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BOOK REVIEW: So you want to be a palaeontologist? Practical advice for fossil enthusiasts of all ages

Posted by David Penney on

We are pleased to announce that a very nice review of our title: So you want to be a palaeontologist? Practical advice for fossil enthusiasts of all ages by David Penney has just been published in the latest edition of Deposits Magazine.

(Deposits Magazine 2016, snippets): In these times, when the classic discipline of palaeontology is diminishing, there is a demanding need to inspire the next generation of palaeontologists - and perhaps also to make this field of scientific research more approachable. ... this recent volume on the world of palaeontologists, by the widely acclaimed researcher and palaeontologist, Dr David Penney (University of Manchester) presents a fitting hymn to the study of fossils. ...the book is also a very welcome practical advice on to how to pursue a career as a palaeontologist and what it may bring. ... it really is an easy must-read for the aspiring palaeontologist and, coming in the size of a booklet or field guide, at a fairly reasonable price, this book should be in permanent stock at all libraries, and in my view, especially in school libraries. ... Having a daughter wanting to become a palaeontologist, to me at least, this book has been quite an inspiration.

Click the cover below to go to the product page and use code Deposits2016 to get a 10% discount off the RRP valid for one week only!

Palaeontology is a rather unique career choice, in that at one point or another most kids (and some adults) want to be a palaeontologist, but very few of them are ever able to realize their dream. However, I expect there are more avenues into palaeontology related work today than there ever have been and the main purpose of this book is to highlight some of the potential routes into palaeontology as a career, or as a more productive pastime than just basic fossil collecting. I wanted the book to be accessible to as broad an audience as possible, from primary school children (or at least their parents) up to those who may be in retirement. After all, it is never too early nor too late to pursue your palaeontological passion!

There are not many things I remember about my early childhood, but some events I can recollect with vivid clarity. I do remember being infatuated with dinosaurs. I do recall standing in my primary school playground trying to imagine the size of a Brachiosaurus stood next to a large oak tree in the school grounds. I can see the pages of my favourite dinosaur book in my mind’s eye, but most importantly of all, I can vividly recall exactly how I lost total interest in dinosaurs before I was even ten-years-old!

This would have been the mid-1970s when I was about eight-years-old. My favourite dinosaur book had no photographs, but was nicely illustrated with reconstructions of the dinosaurs, the habitats in which they once lived and of people at excavations recovering the fossilized bones from the ground. My imagination ran wild at the idea of finding my own dinosaur fossils, or at least seeing the real thing in the field. Hence, I asked my mother if we could go and see some dinosaur fossils. She explained that the fossils illustrated in the book came from North America and Canada, and that it would require a very long aeroplane flight (from the UK) in order to get there, and that such a trip was not a realistic possibility. I was devastated. As a young child, I wanted to get ‘hands on’, not just to learn from books, and so my passion for dinosaurs waned rapidly in favour of the multitude of easily accessible spiders and insects in a vacant area of grassland opposite our home.

At this time, few people were aware of the rich dinosaur heritage of the UK, a situation now rectified by an excellent book on Dinosaurs of the British Isles by Dean Lomax and Nobumichi Tamura (2014), the recent (2015) TV documentary Dinosaur Britain and of course via information available on the internet. Had this knowledge been commonplace when I was a child then I expect I would have retained my palaeontological interests and developed them accordingly. It wasn’t, so my interest in the tangible and accessible local bug fauna flourished and my knowledge about them increased tremendously as a result of reading books but also through collecting and studying them in the field. Obviously, I had no idea at the time that these childhood buggy exploits would set the groundwork for a future career in palaeontology.

I completed an undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Manchester and graduated in 1994, just one year following the release of the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park. This movie had increased awareness of amber and interest in it as a remarkable medium in which delicate insects and other organisms are preserved as fossils with startling life-like fidelity. Moreover, there was a lecturer at the university who was an expert on fossil spiders preserved in rock and who was looking for a PhD student to undertake research on spiders preserved in amber. He was aware of my existence and interest in spiders as a result of my long-term membership of the British Arachnological Society, and so he sought me out for a chat and that initiated my research on fossil spiders preserved in amber. The obvious conclusion here is that I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. It is true. There was no great master plan on my part, everything just naturally fell into place. If you take the time to search for biographies online you will see that the same is true for plenty of other palaeontologists out there. It is rather surprising how many of them use the word ‘luck’ when describing their particular route into studying fossils for a living.

I now have a PhD and also a higher doctorate (DSc, recently submitted) in palaeontology, despite having left school with just two O’levels (GCSE equivalent) and having failed my O’level course in geology twice! Actually, the second time around I turned up for the exam the day after it had happened. Throughout my career to date I have been a laboratory technician, a PhD student, a museum curator, a post-doctoral researcher and now run a publishing business focused on palaeontology. I have done interviews for online media, radio and television and have been filmed about my research for a number of TV documentaries. I have traded in fossils (online and at fossil fairs), have given talks to primary school children and other community groups, as well as for learned societies and at international conferences (often as an invited Keynote Speaker). I have also held various honorary positions and currently conduct my research as an Honorary Lecturer at the University of Manchester. My research interests are broad and include many of the sub-disciplines mentioned in the next section, including invertebrate palaeontology, palaeobiology, taphonomy, virtual palaeontology, palaeobiogeography and molecular palaeontology.

I have travelled the world extensively as a result of my palaeontological research, whether it be to collect fossils in the field, examine museum collections or to attend conferences. In 2004, my research took me to the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in the sleepy town of Drumheller, Alberta, Canada, to study their collection of fossil insects in Canadian amber. The museum is situated in the middle of the fossil-bearing strata of the Late Cretaceous Horseshoe Canyon Formation and holds numerous specimens from the surrounding Alberta badlands, with over 40 mounted dinosaur skeletons, including specimens of Tyrannosaurus, Albertosaurus, Triceratops and Stegosaurus on display in the main dinosaur hall. I was provided with a microscope, their amber collections and a workspace located  in one of the main storage areas, behind the scenes. This is where they store the specimens that are not on display and, as with all museums, this actually represents the majority of the collection. It was kind of surreal being surrounded by huge dinosaur fossils, such as Triceratops skulls, the likes of which I had never seen before, while the reason for me being there was to examine tiny insects and spiders preserved in fossilized resin from the same (Cretaceous) time period. Periodically, when I needed a break from the microscope work, I would wander up and down the storage area staring in awe at the remarkable fossils just sitting there in various different states of preparation. During my visit, I was taken out to a dinosaur dig site in the surrounding Badlands, which have yielded most of the fossils in the museum. Whilst at the site I recalled my favourite dinosaur book and the conversation I’d had with my mother three decades earlier. This was a childhood dream come true and I really was quite overwhelmed.

There are several important elements to this story:
•    If it was possible for me to end up being a palaeontologist without actually desiring to be one, then there is considerable potential for those who really want to do it.
•    You do not need to be an A* pupil at school (though it cannot hurt and I would advise readers to aim much higher than I did during my early education).
•    There is no set road map to becoming a palaeontologist.
•    There is a great deal of overlap in terms of the different careers discussed in this book and while you may concentrate on one, e.g. academic research, you may also find yourself being filmed for a TV documentary, talking about fossils to the general public as part of an outreach project, or writing a book.
•    Don’t underestimate the potential of a lucky break, though you would be ill advised to rely on one.
•    Your childhood passion can become a reality (regardless of your age); do not allow others to deter you from your goal.

Now I have my own young children and they too love dinosaurs. I also have a friend with a young daughter who literally eats, sleeps and breathes dinosaurs. Clearly the fascination we have with these remarkable extinct giants (though not all dinosaurs were huge) shows no signs of diminishing, and why should it? I cannot think of anything else that better sparks the imagination of a child. Hence, it was with this in mind that I set about the outline for this book. Of course, there is much more to palaeontology than just dinosaurs, nor is it just a passion for the young. There are plenty of older folk out there who would love to get involved in this fascinating subject.

The important points that I want to get across in this book are that there are no hard and fast rules, in terms of what you can study or research, where you should do it, how you eventually get your foot in the palaeo door, or indeed what age you should be when you start. You can be as young or as old as you like! This is not a book about palaeontology per se, so there are no extensive chapters on the history of the science or the diversity of fossils and what they can tell us. There are plenty of other books that cover these subjects. The aim here is to provide some insight into the diverse range of palaeontology jobs that are out there, in addition to what you should consider doing in order to increase your chances of securing one. When I make reference to a website in the text, the full address can be found at the end of the book. My hope is that this book will help some people achieve their palaeontological aspirations and help parents to guide their children’s interests.

Dr David Penney FRES, FLS, FRSB, CSci
November 2015


Cover image: Dinosaur excavation in the region of Aderbissinat, Thirozerine Dept., Agadez Region, Republic of Niger (from Remes et al. 2009, PLoS ONE 4(9): e6924)

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