We explain what paleontology is, what this science studies and what it is for. Also, what are its characteristics and branches of study.

Paleontology focuses on the study of fossil records.

What is paleontology?

paleontology is the science that studies the geological past of life on Earth from the fossil record found under the earth’s surface. He studies organisms at the microbiotic, animal, vegetable level and everything that is preserved when petrified and survives the passage of time. In other words, it is a kind of retrospective biology.

Paleontology as a science encompasses a body of knowledge that is related to geology and biology, and the crossing of both can be considered. His study methods involve the analytical description of fossils, their comparative study and the formulation of statistical data.

Ultimately, paleontology reaches conclusions regarding the biological past of the planet, that are useful to think about the present and the future. Those same conclusions serve as the basis for new research by other paleontologists.

See also: Triassic period

history of paleontology

Robert Hooke - paleontology
Robert Hooke was one of the first naturalists to carry out paleobiological studies.

The first paleontological findings in history took place in ancient greek, around the 6th century BC. C. As there was no specialty that had them as an object of study, they were interpreted by the philosophers of the time.

Some as the Pythagoreans, interpreted them as remains of archaic and unknown life, as indeed they were. Others, like the Platonists, considered them “games of nature” or imperfect imitations of life.

Subsequently, The existence of fossils was, for 1500 years, the subject of debate against Christian orthodoxy that defended the version of the Bible with fire and iron. According to calculations that took that text literally, the age of the earth was a few thousand years.

This position not only assumed a short time since the creation of the world and humanity, but also assumed that all creatures had been created at once. Therefore, extinct species could not exist, similar to the current ones. Since it was a radical position, he even denied paleontological evidence.

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However, in the seventeenth century, Within the framework of the Scientific Revolution, paleontology had a renaissance. The first formally paleobiological studies were carried out by naturalists such as the Colonnas, Nicolaus Steno, Robert Hooke, among others.

many of these findings were interpreted as evidence of the Biblical Universal Flood, but at least its organic origin was recognized. From then until the eighteenth century there were large systematic studies of the fossil record.

With the rise of modern sciences came the studies of Lamarck (19th century) and the formulation of Darwin’s theory of the origin of species (1858). This flowering of the Biological Sciences also gave rise to paleontology as an independent science.

What does paleontology study?

The word paleontology It is made up of three Greek voices that show its purpose: palaios“old, ancient”; ontos“being, what is” and logos, “knowledge, reason”. Seen in this way, it is clear that paleontology is the study of ancient beings, that is, of the forms of life that existed on the planet long before humans.

Is about species that no longer exist, such as dinosaurs, and therefore cannot be observed today. That is why its study area is made up of samples, evidence and traces. These are sought in the fossil remains but also in the current species that could have evolved from the ancient ones.

What is paleontology for?

Paleontology helps to understand the present and glimpse the future of humanity.

The paleontology way part of the sciences interested in discovering the remote past of the planet, long before the existence of human beings, of which there are no possible witnesses. To study it, clues are used: traces, evidence that has survived the millennia and that we can find and recover today.

To interpret these clues, paleontology resorts to biology that provides the knowledge we have of current creatures, to draw conclusions from those that are already extinct. In addition, it uses geology to understand the context in which these ancient species existed.

This knowledge is very important to understand the present and glimpse the future of humanity, since it sheds light on the conditions of the world that led to our origin. This is a possible way to answer fundamental questions such as where do we come from? and therefore where do we go? or who are we?

branches of paleontology

The branches of paleontology are three:

  • Paleobiology. He studies the living organisms of the past from multiple perspectives, specializing in paleobotany (prehistoric trees), paleozoology (prehistoric animals), micropaleontology (prehistoric microorganisms), paleoecology (prehistoric ecosystems), etc.
  • taphonomy. It focuses on the study of fossilization processes and formation of fossil deposits. This study can be focused on two subdisciplines: biostratinomy, which studies the origin of remains and their burial in the lithosphere; and fossildiagenesis, which focuses on the processes that occur underground for thousands of years and that generate petrification.
  • Biochronology. Dedicated to the study of the chronological age of fossil samples, their ordering in epochs and the dating mechanisms that can be used for it.
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paleontology paleontologist
Some participate directly in the detection and excavation of fossil specimens.

Paleontologists can dedicate themselves to the study of the biological past of the planet from many points of view. One of them involves direct participation in development projects. detection, excavation, analysis and study of fossil specimensusually found underground.

In addition, there are paleontologists who study samples under laboratory conditions. Even if the fossils were found by others, a paleontologist may specialize in comparative biology or chemical procedures that allow hypotheses to be developed or conclusions about the nature of the finds.

In addition, paleontologists are also indispensable in the constitution of educational institutions: universities, colleges, museums and institutes, since they are the most suitable professionals to transmit this specialized knowledge.

What tools does paleontology use?

paleontology uses various tools of the exact sciences and engineering. They can be both microscopes and laboratory materials as well as excavation tools. Some are sophisticated, such as the chemical dissolution of unwanted materials, or simple, such as the use of a shovel and a fine brush.

The extraction of a found fossil passes through the recognition of the physical-chemical nature of the rocks around it. In addition, mechanical (abrasion, percussion, grinding), chemical (chemical disintegration, consolidating, adhesives) or thermal (heating to separate by differential expansion) techniques are used on it.

What is a fossil?

Fossils must be over 10,000 years old.

Anything is called a fossil biological remainder, whether of animal, vegetable or microorganism origin. Footprints, eggs or body waste are included, coming from remote times of the planet’s past. Some are preserved in stone due to different petrification processes.

serve as evidence of the creatures that existed and that became extinct before humanity even began to exist. It has been determined that they must be over 10,000 years old to be properly considered as fossils.

Continue on: Fossils

paleontological evidence

The discovery of the fossil record is much more important than is thought, since it serves as evidence that there was a remote past in which humanity did not exist, but other forms of life that reigned in the world did. Of them we have been able to find certain evidence that links it with the forms of life that accompany us today in the planet.

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On the one hand, this shows that the world was not created together with humanity. On the contrary, our entire history as a species is just a fraction of time compared to all past eras. On the other hand, it allows us to verify that the age of the Earth is much greater than what was thought until a few centuries ago.

Another central point is that creatures found in the fossil record are related to contemporary ones. This suggests that the oldest underwent a prolonged dynamic of change that gave rise to the contemporaries, even if they are radically different animals. This process is known as evolution, and the fossil record is one of its greatest scientific evidence.

paleontology career

The paleontology career has both a theoretical and practical area.

University study of paleontology It takes 5 years to acquire a bachelor’s degree.. It is nourished by Natural Sciences, as well as Geological Sciences and is constantly updated and growing. It has both a theoretical area, for training in the accumulated knowledge of science, and a practical one, for observation, measurement and comparison.

It is not a universally valued career, given that Not all countries have the same abundance of fossil deposits. However, in many latitudes the degree is taught and is given, in addition to universal knowledge, a particular look, focused on the geological past where it is studied.

Differences with archeology

although both are sciences that study the past from the preserved evidence, the concerns of archeology and paleontology are radically different. The first focuses on the remote past of the human being: ancient cultures, the evidence of our first forms of organization.

On the contrary, paleontology focuses on other organisms that existed before us even appear as a species. Where archeology studies the past of humanity, paleontology studies the other forms of archaic life.


  • “Paleontology” on Wikipedia.
  • “Paleontology” in Exactas UBA, University of Buenos Aires.
  • “Paleontology” in Geological Service of Mexico.
  • “What does paleontology study?” on Encounter Channel.
  • “What is paleontology?” in Educarm-Fosil.
  • “Paleontology” in National Geographic.
  • “Paleontology” in The Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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