What is Paleontology?

Two small figures walk across the top of the bluffs along the Snake River.

Although paleontology is most often associated with dinosaurs, scientists in this fascinating field study the history of all life on Earth, from bacteria to plants and animals. At Hagerman Fossil Beds, paleontologists work with fossils of animals that lived 4 to 3 million years ago, including mastodons, saber-toothed cats, and giant ground sloths.

Park staff sit at a table examining the large tusk of a mastodon
Hagerman Fossil Beds paleontologist and intern examine the fossilized tusk of a mastodon.

NPS Photo

Paleontologists Dig Deep

What is paleontology, anyway? The word “paleontology” comes from the Greek root words “paleo,” which means “old or ancient,” and “ontology,” which means “the study of life.” String it all together, and paleontology is the study of ancient life! It is an investigation of the behaviors, ecosystems, and relationships that influence both extinct and extant life. Analyzing the Earth’s past is the first step in contextualizing present life— and predicting future trends as global conditions like climate continue to change.

Paleontologists breathe life into the past. Through collecting and identifying fossils, paleontologists can reconstruct ancient ecosystems and provide insight into life forms that we cannot observe today. They then share their findings with the world, often through publishing scientific papers, presenting at conferences, and even working at National Park Service sites.


What's it Like to be a Paleontologist?

While many paleontologists do spend time in the field collecting fossils, much of their work is done in the lab, preparing fossils, conducting research, and maintaining collections.

Two photographs: on the top, three figures in NPS uniforms crouch beside an excavation site a few feet wide. On the bottom, the small figures of paleontologists crouch close to the ground, looking for fossils
Top: Collecting fossils through excavation.
Bottom: Using the surface collection method to find fossils.

NPS Photos

Collecting Fossils

Removing fossils from a field site is extremely careful and time-consuming work. Paleontologists and their teams use different techniques to collect fossils of all shapes and sizes, from tiny shells and teeth to massive mastodon bones. Not all techniques are used at each site; here are some examples of techniques used at Hagerman Fossil Beds:

  • dry sieving: Pouring sediment through a series of progressively smaller screens to find the smallest of specimens.
  • screen washing: Placing sediment into a screen washing box, soaking it, and gently agitating it under water until specimens are revealed.
  • surface collecting: kneeling down on the ground and checking the area carefully to find fossils that are partially visible from the surface.
  • picking: picking through sediment under a microscope with tweezers to find small fossils.
  • excavation: using tools including shovels, picks, and brushes to unearth fossils. Due to their fragility, fossils are not completely removed from the surrounding rock and are instead cast in a protective plaster shell ("jacket") before they can be removed from the site.


Collecting Data

Before a fossil is removed from a site, scientists must take very careful notes. They record GPS coordinates and plot the fossils on a map, take many photographs of the fossil and site, and write field notes about the fossil placement within the rock layers. These pieces of information are crucial to maintain scientific accuracy. During the first excavations of the Hagerman Horse Quarry, this type of data was not collected. Some important locations at Hagerman Fossil Beds are vaguely described as “four miles south of the horse quarry.” Due to the poor descriptions, it has become very difficult to find these sites again.

A close-up photograph of a fossil horse's jaw and teeth. A gloved hand holds a pen-shaped tool to one of the teeth.
A preparator carefully removes sediment from the surface of fossil teeth.

NPS Photo

Fossil Prep

Back in the lab, a tool called an air scribe is used to remove additional rock surrounding the fossils. This can be very skilled work, and some paleontologists even specialize in fossil preparation. Skilled volunteers often play a vital role in helping to prepare fossils as well. Once fossils have been prepared, they can be used for research or display.


By comparing fossils to previously discovered specimens and modern animals, paleontologists can infer many characteristics of an extinct animal. Diet and locomotion, for example, are often interpreted through these comparative methods. This can help us to learn more about not only that fossil species, but also about the evolution of species still living today.

Fossils can also be used to learn about the climate and ecology of ancient Hagerman. Fossil plants can tell us what type of vegetation existed here in the Pliocene. The types of animals present tell us that this area received much more precipitation than today and contained ample wetland, grassland, and woodland habitat.

Paleontologists work closely with geologists to estimate the age of fossils. At Hagerman, geologists collect samples of ancient volcanic ash, which exists between layers of rock above and below where fossils have been found. Geologists analyze the ash layers, and the estimated age of that ash in turn helps paleontologists to estimate the age of fossils.

A shallow drawer inside a collections cabinet contains smaller trays filled with fossil fragments.
Specimens in the Hagerman Fossil Beds collection

NPS Photo

Maintaining Collections

After being accessioned into a museum’s collections, a fossil is assigned a unique identification number and stored in temperature-controlled housing. Each fossil possesses its own record of relevant information such as descriptions, the place it was found, and its condition. A small number of fossils are used for display in museums, and many more remain in storage, where they can be used for scientific research. Today, the collection at Hagerman Fossil Beds contains nearly 70,000 individual fossil specimens!

Dig Deeper: Paleontology at Hagerman Fossil Beds

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    Tags: fossils

    Last updated: May 3, 2022

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