Lots of people, especially when they are younger, go through a time in their lives when they are obsessed with dinosaurs. Some of them never grow out of wanting to know more about them, though, and end up studying them for a living. People who look at life from before the Holocene Epoch (more than 11,700 years ago) are called palaeontologists.
There is more to the science, though, than just looking at fossils – the hard remains or print left from an animal or plant that are found inside a rock – or dreaming about making Jurassic Park a reality. Hong Kong University palaeontologist Dr Michael Pittman says that, to learn about how animals might have looked or evolved (to change over time), sometimes he has to study animals that are alive today.
“I’m interested in figuring out how dinosaurs flew and became birds. That involves not just looking at fossils but also looking at living birds and trying to learn from them,” he says. “I would say it’s very rare for a palaeontologist just to study dead things and only dead things.”
Studying modern animals to learn about ones that have died out is just one of the many things a palaeontologist does. They also study what plants were growing at a given time; what the weather was like, and what exactly were animals eating.
All of this requires expertise in many areas of science. As such, palaeontology combines elements and technologies from biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, and even computer sciences. For example, a laser can be shone on to a fossil, which will help reveal details that might not be seen without technological help.
“I shone [lasers] on hundreds of specimens of Anchiornis, which is one of the earliest birds,” Pittman says. “The laser allowed us to directly see the soft tissue around the bones […] we have a much improved understanding of the anatomy [and] capabilities of those animals.”
Studying dinosaur bones and fossils doesn’t just take place inside a laboratory – often, being a palaeontologist means going out on fossil digs. For people who love the outdoors, this can be a very rewarding experience. Sometimes, digs will take place in lonely and dangerous parts of the world, but getting to uncover something that has never been seen by anyone else before makes the journey worth it to many.
Almost every palaeontologist dreams about going on one of these digs and discovering a species that no one else has found. Not everyone does end up discovering an entirely new species, and many palaeontologists never will – but the skills they gain from this field can be used to help people in many other industries and jobs, too.
Some might go on to work with people and companies the oil sector, for example. Examining and dating (figuring out when the creature or plant was alive) on tiny fossils in rocks turned up by oil drilling can determine how deep the drill has gone into the ground (the older the fossil, the deeper the drill has gone), and whether that is the right depth to find oil.
So, what can students do if they want to become a palaeontologist? One of the best things a student can do is to contact and join a local palaeontology society, as they can be a good source of information about the best universities to apply to. If no palaeontology programmes are available, then degrees in biology, ecology, or geology are also good for this career. Palaeontology societies also hold public events at which students can talk to experts about their work and how to get involved with it. If there are no societies to join, then students can also consider volunteering to study fossils at museums or in schools and universities.