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Jeffrey Martz
Poncha Springs CO USA

This is a blog about paleontology (the study of the history of life on Earth through the fossil record) with an emphasis on vertebrate paleontology, the study of extinct vertebrates (animals with backbones). The methodology and findings of paleontology will be discussed, as well as related issues such as evolutionary theory. The blogger is a vertebrate paleontologist specializing in the Triassic Period, the Beginning of the Age of Dinosaurs.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I was invited by Brian Krueger to participate at LabSpaces in order to offer a "paleontology perspective." I also maintain a separate blog called PaleoErrata, which I do not recommend visiting for any conceivable reason.  It uses extremely bad language and has a tendency to ramble.  This blog is intended to be a bit more focused.  In addition to discussing important discoveries in the field of vertebrate paleontology, I want to explain to non-paleontologists exactly what this science is about, how it is done, and why it is significant.

Paleontology is the study of ancient life.  As such, it is the bastard child of biology (the study of life) and geology (the study of the Earth).  We are studying things which were once alive, but we get all our information from the rock record, where it is buried.  As a result, paleontologists may be part of biology or geology departments at universities, and have degrees relating to either discipline, or to both (I have one zoology degree and two geology degrees).  There are no paleontology degrees.  For prospective university students interested in becoming a paleontologists, I recommend double majoring.

I am a vertebrate paleontologist, which means I work on animals with backbones; these include "fish", "amphibians", "reptiles", birds, and mammals (the quotation marks indicate that these are not considered natural groups; I'll explain some other time). Vertebrate paleontology has been a lifelong passion of mine since I was a small house monkey scribbling pictures of dinosaurs eating tanks and airplanes.  Like probably the majority of vertebrate paleontologists, dinosaurs were my gateway drug into the field.  Most kids grow out of their dinosaur phase, but some, through some terrible developmental disorder, never do.  For those who stay interested in dinosaurs past puberty, there comes a point where we start to learn that they were not just big, impressive monsters.  They were animals, and they were real.  They had cells and DNA and metabolism and bones and muscles and nerves and glands and organs.  They walked and ran and slept and screwed and ate and pooped.  They had parasites and diseases.  They lived in a world full of plants and insects and frogs and lizards, rivers and lakes and swamps and deserts and oceans.  Regardless of what creationists would like you to believe, they also evolved; the dinosaur fossil record has become spectacularly rich in the past thirty years, and our understanding of dinosaur evolutionary history gets clearer every year.

Paleontologists delve into an extremely wide variety of topics.  On the biology side, we use the preserved remains of ancient organisms to describe the anatomy of extinct species, figure out their functional morphology (how they actually moved and worked as living animals), their growth rates and metabolisms, and their evolutionary relationships.  On the geology side, we use the rock record figure out the ages of different organisms, and what sorts of environments that they lived in.  There are other biological and geological applications to paleontology, but those are the big ones.

Paleontology is not archaeology.  Archaeology is the study of ancient human cultures, and is therefore primarily concerned with the last several thousand years.  Paleontology is the study of ancient organisms, which go back 3.8 billion years.  We dig deeper.  If you were sick, would the difference between a human doctor and veterinarian be important?  Yes, it would. Don’t confuse archaeology and paleontology.

People from a wide variety of academic backgrounds work in vertebrate paleontology.  Most research scientists work at museums and universities have master’s degrees and PhDs.  However, other individuals who contribute to VP include curators (people who look after fossil collections in museums) and fossil preparators (people who clean and restore fossils after they are collected in the field).  Curators and fossil preparators may also be research scientists with degrees, but not necessarily; some of the very best have no higher education experience at all.   Additionally, there are countless individuals who volunteer at museums to help collect and prepare fossils, and paleoartists who reconstruct ancient animals and environments.

One final point I want to address is why vertebrate paleontology matters.  It is a strictly academic science; we do not find economically valuable resources (although other types of paleontologists do), cure diseases, or solve any practical problems relating to human survival and well-being.  What then are we good for?  It’s a fair question.

Vertebrate paleontology offers perspective on our place in the history of life.  It is important to us to know how we got here. Like the study of human history, paleontology tells an extremely complex story.  To an outside observer watching the last 3.8 billion years of our evolutionary history, it would probably not be obvious that the human species or anything like it would eventually appear.  The history of life is full of ups and downs, unpredictable environmental changes and mass extinctions, strange and unexpected evolutionary innovations.  At various times in our history, our ancestors were single-celled organisms in a mostly lifeless new planet, aberrant fish bridging the gap between life in water and life on the land, tiny furry creatures trying to avoid ending up being eaten by dinosaurs, short bipedal apes trying to end up being eaten by lions and hyenas.  Warming and cooling climates, asteroid and comet impacts, massive volcanic eruptions, the breakup, collision, and movement of continents...all these events had major impacts on the history of life, including our own evolutionary history, and are part of the reason why the human species exists. Paleontology also provides information on how environmental disruptions such as bolide impacts and warming climates might impact modern day ecosystems, and our own survival.

Next week, I will probably talk a bit about dinosaur origins.  Until then...

Triassic archosaurs

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Blog Comments

Genomic Repairman
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Oh hell yeah.  Looking forward to your posts.


Suzy
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Wow! Very exciting.

Where are scientists finding the most dinosaur fossils right now?


Lab Mom
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Cool stuff.  It is too bad you can't get a degree in Palentology.. I would have loved to drop that on my parents when I was an undergrad.   I can hear it now "How the hell are you ever going to get a job?!..."


JaySeeDub
Dub C Med School
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This is very exciting, and I'm looking forward to your future posts!


Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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This is a spectacular introduction!  I'm really interested in your degree path.  Like Jade, I had no idea that paleontology wasn't offered as a major.  I'm really looking forward to your future posts.

To everyone else, Dr. Martz's "other" blog has some really great posts.  So don't listen to him.  Head over there and read some of his more personal ramblings :P


Thomas Joseph
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While I'm content where I am in life now, I really wish I had been able to read blogs like yours when I was growing up. If I had, I may have chosen a different career! I LOVE dinosaurs (still get weak in the knees whenever I walk into the main lobby of the American Museum of Natural History in NYC) and think the study of ancient life is fascinating. Can't wait to read more!


Jeffrey Martz
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FYI,

I've just been corrected by a colleague on my statement that there are no paleontology degrees.  There are at least two: South Dakota School of Mines, and Brown Univeristy.  Personally, I have no regrets about the double major route, as I feel that I got an extremely broad-based education in both Biology and Geology.  Also, Biology and Geology degrees might be a little more marketable than Paleontology degrees when it comes to job hunting.  Most university-based paleontologists "earn thier keep" teaching geology-related and biology-related courses.

Jeff


Psycasm
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Nice post.

 

What the hell is that dino with backward horns on its shoulders?


yannisguerra
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If the next posts are like this...I'm sold!

Neil Kelley

Guest Comment

@Rift, it's not a dinosaur, just an aetosaur—sort of a poseur.  They're terribly boring, I wouldn't really bother.

Tracy

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I always wanted to go into that field, but I was better at computers. And to get to work at Petrified Nat Park, what a dream job you have.

Bill Parker

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Neil Kelley said:

@Rift, it's not a dinosaur, just an aetosaur—sort of a poseur.  They're terribly boring, I wouldn't really bother.

You're just kidding about the last part I hope.

@Rift - all of the black and white shaded animals are members of the lineage leading to crocodylians.  The were extremely common and diverse in the Triassic Period, but unfortunately most of them went extinct at the end of the Triassic.  They are actually really fascinating and have lots of convergent features with dinosaurs.  In fact some of these lineages predate actual dinosaurs so in a way dinosaurs are copying them, not the other way around.


Evie
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Fantastic! Absolutely loved this post, and dinos in general. Great to have you aboard!


David Orr
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Congrats on the new blog here, Jeff. I'll be spreading the word as far and wide as I can.



Guest Comment

The animal you refer to is Desmatosuchus. Only the animals depicted in color are classified as dinosaurs.

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