Paleontology is the study of the history of life. Scientists who study paleontology are called paleontologists.
Paleontologists use fossils to try to figure out three main things about fossils: Identity and origin of the fossil, the fossil’s environment, and what the fossil can tell us about the history of the earth. Because paleontologists are interested in finding out about all life on earth, they study all kinds of fossils, not just dinosaur bones.
There are many different types of paleontologists. Some study fossil plants, some study fossil fish, some study fossil mammals, and some study dinosaurs.
Pick a type of fossil and there’s bound to be a paleontologist that studies that type of fossil.
Paleontology is a combination of Geology (study of rocks) and Biology (Study of Life). Paleontologists also use many other types of sciences to help them understand the past. For example, they used engineering to figure out how hard a Tyrannosaurus Rex bites.
There are two main types of science: Historical science, and experimental science. In experimental science, scientists come up with a hypothesis (an idea you can test) and conduct experiments to see if they can disprove their idea. If they can’t disprove the hypothesis and other scientists can’t find experiments that disprove the hypothesis, the hypothesis becomes a scientific theory.
In historical science, scientists work a little bit differently. They come up with a hypothesis, but rather than conduct experiments to disprove the hypothesis, they go out and try to find evidence that supports the hypothesis. If enough evidence is found to support the hypothesis, the hypothesis is accepted as a scientific theory. Paleontology is a historical science.
The History of Paleontology
People have been very interested in fossil bones for a very long time. The ancient Chinese thought fossil bones were the bones of magical dragons. The fossil bones were ground up and used as medicine. There are many stories that have come from people trying to explain why bones became stuck in rock. Perhaps the story of Medusa, a creature so ugly she could turn people to stone just by looking at them, comes from ancient Greeks looking at fossil bones stuck in rock. Perhaps the legends of giants come from people finding giant sized animal bones.
Some of the earliest attempts of using fossils in a scientific way come from China and Ancient Greece. The Chinese naturalist, Shen Kou, used bamboo fossils to show climate changes. He found fossilized bamboo in places that, at his time, were too dry for bamboo to live. An even earlier Greek philosopher, Xenophanes, found fossilized sea shells on dry land, concluding that the dry land must have been covered by water at some time.
In the 1800’s there was a worldwide interest in geology and paleontology. This interest was sparked by two men, Charles Marsh and Edward Cope, who were responsible for discovering 142 species of dinosaurs. Both Marsh and Cope were wealthy, and used their personal wealth and influence to find dinosaur bones. Somehow, the two men got into a personal feud to see who could discover more dinosaurs. They even went as far as stealing the other’s bones, and spying to get ahead. People called Marsh’s and Cope’s feud the Great Bone War. The two men and their assistants would discover enough dinosaur bones to keep paleontologists working for several decades.
They also discovered the Morrison Formation. The Morrison Formation is a layer of rock that holds more Jurassic dinosaur bones than any other formation in North America. Years after the bone wars, people got tired of looking for dinosaurs. It wasn’t until the 1960’s when scientists uncovered new facts about dinosaurs, and people’s interest began to grow again.