What is a Paleontologist?

Paleontology is the science dealing with the fossils of long-deceased animals and plants that lived up to billions of years ago. It's an interdisciplinary field involving geology, archaeology, chemistry, biology, archaeology and anthropology.

A paleontologist studies the history and process of evolution by examining fossils, the preserved traces of long dead animals and plants. Using data from fossilized bones, ancient pollen, and other clues, paleontologists dig up the details on past climates and past extinctions. They tell us about the history of the earth, the evolution of life, and our own place in the world.

What Does a Paleontologist Do?

Paleontologists plan, direct, and conduct fieldwork projects to search for fossils or collect samples. They document the work site and dig up fossils or take core samples from lakes, soil, or ice sheets. They then need to preserve the specimens and prepare them for transport to the institution where they'll be cleaned and studied. Some work in laboratories, using chemical techniques to analyze fossilized samples and ancient pollen. They share their research by writing journal articles and presenting to colleagues at professional conferences. Most need to write applications for grants to support their research. Many teach and conduct research as faculty members at colleges and universities.

Paleontologists usually specialize in a particular research area. For example, micropaleontologists study microscopic fossils. Paleobotanistsconduct research on fossil plants, including algae and fungi. Palynologists study pollen and spores. Invertebrate paleontologists study fossils of invertebrate animals like mollusks and worms. Vertebrate paleontologists focus on the fossils of vertebrate animals, including fish. Human paleontologists or paleoanthropologists focus on the fossils of prehistoric humans and pre-human hominids. Taphonomists study the process that creates fossils. Ichnologists hunt for fossil tracks, trails, and footprints, such as the dinosaur tracks found in Arkansas in 2011. Paleoecologists use fossils, spores, pollen, and other information to study the ecologies and climates of the past.

The revelations they uncover can help us understand the past, so that we don't repeat it. They can also provide context for comparison between the current state of our environment and biodiversity, and those of ancient and turbulent epochs.

Where Does a Paleontologist Work?

Most paleontologists are faculty members in the geology departments of colleges and universities. Some work in museums. A handful are employed by government geological surveys, where they make geological maps or investigate geological issues. A few help oil companies search for petroleum.

Paleontologists spend most of their time in offices while teaching, writing, or analyzing their finds. However, some conduct research in laboratories. When conducting fieldwork, paleontologists work outdoors, where they do rigorous physical work in all kinds of weather.

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What Is the Average Paleontologist Salary?

Indeed listed the average annual salary of paleontologists as $64,000 in January 2015.

StateTotal EmploymentBottom 25%Median SalaryTop 75%
New Hampshire100$62,450$79,730$105,400
New Jersey200$71,920$89,660$117,450
New Mexico330$58,220$71,030$96,800
New York660$59,000$74,040$92,630
North Carolina390$55,490$67,350$85,590
North Dakota100$62,660$80,910$113,630
Rhode Island100---
South Carolina170$55,550$66,130$89,390
South Dakota100$59,250$67,970$76,930
West Virginia110$65,640$78,610$95,160

Table data taken from BLS (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes192042.htm)

Paleontology Jobs & Job Description

Paleontologist jobs deal primarily with the study of animal and plant fossils from various eras of earth's prehistory. While jobs vary significantly, most paleontologists would call the below list of tasks a basic outline of their scope of work:

  • Develop data collection methods and systems tailored to a particular era, site or project goal
  • Collect information from observations, satellite, GIS/GPS and concussive instruments
  • Record and manage records of observations
  • Analyze field data, laboratory samples, and other sources of information to uncover patterns about prehistoric life and origins
  • Prepare reports and present research findings
  • Communicate with project leads, administrators and other staff through regular, scheduled field status reports and presentation of research findings
  • Engage in field survey, testing, monitoring, and data recovery
  • Advise organizations on the possible impact of policies, programs, and products

A lead paleontologist, chief researcher, or project manager may have the following or similar additional responsibilities, depending on the project and its goals:

  • Foster a positive and safe work environment
  • Develop and inform project scopes, schedules, and budgets
  • Navigate federal and international protocols, regulations, and best practices
  • Test and calibrate equipment and instruments
  • Ensure quality assurance, organization, and appropriate tracking of field data
  • Oversee the preservation of site integrity
  • Engage in office-based tasks including technical report preparation and submittal, as well as liaising with site stakeholders
  • Supervise fieldwork (survey, site recording, testing, monitoring, and data integrity) of multiple field crews
  • Communicate with funding agencies through grant applications
  • Communicate with stakeholders through field status reports and presentation of team findings

What Is the Job Demand for Paleontologists?

While the government projects that employment of geoscientists as a whole will grow quickly, the outlook for paleontologists specifically is more conservative. The Paleontological Research Institution notes that there are fewer jobs in this area in the U.S. than there were a few years ago, but a few good jobs still become available each year.

How Do I Get a Paleontology Degree?

A Ph.D. is usually necessary for paleontological careers, particularly in academia. Aspiring paleontologists should have extensive knowledge of biology and geology. A double-major with full training in both is the best educational option. Chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, and computer science are also very important. Undergraduate geology classes typically include mineralogy, stratigraphy, sedimentary petrology, vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and genetics.

Field and lab experience are also vital. Paleontologists will need to know professional standards and procedures for surveying work sites and unearthing their finds. Look for volunteer opportunities at nearby museums, or join a mineral or fossil club at your university.

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Related Degree Options for Paleontology

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Paleontologists Have?

  • The Palaeontological Association publishes academic journals, newsletters and field guides, sponsors an annual meeting and field excursions, provides Web resources, and funds grants and awards. It also hosts career information.
  • The International Palaeontological Association aims to coordinate international cooperation among paleontologists, and to integrate the various sub-disciplines of the field. It also organizes international meetings, issues a world directory of paleontologists, and publishes Lethaia, a leading paleontological academic journal.
  • Founded in 1940, The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology provides a global forum for vertebrate paleontologists through publications, annual meetings, and an email list. It accepts a wide variety of professionals, including science artists and writers.