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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Illustration of ancient flora

   Ask the Scientist


Do you have a question about dinosaurs, ancient environments or fossil collecting? Ask our scientists online. We'll select questions to answer on a regular basis and will post questions and answers here.

Note: If you're under 13 years of age, please get permission from your parents to enter your question or have them submit it for you.

  • Our scientists might be able to tell you if a fossil has scientific worth, meaning that paleontologists might be able to learn something new by studying it, but they don’t track the market prices of fossils.

  • The members of local fossil and geology clubs often are great resources for identifying fossils since they are very familiar with the fossils that can be found in your area. Nearby natural history museums, state and national parks may offer guidebooks and sponsor "fossil identification days," and the websites of state geological survey and department of environmental resources offices frequently provide photos or guides to local fossils. If you write or email someone asking for help identifying a fossil, include a couple of good quality photos that show the fossil from different angles. Make sure the fossil is well lit, and include a ruler or coin in the photos to show how big it is.

  • If you are in high school or younger, take lots of science and math in school and work hard to get good grades. Work on your reading and writing skills so that later on you will be able to communicate your ideas and research discoveries clearly to others. Start to learn about fossils and how to find and identify them by joining a local fossil or geology club and going on collecting trips. Consider becoming a junior member of professional organizations such as the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology.

    Few colleges offer undergraduate programs in paleontology, so most paleontologists have undergraduate degrees in biology or geology. Consider majoring in one of these fields and minoring in the other. Take advanced classes in chemistry, math and physics, and be sure to take ecology and statistics. If your interest is vertebrate paleontology, studying animal anatomy is essential; those interested in paleobotany will need a good background in botany. Gain more experience (and perspective on paleontology careers) by volunteering to assist researchers in their labs or in the field.

    It is likely that you will need to earn a Masters or PhD degree in geology or paleontology if you want to pursue paleontology professionally. The Society for Vertebrate Paleontology maintains a list of graduate programs in paleontology ( http://vertpaleo.org/Education---Resources/Careers---Funding/Graduate-Programs-in-Vertebrate-Paleontology.aspx )

    If graduate work is not a possibility, you still can contribute to the field. Self-educated amateur paleontologists have made many important discoveries and collaborated with university and museum scientists to write papers and publish in scientific journals (see the Amateur Paleontologists section of the website), and many museums offer volunteers the opportunity to work with paleontology collections.

  • For information on how the ages of rocks and fossils are measured, please refer to this section (http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/backyard-dinosaurs/faq.cfm#24) of the website.

  • In the United States, most dinosaur fossils are found in the Western Interior states, just east of the Rocky Mountains. More than 35 states have at least some dinosaur fossils, and dinosaurs probably lived in most of the rest of the states. Visit the Finding Fossils Page (http://www.mnh.si.edu/exhibits/backyard-dinosaurs/finding-fossils.cfm) to find out why dinosaur fossils are found some places, but not others, and to find links to sites where you can search for fossil information for your state.

  • Fossils are found in sedimentary rocks, so fossil hunting can be done anywhere where sedimentary rocks are exposed at the surface of the Earth. But paleontologists usually conduct their research on specific organisms—which means focusing on specific times in Earth’s history and specific environments. So they use geologic maps, which contain information about rock type and age, to identify locations where the sedimentary rock is most likely to contain the fossils they seek. In most countries, geologic maps are available through government geological survey offices. Read more about how scientists use geologic maps here.

    Once they know where the right rock can be found, scientist consider whether there are good exposures, or "outcrops," available. If a region is covered year round in thick vegetation or ice and snow, then it won't be easy to find exposed rock, and a trip there may not be worthwhile. Areas with dry climates, on the other hand, are much more likely to have good rock exposures. Satellite images can be very useful for this assessment. Scientists also consider travel logistics. Are there roads? How will any discoveries be carried out?

    A final, critical step in fossil exploration is getting permission from local authorities and landowners. Collecting on private or government lands without permission can lead to a trip to jail, so all fossil hunters should be careful to get written permission and any necessary permits before they start looking for fossils.

  • Maps that show the geography of the Earth at times in the ancient past can be found on these two external websites:

    http://www.scotese.com/earth.htm
    http://cpgeosystems.com/index.html






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