Palaeontologists study fossils to develop knowledge of ancient life forms and their environments. Palaeontology can also reveal how the environment and climate have changed over time. Palaeontologists are involved in research, education, managing museum collections, and the exploration of oil, coal and gas.
Palaeontologists study fossils to develop knowledge of ancient life forms, including their anatomy, physiology, evolution, and the ecosystems that they would have been part of.
Palaeontologists can establish which plants and animals lived in particular areas. The types of fossils found can reveal if the area used to be a desert, forest, river bed or ocean floor, for example. This gives us information about climate and environmental change.
They can also use fossils to establish the type and age of the rocks that contain them. This information helps in the exploration of oil, coal and gas because certain rock layers are more likely than others to contain deposits of these resources.
Fossils are usually preserved in layers of sedimentary rocks. Palaeontologists can identify them based on their shape, size and the material they are made from.
While fieldwork to find fossils is very important, palaeontologists spend most of their time in laboratory work. This involves preparing specimens, doing experiments and analysing the results, working with other scientists and writing up results in scientific papers and reports.
Palaeontologists usually have very specialist knowledge of one particular area of the science. They often also have expertise in a related area, such as oceanography, anatomy or evolution.
They might be experts on:
- Vertebrate palaeontology, for example, fish, reptiles, dinosaurs, birds and mammals.
- Invertebrate palaeontology, such as sponges, corals and molluscs.
- Micropalaeontology - small, single-celled or multi-celled organisms.
- Palaeobotany - larger, multi-celled fossil plants.
Invertebrate palaeontology involves the broadest range of fossils, including those that are most likely to be found in fieldwork, such as ammonites. Most of the academic posts in palaeontology are to do with invertebrates.
However, most professional palaeontologists are involved in micropalaeontology. This is partly because of the area's importance in the search for fossil fuels like oil, coal and gas. Also, microfossils are widely found across the world. They can often be collected without the palaeontologist being there, for example, when they are gathered up in mud taken from oil, gas and water wells. When oil is drilled, pieces of rock come to the surface. These can contain microfossils.
With further drilling, the microfossils that are uncovered become older and older. Palaeontologists can date these microfossils, which helps them to work out the age of the rock that is being drilled and therefore to predict the presence of oil.
A very small number of palaeontologists work in palaeobotany. This is a highly specialised area. It plays an important part in increasing our understanding of ancient ecosystems, including the animals that would have eaten the plants. Fossil plant data is widely used in climate change studies.
In a museum, a palaeontologist working as a curator would probably divide their time between activities such as:
- Checking the physical condition of the fossils.
- Cleaning and repairing fossils ready for display.
- Updating computer records of the collection.
- Searching for new fossils, including negotiating to add them to the collection.
- Answering enquiries from other academics.
- Organising public events, exhibitions and talks.
- Working with volunteers.
- Applying for funding.
- Academic research.
Academic palaeontologists, for example, in a university, will spend time on their own area of research. They also give lectures, mark essays and support PhD students.
Personal Qualities and Skills
Pay And Opportunities
Typical employers of palaeontologists: Most employment is with universities, museums and consulting organisations. There are opportunities in the four broad categories of palaeontology:
- Micropalaeontology offers the greatest number of commercial job opportunities, for example, in the energy, oil and gas industries.
- Invertebrate palaeontology offers most academic job opportunities, mainly in universities (although there are still not many vacancies).
- Vertebrate palaeontology offers only limited academic job opportunities, mainly in museums.
- Palaeobotany is a small area of employment. Most is in academic departments allied to botanical training programmes, with a few commercial opportunities.
Entry requirements will vary for each degree so it is important to check with each university.