Paleontology is the study of the history of life on Earth. It focuses on fossils. A fossil is the remains of a long-dead animal or plant.

There are mainly two kinds of fossils. In one case, animal, or plant matter is replaced by rock over time. The remains still keep their shape. In the other case, the fossil is actually an impression. It can be a footprint, for example. Or it can be the outline of a body pressed into mud. Over time, the earth and mud turn to rock. Yet, the impression remains.

Paleontologists study all species, or kinds of animals and plants. They study species that still exist. They also study extinct species. Extinct species are ones that have died out. Dinosaurs are one example.

Fossils show how living things evolved, or changed, over time. They also show how one species evolved out of another. For example, paleontologists believe whales evolved from land animals. They think this because of the fossils of certain extinct animals. These animals are closely related to whales. Like whales, they lived in the ocean. Yet, they still had legs. Over time, those legs disappeared. Then, whales developed. 

Subdisciplines of Paleontology

There are several different kinds of paleontology, called subdisciplines. Each looks at a different kind of fossil.

Vertebrate Paleontology

Vertebrate paleontology is one kind of paleontology. It is the study of fossils of animals with backbones. Vertebrate paleontologists have dug up the fossilized skeletons of many ancient animals. For example, they have found many kinds of dinosaurs. 

Invertebrate Paleontology

Invertebrate paleontology is the study of the fossils of animals without backbones. Such animals are called invertebrates. They include things like crabs, shrimp, sponges, and worms. Invertebrates do not have bones. They do leave things like shells behind, though. Or, they leave an impression of their soft bodies.

Paleobotany

Paleobotany is the study of fossils of ancient plants. These can be impressions of plants left on rocks. Or, they can be parts of plants preserved in rock. Such fossils show how plants have evolved. 

Micropaleontology

Micropaleontology is the study of fossils of microscopic organisms. These living things are very, very tiny. Most are so small they cannot be seen with the eye alone. They can only be seen with microscopes. 

History of Paleontology

People around the world have been finding fossils for thousands of years. They did not always understand what they were, though.

Paleontology as we know it began in the 1700s. At that point, scientists were carefully studying fossils for the first time.

Scientist Charles Darwin changed paleontology greatly. In the 1850s, he showed that new species evolve over time. Over millions of years, one species can change and become a new species. Animals living today are related to species from the distant past. This can be true even when they look very different.

After Darwin, paleontologists saw fossils in a new way. They began to make connections between fossils and living animals. These connections helped show how ancient animals lived. They also showed how one kind of animal evolved into another.

Take the example of the Archaeopteryx. The Archaeopteryx lived many millions of years ago. Paleontologists discovered it had wings like a bird. Yet, it also had teeth like a dinosaur. That made paleontologists decide the Archaeopteryx was a very early kind of bird. Over time, dinosaurs evolved into birds. The Archaeopteryx was a first step in that direction.

In the late 1800s, scientists discovered radioactivity. Radioactive objects send out a certain amount of energy over time. By measuring how much radioactive material a fossil has, scientists can guess the fossil's age. This is called radiometric dating

Paleontology Today

Today, paleontologists use many advanced tools. They study the smallest fossils with microscopes. They use x-ray machines to look inside fossils. Computers help them figure out how extinct animals looked and moved.

Paleontologists still make important discoveries with simple tools, too. They still use pickaxes and brooms. Around the world, many are still digging away. Each is hoping to learn more about the history of life on Earth. 

 

Paleontology
Paleontologists dig deep.
abundant
Adjective

in large amounts.

Age of Enlightenment
Noun

(1700s) period in European history where science and reason were promoted as ideals of good citizens and society.

algae
Plural Noun

(singular: alga) diverse group of aquatic organisms, the largest of which are seaweeds.

amber
Noun

translucent, yellow-orange material made of the resin of ancient trees. Amber is sometimes considered a gemstone.

animal
Noun

organisms that have a well-defined shape and limited growth, can move voluntarily, acquire food and digest it internally, and can respond rapidly to stimuli.

appendage
Noun

part of something that extends out from the main body, such as an arm or leg.

aquatic
Adjective

having to do with water.

Archaeopteryx
Noun

extinct reptilian bird that lived about 150 million years ago.

arthropod
Noun

invertebrate animal with a segmented body, exoskeleton, and jointed appendages.

aspect
Noun

view or interpretation.

atmospheric changes
Noun

alterations in the layer of air surrounding the Earth, such as an increase of pollution or humidity.

atom
Noun

the basic unit of an element, composed of three major parts: electrons, protons, and neutrons.

Plural Noun

(singular: bacterium) single-celled organisms found in every ecosystem on Earth.

biblical
Adjective

having to do with the Bible, the holy book of Christianity.

biologist
Noun

scientist who studies living organisms.

biostratigraphy
Noun

study of the dating of rock layers.

catastrophe
Noun

disaster or sudden, violent change.

cell
Noun

smallest working part of a living organism.

Noun

(1809-1882) British naturalist.

Charles Lyell
Noun

(1797-1875) English geologist.

chemistry
Noun

study of the atoms and molecules that make up different substances.

Noun

complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

classify
Verb

to identify or arrange by specific type or characteristic.

climate
Noun

all weather conditions for a given location over a period of time.

Noun

gradual changes in all the interconnected weather elements on our planet.

Noun

dark, solid fossil fuel mined from the earth.

coal ball
Noun

spherical structure of fossilized plant matter found in and around coal deposits.

colleague
Noun

a coworker or partner.

connective tissue
Noun

material that surrounds or links different organs or other parts of an organism.

Noun

one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

Noun

tiny ocean animal, some of which secrete calcium carbonate to form reefs.

Noun

rocky outermost layer of Earth or other planet.

crustacean
Noun

type of animal (an arthropod) with a hard shell and segmented body that usually lives in the water.

CT scanner
Noun

(computerized tomography scanner) device combining X-ray and computerized equipment to provide cross-sectional images of internal body structures. Also called a CAT scanner.

curative
Adjective

able to cure or treat a disease or illness.

cyanobacteria
Noun

type of aquatic bacteria that can photosynthesize light to create energy. Also called blue-green algae (even though it is not algae) and (in freshwater habitats) pond scum.

data
Plural Noun

(singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

debris
Noun

remains of something broken or destroyed; waste, or garbage.

decompose
Verb

to decay or break down.

deduce
Verb

to reach a conclusion based on clues or evidence.

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

dig site
Noun

place where paleontologists, archaeologists, or other scientists are digging into the Earth to find artifacts or fossils. Also called an excavation.

disprove
Verb

to prove wrong.

Noun

difference.

DNA
Noun

(deoxyribonucleic acid) molecule in every living organism that contains specific genetic information on that organism.

echinoderm
Noun

phylum of marine invertebrate including sea stars and sea urchins.

Noun

community and interactions of living and nonliving things in an area.

electron microscope
Noun

powerful device that uses electrons, not light, to magnify an image.

element
Noun

chemical that cannot be separated into simpler substances.

Emerging Explorer
Noun

an adventurer, scientist, innovator, or storyteller recognized by National Geographic for their visionary work while still early in their careers.

emit
Verb

to give off or send out.

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

establish
Verb

to form or officially organize.

evolution
Noun

change in heritable traits of a population over time.

evolve
Verb

to develop new characteristics based on adaptation and natural selection.

excavation
Noun

area that has been dug up or exposed for study.

exoskeleton
Noun

the hard external shell or covering of some animals.

extinct
Adjective

no longer existing.

Noun

scientific studies done outside of a lab, classroom, or office.

flipper
Noun

large, flat limb used by marine mammals for swimming.

forest
Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

formulate
Verb

to develop or create.

Noun

remnant, impression, or trace of an ancient organism.

fossil fuel
Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

fungi
Plural Noun

(singular: fungus) organisms that survive by decomposing and absorbing nutrients in organic material such as soil or dead organisms.

genetic
Adjective

having to do with genes, inherited characteristics or heredity.

Genyornis
Noun

extinct large, flightless bird indigenous to Australia.

geologist
Noun

person who studies the physical formations of the Earth.

Georges Cuvier
Noun

(1769-1832) French paleontologist and biologist.

Noun

mass of ice that moves slowly over land.

Gobi Desert
Noun

large desert in China and Mongolia.

hadrosaur
Noun

duck-billed dinosaur.

herd
Noun

group of animals.

hypothesis
Noun

statement or suggestion that explains certain questions about certain facts. A hypothesis is tested to determine if it is accurate.

ice age
Noun

long period of cold climate where glaciers cover large parts of the Earth. The last ice age peaked about 20,000 years ago. Also called glacial age.

indicator
Noun

sign or signal.

invertebrate
Noun

animal without a spine.

invertebrate paleontology
Noun

study of the fossils of animals without spines, such as corals, sponges, and insects.

isolate
Verb

to set one thing or organism apart from others.

lung
Noun

organ in an animal that is necessary for breathing.

mammal
Noun

animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

mammoth
Noun

one of many extinct species of large animals related to elephants, with long, curved tusks. The last mammoths became extinct about 5,000 years ago.

marine
Adjective

having to do with the ocean.

microfossil
Noun

fossil that can only be seen and analyzed with a microscope, such as a grain of pollen or a single bacterium.

microorganism
Noun

very tiny living thing.

micropaleontology
Noun

study of fossils of microorganisms.

Middle Ages
Noun

(500-1500) period in European history between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

mold
Noun

type of fungi that forms on the surface of materials.

mollusk
Noun

large phylum of invertebrate animal, all possessing a mantle with a significant cavity used for breathing and excretion, a radula (except for bivalves), and the structure of the nervous system. 

myth
Noun

legend or traditional story.

National Geographic Society
Noun

(1888) organization whose mission is "Inspiring people to care about the planet."

nest
Noun

protected area built by birds to hatch their eggs and raise their young.

Noah's flood
Noun

story in the Bible, a catastrophe that eliminated almost all life on Earth.

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

oyster
Noun

type of marine animal (mollusk).

paleobotany
Noun

study of the fossils of ancient plants.

Noun

study of the atmosphere of prehistoric Earth.

paleoecology
Noun

study of prehistoric environments and habitats.

paleontologist
Noun

person who studies fossils and life from early geologic periods.

Noun

the study of fossils and life from early geologic periods.

Patagonia
Noun

large plateau in southern South America, stretching from the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.

petrify
Verb

to turn to stone.

pioneer
Noun

person who is among the first to do something.

plant
Noun

organism that produces its own food through photosynthesis and whose cells have walls.

pollen
Noun

powdery material produced by plants, each grain of which contains a male gamete capable of fertilizing a female ovule.

prehistoric
Adjective

period of time that occurred before the invention of written records.

prior
Adjective

before or ahead of.

protist
Noun

type of microscopic organism (not an animal, plant, or fungus). 

pterosaur
Noun

extinct order of flying reptiles that flourished from 220 million-65 million years ago.

Quetzalcoatlus
Noun

flying reptile that lived about 70 million years ago, native to North America.

radioactive
Adjective

having unstable atomic nuclei and emitting subatomic particles and radiation.

radiometric dating
Noun

method of dating material such as rocks that compares the amount of a naturally occuring isotope of an atom and its decay rates. Also called radioactive dating.

resin
Noun

clear, sticky substance produced by some plants.

revolutionize
Verb

to completely change a process or way of doing something.

root
Noun

part of a plant that secures it in the soil, obtains water and nutrients, and often stores food made by leaves.

scholar
Noun

educated person.

seafloor
Noun

surface layer of the bottom of the ocean.

Noun

solid material transported and deposited by water, ice, and wind.

sequence
Verb

to put in order.

Shen Kuo
Noun

(1031-1095) Chinese scientist, politician, and poet.

Siberia
Noun

region of land stretching across Russia from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

skeleton
Noun

bones of a body.

soft tissue
Noun

connective tissue of an organism, such as blood, muscle, and skin.

specimen
Noun

individual organism that is a typical example of its classification.

sponge
Noun

simple type of marine animal permanently attached to something in the water.

stromatolite
Noun

fossil of ancient cyanobacteria that forms a rounded or column-like structure.

subdiscipline
Noun

field of study within a larger area of research.

suffocate
Verb

to be unable to breathe.

sustain
Verb

to support.

Noun

land permanently saturated with water and sometimes covered with it.

technology
Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

theropod
Noun

type of dinosaur that walked on two legs and was usually carnivorous.

T. rex
Noun

(Tyrannosaurus rex) large carnivorous or scavenger dinosaur.

unearth
Verb

to dig up.

vertebrate
Noun

organism with a backbone or spine.

vertebrate paleontology
Noun

study of the fossils of animals with spines, such as dinosaurs.

volcanic eruption
Noun

activity that includes a discharge of gas, ash, or lava from a volcano.

William Smith
Noun

(1769-1839) English geologist.

wingspan
Noun

the distance between the tips of a bird's wings when stretched out.

worm
Noun

animal with a long, limbless body.

Xenophanes
Noun

(570-480 BCE) Greek philosopher and poet.