What is Vertebrate Paleontology

In the nineteenth century, men and women who studied both rocks and animals were beginning to realize that the Earth was much older than anyone imagined, and that all animals with bones – even humans – had a lot in common. They presented explanations for how the rocks formed and the animals diverged into millions of species. They shared their research with each other, and argued over the details, dates and relationships. The explanations that survived these arguments, that no one could disprove, helped build the foundation of modern natural science, and the formed the core of vertebrate paleontology.

Today, the field is most celebrated for its study of the spectacular, giant vertebrates of the past: mosasaurs, dinosaurs, sharks and saber-toothed tigers. These creatures have held a special fascination for humans since ancient adventurers first found their bones and described them as giants, dragons and monsters. They’ve inspired aspects of almost every human mythology, and our most ancient art depicts more recent, but equally majestic beasts, like the woolly rhinoceros. Many animals who lived alongside ancient humans, and thousands more who shared a world with our pre-human ancestors, are only known by the bones they left behind, through the efforts of vertebrate paleontologists.

Vertebrate paleontology reaches far beyond the study of large, legendary creatures. Smaller animals, like our ancestors the early mammals, are equally important. Small animals tend to be more common in the fossil record and better preserved, so they reveal enormous amounts of information on the ecosystems and climates of Earth’s past. Vertebrate paleontologists do much more than dig up bones, as well; they study how ancient animals moved and lived, what they ate – and what ate them. The fields of paleobiology, paleoecology, biomechanics, anatomy, paleoclimatology, evolutionary biology and many others are represented in vertebrate paleontology research, and celebrated at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Vertebrate paleontology covers everything from the tiny, fish-like creatures that first evolved backbones, to the salamander-like ancestors of all land vertebrates, to dinosaurs, mammals, flying and swimming reptiles, mastodons, marsupials, and every animal in between that has ever had the distinguishing feature of a vertebral column and the good luck to be preserved in rock.


Vertebrate paleontologists still have heated discussions about the details of the past and its creatures, and the more we discover, the more there is to share, explain, and try to understand. That’s why the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology was founded in 1940, and why it has thrived and grown ever since.

Learn more about the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology >