As we grow older, the natural world seems to lose some of its mystique. We become more aware of its dangers, its limitations and its, well, limitations. The fossil record of the past seems to be less exciting, less mysterious, and certainly less fuzzy. Some of us have never had a chance to go to Svalbard, much less examine a dinosaur (and you may not have the personality to spend a week at the side of a deep crevasse). But some of us have. And we are not done with Svalbard. We’ve made a habit of bringing a few of our Palaeontology specimens to school for a show and tell. And a number of my students have since gone on to graduate school, and elsewhere. So why not keep trying? Why stop at one subduction zone? There are a lot more unexplored realms out there – and one of those is the opposite side of the Park.
While I was telling you about the story of my student, Tim, I neglected to mention one of the things that made it happen. Back in 1989, I was a final year student at George Washington University. My honors thesis was on embryonic development, and the topic was the “discrepancy” between the ability to see in dim light and the ability to smell, taste and touch. I’d planned to use the Svalbard dig site as an exemplar of this disparity. Here was a place where you could see dinosaur bones poking out of the ground, but no one could smell them. The rich smell and taste of the rocks had vanished through millions of years of weathering and the lack of nutrients in the rocks. And even if you could smell them, the taste was too old to be discernable by modern palaeontologists.
It is a subtle distinction, and one that Tim recognized, so he suggested that I use the term “cryotank” instead of “cryocoon” for the development of a dinosaur embryo in a pressurized liquid nitrogen environment. In such a liquid nitrogen, the development of a dinosaur embryo is more or less complete before it hits the ground – so it’s hard to tell you much about the process.
This was a real breakthrough for me, because it showed me that such a concept could be used to dramatically enhance the realism of our field of study. Since then, we’ve used the cryotank to much more dramatic effect in our PS curriculum, and that’s what this web page is all about.
Why is Paleontology Important?
It is always important to keep learning, because each of us is constantly taking in new ideas. The more you know, the better you can teach others, and the better you can help them learn.
Paleontology is hugely popular. The media reports of dinosaur fossils have a huge impact on our culture. Everywhere you go, someone has a story about dinosaurs. Paleontology is part of our common cultural inheritance, so its important to keep your mind open.
Paleontology is highly relevant to the modern and future world. We can learn how climate change has effected past organisms as well as how organisms have changed the physical world. Paleontology is critically important for understanding the modern and future worlds. We can learn how past organisms were impacted by climate change, as well as how organisms altered the physical world.
Long story short, its all about having passion to learn about our past. Paleontologists are the best people to show that passion. By the way, the last two articles are about the same student: Jon Tennant, who has gone on to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, has a blog here, and has written two books on fossil vertebrate paleontology, together with Alex Hay (http://www.jontennant.com/) and colleagues.
How to become a palaeontologist ?
So, how do you get into the game?
Do you fantasise about unearthing a dinosaur, get excited about the prospect of unearthing a fossil that hasn’t been seen in millions of years, or simply enjoy learning about prehistoric life?
Have you come across an unusually good fossil site – one that has been covered over by soil or sand and stayed relatively untouched by human eyes for centuries?
Are you an amateur archaeologist who wants to see if your grit and determination would be of use to a major dig?
Have you been to a dig site where you could have stayed a day or two to see if you could help out?
Of course, you could simply apply for one of the jobs that Paleontologists do, but sometimes that doesn’t work out. You need training and education.
You need a PhD is you want to become a researcher. At minimum people generally have Msc in Zoology or Animal science or a good 1st class undergraduate degree Museum Studies.
You need to learn about biology to understand how animals have evolved during the evaluation and what kinds of clues you need to look for.
With the advancement of molecular biology, there is now the very real possibility that animals are hybrids of genetically distant species – a process called convergent evolution. An even greater problem is that convergence is rapid – a trait becomes associated with an organism before the current author of the trait becomes a person to recognise that species. In that case, the trait will almost certainly be lost before the realization comes. As a result, biologists are looking for information that allows them to distinguish between species that are distantly related – this is called morphological speciation.
You need to learn how to read and understand data in a manner that will enable you to understand the information required to find and understand the fossil evidence that you are looking for.
You need to learn how to conserve and catalog the fossils that you collect. In some cases, palaeontologists will also need to catalogue the fossils that other palaeontologists will look for.
You need to learn how to use computer software that will help you to analyse the palaeontological data that you have.
After reading this you still have interested in Paleontology then we have a good list of schools and degree programs to apply for. Please check the list of top 10 Paleontology schools here.
If you have any questions then please do not hesitate to ask us about Paleontology.
Wishing you success!