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Paleontologist

The Real Poop

Scott inched toward the dinosaur egg, intensely curious but at the same time so afraid he was almost dizzy. He'd been crazy about dinosaurs since he was two, and he had decorated his room with dino wallpaper and shelves full of models. But he never expected to see an egg up close. Funny thing is, the museum guy said the only dinosaurs left were fossils, that there weren't any left alive. Then why was the egg moving back and forth on the table? Why was the table shaking? Why was the museum guy as white as a ghost? Could Scott actually see a baby T-Rex jump out of the egg three feet away from him? What if he did? And what made the egg hatch after all this time? And most importantly, what will the museum do with a baby T-Rex?

Good thing the museum has a paleontologist or two on staff, so they can figure out the dinosaur mystery after they pry the museum guy off of the ceiling. Let's say for a minute that a paleontologist did find the T-Rex egg, probably after many hours of digging and scratching while cramped in an impossible position. He'd have to dig, slow and painstaking, through countless levels of sedimentary rock. You've got to admire this guy's patience and discipline.

What exactly is he looking for? He wants fossils, or life forms that lived in the past and are now embedded in rock formations. Besides the T-Rex egg, he'll mostly turn up hard bone and shell fossils, although these dogged fossil hounds have also found ancient animals' footprints solidified in the ground...and even coprolites, or fossil poop. Wouldn't that look great on a résumé? Professional Coprolite Exhumer.

Okay, let's say you're the guy (or lady) who just found a fossil. Now you've got to excavate the rock formation without destroying the fossil, which you probably shouldn't attempt after drinking three cups of espresso. Finally you get the rock and fossil out, pack the daylights out of it, and transport it to your lab work table. Now you'll determine whether it originated on land or at the bottom of an ancient sea.

You'll also want to know whether you've found an animal or plant fossil, or perhaps a tiny microfossil, which can only be seen with a powerful microscope. Microfossils are so small that you might find millions of them in a smallish rock formation. Some microfossils are actually fossilized plant pollen, or even plankton that cruised through prehistoric oceans.

In this case, you've unearthed a fossilized animal. Now you need to decide whether that animal is a vertebrate, a backbone-containing animal, such as a fish or mammal; or an invertebrate, or animal lacking a backbone, like an insect or coral. And yes, you'll find specialized paleontologists who only study certain types of fossils; they've got multi-syllable job names to match the complexity of their work. Regardless of what they're called, though, paleontologists are basically obsessed with plant and animal evolution.

Back to you and your fossil on the table. You might decide to perform a few other scientific studies before the animal gets away. You might analyze the fossil's trace elements to learn about the ancient environment's climate and temperature. You can even perform tests to determine the age of the rock that contained the fossil. In short, paleontology can be a jumping-off point for any number of other scientific studies. Speaking of other studies, you might find yourself buddying up with an archaeologist on a site study. While the archaeologist studies human remains and human-made objects, you'll search for animal bones, which will provide a good clue to the residents' diets.

At this point, you might wonder if all this research has any practical applications. In fact, oil, coal, and peat come from fossilized material. Diatomaceous earth, pretty popular in the gardening world, is actually made up of fossilized algae skeletons. Finally, spectacular-looking marble is surprisingly made of metamorphosed limestone.

Next, you're probably wondering how many of these guys (and ladies) are out there, and where all these people work. First, you'll find about 3,000 professional paleontologists located throughout the United States. Most of these fossil catchers work for colleges and universities, with industries being the next biggest employer. Paleontologists are also sprinkled through government agencies.

Let's say you work at a university. You'll work as a professor, teaching classes and supervising students' research, but you're also expected to perform your own research and write professional papers. In a private research organization, you might track the evolution of animals and plants. Industry-based paleontologists basically research what their bosses tell them to research. For example, oil companies hire paleontologists who analyze microfossils from rock chips brought up during oil well drilling work.

You could also find yourself at a museum, conducting research work, maintaining fossil exhibits, organizing field trips, and running educational programs. Hope you've got a high tolerance for fidgety youngsters. In a smaller museum, you could be called an interpreter rather than a researcher. Finally, state and government agency paleontologists perform geological mapping and fossil identification, consulting, and educational services. Sounds like a lot of lunches on the golf course.

Okay, at this point you're thinking this sounds like a viable career option. You might also be wondering if there are any downsides to a paleontologist career. Well, you have to like dirt under your fingernails...and on your clothes...and in your hair. You'll probably count bugs and snakes among your workmates. If you're on a remote site excavation, your workday might not end at 5pm, and you might not return to the Ritz Carlton each night. Your living quarters could be rather rustic, and could conceivably consist of a tent. You might not get a shower every day. You might want to get used to that reality.

Finally, suppose you'd like to pursue a career in science, but digging up bones just isn't your style. Consider a career as a geologist, where you'll study the Earth's composition and how it changes over time (yes, you'll still get to dig). You might also enjoy an archaeology career, where you get to uncover evidence of past civilizations through artifacts such as buildings and pottery. Perhaps you'd like to explore these professions from the other side of a camera lens. If that's the case, wrangle your way into a documentary filmmaking job and join these intrepid researchers on their next expedition.

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