What is Palaeontology?

I’ve decided to start my blogging with a “What is/are…” series as one must never skip the basics and it is always useful to be able to supply a handy link when someone enquires. We can’t all launch head first into the complex side of a subject and even the most erudite amongst us were at some point laymen. I’ve claimed to be a palaeontologist (of sorts) and sometimes people I meet haven’t a clue about what one does, or they harbour serious misconceptions, so here it is, an explanation in my own words.

I was actually doing some sedimentology...

I felt like including an image of myself. I’m not vain, honest…

What is Palaeontology?

Palaeontology, or paleontology to Americans, is essentially the study of ancient life (anything older than 10,000 years) through the traces they left behind (it is also the name of a journal, a copy of which just came through my letterbox). The most well known traces are body fossils, including those bits of bone which get the headlines, but most body fossils are shells of invertebrates and microscopic organisms (every time you look at a chalk cliff you are seeing billions of microscopic fossils called coccoliths). Another form of fossil is a trace fossil, which is essentially any remnant of animal behaviour which has been preserved in the rock record. These include burrows, footprints, bite marks, and even bits of poo (coprolites). The study of trace fossils is often called palaeoichnology. Ancient life can also be studied through chemical traces which they left behind, sometimes labelled chemofossils or biomarkers.

You may have come across other terms which start with “palaeo-“, such as ‘palaeoichnology’, which I just mentioned. Many of these are disciplines within palaeontology, studying something very specific. Palaeobotany is the study of fossil plants, palaeopalynology is the study of ancient pollen (and similar things), and palaeoecology is the study of ancient animal interactions (with each other and with the environment). Palaeoanthropology is the study of human evolution, a very small subset of palaeontology, yet it often gets the headlines. Palaeobiology is a term which can create confusion, as it is often used synonymously with palaeontology, though the palaeobiologist uses the findings of biology to understand the fossils; it might sound like an odd distinction to make, but some sub-disciplines in palaeontology do not require as much biology as others. I’m not done yet…

You may also come across terms such as ‘palaeozoology’ or ‘palaeobiochemistry’, but we also seem to like sticking extra words into our titles too. You’ll find vertebrate palaeontologists, invertebrate palaeontologists, micropalaeontologists (these study microfossils, they are not automatically tiny themselves), and even evolutionary palaeobiologists. And then there are those sub-disciplines which don’t even have palaeontology in the title. Taphonomy is the study of what happens when an animal dies, up until it becomes a fossil. Biostratigraphy is the use of fossils for correlating rocks, allowing us to work out how old they are. And then there are some less serious titles, such as ‘dinosaurologist’, but I have forgotten what they study. A palaeontologist is usually a trained geologist, naturally focussing on sedimentology, and is often also an evolutionary biologist. Perhaps we just love titles.

Palaeontologists engage in a whole range of research, studying life which spans nearly four billion years of Earth history. We reconstruct ancient organisms, work out how they lived, how they died, how they decayed, how they were preserved. We work out how they were related to other organisms and study how evolution has taken place through geological time. We study major diversifications and mass extinctions, not to mention smaller radiations and minor extinctions. Palaeontologists use fossils to work out the age of the rocks, the environments in which they were deposited, and even help work out where ancient continents used to be.

This research can be used in some interesting ways. Oil companies commonly employ palaeontologists (mostly biostratigraphers) to help them correlate rocks and work out the environment of deposition. Studies on extinction and evolution are useful for conservation, particularly when predicting how an ecosystem might react to change. As palaeontology is useful for studying climate change it can be used to understand what is currently going on with our planet. Studying our evolutionary heritage can also help us to work out why our bodies sometimes fail us and how we can deal with it. And, of course, some fossils just look very pretty and show us some fascinating organisms, which people like to see in museums and on TV.

Palaeontologists can be found in museums, working at universities, on oil rigs, writing books and blogs, on TV shows, and out in the field searching for new finds. If you find a palaeontologist wandering aimlessly in the street, please point him or her in the direction of the nearest museum, rock outcrop, or pub.

What a palaeontologist is not.

Not a palaeontologist.

Palaeontologists are often muddled up with archaeologists, with members of the public often saying “are you like Indiana Jones, then?”. Archaeologists study the history of man through artefacts, going back only as far as 10,000 years. They do not come close to the time-scales dealt with by a palaeontologist. Sometimes people say “like Ross from FRIENDS?”, which we hear all the time, but at least they are correct. We do not all study dinosaurs, in fact, most of us do not. Dinosaur palaeontology just happens to be very much in the public eye, so much so that many do not seem to know that things actually existed before dinosaurs (I die a little inside when people say that). Sometimes palaeontologists are depicted as bearded men, out in the desert, getting rough with the rocks. Many palaeontologists will be found in offices studying diligently, or laboratories sporting white coats, and many are women who hopefully don’t have beards.

Bob Bakker, the sort of guy who probably automatically springs to mind. Most palaeontologists are not like Bob.

What makes a person a palaeontologist?

At the start of the post I said that I was a palaeontologist “of sorts”, because defining exactly what a palaeontologist is can be tricky. Palaeontology is like astronomy, in that amateurs, even sometimes complete novices, can contribute to the field. Many amateur astronomers, with their telescopes and diligent searching, find things which were previously unknown; in palaeontology we have amateur fossil collectors, who sometimes make some incredible discoveries. There is a whole spectrum, from those who simply like to search for fossils on the beach, to palaeontologists publishing original research. Somewhere between those two ends is a point where one can label oneself a palaeontologist, and I would say that I am personally somewhere near that point. It depends how specific we want to be, so I will try a few definitions.

A palaeontologist is someone who studies prehistoric life through fossils. This broad definition would include many amateurs who simply collect fossils and endeavour to learn more about them. It would even include some fossil dealers, as having an understanding of fossils will increase understanding of their worth. It is too broad to be workable.

A palaeontologist is someone who does original research in palaeontology. This definition is broad enough to include student palaeontologists who are undertaking an original project. (I loosely fit this category as I consider myself in between studies, but am also volunteering at Doncaster Museum.) Students  in palaeontology get a bit of a free pass and will fit any definition, as they can label themselves “trainee palaeontologists”.

A palaeontologist contributes their research to the palaeontological community. This definition limits palaeontology to academia, and is where I currently fall short but aim to be at some point in the future. It does, however, mean that some non-palaeontologists will fit this label, as not all whom contribute to the palaeontological literature are palaeontologists. Science, after all, is incredibly intertwined (I recently saw an image intended to depict the relationships of the sciences, yet it put palaeontology very close to geology and with seemingly no link to evolutionary biology, genetics, or embryology).

Some in academia will only label you a palaeontologist if you fit the last definition and have the necessary degrees from university, which is a bit snobby really. The raw material of palaeontology is available to anyone, as fossils can be found all over the place. Granted, the technical literature can seem a bit closed off to those lacking in university education in the geosciences, but many have contributed to the field without that background and deserve respect (I like to label them “autodidact” palaeontologists). My good friend Dean Lomax is doing just that at the moment, having written a handful of papers and published a book on Whitby fossils (he also runs Palaeocritti) with much more in the pipeline.

After all I have written so far, I feel bad for not mentioning preparators, many of whom are trained palaeontologists. Without good fossil preparation, many palaeontologists would have poorer material on which to work. It is a skill which is essential to palaeontology and requires a lot of dedication.

Anyway, to round things up, I could have simply said “palaeontology is the study of fossils” and left it at that. Or I could have shared this song:

This was very much an ‘off-the-cuff’ post, lacking the usual planning I would put into something of this length, so if I have missed something important let me know and I will amend it.

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