A paleontologist at work at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

Paleontology or palaeontology (n-/) is the scientific study of life that existed prior to, and sometimes including, the start of the Holocene Epoch (roughly 11,700 years before present). It includes the study of fossils to determine organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments (their paleoecology). Paleontological observations have been documented as far back as the 5th century BC. The science became established in the 18th century as a result of Georges Cuvier's work on comparative anatomy, and developed rapidly in the 19th century. The term itself originates from Greek παλαιός, palaios, "old, ancient", ὄν, on (gen. ontos), "being, creature" and λόγος, logos, "speech, thought, study".[1]

Paleontology lies on the border between biology and geology, but differs from archaeology in that it excludes the study of anatomically modern humans. It now uses techniques drawn from a wide range of sciences, including biochemistry, mathematics, and engineering. Use of all these techniques has enabled paleontologists to discover much of the evolutionary history of life, almost all the way back to when Earth became capable of supporting life, about 3.8 billion years ago. As knowledge has increased, paleontology has developed specialised sub-divisions, some of which focus on different types of fossil organisms while others study ecology and environmental history, such as ancient climates.

Body fossils and trace fossils are the principal types of evidence about ancient life, and geochemical evidence has helped to decipher the evolution of life before there were organisms large enough to leave body fossils. Estimating the dates of these remains is essential but difficult: sometimes adjacent rock layers allow radiometric dating, which provides absolute dates that are accurate to within 0.5%, but more often paleontologists have to rely on relative dating by solving the "jigsaw puzzles" of biostratigraphy. Classifying ancient organisms is also difficult, as many do not fit well into the Linnaean taxonomy that is commonly used for classifying living organisms, and paleontologists more often use cladistics to draw up evolutionary "family trees". The final quarter of the 20th century saw the development of molecular phylogenetics, which investigates how closely organisms are related by measuring how similar the DNA is in their genomes. Molecular phylogenetics has also been used to estimate the dates when species diverged, but there is controversy about the reliability of the molecular clock on which such estimates depend.


The simplest definition is "the study of ancient life".[2] Paleontology seeks information about several aspects of past organisms: "their identity and origin, their environment and evolution, and what they can tell us about the Earth's organic and inorganic past".[3]

A historical science

The preparation of the fossilised bones of Europasaurus holgeri

Paleontology is one of the historical sciences, along with archaeology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, philology and history itself.[4] This means that it aims to describe phenomena of the past and reconstruct their causes.[5] Hence it has three main elements: description of the phenomena; developing a general theory about the causes of various types of change; and applying those theories to specific facts.[4] When trying to explain past phenomena, paleontologists and other historical scientists often construct a set of hypotheses about the causes and then look for a smoking gun, a piece of evidence that indicates that one hypothesis is a better explanation than others. Sometimes the smoking gun is discovered by a fortunate accident during other research. For example, the discovery by Luis Alvarez and Walter Alvarez of an iridium-rich layer at the CretaceousTertiary boundary made asteroid impact and volcanism the most favored explanations for the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event.[5]

The other main type of science is experimental science, which is often said to work by conducting experiments to disprove hypotheses about the workings and causes of natural phenomena – note that this approach cannot confirm a hypothesis is correct, since some later experiment may disprove it. However, when confronted with totally unexpected phenomena, such as the first evidence for invisible radiation, experimental scientists often use the same approach as historical scientists: construct a set of hypotheses about the causes and then look for a "smoking gun".[5]

Related sciences

Paleontology lies on the boundary between biology and geology since paleontology focuses on the record of past life but its main source of evidence is fossils,[6] which are found in rocks.[7] For historical reasons paleontology is part of the geology departments of many universities, because in the 19th century and early 20th century geology departments found paleontological evidence important for estimating the ages of rocks while biology departments showed little interest.[8]

Paleontology also has some overlap with archaeology, which primarily works with objects made by humans and with human remains, while paleontologists are interested in the characteristics and evolution of humans as organisms. When dealing with evidence about humans, archaeologists and paleontologists may work together – for example paleontologists might identify animal or plant fossils around an archaeological site, to discover what the people who lived there ate; or they might analyze the climate at the time when the site was inhabited by humans.[9]

In addition paleontology often uses techniques derived from other sciences, including biology, osteology, ecology, chemistry, physics and mathematics.[2] For example, geochemical signatures from rocks may help to discover when life first arose on Earth,[10] and analyses of carbon isotope ratios may help to identify climate changes and even to explain major transitions such as the Permian–Triassic extinction event.[11] A relatively recent discipline, molecular phylogenetics, often helps by using comparisons of different modern organisms' DNA and RNA to re-construct evolutionary "family trees"; it has also been used to estimate the dates of important evolutionary developments, although this approach is controversial because of doubts about the reliability of the "molecular clock".[12] Techniques developed in engineering have been used to analyse how ancient organisms might have worked, for example how fast Tyrannosaurus could move and how powerful its bite was.[13][14] It is relatively commonplace to study fossils using X-ray microtomography[15] A combination of paleontology, biology, and archaeology, paleoneurobiology is the study of endocranial casts (or endocasts) of species related to humans to learn about the evolution of human brains.[16]

Paleontology even contributes to astrobiology, the investigation of possible life on other planets, by developing models of how life may have arisen and by providing techniques for detecting evidence of life.[17]


As knowledge has increased, paleontology has developed specialised subdivisions.[18] Vertebrate paleontology concentrates on fossils of vertebrates, from the earliest fish to the immediate ancestors of modern mammals. Invertebrate paleontology deals with fossils of invertebrates such as molluscs, arthropods, annelid worms and echinoderms. Paleobotany focuses on the study of fossil plants, but traditionally includes the study of fossil algae and fungi. Palynology, the study of pollen and spores produced by land plants and protists, straddles the border between paleontology and botany, as it deals with both living and fossil organisms. Micropaleontology deals with all microscopic fossil organisms, regardless of the group to which they belong.[19]

Analyses using engineering techniques show that Tyrannosaurus had a devastating bite, but raise doubts about how fast it could move.

Instead of focusing on individual organisms, paleoecology examines the interactions between different organisms, such as their places in food chains, and the two-way interaction between organisms and their environment.[20]  One example is the development of oxygenic photosynthesis by bacteria, which hugely increased the productivity and diversity of ecosystems.[21] This also caused the oxygenation of the atmosphere. Together, these were a prerequisite for the evolution of the most complex eukaryotic cells, from which all multicellular organisms are built.[22]

Paleoclimatology, although sometimes treated as part of paleoecology,[19] focuses more on the history of Earth's climate and the mechanisms that have changed it[23] – which have sometimes included evolutionary developments, for example the rapid expansion of land plants in the Devonian period removed more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing the greenhouse effect and thus helping to cause an ice age in the Carboniferous period.[24]

Biostratigraphy, the use of fossils to work out the chronological order in which rocks were formed, is useful to both paleontologists and geologists.[25] Biogeography studies the spatial distribution of organisms, and is also linked to geology, which explains how Earth's geography has changed over time.[26]

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