What is a Paleontologist?
Peter Larson and Sue Hendrickson alongside her T-Rex find. (source: Black Hills Institute of Geological Research)
Put simply, a paleontologist is a scientist who studies prehistoric life, be it flora or fauna. As an organized field of science, paleontology is sometimes said to have begun with the Swiss polymath Conrad Gessner’s On Fossil Objects, published in 1565. Of course, fossils have been known since prehistory, first documented by Xenophanes of Colophon in Ancient Greece, but it was not until Gessner and other Renaissance-era scientists’ work that the field began to take shape. Georges Cuvier is usually considered the first proper paleontologist, with his discovery that a supposed elephant bone belonged to an extinct species he named Mastodon.
The discovery of such otherworldly creatures brought with it startling ideas. Concepts like extinction and deep time were at odds with the Biblical literalism that prevailed at the time. Early paleontologists laid the groundwork for Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published in 1859, another watershed moment in our understanding of Earth’s history. Paleontology today is not so controversial, but new things are always being discovered. The Dinosaur Renaissance that began in the 1970s redefined dinosaurs as warm-blooded, active animals, while some astrobiologists are searching for microbial fossils on the Martian surface.
Cuvier's sketch of a Mastodon
Today’s paleontologists have a lot of tools to accomplish their work. For example, let’s consider a hypothetical T-Rex fossil. A paleontological team might find such a fossil in Montana amidst the vast Hell Creek Formation, but they would be lucky to chance up a complete specimen. After finding the remains, paleontologists have to remove the bones and surrounding matrix; with a chisel if they’re lucky and maybe with a sledgehammer if they’re not. If our T-Rex emerges from the stone unscathed, it is carefully wrapped in plaster for transportation away from the dig site to a fossil preparation lab where it is extracted from its stone matrix for study.
From there, our T-Rex may find itself mounted in a museum hall or studied carefully for new information on the genus. Perhaps it is a new species with a subtle anatomical difference to its peers, a new branch in evolution’s tree. Our understanding of extinct life has changed much since the earliest days of paleontology, but the core features remain the same. Paleontology begins with direct observation and fieldwork, but from these beginnings, we may glean new understandings of how life on Earth once existed millions of years ago.
Interested in getting into paleontology yourself? Check out our dinosaur specimens!
Wall WJ. Investigating Fossils: A History of Palaeontology. 1st edition. John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated; 2021. doi:10.1002/9781119828624
Wylie CD. Preparing Dinosaurs: The Work Behind the Scenes. The MIT Press; 2021.