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What Are the Different Types of Paleontology Programs?

By Synthia L. Rose
Updated Feb 11, 2024
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Colleges and universities in the United States offer four different types of paleontology programs for students wishing to study fossils and the history of the earth: biological science programs with a concentration in paleontology, geological science programs with an emphasis in paleontology, environmental and plant biology programs with a concentration in paleontology and anthropology programs with a paleontology concentration. In the United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere in the world, offerings are mostly limited to earth science programs or geology programs as the sole routes to a paleontology degree. Paleontology is generally not offered as a degree major in and of itself anywhere in the world, but rather as a track or minor focus within another branch of study. Offered at both the undergraduate and graduate level, these hybrid paleoscience programs teach enrollees the skills to unearth, analyze and categorize buried relics and records from past eras using various sciences.

Bachelor and graduate paleontology programs in the biological sciences teach students about fossils preserved in the bodies or habitats of various vertebrate and invertebrate animal species. Students study the habits of ancient aquatic and marine life, examining how those animals might have used found relics to interact with their ecosystems. Extinct and ancient mammals and insects are also studied.

Geological science departments and earth science departments that offer paleontology programs examine the types of fossil records that are concealed in sediment and rocks. Students learn about the different types of soil that existed in past ages and how climate changes affected the soil. The majority of academic hours are devoted to courses on topics such as hydrology, environmental changes and the evolution of carbonates.

Paleontology programs offered by environmental and plant biology departments focus on paleobotany, which is the study of ancient plants, plant fossils and ancient mold and fungi. Students learn the structure and reproductive nature of planets as well as the evolution of various plant species. The effects of coal deposits, climate and terrestrial changes on vegetation are also studied. Anthropology-based paleontology programs, also called paleoanthropology, give students preparation in the study of ancient primates and human evolution.

Regardless of major, all students on a paleontological track learn the basics of paleontology research, including how to use imaging devices such as laser scanners, digital microscopes and fluorescent microscopes in order to make outlines of buried fossils. Students also learn how to process photos created by these instruments. Paleontology students spend a portion of their study in laboratories learning how to properly prepare fossils by using casting equipment, molds and extraction methods. Advanced students, such as those on a graduate track, may also participate in research projects that take them to the actual site of a paleontological excavation to work with professional paleontologists.

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