Commonly asked questions

Paleo FAQs

People ask paleontologists questions all the time. Why? Probably for the same reason people become paleontologists in the first place: they are curious! The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (a non-profit organization dedicated to professional vertebrate paleontology) has compiled this list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and their answers here.

Common Questions People Ask

What is a paleontologist?
A paleontologist is a person who studies fossils. The obvious follow up question is, what are fossils? Fossils are any naturally occurring objects that tell us about ancient life. They can be bones, teeth, shells, leaf impressions, footprints, insects trapped in amber, or any number of other sorts of things.
Sometimes people confuse paleontology with archaeology. Archaeology is the study of objects made or used by humans. This might include things like pottery, arrowheads, or other stone tools.

What is a vertebrate paleontologist?
A vertebrate paleontologist is a paleontologist (see above) that studies animals with backbones. These backbones are made of many individual bones called vertebrae, so that's where the name vertebrate paleontologist comes from.

How do you become a vertebrate paleontologist?
The short answer is, you can be a vertebrate paleontologist just by studying fossil vertebrates. Most people who have jobs as vertebrate paleontologists have gone to school and studied animals, anatomy (how animals are put together), geology (study of the earth), and other related subjects. They usually study with other experienced paleontologists to learn how to work on fossils.

Some vertebrate paleontologists work in museums, where they care for collections of fossils. Others work at colleges and universities where they teach classes in geology, biology, or anatomy. Some paleontologists work as preparators, cleaning and repairing fossils for study and/or display.

How long do you have to go to school to be a vertebrate paleontologist?
Some people get jobs working with fossils with a college degree. Others continue on for a Master's degree or a Doctoral degree. A college degree usually takes 4-5 years to get, a Master's degree 2-4 years, and a Doctoral degree 2-4 or more years. That means 8 to 13 or more years after high school. It sure sounds like a lot, but remember that you get to work on fossils and do paleontology while you are in school, so it really is a lot better than it sounds.

What should I study in school if I want to be a vertebrate paleontologist?
This is a great question for anyone interested in being a paleontologist. First, take all of the science and math classes you can. Since most kids don't have much choice in the classes they take before high school, you can do a lot on your own. You can do projects on vertebrate paleontology for science fairs, read about vertebrate paleontology in library books, and collect your own fossils (see below).
Other subjects to study are English and computer science. English? Why English? Well, one important skill for a scientist of any sort to master is communication. It doesn't do much good to make scientific discoveries if you can't tell other people about them! Computer skills are important because we use computers as communication tools, and basic research tools every day.

How much money do paleontologists make?
This is a hard question, but one that gets asked all the time. Some people make no money at all being a vertebrate paleontologist, while others make a decent living. The one thing that is pretty certain is that you won't get rich being a paleontologist. Most of us do paleontology because we really enjoy it, rather than to make a lot of money.

How can I start my own fossil collection?
Fossil collecting opportunities vary around the world, and it is very important to always get permission from landowners and follow local, state, and federal laws. Please read The Paleontological Society Code of Fossil Collecting before searching for fossils. That way you know that if you follow the guidelines, your collecting will be fun and interesting for you, and helpful rather than potentially harmful to the field of paleontology. Another thing you can do is read a book on fossil collecting guidelines. You might try, Collecting the Natural World: Legal Requirements and Personal Liability for Collecting Plants, Animals, Rocks, Minerals, Fossils, and Artifacts, by Donald Wolberg and Patsy Reinard, Geoscience Press, Inc.: Tucson, AZ. pp. 1-330. (1997). A good guide for younger readers you might try, The Fossil Factory: A Kid's Guide to Digging Up Dinosaurs, Exploring Evolution, and Finding Fossils, by Niles Eldredge, Gregory Eldredge and Douglas Eldredge, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc.: Reading, MA. pp 1-111 (1989).

How can you tell if something is a fossil?
Paleontologists recognize fossils based on their shape, their structure, and sometimes the material they are made of. Since fossils are the remains of ancient life, paleontologists study the shape, structure, and materials of living things today. This helps paleontologists recognize fossils that are the remains of living things from tens of thousands to millions of years old.

How do we know how old a fossil is?
Fossils are usually preserved in sedimentary rocks, which are usually found in layers. These layers form when sediment (clay, silt, sand, etc.) falls out of suspension in some other medium like air, water, or ice. The layers form when sediment is deposited in the same place time and time again. If you think about how that works, the layers on the bottom must be the oldest because they had to be there for the next layer to be laid down on top, right? This principle, that the oldest layers of rock are on the bottom, called superposition, is a pretty powerful tool for telling relative time. With it, paleontologists can tell which fossil organisms lived and died before others.

Paleontologists can put numerical dates on their relative time scale by using a method called radiometric dating. The basic idea is that rocks that cool from a molten state contain naturally-occurring radioactive elements that break down into other stable materials (daughter products) at known rates. This is known as radioactive decay. Once this rate is known, geologists can calculate the length of time over which decay has been occurring by measuring the amount of radioactive parent element and the amount of stable daughter products. The trick is that this method is usually only used on rocks that were molten, and these cooled rocks don't usually contain fossils. We can use this method when lavas and ash fall deposits form between layers of sedimentary rock that contain fossils. If we can put dates on the datable deposits above and below a sedimentary layer containing fossils, we know our fossils must have been deposited between those two dates.

How do you identify fossils that you find?
Vertebrate paleontologists spend a great deal of time studying the anatomy of living animals so that they can compare the bones and teeth of living animals to those of fossil animals. We also compare the bones and teeth of newly discovered fossils to those that have been discovered before. If they are very similar to animals that have been described before, we figure that they are new finds of the same animal. If they are different, and we are sure we have compared them to all of the other fossils and recent animals, we can name a new species for the new fossil.

How do you know where to look for fossils?
One of the best ways to find fossils is to look where they have been found before. That's why paleontologists often go back to the same places over and over again to look for fossils. Another way to find fossils is to look at maps that have been made by geologists for rocks that are likely to have fossils that you are interested in. For instance, if you wanted to find dinosaur fossils, you would look for rocks that were deposited on land during the period of time when dinosaurs lived (Mesozoic) because that is when and where dinosaurs lived and probably died. The other way to find fossils is to go places where people haven't mapped the rocks before, and just see what you can find!

These questions were developed and are published on The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology website. UAlberta researchers are active members of this society.