As early as I can remember, dinosaurs (and other prehistoric animals) have captured my wonder and imagination. In fact, I was just three years old when I declared my future career: a paleontologist, which is a scientist who studies the history of life on earth. Most people don’t know what they want to do with their lives that early, but my mind was set and never wavered on my dream.
Growing up, I spent my days looking for fossils in the creek running through my family’s property, reading and re-reading all the books my local library had on paleontology, and occasionally being treated to visits to museums where I would stare up in awe at the towering skeletons of creatures that tread ages past. As I learned more about prehistoric environments, I realized that where I lived was once the bottom of a shallow sea, which explained why all the fossils I found- such as crinoids, brachiopods, and corals- were from marine animals, despite us being almost a thousand miles from the ocean.
Left: These are the types of fossils I would often find around my home.
Think of paleontology as an intersection between geology and biology- we study prehistoric life, as well as the environments in which these organisms lived. Even if you’re a biologist studying modern organisms, it’s worth at least having rudimentary knowledge of paleontology so you can understand how life has been expressed in the past and appreciate the diversity of prehistoric life.
Above: Reconstruction of the Cambrian arthropod
Opabinia. You won't see an animal like this alive today!
While biology is perhaps the more obvious component of paleontology (we’re often looking at skeletons and other traces of animals, after all), geology is equally important. Paleontologists have to understand how to interpret the rocks in which the fossils are buried to figure out how what the environment looked like when these organisms were alive.
I’m currently in a PhD program where I study pterosaurs. Pterosaurs (you may know them as “pterodactyls”) were flying reptiles that lived during the same time as dinosaurs but were NOT actually dinosaurs themselves. Because pterosaurs had very delicate, lightweight bones, their fossils are incredibly rare compared to, say, giant dinosaur bones. I knew I wouldn’t have much luck finding pterosaur bones at my field site near Rangely, Colorado.
Above: The view from my field site in western Colorado.
Left: I examine the upper jaw of the Jurassic pterosaur Harpactognathus.
Top: reconstruction of Harpactognathus.
Fortunately, there are plenty of bones stored in the collections of museums and universities that are open to researchers like me. In the collections, I look at bones that were dug up, sometimes decades ago, by other paleontologists. Most of the fossils that museums have aren’t actually on display, but crammed in these back rooms with thousands of other specimens.
Above: Camarasaurus vertebrae in the collections of Brigham Young University.
It would almost be an understatement to say I am enthralled with the history of life on this planet. Observing how life has changed over time and overcomes barriers is endlessly fascinating, and the sense of awe I felt as a child being stared down by a Tyrannosaurus skeleton never really went away.