Paleontology is the study of ancient life. However, when most people think of paleontology, they think of the most famous fossils which come from dinosaurs—a diverse array of reptiles that roamed the Earth during the Mesozoic era, which included the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. But paleontology encompasses the study of other ancient animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria, too.
With the guidance of Dr. Alex Hastings, our Fitzpatrick Chair of Paleontology, we’re taking a closer look at some of our fossils and specimens—from our exhibits and behind-the-scenes in our labs and collections—including ancient fish, a crocodile, and even a massive T. rex toe bone!
Information about these fun fossils comes from our recent live stream with Dr. Hastings. Due to some technical issues, it felt like we were broadcasting from 251 million years ago, but we’re excited to highlight some interesting objects that are sure to get anyone excited about the past.
That’s one toothy fish - Xiphactinus
The ancient Xiphactinus fish is a relative of today’s ray-finned fish. It was a large predator that swam the seaway that used to run through the middle of Cretaceous-era North America. Imagine, soaking up the rays by your favorite shallow sea, when BAM—Xiphactinus nabs some prey with its pointy teeth! That prey could have been other fish or even birds flying above the water’s surface. As Dr. Alex Hastings says, “You would not want to see one of these if you were out swimming.”
Hailing from the Green River Formation in Wyoming, these herring were alive after the age of the dinosaurs. Many fossilized fish, small animals, and insects have been found at the Green River Formation, where the sediments present a continuous record of 6 million years. Dr. Alex Hastings speculates that the herring “all died, more or less, at the same time.” This is especially impressive because of how many fish (more than 20!) can be seen in just one fossil.
Tyrannosaurus rex toe bone
Dr. Hastings’ face says it all—that is definitely the biggest toe bone we’ve ever seen! This is also one of his top five favorite fossils in the Science Museum’s collections. Tyrannosaurus rex dinosaurs were huge, and they needed massive toes to hold them up as they scoured the ancient Earth for prey. This bone is just one part of a T. rex’s toe, and it was almost two times the size of one of their relatively tiny hands!
The paleontology lab is where discoveries happen
We have many projects happening in our paleontology lab. It’s common to see people cleaning off bones, looking at ancient specimens under a microscope, and researching ancient life from more than 100 million years ago. If you want to see it for yourself, watch our behind-the-scenes tours in our Bold Science Instagram highlight. (Please note that this photo was taken during a behind-the-scenes tour many months before the COVID-19-related shutdown.)
A crocodile from the swamps of… North Dakota?
This skull belongs to Borealosuchus, an extinct crocodile hailing from our neighbors in North Dakota. It is from 60-100 million years ago, back when North Dakota was a hot and humid place to be. Can you imagine? Our scientists will be researching Borealosuchus’ growth and body size during this warm period in North Dakota’s past.
Start Digging ⛏️
If all of these fossils make you want to get in the dirt and become a paleontologist yourself. Dr. Hastings says there are a few ways to get there. “First up is learning all you can about ancient life! Typically, you need a four-year degree bachelor’s of science either in geology or biology. Honestly, you can go either way, because paleontology is a fusion of earth and life science! If you’re looking to work in a collection or as a lab-tech, a bachelor’s degree is often all you need. If you want to be a lead researcher, professor, or curator, you’ll want to get a Ph.D.”
Phew—that was a lot of paleontology learning packed into just one blog! But we want you to join in the fossilized fun. If you have any favorite facts, photos from the museum, or paleontology memes that the world needs to see, share them with us using #ShareYourDiscovery on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
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