Main Topic: Environment and Society
Secondary Topic: Physical Geography
Overview: A paleontologist is a scientist who studies the history of life on Earth through the fossil record. Fossils are the evidence of past life on the planet and can include those formed from animal bodies or their imprints (body fossils). Trace fossils are another kind of fossil. A trace fossil is any evidence of the life activity of an animal that lived in the past. Burrows, tracks, trails, feeding marks, and resting marks are all examples of trace fossils. 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 will be cleaned and studied. Some work in laboratories, using chemical techniques to analyze fossilized samples and ancient pollen. Paleontologists usually specialize in a particular research area. For example, micropaleontologists study microscopic fossils. Paleobotanists conduct 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. Jobs in paleontology are found in universities (instructors or researchers), museums (curators), oil companies, and state and federal government agencies. Paleontologists who work for state or federal agencies or oil companies generally work with fossil identification, regional mapping projects, and on a variety of other projects.
Geographic skills are essential for paleontologists. Patterns of fossil distribution are geographic, as were the processes that created the fossils. Paleontologists need to understand the ancient landforms, climate, and environments that existed when the plant or animal was alive, and they will likely use geographic information systems (GIS), modeling software, and other computer programs.
Geographers at work: Paleogeographers, environmental geographers, biogeographers
Recommended College Courses: Paleogeography, environmental geography, biogeography, geographic information science, remote sensing, climatology, physical geography
Skills: Environmental modeling, geographic information systems, spatial analysis, understanding and assessment of physical features (soils, topography, hydrology); map reading and interpretation
Occupation Group: Life, Physical, and Social Science
Learn more about Paleontologists from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and U.S. Department of Labor: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/life-physical-and-social-science/geoscientists.htm#tab-2, from the American Geosciences Institutes: https://www.americangeosciences.org/education/k5geosource/careers/paleontologist, and from Environmental Science.org: https://www.environmentalscience.org/career/paleontologist
Written by Christopher Anderson