How to Start Learning About Paleontology
Updated: Mar 10
Paleontology is a BIG science. In fact, when someone says they are a paleontologist, there is no way they know everything about prehistoric life, even if they've been in the profession for 20+ years. This is partly due to all the new discoveries constantly being made, as well as the fact that they are usually specialists within certain groups. They could be an expert in microbial life, sharks, plants, arthropods or, yes, dinosaurs.
So how can you possibly go about learning a discipline that even the veterans don't have full knowledge about? Well, you can start by not trying. You'll never know everything, so it's better to stick with what interests you the most. Whether you want to learn more about dinosaurs, mammals or ancient amphibians, aim to be a specialist. Having said that, you'll always start with the basics, as well as the general history and features of each group. Trust me, you'll pick up a lot along the way about other groups too.
So, with that in mind, this post is how I would advise someone to go about learning about paleontology, as well as the pros and cons of each method. Try and read this list in chronological order. By that, I mean the first section should be stage 1 for a beginner who lacks as much spare time and the last section should be when you're nearing expert level!
Hopefully this one goes without being said, considering the world we now live in. You can start learning about paleontology and about Earth's overall history using the immense power of the internet. You can crawl down a rabbit hole of heavy articles and ebooks, you can take 10 minutes to read through summaries on things like blogs (ahem) or you can indulge in short, fun facts from videos. Even social media posts can open the gateway to further knowledge (as proved by Dino-gen's social media page). Whichever way you ingest information best, there's something on the internet for you.
Be warned though, there is some serious misinformation at best and some downright weirdos at worst. Spreading misinformation isn't usually something one does on purpose, but an incorrect fact can spread like wildfire until misconceptions become all too common. Try and dig deeper into sources if you're ever unsure or ask someone with expert credentials.
Probably the most fun way to learn paleontology on this list (in my view anyway).
Museums are brilliant places to not only soak up information in digestible chunks, but also marvelling at seeing amazing specimens in person! Looking at a giant sauropod towering over you and experiencing the wonder that can instil will help you retain that information much better. Many museums are too big to do in one day too, so you might find that multiple visits are necessary, but if you had fun this can only be good news!
One thing to bare in mind with this one though, is that many museums might have been accurate once upon a time, but can have some outdated information. It's not their fault, new information is being discovered every day and updating displays is no cheap or easy task. You'll probably find the curators are equally frustrated and/or are in the process of trying to change it.
Documentaries are a great way to dip your toe into learning about paleontology and the world that came before us. These things are literally made to take what the scientists are saying and break it down in a way that someone who has never seen a T.rex could still learn and be entertained by. I will always stand by the notion that the two best ways to learn are either to teach or to be entertained and this certainly does the latter!
All I will say is that you should probably take the visuals with a pinch of salt. Some documentaries, whilst remaining accurate in what they say, aren't necessarily as accurate in their CGI cutscenes....
OK, we're getting a little bit more advanced now. Of course we're not talking a simple colouring book or a 'my first dinosaurs' kind of deal (but if you're looking for some ideas for a younger crowd, we also have a post on that), we're looking at thick, juicy books written by the experts that have had their hands in the dirt for decades. Books that are written by someone who doesn't know their antorbital fenestra from their fourth trochanter are hard to find, but there are a wide range of books written by veterans that cater to both beginners and experts.
The same caveat as museums exist here though. Published books aren't exactly easy to edit when new discoveries are found, which is why various editions are often made.
So you've gotten the basics down now and you finally have a little more understanding of all the jargon. Trust me, the jargon is the hardest part. In order to complete your jargon journey, young padawan, you must start seeing those big words in context.
Reading scientific papers and actually understanding the words you're seeing is quite the difficult task. In fact, even I don't necessarily find them as easy after years of reading them. But once you get past the initial confusion, the clarity that papers give is unmatched and is also second to none when it comes to offering an insight to how paleontologists conduct their research. Most are free access, but some belong to paid access journals, but they normally have an abstract freely available (an abstract is a paragraph that summarises the entire paper...very handy).
Having said that, there are many cheaper to get full access to paid journals, for example Springer, who offer packages which grants you access to many journals and papers, even beyond natural history! Be sure to check it out if you love to learn about the latest scientific research straight from the horse's mouth!
Reach out to Experts
What better way to find out more about fossils and past life than being taught by the experts first hand? Again, the internet means this is easier than ever and there are innumerable experts out there with a heavy presence online. They're not necessarily academics either, meaning they might have a little bit more time to answer your questions (academics and researchers are often willing, but you might find they take much longer to get back to due to work loads).
If you have a question about anything natural history related, don't be shy! There's no such thing as a silly question and most experts (myself included, in my humble opinion) will be more than happy to help. Hell, it'd be nice for someone to actually ask rather than chewing people's ears off at a neighbour's BBQ. If you have a question specifically about a paper or piece of research you've seen, take note of the author/researcher and see if you can ask. Again, they are more than happy to teach their passion for as long as the sky is blue!
Ok, I may have cheated a little bit with this one, since it can go for both a beginner and experts looking for some just released news. It still stands to fact though, that you can start with this blog to keep learning, refer back to it every now and then if you're struggling on the odd term and keep up with new discoveries and maybe even some career advice!
With that said, I hope to see you here again soon!