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What is Paleobiology?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 November 2016
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Paleobiology is a branch of the natural sciences which focuses on examining the origins and history of life on Earth through use of the fossil record. In this sense, it could be considered a branch of paleontology, but it also combines aspects of other scientific fields. As a specific field of study, paleobiology emerged in the 20th century, and scientific advancement has made the scope of this scientific field much wider. Many major universities offer paleobiology programs, with paleobiologists working at universities, museums, and research facilities around the world.

Both fossilized plants and animals are examined in paleobiology. These fossilized remains are studied for their intrinsic value, but they are also studied to look at how life on Earth evolved, and is continuing to evolve. In addition to studying physical fossils, researchers can also look at the traces left behind by various organisms, using these traces to put together the pieces of the evolutionary puzzle. Any number of things can be utilized in paleobiology research, from fossilized microorganisms which are virtually impossible to see, to the bones of the dinosaurs.

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Many paleobiologists choose to focus on a specific field within paleobiology. For example, someone who studies plants is a paleobotanist, while someone who focuses on animals is a paleozoologist. It is also possible to study paleochemistry, paleoecology, and micropaleontology, research which focuses on microorganisms and the trace substances they leave behind. Some paleobiologists focus on things like borings, tunnels, and holes created by various organisms, in which case they are known as paleoichnologists. Paleobiology also integrates the study of things like ancient atmospheric samples taken from ice cores.

A career in paleobiology requires an interest in the natural sciences, along with a willingness to work hard in varied conditions. While many specimens are examined in laboratory settings, many paleobiologists like to work out in the field, to see fossils in situ and ensure that they are collected properly. Students in this field typically study geology and biology, at a minimum, before moving into a specific area of focus, and most pursue graduate work in paleobiology.

Advances in scientific technology have made incredible achievements in paleobiology possible. For example, ancient pollen samples can be recovered and studied to learn more about archaic plants, and technology can be used to look inside fossils to see patterns before the fossils are opened. Some paleobiologists focus specifically on creating new technology to advance their science, in concert with teams of engineers and other experts.

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