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What is Vertebrate Paleontology? Who are Vertebrate Paleontologists?

Anyone with knowledge and training can be a vertebrate paleontologist. They are men and women of diverse ages and cultures, who live and work on every continent, and study the fossils of animals with backbones. Many of them are members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, but not all.


Paleo Profiles

We’ve interviewed several members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology to help answer the question, “Who are vertebrate paleontologists?”

Read interviews with paleontologists >


Ask a Paleontologist

Find a bone while digging in your backyard? Interested in how to become a paleontologist? Email us with your questions, pictures of fossils etc. and we’ll be happy to help! Dr. Barbara Shaw at Colorado State University , Dr. Jeb Bevers at Yavapai College, and Dr. Tom Holtz at University of Maryland are standing by!

  • Email Dr. Barabra Shaw at [at] colostate [dot] edu
  • Email Dr. Jeb Bevers at jeb.bevers [at] yc [dot] edu
  • Email Dr. Tom Holtz at tholtz [at] umd [dot] edu

Read the Fossil FAQ >



Common Questions About Vertebrate Paleontologists

How do you become a vertebrate paleontologist?

The short answer is, you can be a vertebrate paleontologist just by studying fossil vertebrates. Most people who have jobs as vertebrate paleontologists have gone to school and studied animals, anatomy (how animals are put together), geology (study of the earth), and other related subjects. They usually study with other experienced paleontologists to learn how to work on fossils.

Some vertebrate paleontologists work in museums, where they care for collections of fossils. Others work at colleges and universities where they teach classes in geology, biology, or anatomy. Some paleontologists work as preparators, cleaning and repairing fossils for study and/or display.

How long do you have to go to school to be a vertebrate paleontologist?

Some people get jobs working with fossils with a college degree. Others continue on for a Master’s degree or a Doctoral degree. A college degree usually takes 4–5 years to get, a Master’s degree 2–4 years, and a Doctoral degree 2–4 or more years. That means 8 to 13 or more years after high school. It sure sounds like a lot, but remember that you get to work on fossils and do paleontology while you are in school, so it really is a lot better than it sounds.

What should I study in school if I want to be a vertebrate paleontologist?

This is a great question for anyone interested in being a paleontologist. First, take all of the science and math classes you can. Since most kids don’t have much choice in the classes they take before high school, you can do a lot on your own. You can do projects on vertebrate paleontology for science fairs, read about vertebrate paleontology in library books, and collect your own fossils (see below).

Other subjects to study are English and computer science. English? Why English? Well, one important skill for a scientist of any sort to master is communication. It doesn’t do much good to make scientific discoveries if you can’t tell other people about them! Computer skills are important because we use computers as communication tools, and basic research tools every day.

How much money do paleontologists make?

This is a hard question, but one that gets asked all the time. Some people make no money at all being a vertebrate paleontologist, while others make a decent living. The one thing that is pretty certain is that you won’t get rich being a paleontologist. Most of us do paleontology because we really enjoy it, rather than to make a lot of money.