar insights into the prehistoric planet.

Read more: What are the oldest fossils in the world?

Paleontological disciplines

Although all paleontologists share an interest in fossils, their work usually falls within one or two distinct paleontological disciplines devoted to specific types of fossils or specific types of fossil information.

Among these disciplines are invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology, as well as paleobotany, paleoecology, and paleoclimatology.

  • Invertebrate Paleontology: Study of invertebrate fossils, including animals such as sea sponges, starfish, insects, snails, and squid.
  • Vertebrate Paleontology: Study of vertebrate fossils, including salamanders, swallows, and saber-toothed tigers, among others.
  • Micropaleontology: Study of fossilized microorganisms.
  • Paleobotany: Study of fossilized fungi and plants.
  • Taphonomy: Study of fossil formation.
  • Technology: Study of fossil tracks and traces.
  • Paleoecology: A study of the interactions between organisms revealed by the fossil record.
  • Paleoclimatology: Study of climate and climate change revealed by fossils.

Read more: Are the oldest fossils real – or just rocks?

What does a paleontologist do?

Regardless of their particular paleontological discipline, a paleontologist’s ambition boils down to two main goals. The first is to find and describe the fossils of ancient organisms. And the second is to use these fossils to understand how organisms have adapted and transformed over time.

Of course, achieving these two goals is far from easy.

Finds fossils

To begin with, paleontologists consult geological charts containing information about the age, availability, and type of rock in certain areas to select the most suitable sites for finding fossils. The sites they choose usually include sedimentary rock, which forms when weathered rock fragments and organic remains accumulate, compact and cement over thousands, if not millions, of years.

Once a suitable site is identified, paleontologists scour the surface of the sediment in an attempt to spot fossil fragments. If fragments are found, specialists then dig into the deposit to determine if larger, more complete fossils are buried beneath.

Excavating these fossils can take anywhere from a day to several seasons, depending on the amount and density of the sediment. But regardless of the length of their digs, paleontologists use a combination of picks, shovels, trowels, brooms, and brushes to dig up their specimens.

He studies fossils

Over time, paleontologists free their fossils from the stone. They then use tools like mass spectrometers to determine the age and chemical composition of their finds, while computers and computed tomography allow them to analyze the shape and structure of their samples.

Ultimately, using these tools allows paleontologists to develop theories about the bodies and behavior of ancient organisms, about their transformations over time, and about the broader processes of evolution and extinction that define the planet’s past.

Read more: Why are fossils only found in sedimentary rocks?

Archeology vs. Paleontology

Although both disciplines involve the study of objects excavated from the earth, paleontology and archeology differ. Simply put, while paleontology involves the scientific study of non-human fossils, archeology involves the scientific study of human fossils and artifacts.

Why is paleontology important?

Overall, the field’s ability to track organisms and their evolution puts paleontology at the center of contemporary climate change research and policy. More than anything, the field allows us to appreciate the seriousness of the current climate crisis, now and in the future.

Read more: These 200 million year old snails have some serious survival skills

Assesses the current climate

Of course, assessing the severity of current climate changes requires an assessment of past climates as well as their transformation trends. And paleontology plays an important role in creating this knowledge.

Just as the thickness of ridges on fossilized mollusc shells can indicate the temperature of ancient oceans, the thickness of rings in fossilized tree trunks can indicate the temperature of ancient forests. Also, ancients can be clustered pollenwhich also provide information on rainfall frequency and soil composition, thanks to the variety and amount of pollen preserved in certain areas.

In fact, the presence of all kinds of ancient fossils serves as an important indicator of the climate of certain places and times. While following from tropical trees suggest that Antarctica was forested about 90 million years ago, alligator fossils and lemur-like animals suggest that the Arctic was warm and marshy about 50 million years ago.

Future climate predictions

When combined together, these types of paleontological observations can create a complete record of the planet’s past, revealing the sheer scope of the current climate crisis.

And that’s not all. By revealing the ways in which climate change has affected organisms in the past, paleontologists can also play a role in prediction the ways in which climate change will affect organisms in the future, indicating which species, ecosystems and traits are most vulnerable to extinction.

As such, the process of paleontology is much more than a tour of the planet’s prehistory, providing opportunities to assess, predict, and manage climate change for today, and also for tomorrow.

Read more: Take a tour of these incredible living fossils

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