Q & A

What Are Fossils?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What Are Fossils?

When asked what a fossil is, most people think of petrified bones or petrified wood. Permineralization is a process. For bone to be permineralized, the body must first be quickly buried. Second, ground water fills up all the empty spaces in body, even the cells get filled with water. Third, the water slowly dissolves the organic material and leaves minerals behind. By the time permineralization is done, what was once bone is now a rock in the shape of a bone. Unlike what you see in cartoons, dogs wouldn’t be interested in these bones.

When an animal or plant dies, it may fall into mud or soft sand and make an impression or mark in the dirt. The body is then covered by another layer of mud or sand. Over time, the body falls apart and is dissolved. The mud or sand can harden into rock preserving the impression of the body, leaving an animal or plant shaped hole in the rock. This hole is called a mold fossil. If the mold becomes filled over time with other minerals the rock is called a cast fossil.

Visual representation of the sequence of events leading to the fossilisation of organic material and the subsequent discovery of the fossil. (i) Death of the organism, (ii) decay of soft tissues and burial, (iii) sediment deposition and fossilisation, (iv) uplift, erosion and exposure and (v) discovery and extraction.

A simple experiment can show you how this works. Take some clay and press a seashell or some other object into the clay. Pull the sea shell out of the clay any you will see a detailed impression of your seashell in the clay. If, over time, the clay hardens into rock the result would be a fossil mold. But really, who has millions of years to wait to make their own fossil? Here’s the quick way. Pour plaster of Paris, dental stone, or other plaster into the mold. Wait for it to harden and you have just made your own cast fossil.

Another type of fossil is a resin fossil. Resin is sometimes called amber. Plants, mostly trees, secrete sticky stuff called resin. Sometimes insects, other small animals, or bits of plants get stuck in the sticky resin. The resin hardens overtime and is preserved in rock making a fossil.

How Are Fossils Formed?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

How Are Fossils Formed?

Trace fossils are the remains of trackways, burrows, eggs, nests, and fossil coprolites (poop). Trace fossils can tell us a lot about the animals that left them. For example, from trackways we can tell about how fast an animal was moving when they made the tracks. From coprolites we can tell what kind of things an animal ate. Trace fossils are important because they tell us how an animal lived, and what it was like in their environment.

Anyone can find fossils. I have been finding fossils for nearly as long as I can remember, and finding fossils is still one of my favorite things to do. I found many fossils as a small child near my grandmother’s house in Huntington, Utah. Huntington, Utah, is near the famous Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry and is surrounded by the Morrison Rock Formation. The Morrison Rock Formation is famous worldwide for having dinosaur fossils in it. Near the home where I grew up I could find Trilobites and the trace fossils made by ancient worms as they burrowed though soft mud at the bottom of an ancient sea.

Fossils are found in sedimentary rocks. Sedimantary rocks are one of the three main types of rock. The other two are igneous and metamorphic rocks. Sedimentary rocks are formed when other types of rocks are eroded away. Broken down bits of rock, called sediments, pile up in what geologists call beds or layers. Over time sediments get buried by new layers of sediments. Sometimes these sediments harden into rock. These rocks are now sedimentary rocks. Of the three different rock types only sedimentary rocks can hold fossils. Igneous rocks are formed when liquid melted (magma or lava) rock cools and hardens. Metamorphic rocks are formed under intense heat and pressure. Metamorphic rocks can be formed out of either sedimentary or igneous rock; however, the process of forming metamorphic rock would mess up or destroy any fossils that happened to be in the rock.

If you want to find fossils you will need to find the right kind of sedimentary rocks. While digging on the beach in England in 2010, 5-year-old Emily Baldry discovered the fossil of a 160 million year old sea creature. Sedimentary rocks typically do not live in your backyard, so please don’t go digging, unless you have your parents’ permission. When you are outside where the rocks “live,” keep your eyes open, you just might find a fossil. Even if you don’t find a fossil, rocks are just plain cool.

How Old Are Fossils?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

We know how fast radioactive elements fall apart. We know what radioactive elements turn into after they have fallen apart. We can compare the amount of radioactive elements in a rock to the amount of specific non-radioactive elements in a rock, do some math and determine how old the rock is. For example, uranium falls apart into lead. So, if we find a rock that has uranium in it, we can compare it to the amount of lead in the rock to find out how old the rock is. If you have the right kind of rocks, this method is very accurate. The trouble with using this method to date fossils is: Radioactive elements are only found in ingenious rocks, and you can’t find fossils in igneous rocks.

So, if you can’t date the fossil directly with scientific tests, how do you date the fossil? You have to use what scientists call relative dating. The relative dating method most commonly used by paleontologists and geologists is called stratigraphy. Stratigraphic dating works like this. Rocks are formed in horizontal (flat, not up and down) beds or layers. These layers are called strata. The oldest layers are on the bottom and the youngest layers are on the top. So, the oldest fossils are on the bottom layer and the newest fossils are on the top layers. If you find a layer of the right kind of igneous rocks you can use the exact dating method to determine and exact date of that layer.

Paleontologists have found certain fossils that are different from all other fossils. These organisms lived for a relatively short amount of time, and they know when these animals lived. Paleontologists call these fossils index fossils. Index fossils can be used to determine approximately how old an unknown fossil is. For example, if you find an unknown fossil in the same layer of rock as one of the index fossils, you know your fossil is the same age as the index fossil.

Geologists and paleontologists have used a combination of dating techniques, which are radiometric dating, strati graphic dating, and index fossils, to determine the approximate age of rocks all over the world. Once you know the approximate age of rocks, you can determine the approximate age of the fossil.

What is a Paleontologist?

Saturday, November 19, 2016

What is a Paleontologist?

Paleontology is the science dealing with the fossils of long-deceased animals and plants that lived up to billions of years ago. It’s an interdisciplinary field involving geology, archaeology, chemistry, biology, archaeology and anthropology.

A paleontologist studies the history and process of evolution by examining fossils, the preserved traces of long dead animals and plants. Using data from fossilized bones, ancient pollen, and other clues, paleontologists dig up the details on past climates and past extinctions. They tell us about the history of the earth, the evolution of life, and our own place in the world.

What Does a Paleontologist Do?

Paleontologists plan, direct, and conduct fieldwork projects to search for fossils or collect samples. They document the work site and dig up fossils or take core samples from lakes, soil, or ice sheets. They then need to preserve the specimens and prepare them for transport to the institution where they’ll be cleaned and studied. Some work in laboratories, using chemical techniques to analyze fossilized samples and ancient pollen. They share their research by writing journal articles and presenting to colleagues at professional conferences. Most need to write applications for grants to support their research. Many teach and conduct research as faculty members at colleges and universities.

Paleontologists usually specialize in a particular research area. For example, micropaleontologists study microscopic fossils. Paleobotanistsconduct research on fossil plants, including algae and fungi. Palynologists study pollen and spores. Invertebrate paleontologists study fossils of invertebrate animals like mollusks and worms. Vertebrate paleontologists focus on the fossils of vertebrate animals, including fish. Human paleontologists or paleoanthropologists focus on the fossils of prehistoric humans and pre-human hominids. Taphonomists study the process that creates fossils. Ichnologists hunt for fossil tracks, trails, and footprints, such as the dinosaur tracks found in Arkansas in 2011. Paleoecologists use fossils, spores, pollen, and other information to study the ecologies and climates of the past.

The revelations they uncover can help us understand the past, so that we don’t repeat it. They can also provide context for comparison between the current state of our environment and biodiversity, and those of ancient and turbulent epochs.

Where Does a Paleontologist Work?

Most paleontologists are faculty members in the geology departments of colleges and universities. Some work in museums. A handful are employed by government geological surveys, where they make geological maps or investigate geological issues. A few help oil companies search for petroleum.

Paleontologists spend most of their time in offices while teaching, writing, or analyzing their finds. However, some conduct research in laboratories. When conducting fieldwork, paleontologists work outdoors, where they do rigorous physical work in all kinds of weather.

What Is the Average Paleontologist Salary?

Indeed listed the average annual salary of paleontologists as $64,000 in January 2015.



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Table data taken from BLS (http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes192042.htm)

Paleontology Jobs & Job Description

Paleontologist jobs deal primarily with the study of animal and plant fossils from various eras of earth’s prehistory. While jobs vary significantly, most paleontologists would call the below list of tasks a basic outline of their scope of work:

  • Develop data collection methods and systems tailored to a particular era, site or project goal
  • Collect information from observations, satellite, GIS/GPS and concussive instruments
  • Record and manage records of observations
  • Analyze field data, laboratory samples, and other sources of information to uncover patterns about prehistoric life and origins
  • Prepare reports and present research findings
  • Communicate with project leads, administrators and other staff through regular, scheduled field status reports and presentation of research findings
  • Engage in field survey, testing, monitoring, and data recovery
  • Advise organizations on the possible impact of policies, programs, and products

A lead paleontologist, chief researcher, or project manager may have the following or similar additional responsibilities, depending on the project and its goals:

  • Foster a positive and safe work environment
  • Develop and inform project scopes, schedules, and budgets
  • Navigate federal and international protocols, regulations, and best practices
  • Test and calibrate equipment and instruments
  • Ensure quality assurance, organization, and appropriate tracking of field data
  • Oversee the preservation of site integrity
  • Engage in office-based tasks including technical report preparation and submittal, as well as liaising with site stakeholders
  • Supervise fieldwork (survey, site recording, testing, monitoring, and data integrity) of multiple field crews
  • Communicate with funding agencies through grant applications
  • Communicate with stakeholders through field status reports and presentation of team findings

What Is the Job Demand for Paleontologists?

While the government projects that employment of geoscientists as a whole will grow quickly, the outlook for paleontologists specifically is more conservative. The Paleontological Research Institution notes that there are fewer jobs in this area in the U.S. than there were a few years ago, but a few good jobs still become available each year.

How Do I Get a Paleontology Degree?

A Ph.D. is usually necessary for paleontological careers, particularly in academia. Aspiring paleontologists should have extensive knowledge of biology and geology. A double-major with full training in both is the best educational option. Chemistry, physics, calculus, statistics, and computer science are also very important. Undergraduate geology classes typically include mineralogy, stratigraphy, sedimentary petrology, vertebrate and invertebrate paleontology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and genetics.

Field and lab experience are also vital. Paleontologists will need to know professional standards and procedures for surveying work sites and unearthing their finds. Look for volunteer opportunities at nearby museums, or join a mineral or fossil club at your university.

What Kind of Societies and Professional Organizations Do Paleontologists Have?

  • The Palaeontological Association publishes academic journals, newsletters and field guides, sponsors an annual meeting and field excursions, provides Web resources, and funds grants and awards. It also hosts career information.
  • The International Palaeontological Association aims to coordinate international cooperation among paleontologists, and to integrate the various sub-disciplines of the field. It also organizes international meetings, issues a world directory of paleontologists, and publishes Lethaia, a leading paleontological academic journal.
  • Founded in 1940, The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology provides a global forum for vertebrate paleontologists through publications, annual meetings, and an email list. It accepts a wide variety of professionals, including science artists and writers.


Here’s How To Get Every Kid’s Dream Job

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Escavation site

Paleontology may be one of the coolest careers to break into, but it’s far from the easiest.

As Smithsonian Magazine and National Geographic writer Brian Switek laments, while some people develop other interests, quite a few “would-be” paleontologists simply didn’t know where to start.

Luckily, Robert T. Bakker, author of “The Dinosaur Heresies,” “Raptor Red,” and “The Big Golden Book of Dinosaurs,” and curator of paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and Matthew T. Mossbrucker, director and curator of the Morrison Natural History Museum, and discoverer of the first baby Stegosaurus fossils, shed some light on how to get your start as a paleontologist during a recent Reddit AMA.

Paleontologists prepare to remove a Tyrannosaurus rex skull from a fossil dig site in northern Montana

First, there are a few myths and misconceptions that need dispelling. The first is that paleontologists spend all their time digging for dinosaurs.

According to the University of California Museum of Paleontology website, “Paleontology is a rich field, imbued with a long and interesting past and an even more intriguing and hopeful future. Many people think paleontology is the study of fossils. In fact, paleontology is much more.”

Paleontology is divided into various sub-disciplines including the study of microscopic fossils, fossil plants, invertebrate animal fossils, vertebrate fossils, and prehistoric human and proto-human fossils.

And as Bakker and Mossbrucker explain, there are many jobs you can hold within the paleontology field.

Bakker says most vertebrate paleontologists make a living teaching geology or anatomy. “A few lucky ones” get full time jobs working in a museum. Fossils are also a hot commodity right now, since scientists can use them to teach basic science literacy, so fossil-sleuth could be a lucrative route.

Generally, though, the pay isn’t as much as you might hope.

“Doc [Bakker] always told me to ‘marry money,’” Mossbrucker jokes. “Seriously though, this is a calling. Most of us live a monastic lifestyle, while some took his sage advice.”

For some, spending time with this guy is worth the low pay. Mario Tama/Getty Images

After all this, if pursuing a career in paleontology is still your calling, Bakker and Mossbrucker have a couple tips before you pursue the required higher education:

  1. The best way to begin a career in dinosaurology is to start young. Bakker suggests studying living animals at a zoo or in your own backyard, filming them, and then using photo prints to sketch in the bones.

“Find the nearest display of fossils — whether at the natural history museum, science center, or state/national park — and visit,” Mossbrucker suggests. “While visiting, take a guided tour. Ask questions. Then, slow down, put the phone away and bask in the glory of the old dead things. Read the labels. (Seriously, nobody reads the labels…) and soak it all in.”

  1. The next step is to volunteer, preferably in a program at your nearest natural history museum with a paleontology department. This will provide a chance to experience various aspects of what paleontology is all about and explore undergraduate programs.

“Get involved with your local museum and get your hands dirty,” Mossbrucker says.

“In museums where I work — one huge, two small — volunteers are essential,” Bakker says. “They find most of the specimens and do most of the tour-guide duties. In exceptional cases, volunteers are so good that we move heaven and earth to get a salary for them. And succeed.”

“This life is a calling and I’m grateful for every moment of it,” Mossbrucker says of his job as a paleontologist. “I’m surrounded by interesting objects, curious people, and a constant stream of weirdness.”

Flood Basalt Eruptions

Saturday, November 19, 2016

 Flood Basalt Eruptions

flood basalt is the result of a giant volcanic eruption or series of eruptions that coats large stretches of land or the ocean floor with basalt lava. Flood basalt provinces such as the Deccan Traps of India are often called traps, which derives from the characteristic stairstep geomorphology of many associated landscapes. Rampino and Stothers (1988) cite eleven distinct flood basalt episodes occurring in the past 250 million years, creating large volcanic provinces, plateaus, and mountain ranges. However, more have been recognized such as the large Ontong Java Plateau, and the Chilcotin Group, though the latter may be linked to the Columbia River Basalt Group. Large igneous provinces have been connected to five mass extinction events, and may be associated with bolide impacts.


Prehistoric Earth. Computer artwork showing how the surface of the Earth may have appeared beneath its clouds about 500 million years after its birth, during a period known as the Hadean eon. Massive volcanoes and lava fields still dominate the landscape. In a few million years rain will begin falling, further cooling the crust. In about another 200 million years the first living microbes will call the Earth home.

The formation and effects of a flood basalt depend on a range of factors, such as continental configuration, latitude, volume, rate, duration of eruption, style and setting (continental vs. oceanic), the preexisting climate state, and the biota resilience to change.

One proposed explanation for flood basalts is that they are caused by the combination of continental rifting and its associated decompression melting, in conjunction with a mantle plume also undergoing decompression melting, producing vast quantities of a tholeiitic basaltic magma. These have a very low viscosity, which is why they ‘flood’ rather than form taller volcanoes. Another explanation is that they result from the release, over a short time period, of melt that has accumulated in the mantle over a long time period.

The Deccan Traps of central India, the Siberian Traps, and the Columbia River Plateau of western North America are three regions covered by prehistoric flood basalts. The Mesoproterozoic Mackenzie Large Igneous Province in Canada contains the Coppermine River flood basalts related to the Muskox layered intrusion. The maria on the Moon are additional, even more extensive, flood basalts. Flood basalts on the ocean floor produce oceanic plateaus.

The surface covered by one eruption can vary from around 200,000 km² (Karoo) to 1,500,000 km² (Siberian Traps). The thickness can vary from 2000 metres (Deccan Traps) to 12,000 m (Lake Superior). These are smaller than the original volumes due to erosion.


Flood basalts have tholeiite and olivine compositions (according to the classification of Yoder and Tilley). The composition of the basalts from the Paraná is fairly typical of that of flood basalts; it contains phenocrysts occupying around 25% of the volume of rock in a fine-grained matrix. These phenocrysts are pyroxenes (augite and pigeonite), plagioclases, opaque crystals such as titanium rich magnetite or ilmenite, and occasionally some olivine. Sometimes more differentiated volcanic products such as andesites, dacites and rhyodacites have been observed, but only in small quantities at the top of former magma chambers.

Moses Coulee in the US showing multiple flood basalt flows of the Columbia River Basalt Group. The upper basalt is Roza Member, while the lower canyon exposes Frenchmen Springs Member basalt


Subaerial flood basalts can be of two kinds:

  • with a smooth or twisted surface: very compact surface; vesicles (gas bubbles) are rare. Degassing was easy (magma maintained at a high temperature and more fluid in a chamber of a size such that confining pressures did not confine gases to the melt before expulsion). Such lava flows may form underground rivers; when degassing fractures and conduits are present, very large flows may reach the surface.
  • with a chaotic surface : the basalt flood is very rich in bubbles of gas, with an irregular, fragmental surface. Degassing was difficult (less fluid magma expelled from a rift with no chance of progressive expansion in a hot chamber; the degassing took place closer to the surface where the flow forms a crust which cracks under the pressure of the gases in the flow itself and during more rapid cooling).

In the Massif Central in Auvergne, France, there is a good example of chaotic lava flow, produced by eruptions from Puy de la Vache and Puy de Lassolas.


Geochemical analysis of the major oxides reveals a composition close to that of mid-ocean ridge basalts (MORB) but also close to that of ocean island basalts (OIB). These are in fact tholeiites with a silicon dioxide percentage close to 50%.

Two kinds of basaltic flood basalts can be distinguished:

  • those poor in P2O5 and in TiO2, called low phosphorus and titanium
  • those rich in P2O5 and in TiO2, called high phosphorus and titanium

The isotopic ratios 87Sr/86Sr and 206Pb/204Pb are different from that observed in general, which shows that the basalt flood magma was contaminated as it passed through the continental crust. It is this contamination that explains the difference between the two kinds of basalt mentioned above. The low phosphorus and titanium type has an excess of elements from the crust such as potassium and strontium.

The content in incompatible elements of flood basalts is lower than that of ocean island basalts, but higher than that of mid-ocean ridge basalts.

Other occurrences

Basalt floods on the planet Venus are larger than those on Earth.

Source: BBC Earth