Career As a Paleontologist
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
The following questions were answered by dinosaur expert Don Lessem, paleontologist Tim Rowe, and paleontologist Bill Hammer.
Q: What made you want to become a paleontologist?
A: Seeing a T. rex up close and personal, the full-sized skeleton at a museum in New York made me want to study dinosaurs. I never did become a paleontologist — I actually studied living animal behavior in school. But I keep writing about dinosaurs and paleontologists because both are so interesting. (Don Lessem)
I actually became interested in fossils when I was in college because I was fascinated by the fact that a place as cold as Antarctica was once much warmer and I wanted to investigate further what types of animals had lived there. I have worked on other fossil animals from Antarctica besides dinosaurs. (Bill Hammer)
I always enjoyed going out into the deserts of Arizona, and I loved to look for fossils. In college I met a professor who did this for a living, and who obviously enjoyed it. He showed me that it was really possible to do. I had to stay in school for what seemed like an eternity, but it always got better as time went on. I started going on expeditions into the southwestern deserts to look for dinosaurs in college. My first trip was to Baja California to look for late Cretaceous dinosaurs. After that, I collected all over the Southwest, in different kinds of deserts and in rocks of different ages. There is a wonderful diversity of dinosaurs — some really weird things running around back in the Mesozoic! It was, of course, very exciting and still is. Now, at the University of Texas, I have a chance to work with some great scientific tools for studying fossils, like CAT scanners and powerful computers. It is really fun to "drive" some of these machines, and they tell us a lot of new information about the fossils. The University of Texas also has a huge collection of fossils that are interesting to work with, and it is a lot of fun to work with the students here. It was too good to pass up. (Tim Rowe)
Q: What do I have to do to become a paleontologist when I grow up?
A: I hope you'll be a paleontologist when you grow up and study dinosaurs. There are only about 100 people in the world who do that now, and only 40 digging dinosaurs each year! To do that you'll need to learn the usual stuff. You go to college and study biology, including statistics and all about living animals. Then in graduate school after college you get a doctoral degree or at least a master's degree. That takes another two to five years. Then you write a long paper, do lots of dirty work for professors and pay a load of money. But meanwhile you learn a whole lot about how to dig for and study dinosaurs or whatever other fossil you're interested in. Then you're all set to be a paleontologist. But good luck finding a job! Don't let all that discourage you. If you love what you're doing there's nothing better! (Don Lessem)
Q: What is your advice for kids who want to grow up to be paleontologists?
A: Paleontologists study bones of extinct animals, such as dinosaurs. To be one, you should read as much as you can, go on digs that museums run if you can, go to college and study biology and then study some more after college to get a degree in paleontology. Then you can be one of the only 40 people in the whole world who are professional dinosaur scientists! (Don Lessem)
Q: What courses should you take to become a paleontologist?
A: That depends on your age. You don't need to take special paleontology courses until graduate school, but even in high school it is not too early to start taking the biology, chemistry, physics, and earth sciences. And going on a summer dig with a museum, Earthwatch, or other group is a great learning experience in scientific method. (Don Lessem)
Q: What do you think was your best find? Which one made you the most excited?
A: Of all the discoveries I've been a part of, the most exciting for me was going back to where Roy Chapman Andrews, the real Indiana Jones, found the first nests of dinosaurs in Mongolia. I went with some explorers who found a tin cup he actually drank out, and lots more dinosaurs — from eggs to little baby armored dinosaurs so small they didn't have their armor yet. It was neat, too, to be in such a different and remote place. (Don Lessem)
Q: What is the farthest you ever traveled to go on a dig? What made that place so important to you that you would travel such a distance?
A: The furthest I've ever gone for dinosaurs might be the Arctic in Alaska, as far north as any people live, inside the Arctic Circle. I went August 13 and it was already snowing but the sky was only dark for two hours a night. We found lots of dinosaur bones and the skull of a horned dinosaur. (Don Lessem)
Q: Where were you when you made your first dinosaur discovery? What kind of creature was that?
A: I found my first dinosaur bone, a triceratops, in Montana. Since there are so many of those dinosaurs already known, I didn't even look too much for the rest of the animal. That was about eight years ago. The best I ever helped dig up was the second-best T. rex, in the same part of eastern Montana, four years ago. (Don Lessem)
Q: What tools and techniques do you use to find dinosaurs ?
A: Paleontologists use tools such as crowbars and drills and even dynamite to remove the rock from the fossils. Then, when they get close to the bones, they use picks, and when closer, tiny awls, even toothbrushes and brooms. They cover the bones, with a lot of dirt still on them, in plaster and burlap bandages and haul it back to the museum for fine cleaning in the winter. (Don Lessem)
Q: What kinds of dinosaur bones have you dug up?
A: I have collected big dinosaurs like ceratopsians (pentaceratops is my favorite ceratopsian) and the giant duck-billed dinosaurs from Baja California. I have also collected tiny dinosaurs, including skeletons of young coelophysis, which were about the size of a chicken. Probably the biggest dinosaur I have collected is Alamosaurus, one of the sauropods, which we found in Big Bend National Park. One arm bone weighed about 300 pounds. After that, I started to like the small dinosaurs a lot more. (Tim Rowe)
Q: Is it fun digging up dinosaur bones?
A: Digging up dinosaurs is great fun. It's like being in a giant sandbox doing a jigsaw puzzle and going on a scavenger hunt all at the same time. (Don Lessem)
Q: What is some of the latest equipment used to find dinosaur bones?
A: In recent experiments to find fossils, Geiger counters have been used, since uranium is sometimes concentrated in dinosaur bones and that causes a tick on the counter since it is a radioactive mineral. Shotguns have been blasted into the ground, and then hydrophones are used, (like microphones) to listen to the echo and to figure out if a fossil changed the pattern of the soundwaves. Ultraviolet cameras have been used since some dinosaur bones glow under ultraviolet light. Radar and other techniques have been tried. But none of these has yet proved to work well. The best way to find a dinosaur is still to walk around and look and find just a tip sticking out of the ground. Beneath it may be a whole dinosaur not yet eroded away by being on the surface of the ground. (Don Lessem)
Q: Where have you been to find dinosaurs?
A: I've been digging dinosaurs in Montana, Utah, northern Alaska, Nova Scotia, and Mongolia lately. I've helped dig up a T. rex, velociraptor bones, and eggs, but I'm never much help since I'm pretty clumsy. (Don Lessem)