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Most people think of dinosaurs and the Flintstones when they hear the word paleontology, yet it is actually the study of fossils. A fossil is defined as any trace of a past life form, such as bones, shells, plants, tracks, trails and even coprolites (fossil feces), which may be preserved. Paleontologists study fossils that existed as life forms in geologic and prehistoric times to try and reconstruct the history of the Earth by comparing the fossils to existing life forms today. Some people confuse paleontogists with archaeologists and anthropologists, however the main difference is that paleontology does not usually deal with artifacts made by humans. The basis of this discipline is rooted in geology and all natural formations from the Earth.

Paleontologists study fossils for a variety of purposes, like establishing relative age, petroleum exploration and the study of evolution and ancient environments. Interestingly, there are a number of natural resources derived from fossils, including coal, oil and peat, which come from fossil plant material and hence the name fossil fuels. Paleontologists who work in the petroleum industry use fossils to interpret sequences of sedimentary rocks and make accurate geological maps, which are essential for finding oil, water and minerals. Studying and identifying rock layers that contain fossils requires an in-depth knowledge of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rock.

Paleontologists study these three types of rocks because they contain fossilized life. Igneous or volcanic rocks are formed by crystallization of minerals from a magma melt. Sedimentary rocks form at the Earth's surface usually through precipitation and thus grow by organic means. Metamorphic rocks literally metamorphosize from other rocks through changes in mineral states or physical environments. Accordingly, igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks all form in natural processes of chemical change and undoubtedly cling to life forms that get trapped in the rock and become the fossils we study.

Different areas of study paleontologists may decide to specialize in are vertebrates, invertebrates, micropaleontology, paleobotany, taphonomy, biostratigraphy and paleoecology. Each of these names sounds very scientific, however they are important to study since they lived on this world before any of us did.

Another area that paleontologists focus their studies on is determining the age of fossils. They usually use one of two systems of dating: absolute or relative. Absolute dating estimates the age of a rock or fossil in years. This is usually done by measuring the amounts of a radioactive isotope and its decay product, thereby yielding a constant answer. Relative dating does not rely on knowing the actual numerical age of the rocks, but arises from the observation that different layers of sedimentary rock contain different fossils, and they should be dated accordingly. This allows fossil-bearing rocks to be dated on the basis of its fossil age, such as the Ordovician, Cambrian or Silurian periods.
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  Interests and Skills  
What characteristics does it take to become a paleontologist? Besides having a passion for fossils and discovering ancient natural artifacts, they should have good communication skills, an open, inquiring, analytical mind, along with an aptitude for mathematics and science. They should have logical decision-making skills, and be able to visualize three-dimensional objects from two-dimensional drawings.

Paleontologists must be able to work both independently and in a team environment. They must be flexible because they have to work in isolated locations, often under harsh conditions. Their work requires a great deal of precision along with problem solving, concentration, developing innovative approaches, and taking charge of situations.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Study fossilized remains of plants and animals found in geological formations to trace evolution and development of past life and identify geological formations according to nature and chronology
  • Recover and assemble fossilized specimens, note their positions, and classify them according to their botanical or zoological family and probable age
  • Prepare treatises on findings for future scientific study, or as an aid to location of natural resources, such as petroleum-bearing formations
  • May organize scientific expeditions and supervise removal of fossils from deposits and matrix rock formations
  • May specialize in study of plant fossils
  • May specialize in study of fossilized micro-organisms
  • Paleontologists do not have typical workdays. For one thing, they are employed in different fields, from teaching to museum work. Therefore they should be able to adapt well to a variety of working conditions. They spend a great deal of time in the field and should really enjoy being outdoors, along with enduring rough or uncomfortable situations. Indoor work is usually spanned over standard office hours, with longer hours if research and deadlines persist.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • The majority of paleontologists work as university professors that teach paleontology and geology courses. Some work solely as researchers, only teaching occasionally or hiring PhD students to assist them with their research. A smaller number of paleontologists work in museums (often in the dinosaur department) and help consult and interpret exhibits. Some paleontologists also work for government surveys, usually in geological mapping or other applied geological problem solving. Finally, a group also works in the petroleum industry, helping geologists and engineers find sources of oil.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Paleontologists with master's degrees can become museum preparators and industrial paleontologists. If you want to teach at the university level or become an academic researcher, a PhD is mandatory. Paleontologists can also move into other speciality areas of geology and focus on mineralogy, hydrology or petrology.

  Educational Paths  
The minimum requirement for paleontologists is a bachelor's degree in geology, coupled with a master's degree in paleontology. Since few universities offer degree programs in paleontology, it is important to do research ahead of time and find a school that offers the programs and courses that interest you. Paleontology is usually available through geology programs and advanced courses may be offered in the undergraduate program. A PhD is almost always necessary for any serious professional career in paleontology, such as research, fieldwork and teaching at the graduate level. Students are urged to take courses in geology, evolution, ecology, English and mathematics to broaden their backgrounds.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition,
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002,

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