Where Do Paleontologists Work? This Is What Surprising Tools They Use


Imagine your daily task is to find dinosaur fossils, and then once they are located, to extract them from the rock quarry without breaking and transport them to your laboratory or museum. Once there, you need to accurately identify the fossils and describe in detail how this dinosaur lived. With so many tasks to do, it’s interesting to ponder, where do paleontologists work?

Paleontology is the science of the development of life on earth, ancient plants and animals based on fossils, testimonies of their existence preserved in the rocks. Fossil remains undoubtedly give a unique basis for the evolution of the living world.

So, where do paleontologists work? Many work out in the field, digging up fossils in remote locations in the USA, China, Mongolia, and Argentina to find fossils. They also work in universities, offices, museums, or laboratories to analyze and organize fossil research. Among other things, paleontologists use digging tools, such as cramps, chisels, stone hammers, spatulas, protective goggles, and helmets. Residues of soil are removed with brushes.

Palentologists often work in the field digging for dinosaurs – AdventureDinosaurs

Every fossil discovery is unique and has the potential for those curious to learn something. The rich data on fossils that paleontology reveals to us, tell us the fantastic and a complex story of evolution and extinction. Although today animals are fascinating, animals in the past were often bigger, stronger, and far stranger. Paleontology opens a window to discover the amazing details of dinosaurs and how they lived through scientific examination.

I’ve researched information to write this article from many sources – multiple internet sites and magazines. However, some of the best reference knowledge is from books. If you are interested in checking out the best dinosaur books for adults on Amazon, you can find them by clicking here: Best Dinosaur Books for Adults

Field Work – An Important Part of Where Do Paleontologists Work

Paleontology works to recover fossils and provide answers to how dinosaurs lived long ago — it’s not to revive dead animals, but to use scientific methods to gain the best possible insight into what they were those animals (Reference: National Geographic). They want to find out how they fit into their world, and why that world was different from today.

Working in the field can have its challenges. For instance, remote locations in rock quarries in Montana, the Kem Kem beds in Morocco, or the various fossil sites in Mongolia are not the most accessible places to travel to and from. Additionally, there can be logistics difficulties once the fossil is ready to be transported back to the museum or laboratory.

Paleontologists take fossils back to the lab or the museum to further study them – AdventureDinosaurs

It is important to note that the original fossils found in nature do not look like most replicas in museums that are made of light materials and decorated. Fossils are difficult to distinguish from the rocks which they have been buried for millions of years. Therefore, for scientific study, it is necessary to extract them from the sediments, which is a difficult and time-consuming (sometimes impossible) laboratory process.

Paleontologists work on-site where there are potential fossil discoveries. However, the field is only one place where they work as they need to take fossils to laboratories for working to preserve the found fossils. These labs can be in universities or in natural history museums around the world. In these museums, they are studied, displayed, and create documents on the development of the Earth and man as works of nature.

YouTube Video Showing Paleontologists Excavating A Dinosaur Fossil Site And Discussing What Tools They Use

YouTube Video by “American Natural History Museum” which shows the many tools that are used for excavating dinosaur sites and some of the challenges they have

For a paleontologist working in the field, it is important whether only one sample or more of them have found, then in what position and how much they have been preserved. This, among other things, testifies to whether the found specimens lived there or brought by water, whether they died en masse or not.

To make fossils actual museum exhibits, to enter the museum and its collections and to be able to take on various tasks in the museum communication, pass scientific-research procedure performed in part by paleontologists.

By studying fossils in specially equipped laboratories, paleontologists can assess how the dinosaur built, whether he stood on two legs, or is walked on all fours. Paleontologists can estimate how the animal kept its body as it walked or running. Estimating where the brain, eyeballs, teeth, spine, muscle indentations, and bony ridges to which attach muscles, say something significant about the animal being studied.

Where Do Paleontologists Look for Fossils?

Of all living things that once lived on Earth, only five percent preserved in the fossil record. Certain conditions must be met for fossils to form. Fossils should reach the aquatic environment, not be in contact with oxygen, and a lot of time should pass. Organic matter becomes inorganic over time. Mostly skeletal parts of the organism preserved. Fossils can also be a leaf of a plant, bird feathers, baby teeth, an egg from when something hatched, a footprint, traces of movement.

Fossils need to be carefully preserved, removed from surrounding rock and then transported to places where they can be further researched – AdventureDinosaurs

At the end of the 19th century, a dizzying race began for the fossils of dinosaurs, great beasts from prehistory that were a great unknown until then. The whole universe of the unexplored opened up to the then paleontologists.

Dinosaur fossils have found everywhere in the world, from Alaska and Siberia to Antarctica. In considering where do paleontologists work, it’s rather logical that they are at fossil sites. Many are located in Canada, the USA (especially in the west — countries like Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Wyoming), China, Mongolia, Europe, Africa, Mexico, South America, and Australia.

Eight million years ago, during the Cretaceous period, the site of the Mongolian Gobi Desert was a vast valley with numerous lakes and a humid climate — a paradise for dinosaurs. Creatures like Velociraptor, Sauropod, and Ankylosaurus once walked through the landscape, now covered in reddish sand. These favorable conditions during prehistory made the Gobi Desert the largest reservoir of dinosaur fossils in the world.

The most common sources of fossils are rocks. According to the theory of evolution, rocks can be millions of years old when finding a dinosaur bone, not at all obvious how old it is. When a paleontologist claims that it is the age of a particular fossil is several hundred million years, that assumption based on the age of the rock in which it is fossil finds.

Related Dinosaur Fossil Articles You Might Also Be Interested In:

Can You Buy and Own a Dinosaur Bone? The Law vs the Science
How Much Would A Real Dinosaur Egg Be Worth
Learn How Dinosaur Eggs Are Fossilized And Identified

What Do Paleontologists Do When They Find a Fossil?

After a paleontologist finds a fossil, it can be an exciting time, but it also is when a lot of the work starts. Each fossil represents a series of incomplete clues, similar to those Detective Sherlock Holmes encounters when he arrives at a crime scene. Hence, paleontology has a lot in common with forensics.

Once a fossil is found, lots of questions are asked about what dinosaur it is and how complete is the fossil found – AdventureDinosaurs

Already based on the first observations and clues, several questions arise:

● What kind of animal was that while it was alive?
● How long ago did it die?
● Did it die at the place where it found?
● Was it male or female?
● What did that animal look like while it was alive?
● Was it moving fast or slow?
● What did it eat?
● Did it have sharp eyesight, hearing, and smell?
● Was it capable of complex behavior?
● Is it related to any animal that lives today?

These are examples of questions that can be asked, but each of them tends to solve part of the puzzle to reconstruct the image of the found animal and the world in which it lived.

Fossils aren’t only bones. The first dinosaur fossil discovered in England 170 years ago was a big tooth discovered in 1822 by the wife of Dr. Gideon Mantell, a physicist who was also an amateur paleontologist. Dr. Mantell searched for more fossils and found several more teeth and bones.

When we think of fossils, usually we mean fossilized bones. There are five types of animal fossils. Other examples are footprints, coprolites (petrified animal feces), prints of dinosaur skin, and eggs.

The release of a giant dinosaur from the rock represents work for a team of experts. We imagine large dinosaur bones as heavy and durable. It’s quite the opposite. Bones are now made of minerals and have become sensitive fossils, so careful handling is necessary. After rough removal of large rocks, picks and shovels can use. An approach to fragile fossils is to work more carefully. When thinking about where do paleontologists work, a decision that needs to be made is whether to further research the fossil at the fossil site or to transport it back to a lab in a museum or university.

Often, as soon as the fossils are discovered, while they are still in the ground — it starts mapping. This step is very significant. It is necessary to create a precise diagram of fossil sites. Every fossil is numbered, measured, photographed, and notated. All this is very important for people who will assemble a dinosaur. Fossils can take years of waiting in a museum or warehouse until the start of assembly. If the fossil data are incorrect and complete, it can be almost impossible to assemble a dinosaur.

What Tools Are Needed? What Are Some of the Surprising Tools?

As excavation work progresses, hand tools are increasingly being used as well, which are chisels, hammers, brushes, and a needle can used for the removal of individual grains of sand. Protective goggles are preferred, as well as helmets, in case of falling rocks from nearby cliffs.

Tools like chisels and hammers are quite logical, but what are some of the unusual tools that paleontologists use? For cleaning fossils or clearing the sand away from a specific fossil bone, an air compressor is used.

Excavation work can involve many different processes and each of these processes requires their own tools. Below is a table of the types of tools paleontologists use as well as a general description and purpose for its use.

Table 1 - Tools Paleontologists Use

Type of ToolDescription of ToolWhat Is It Used For?
Chisels, Hammers, BrushesSmall -Mid- Large sized hand tools that can break rocks into smaller pieces and cleanSeparating and cleaning fossils from rock
Jigsaw, bench vice, drill press hand toolsEquipment hand tools that are often used for woodworking. Holding, cutting and drilling rock away from fossils
Pneumatic scribing tools These tools are powered by air. Comes in different sizes and and for different usesAir powered tools that are used for blasting away sand, dirt and rock from fossils
Air CompressorsAir compressors are to be used with pneumatic tools. The come in diferent sizes for matching with tool requirementsUsed for supplying the air for the pneumatic tools
Drills and Micro-DrillsDifferent sized drill bits as well as drill bits made out of harder substances, for instance hardened steel or diamond tipsDrills are used for separating, cleaning and drilling through rocks attached to fossils
Vacuum ChamberEquipment used during the casting process designed to keep out air and a certain temperatureFor the casting process, this equipment helps to make the cast
Vacuum PumpA pump to work with the vacuum chamber. It pumps the air out of the chamberUsed for the casting process to pump the vacuum chamber
Type of ToolDescription of ToolWhat Is It Used For?

Various methods and tools are used to clean fossils from unwanted parts and protective plaster: from pneumatic chisels, a thin jet of gas, and a fine powder for etching, all the way to powerful microscopes for cleaning the most sensitive areas. Also, paleontologists use high-speed diamond drills, similar to those which dentists use.

Sometimes the bones are small and sensitive, so they are left in the stone block, to be later in the museum laboratories were separated under controlled conditions.

Big bones are a unique problem and must be handled with care. Their weight makes them sensitive to breakage and crushing. First, just over half the bones, it is released from the surrounding rock. Then soft paper or linen is spread over exposed surfaces. After that, the linen cloth is dipped in gypsum mortar used for coating surfaces. When the gypsum hardens, the fossil is ready for transport to the museum.

Some fossils are found separate from others and need to be collected and categorized – AdventureDinosaurs

Once all the fossils cleared and collect, the next phase begins. Assembling prepared fossils into an upright skeleton of a dinosaur, or another animal represents a true engineering endeavor.

Parting Shot

Today, everyone knows about dinosaurs. Part of the general culture and primary education is the fact that giant reptiles once walked the Earth, their size-dimensions were unbelievable and awe-inspiring. They used to be the masters of everything that lived on the planet Earth, and they proudly kept their place at the top of the food chain.

Although most of us owe the notion of dinosaurs to popular Hollywood movies, it is unlikely that our knowledge would be so complete without the help of the knowledge and discoveries provided by paleontology. I’ve covered in this article some of the locations where do paleontologists work and as mentioned, searching for fossils in the field is just the first step to understanding what has been found.

Thanks to the hard work of paleontologists and their magnificent discoveries, both adults and very young children got to know dinosaurs. These creatures disappeared from the face of the Earth 66 million years ago.

Lastly, if you or someone you know loves dinosaur toys, then check out my favorite dinosaur toy gifts on Amazon: Best Dinosaur Toys – Remote Control

Michael Haralson

I'm the owner of Adventure Dinosaurs website. Although I have an extensive business background, I am fascinated with dinosaurs and have been since childhood. I'm fortunate enough to have visited fossil museums in Europe (UK, Germany, and Spain), the US (California, Texas) and in Asia (China). Currently, I'm location independent with a home base in Kirkkonummi, Finland.

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