Episode 1 – The Field of Paleontology

It’s the first ever episode of the Common Descent podcast!

Listen to Episode 1 on PodBean, Spotify, YouTube, or your podcast source of choice!

Every episode, we plan to make a blog post with some extra links, images, and/or explanations to go along with the things we talk about on the Podcast. So let’s jump into this episode topic: The Field of Paleontology.

First, the News!
Here are links to the news stories we talked about in this episode:
Ghost Sharks!
A new fossil sheds light on the origin and evolution of the chimaeras, strange cousins to the true sharks. [Press Release]
Tree Rings and Solar Cycles!
A record of solar activity interpreted from 3000-million-year-old trees shows just how consistent our sun’s behavior is. [News Report]
Giant Predatory Pterosaurs!
This study finds evidence that the giant pterosaur Hatzegopteryx was a ground-stalking apex predator. [Blog Post by one of the researchers]
Trilobite Eggs!
Fossils of trilobites with eggs attached to their heads! New insights on trilobite reproduction! [News Report written by David]

What is Paleontology?

In short, paleontology is the study of life through time. Any form of life – from bacteria to blue whales – at any time in history – from the dawn of life on Earth to the origin of humanity – falls into paleontology.

Paleontologists study evolution, ecology, anatomy, extinction, and more, in living things as well as in fossils.

Here are some great pieces on what paleontology is and why it’s important:
What should everyone know about paleontology?” by dinosaur expert Tom Holtz Jr.
Why Paleontology is Relevant” by evolutionary biologist Sarah Werning.
Paleontology: The Window to Science Education” by paleontologist Richard Stucky.


Paleontology revolves around fossils, and to get those we have to dig. Every fossil site is different in terms of what you may find, how you excavate, and what conditions you need to put up with.

David did some digging in Colorado many years ago. Here, there were dinosaur fossils, roughly 150 million years old. It was hot, far from civilization, and the rock was so hard we were using chisels.

And we both worked at the Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee, where we dug up 5-million-year-old creatures like rhinos, alligators, turtles, and more. We dug very slowly through soft clay, right in the backyard of the museum! You can check out pictures of that site on their Facebook page.

Fossil Preparation

Most fossils don’t come out of the ground beautiful and ready for study. They often need to be cleaned, repaired, and strengthened so they don’t crumble in the future. This usually takes a lot longer than the digging process.

This is a dinosaur leg bone David worked on at Michael D’Emic’s lab at Adelphi University. The bone has been cut out of its protective plaster coat, and will need to be glued together and cleaned.
At the Gray Fossil Site lab, the tables were always covered with fossils in the process of being cleaned, repaired, consolidated, and sorted.


Paleontological research comes in a huge variety of forms. Some studies focus on a single bone from an ancient animal, while others may focus on entire ancient ecosystems. Sometimes research is relatively low-tech: a thorough description of a fossil organism or a report of ancient behavior captured in a fossil. Other research is much more technology-heavy: laser-imaging to uncover hidden secrets; examining microscopic details of an organism’s lifestyle; or even identifying ancient protein molecules.

Research often looks a lot like this. Here, David is peering through a microscope to identify tiny bones of snakes and lizards from China (that wine bottle is mostly unrelated to this research).


The final crucial step of paleontology: getting the science out. Paleontologists are writers, museum exhibit designers, artists, lecturers, and more.

In this (slightly blurry) picture, Will shares his favorite creatures with a future scientist.

And some of us talk science on the internet!

Join us again next time!

If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:

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