CAREER GUIDES

Here's how palaeontologists study the remains of ancient life

Image: 123RF/ Jaromír Ondra.

Analysis begins with the anatomical description, measurement and drawing of a fossil. Drawings usually illustrate a three-dimensional picture of the fossil which is placed in the physical context and dated.

Dating fossils involves comparing layers of rock with the various formations of the world and comparing fossil beds of a known age. Fossils form part of the history of the earth and of living organisms.

By studying the markings on stratified rocks and fossilised remnants, palaeontologists are able to establish, with amazing accuracy, a record of the evolution of life through geological time. 

Palaeontologists combine their findings with those of other scientists such as geologists, geographers and meteorologists, to reconstruct a progressive history of life on earth since ancient times. Fossils are furthermore utilised to determine the relative age of rocks and are particularly important in the search for coal and oil deposits.

It is as a result of the work of palaeontologists that we now have some knowledge of what led to the extinction of certain species and the origin of others, and that we have a fairly accurate picture of ancient plants and of the great dinosaurs that once roamed the earth.

There are various fields of specialisation: 

  • Palaeo-botanists study plant fossils
  • Invertebrate palaeontologists study animals without a backbone, for example insects
  • Vertebrate palaeontologists study animals with backbones, for example, fish.

Personal requirements

  • Patient and persevering
  • Above average intelligence
  • Keen interest in fossils
  • Aptitude for mathematics and science
  • Able to think independently and creatively
  • Work methodically and accurately
  • Good communication skills
  • Computer skills
  • Sound health to be able to withstand long periods doing fieldwork under basic conditions

How to enter

Schooling & school subjects National Senior Certificate meeting degree requirements for a degree course each institution has its own entry requirements.

What to study

Degree: BSc degree majoring in Botany or Zoology with specialisation in Anatomy and with supporting courses in Geology and Archaeology.

Post-graduate study: BSc Hons degree. Further post-graduate study is recommended in this field.

Employment

  • Museums
  • Universities - teaching and research
  • Laboratories
  • Government departments
  • Oil companies

Further information

University departments of Archaeology

Getting started

  • Develop an interest in fossils
  • Try to obtain vacation or part-time work at an archaeological dig
  • Speak to a palaeontologist about this career

Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.

Speech Bubbles

Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

X