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What is Paleontology?

By J.Gunsch
Updated May 21, 2024
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Paleontology is the study of ancient or prehistoric life on earth. Its main goal is to investigate the evolution of plant and animal species as well as the earth's ancient ecosystems and climate as a whole. Although concerned with life, paleontology is actually a branch of geology; the study of physical nature.

Paleontology uses fossils of organisms to speculate the conditions on earth during their lifetime. The changes in particular species of organisms also helps to answer questions concerning evolution. Since fossils are embedded in rock formations of various types, paleontology relies on geology, and so the two are closely related. By looking at fossils, their composition, placement and the surrounding preserved environment, paleontologists can glean the climate and its changes during a particular period.

As paleontology is a sub science of geology there are similarly a number of specialty fields that fall under the branch of paleontology. These subgroups include micropaleontology, paleobotny and paleozoology. Micropaleontology refers to the study of fossilized microorganisms such as single celled creatures or spores and pollen from plant life. Paleobotny is concerned with fossilized plant life and paleozoology is concerned with animal fossils such as dinosaurs and primitive human beings.

In addition to academic and scientific importance, paleontology is useful in the mining industry. Because it is critical to determine the age of geological formations for a variety of reasons, paleontology comes in handy because of its systematic approach to determining the age of fossils. Looking at the fossils found in rock a paleontologist can quickly determine the age of the rock which is an easier process than determining the age of rock solely by its physical properties.

Although it is not commonly thought of as a conservation science, paleontology is invaluable to our understanding of the environment and climate cycles that naturally exist on earth which contributes to our understanding of where we as humans fit into our current environmental crisis. More importantly as the earth has gone through various cycles of warming and cooling, paleontology can give us insight as to how organisms respond; whether they adapt or perish. Although many people are quick to blame human beings for the environmental problems that we are experiencing today, paleontology examines similar events on our planet long before we had the chance to change it. This can give us invaluable insight to possible solutions in preventing or slowing further damage.

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Discussion Comments
By VivAnne — On Jun 15, 2011

@ahain - That sounds like a really cool activity to do, with a kid or otherwise! I want to try, but my area is kind of wet and muddy. Is there anywhere you can order this kind of rock if you want to take this up as a hobby anyway?

I know buying the rocks wouldn't make it as affordable as going and just picking them up from the ground, but hey, I'm interested enough to pay a bit to try this out. I'm also now really curious what a geode looks like...time to go look it up.

By ahain — On Jun 15, 2011

I think that paleontology, for kids, is one of the more fascinating sciences that they can study. If you want to get your child interested in science, science involving dinosaurs is bound to be more appealing!

If your child is interested in dinosaurs, encourage him by getting him books about dinosaurs, children's books about paleontology, and maybe some documentaries about how dinosaurs lived.

Once your child understands that studying dinosaur bones really means digging for fossilized rocks, try introducing him to some easy to find fossils, like those of trilobytes and fish. You can usually buy such fossils for pretty cheap, because they're so common. It's amazing to hold a fossil in your hand and think about how long ago it was alive, though, even a common creature like a trilobyte.

A good hobby to encourage an interest in geology and paleontology is to go for walks with your child in a place with good fossil rocks, and then collect rocks to crack open to check or fossils.

This isn't a far-fetched hobby -- as a kid, I did this all the time! You just collect a good bucketful of rocks, take them home, wash the surfaces off, and give them good taps on the top to see if they will crack open.

A lot of the time there isn't anything inside, but occasionally you will find a fossil if you're in a good fossil area. More often, even if there aren't any fossils, the rock turns out to be a geode -- a hollow rock with crystals growing on the inside -- which is a great thing to get your child fascinated about geology, too. It's a win-win hobby!

By Malka — On Jun 14, 2011

@seHiro - Hey, if paleontology helps scientists to study and learn about the existence of ancient environmental disasters, huge changes like earthquakes or tsunamis, and big cataclysmic changes like volcanic ash covering the earth, why haven't people figured out how the dinosaurs died yet?

I mean, most of the commonly accepted theories would leave some evidence, right? The most popular one right now is that a meteor hit the earth and stirred up dust in the atmosphere, blocking out the sun, killing off a bunch of organisms that relied on their ecosystem working in a perfect balanced that was no longer balanced, and ultimately leading to the dinosaurs dying of cold and starvation.

Well, that would leave a lot of dust in a layer in the earth's rocks, right? So scientists should check if there is one. If not, the meteor isn't the right theory!

This goes for any theory about how the dinosaurs died, pretty much. So long as it was a big earth-changing disaster, paleontologists should find some kind of evidence that it occurred.

I've read that there are some pretty giant craters from meteors, several of which are suspected to be the one that killed the dinosaurs off -- so have people checked the rocks near those craters for layers of dust or ash from the dinosaur eras?

By gimbell — On Jun 13, 2011

I have always been so fascinated with dinosaurs and paleontology. I know most kids' imaginations are captured by the idea of dinosaurs, but I never really grew out of it -- I just love dinosaurs. They're so interesting and unique. It's like the earth had real dragons at one point, but humans weren't there to see it.

I wonder if some day we will clone dinosaurs like they did in Jurassic Park? If so, paleontology might do what the character Malcolm said and become "extinct".

I doubt it, though. More likely, paleontologists would be the ones who were the most in the know about how dinosaurs are put together, so they would become consultants on, say, administering veterinary care to the dinosaurs.

I know it sounds really out-there, but our science isn't terribly far away from breakthroughs in cloning that could help us bring prehistoric creatures back to life, so long as we had some DNA to base them on.

That's tough, though, since the fossilized bones that scientists find are made out of rock and the DNA is gone. Just got to find that fossilized mosquito in the tree sap and we're home free...

By seHiro — On Jun 10, 2011

@anon26090 - Paleontology is actually one of the many kinds of earth science out there. You can technically define paleontology as a subdiscipline of geology -- the study of the rocky layers of the earth and their development throughout history. Paleontology simply deals with rocks so old that they are fossilized.

Fossils of dinosaurs and other animals from prehistoric times are an interesting case of falling under the geological subdiscipline of paleontology because when bones fossilize, they technically turn into stone.

As far as importance goes, paleontology deals with the study of things long past and long dead, but that doesn't mean it isn't relevant to the age that we are living in. Studying how the layers of fossilized rock formed, how creatures became trapped in tar pits in the distant past, and how sand and sediment has been preserved in layers in the earth's rocks can help scientists to find patterns in how the earth works.

For example, the sand layers in the rocks of a cliff face could tell researchers that tsunamis are a normal thing in that area, and have been for hundreds of years. They can even read the rocks to determine how high the tsunamis were, how far inland they went, and how frequently they occurred, and that can help predict any that may happen in the future.

Ultimately, if there are patterns in the earth's geology that repeat over the course of centuries or longer in the past, we might be able to predict things like big earthquakes or volcanic eruptions before they happen in the future.

By anon26090 — On Feb 08, 2009

What is the importance of paleontology in the study of Earth Science?-Jenna

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