Paleontology Definitions: Describing the Purpose of a Fossilized Life

How Many Different Ways Can You Define Paleontology?

A fossilized frog, from Bechlejovice in the Czech Republic. possibly Palaeobatrachus gigas
A fossilized frog, from Bechlejovice in the Czech Republic. possibly Palaeobatrachus gigas. Kevin Walsh

Paleontology is the study of the fossil evidence for all life on planet earth—plant and animal alike. Here are some additional definitions from scholars in the field.—Kris Hirst

Paleontology Definitions

Paleontology is the study of what fossils tell us about the ecologies of the past, about evolution, and about our place, as humans, in the world.... [It is] a field which integrates both biology and geology to solve the riddles of the history of life.

  • Douglas H. Erwin. 1995. Quo Vadis Paleontology? The PaleoNet Forum: An Irregular Electronic Journal 1(2).

Paleontology is among the broadest of all human pursuits, literally essential for an adequate understanding of the history (and future) of the Earth's climate, as well as its biodiversity, ocean circulation, and geochemical cycles. Fossils are key tools for the dating of rocks and the location of hydrocarbons, and for reconstructing past positions of continents and oceans (and thus for an understanding of the tectonic and seismic history of the Earth). It is now widely recognized by Earth scientists that life is one of the most important geological forces on this planet. From erosion to carbon and oxygen in the atmosphere, organisms have been profoundly affecting geological processes for several billion years. We know this in large part because of paleontology.

    Paleontology is the science that deals with the fossils of animals and plants through their fossilized remains. It is the study of what fossils tell us about the ecologies of the past, about evolution, and about our place, as humans, in the world. Paleontology incorporates knowledge from biology, geology, ecology, anthropology, archaeology, and even computer science to understand the processes that have led to the origination and eventual destruction of the different types of organisms since life arose.

    Paleontology aims at a reconstruction of the history of life on Earth.

    Paleontology is the science which treats [all] of the life which has existed on the globe during former geological periods.

    Paleontology is concerned with fossils, the remains of organisms that lived in the past. The fossil record is diverse and discontinuous--a record that was not fully understood until the theory of evolution was formulated. It is a remarkable record in spite of its imperfections. The list of fossils includes animals that range in size and organic complexity from the shells of microscopic protozoans to the frozen bodies of elephants. Paleontology includes tests of microscopic plant-like organisms (diatoma) and trunks of forest trees. Even bacteria have been preserved and, in rare instances, the impressions of soft-bodied forms such as jellyfish.

      The extreme rarity of transitional forms in the fossil record persist as the trade secret of paleontology. The evolutionary trees that adorn our textbooks have data only at the tips and nodes of their branches; the rest is inference, however reasonable, not the evidence of fossils... We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life's history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we never see the very process we profess to study.

      • Stephen Jay Gould. 1977. Evolution's erratic pace. Natural History 86:14. - Shamelessly borrowed by Kris Hirst from the Quote Mine at Talk Origins

      Paleontology is the study of a unique data set and associated evidence. The unique data set is the preserved, incomplete remains of organisms, the geological age of which can be established within certain limits and which have had a particular preservational history, of which a partial record is preserved in the rock matrix in which the fossil was found.

      Paleontology provides the means of inferring historical events which can be employed in the testing of evolutionary theories. To accomplish this requires that immensely complicated inferences be performed in which the danger of presupposing the theory to be tested must constantly be guarded against. With the greater use of auxiliary assumptions from geology and with improvements in their own craft, paleontologists will increasingly attempt to draw theoretically significant information from the fossil record.

      More Definitions

      Some paleontologists who study hominids such as Australopithecus and Homo erectus before they picked up a rock and began using it to butcher other animals with it, call themselves archaeologists. Since the line between human and hominid is to some extent fluid, and the study is pretty interesting, who am I to quibble?—Kris Hirst

      This feature is part of the Guide to Field Definitions of Archaeology and Related Disciplines.