Misconception – Paleontology is the Study of Dinosaurs and Nothing More

Next Wednesday is the first day of the 73rd annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP). In honor of that great event, and on the same theme as my other misconceptions posts, I’m writing this to correct one of two common misconceptions about paleontology.

Misconception – Paleontology is the study of dinosaurs. That is, one cannot be a paleontologist unless he or she studies dinosaurs

As a paleontologist, I get this a lot.

INT. HOTEL BAR - Night

PENNY HIGGINS, middle-aged paleontologist, plops into a bar 
stool and orders a beer. She has a printed list of abstracts 
with her and begins to shuffle through the pile.

HUSBAND and WIFE, a vacationing couple already at the bar, take 
notice of Penny's arrival and strike up a conversation.

                           WIFE
You're here for a meeting? What kind?

                           PENNY 
It's the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting. 
       (flips through the pages) 
I'm looking to see what talks I want to go to tomorrow.

                           WIFE 
Paleontology? So you study dinosaurs?

                           PENNY 
Nope. I work with fossil mammals, but I know lots of dinosaur 
people.

                           WIFE 
How can you be a paleontologist if you don't study dinosaurs? 
I thought that's what it meant to be a paleontologist.

From there, I embark on the explanation I’m about to give you.

The word ‘paleontology’ is derived from two ancient roots. Paleo is derived from the Greek palaios, which means ‘ancient.’ Ontology is derived from the same root as ontogeny, which describes the of development of organisms, often focused on embryology, but includes the growth of an organism from birth to death as well. Paleontology, then, is the study of the development of ancient organisms.

HUSBAND rolls his eyes and checks his e-mail on his smart phone.

Dinosaurs are ancient organisms, and thus their study falls into the category of paleontology. But there are lots of other fossil organisms as well. Everything from sponges, to corals, to snakes.

A fossil sponge from England. Credit: Dlloyd CC 3.0 SA

A fossil coral from Arkansas, USA. Credit:Wilson44691 Wikimedia Commons

Vertebrae of a fossil snake. Credit: Ghedoghedo Wikimedia Commons

Paleontology is the study of ancient organisms using their preserved remains from the rock record. This includes body fossils like bones and teeth and shells, but also includes traces, like tracks or filled-in burrows. Paleontologists can also study ancient organisms using chemical traces, like the stable isotope work that I do.

 

Fossil tracks of Triassic age. Credit: Ballista CC 3.0 SA

Part of a fossil tooth that has been sampled multiple times for chemical analysis. Notice that the sample lines follow growth lines on the surface of the tooth. These lines are called perikymata.

Part of a fossil tooth that has been sampled multiple times for chemical analysis.

I am a paleontologist, but in the nearly 20 years I’ve been actively doing paleontology, only once (and only tangentially) have I worked with dinosaurs. I’ve worked mostly with fossil mammals, with fossil mussels (clam relatives) being the next most common thing that I’ve studied. Then there’s a handful of fish and other things.

It is no requirement that dinosaur study be in the repertoire of a person who calls themself ‘paleontologist.’ Some paleontologists don’t even study vertebrates. Some specialize entirely on fossil insects.

Scientists who study dinosaurs are paleontologists, but not all paleontologists study dinosaurs. That is where the misconception lies.

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