Palaeontologists are as diverse a group as the ancient life they study. Some study fossil pollen (palynology), while others specialise in identifying fossil dung (coprolites). And modern palaeontology includes a wide range of roles from technicians and artists to model-makers and collections experts. Check out the stats on these two palaeo-players.

Palaeontologists are as diverse a group as the ancient life they study. Some study fossil pollen (palynology), while others specialise in identifying fossil dung (coprolites). And modern palaeontology includes a wide range of roles from technicians and artists to model-makers and collections experts. Check out the stats on these two palaeo-players.

© 2001, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Alison Murray, Research Assistant, Palaeobiological Studies,
Canadian Museum of Nature

Background / B.Sc., University of Victoria 1988; M.Sc., University of Alberta, 1994; Now completing Ph.D. program at McGill University.

Started as a volunteer at the Canadian Museum of Nature in 1988.
Hung around for so long they gave her a job.

Roles / Research in systematics (discovering evolutionary relationships) of bony fishes (Teleostei). Currently working on 45-million-year-old fossil cichlid fishes from Tanzania. These are the oldest confirmed cichlids, which are ancestors of numerous aquarium fish, including angelfish.

Cool Fossils / Massamorichthys wilsoni (Wilson's mass-death fish). So-named because more than 1750 were preserved together in a mass-death layer near Joffre Bridge, Alberta, about 55 million years ago.

Highlights / "The best aspect of palaeontology is being able to dig in the dirt and consider it worthwhile. Even better if the dirt is in another country."
Alison Murray, Research Assistant, Palaeobiological Studies,
Canadian Museum of Nature

Background / B.Sc., University of Victoria 1988; M.Sc., University of Alberta, 1994; Now completing Ph.D. program at McGill University.

Started as a volunteer at the Canadian Museum of Nature in 1988.
Hung around for so long they gave her a job.

Roles / Research in systematics (discovering evolutionary relationships) of bony fishes (Teleostei). Currently working on 45-million-year-old fossil cichlid fishes from Tanzania. These are the oldest confirmed cichlids, which are ancestors of numerous aquarium fish, including angelfish.

Cool Fossils / Massamorichthys wilsoni (Wilson's mass-death fish). So-named because more than 1750 were preserved together in a mass-death layer near Joffre Bridge, Alberta, about 55 million years ago.

Highlights / "The best aspect of palaeontology is being able to dig in the dirt and consider it worthwhile. Even better if the dirt is in another country."

© 2001, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Alison Murray

Palaeontologist Alison Murray, cataloguing and wrapping some of the more than 400 fish fossils she found at a 45-million-year-old fossil site in Mahenge, Tanzania in 1996.

Becky Ham

© Becky Ham


Kieran Shepherd, Chief Collection Manager, Earth Sciences,
Canadian Museum of Nature

Background / Childhood interest is anything old and dusty. B.A. in archaeology and geography, Brock University, 1980; M.A. in environmental studies, with a palaeontology focus, Norwich University, 1992.

Started as a volunteer at the Canadian Museum of Nature in 1988. "Volunteering is a very common start for non-Ph.D. palaeontology staff.

It’s a profession in which apprenticeship is the main way to learn the required skills.""

Roles / Care of palaeontology collection. Research in ceratopsian dinosaurs, including a newly-discovered chasmosaur.Teaches a college course on care of natural history specimens as part of Algonquin College’s Applied Museum Studies Program.

Cool Fossils / The Canadian Museum of Nature’s wonderful collection of more than 50 dinosaur skin impressions, including those of hadrosaurs and ceratopsians.

Highlights / "Searching for Cretaceous dinosaurs in inner-Mongolia as part of the 1990 Canada-China Dinosaur Project."
Kieran Shepherd, Chief Collection Manager, Earth Sciences,
Canadian Museum of Nature

Background / Childhood interest is anything old and dusty. B.A. in archaeology and geography, Brock University, 1980; M.A. in environmental studies, with a palaeontology focus, Norwich University, 1992.

Started as a volunteer at the Canadian Museum of Nature in 1988. "Volunteering is a very common start for non-Ph.D. palaeontology staff.

It’s a profession in which apprenticeship is the main way to learn the required skills.""

Roles / Care of palaeontology collection. Research in ceratopsian dinosaurs, including a newly-discovered chasmosaur.Teaches a college course on care of natural history specimens as part of Algonquin College’s Applied Museum Studies Program.

Cool Fossils / The Canadian Museum of Nature’s wonderful collection of more than 50 dinosaur skin impressions, including those of hadrosaurs and ceratopsians.

Highlights / "Searching for Cretaceous dinosaurs in inner-Mongolia as part of the 1990 Canada-China Dinosaur Project."

© 2001, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Palaeontologist Kieran Shepherd at Work

Palaeontologist Kieran Shepherd prepares a fossil as part of an educational program at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Alan McDonald
Canadian Museum of Nature

© Canadian Museum of Nature


After the excitement of finding a fossil comes palaeontology’s most labour-intensive work -- removing the fossil from the surrounding rock. There are two main methods fossil preparators use to isolate fossils: mechanical and chemical.

The mechanical method uses drills, chisels, hammers and other tools to carefully chip away the rock. This technique is essentially the same today as it was 80 years ago.

The main difference is that today’s fossil preparators have power tools, such as small pneumatic (air-driven) chisels. These certainly can make the job faster. The rocks surrounding Cretaceous fossils vary in hardness between softer sandstones and appropriately-named ironstones. Removing the harder rocks is very time-consuming and expensive. The recent preparation of a Chasmosaurus skull required that more than $3000 be spent on carbide chisel points!
After the excitement of finding a fossil comes palaeontology’s most labour-intensive work -- removing the fossil from the surrounding rock. There are two main methods fossil preparators use to isolate fossils: mechanical and chemical.

The mechanical method uses drills, chisels, hammers and other tools to carefully chip away the rock. This technique is essentially the same today as it was 80 years ago.

The main difference is that today’s fossil preparators have power tools, such as small pneumatic (air-driven) chisels. These certainly can make the job faster. The rocks surrounding Cretaceous fossils vary in hardness between softer sandstones and appropriately-named ironstones. Removing the harder rocks is very time-consuming and expensive. The recent preparation of a Chasmosaurus skull required that more than $3000 be spent on carbide chisel points!

© 2001, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Palaeontologist Rober Holms

Canadian Museum of Nature palaeontologist Robert Holmes uses a pneumatic chisel to carefully remove rock from a dinosaur fossil.

Martin Lipman
Canadian Museum of Nature

© Canadian Museum of Nature


Volunteer Dale Patten

Volunteers play a critical role in the labour-intensive area of fossil preparation. Here Canadian Museum of Nature Volunteer Dale Patten uses a microscope to sort Cretaceous shark teeth from Saskatchewan.

Jacob Berkowitz
Canadian Museum of Nature

© Canadian Museum of Nature


For smaller fossils contained in limestone, fossil preparators put down the tools and bring on the acid. Limestone (calcium carbonate) dissolves in acetic acid (vinegar). (You may have seen this reaction if you’ve mixed vinegar with baking soda). Fossil preparators immerse the limestone-covered fossils in an acetic acid bath, and wait. Eventually the rock will dissolve, leaving perfectly clean fossils. The next task is often to sort the hundreds, or even thousands, of small fossils released from the limestone.

Often a rock-free fossil is broken into pieces or contains numerous fractures. In these cases fossil preparators use consolidants to harden, glue together and protect the fossil.
For smaller fossils contained in limestone, fossil preparators put down the tools and bring on the acid. Limestone (calcium carbonate) dissolves in acetic acid (vinegar). (You may have seen this reaction if you’ve mixed vinegar with baking soda). Fossil preparators immerse the limestone-covered fossils in an acetic acid bath, and wait. Eventually the rock will dissolve, leaving perfectly clean fossils. The next task is often to sort the hundreds, or even thousands, of small fossils released from the limestone.

Often a rock-free fossil is broken into pieces or contains numerous fractures. In these cases fossil preparators use consolidants to harden, glue together and protect the fossil.

© 2001, CHIN. All Rights Reserved.

Palaeontologist Allan McDonald

Canadian Museum of Nature palaeontologist technician Alan McDonald holds a hadrosaur (duck-billed dinosaur) tibia, which he reassembled from almost 500 pieces.

Anne Botman
Canadian Museum of Nature

© Canadian Museum of Nature


Learning Objectives

The learner will:

  • Develop enthusiasm and continuing interest in the study of science
  • Describe the career of palaeontology
  • Describe the work of palaeontologists

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