Paleontology and comparative morphology


Primatology and Paleontology. Paleontology is the study of fossils, remains of once-living organisms. Most people immediately think of dinosaurs, and several of my colleagues in the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) are in fact dinosaur experts, working in such places as Mongolia on problems like the origin of birds or temperature regulation in different dinosaurs. Most paleontologists actually study invertebrates, animals without backbones, such as trilobites, or clams, or the tiny shells of single-celled creatures on the border between plant and animal which are often used by oil company geologists as markers to petroleum deposits. We who work on the fossils of backboned animals (for example, fishes, turtles, dinosaurs and mammals, such as primates) are called vertebrate paleontologists in the profession. In the same way, primatology has different meanings, some of which are discussed on this web site, but what I often find is that most students and even colleagues use primatology to refer to the study of living primates, not their extinct relatives and ancestors, which is what I do.

The Author. I am a paleontologist, in the broad sense, but in fact I overlap many disciplines. I really call myself a paleoanthropologist, as I am interested in the evolution of humans as well as non-human primates. Or I could be called a paleoprimatologist or primate paleontologist. I am paid to be an anthropologist, teaching undergrads (and grad students) in a Department of Anthropology at Lehman College and the Graduate School of CUNY (the City University of New York). My Ph.D., however, is in Geology (subspecialty Vertebrate Paleontology), and most of the work I do (paleontological research from my base at the AMNH) is really Zoology (or Biology). I have no degree in either Anthropology or Biology–my undergraduate BA was in Physics, a field I happily left after finishing all the requirements and discovering primate (including human) evolution.

Other topics on the careers site discuss some of the benefits and problems in anthropology, education and zoology, and I recommend you read those pages also, as well as the one on field work. That way, I can concentrate on my area, without duplicating what they have already said well. Most people are interested in their origins or roots; a paleontologist just keeps on going farther back in time. I have colleagues who study rodent fossils, which are nice because you can carry a lot of them around in your pocket (but you really need a microscope to see much of them) or rhinoceros fossils, which are nice because they are big enough to see easily, but hard to carry. Primate fossils can be small, but most of the ones I study (monkeys, apes and humans) are medium-sized: just right, as Goldilocks would have said. But the real reason they are interesting to me is that they are OUR relatives and ancestors, rather than the relatives of rats, or snails, or whatever. The answers I get to questions about the course of their evolution may help to explain something about how people got to be the way we are, as well as about past primates. On the other hand, primate (and especially human) fossils are usually relatively rare and “sexy”, so there is some competition to find and study them, even in museums after they are recovered from digs.

What does a primate (or any) paleontologist DO? So let’s get down to the details. Well, there are three parts to that question’s answer: how do they find fossils, how do they study fossils, and how do they make a living? Fossils are often found in barren landscapes (badlands), because the rocks in which they are preserved are visible at the surface, and there are few people living there to interfere. However, just this summer I was part of a group looking for fossils inside an extinct volcano in central France, digging in the cow pastures which local landowners allowed us to excavate for a few weeks. Caves also yield a lot of later human fossils and some primates as well. Fossil primates are found all over the world, because that’s where they lived (and still do in most southern continents other than Australia). Undertaking field work involves: 1) selecting a likely site based on previous finds, published reports and research problems; 2) finding funds (by applying for research grants) to support a team effort; 3) undertaking geological studies to determine the age of the fossil site, its origin and past environment, the equivalence (correlation) of different locally productive areas; and 4) prospecting for fossils, followed by excavation of larger concentrations.

Once the fossils are recovered, they are brought back to a sponsoring institution (museum, university, geological survey) in the country of origin or the country where the paleontologist works (if the host country allows export for study). They must be cleaned, put back together if broken, and then analyzed. Most primate fossils consist of teeth, and less often parts of skulls or limb bones. Their analysis almost always involves comparison with the equivalent parts of the skeleton of modern primate species, whose remains are stored in museums or similar institutions. This part of the work is about the same whether one’s study problem involves fossils or just modern primates–how did they move, what did they eat, to what other animals are they related? Using a variety of techniques, usually involving statistical analysis of measurements to understand variation and proportion, as well as “eyeball” comparison of morphology (the shape and structure of an organism), paleontologists (and other comparative morphologists) try to answer those question by analogy to better-known species which are evolutionary relatives–that is, they had an ancestor in common at some time in the past. When the answers have been developed to the point where they make sense, an article is written for a scholarly journal (or as a book chapter) to report the results to a wider community of interested scholars. Sometimes, we might write a popular or technical book about the same subject.

But we don’t get paid for writing articles–in fact, it often costs us money, in order to have fine illustrations made and to obtain copies (reprints) to send to colleagues in exchange for their writings. Books earn some money, but usually not enough to live on. Thus, a paleontologist, like most other academic primatologists, has to have a “real” job. Most of us are university teachers, some work in museums (where they may teach, but also oversee the care of collections of fossils or modern skeletons and perhaps help plan exhibitions for the public), and others may work for geological surveys or other organizations. Almost always, an advanced degree, usually a Ph.D., is required for this work.

How does one train to become a primate paleontologist? Well, that varies a lot, but usually begins with a variety of college courses in such subjects as physical anthropology, geology, and zoology, as well as some statistics and a foreign language (especially one like French, German, Spanish, Chinese or Russian with a large literature in paleontology). Reading articles in technical journals is a good approach to learning about what researchers are thinking; the magazine Evolutionary Anthropology is a great place to read slightly less technical versions of these studies by the scientists who did them, written for nonspecialist colleagues and students. Geology courses often include field trips to collect fossils (not often primates!), and more advanced courses in geology and archaeology may focus on field methods. Going on a real paleontological (or archaeological) dig is sometimes possible as well, even if it might cost money for travel, at least. Talk to your professors about help in arranging contacts with other researchers. The next step is graduate school, again in such fields as physical anthropology, geology, or zoology (paleontology may be considered a part of either of the last two–the only Department of Paleontology in the US, at the University of California at Berkeley, was recently folded into the Department of Integrative Biology, so a degree in paleo isn’t possible any more).

The choice of a graduate school is a major turning point in one’s career, so plan it carefully. Consider those researchers whose writings are interesting and find out where they teach. Check out web sites, and determine what the requirements are, as well as what the educational plan is at those schools. My own university, for example, is part of a larger graduate training group called NYCEP (the New York Consortium in Evolutionary Primatology), and we expect our students to learn about primate genetics, behavior, and ecology as well as paleontology and morphology. We have a lot of faculty members and students involved in this program. Other schools have programs which may be more tightly focused on just paleontology or just behavior. Find out about financial aid and costs of the program.

Graduate school applications are usually due in January in order to begin in September. Schools often look most closely at four elements of an application: college grades; GRE scores (take the test a few times if possible, and practice); reference letters from professors or others who know the applicant; and the essay or statement of interest (read the instructions carefully, tailor the statement to the university involved, and show it to someone before you send it in). Graduate school is usually the place where you learn how to be a scientist, gain research experience, write your first paper and your dissertation (which may be one of the biggest single projects you’ll ever do), and meet the people who will be colleagues for the rest of your life. Afterward, you’ll have to find a job, either as a postdoc (see the section on zoology careers for a good discussion) or a long-term position, and then keep trying to make enough time to continue research while teaching, working and raising a family.

Most of the things I’ve said apply equally well to a lot of academic fields, and again I recommend you read what my colleagues say on this site about other academic primatology careers. In brief, you have to really love this stuff and want to solve the problems of primate evolution for the rest of your life. If that’s you, go for it!

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