Making a living in paleontology

So, you want to be a paleontologist?
How much you earn depends on what sort of paleontologist you are.

For the title: ‘Paleontologist’ salary estimates 
in the USA range from $20,000 to $110,000 per year. I’m guessing the high end goes to tenured professors and geologists in the oil industry. The low end probably goes to preparators. Volunteers, of course, love their work. They just want to be in and around museums, fossils and projects. Salary estimates in the UK average: £32,414 = $43,000 per years. 

According to Indeed.com/palentologist
“Paleontologists can make an average of $90,000 per year and must undergo extensive training in addition to completing a doctorate level of education.”

“Paleontologists working in the coal and petroleum manufacturing industry make the highest salary, whereas paleontologists who teach at universities typically make the lowest average salary.”

What is a paleontologist?
“A paleontologist is a scientist who studies the history of the earth and how evolution has affected life through the examination of fossils and other historical data. These professionals may find and preserve animal and plant traces, fossilize bones and other data and use these findings to make conclusions about the evolution of life and the history of our planet. They often spend their time at worksites where they perform fieldwork projects to uncover fossils or collect samples that they study in a laboratory.

Common duties that a paleontologist may perform include:

  • Discover the location of fossils
  • Perform excavations to uncover fossils
  • Gather information about fossils found during excavations and digs
  • Use specialized computer programs to analyze discoveries made
  • Compare new data to existing information
  • Perform various tasks within a laboratory setting related to analyzing fossils and other related findings
  • Determine in which time period fossils originated
  • Communicate findings to colleagues and other individuals within the scientific field”

Of course, if you are in the right university or museum,
then the fossils come to you.

Figure 1. The cover of Giants, the book that launched my adult interest in dinosaurs, pterosaurs and everything inbetween.

Figure 1. The cover of Giants, the book that launched my adult interest in dinosaurs, pterosaurs and everything inbetween.

Some artists and writers
specialize in paleontology, I was one for a while. An advance to write and illustrate a dinosaur book was $15,000 back in the 1990s. That gets split in half if the author or illustrator is someone else. Thereafter increased sales provide royalty payments, IF there are more sales. For Giants (Fig. 1) I received only one royalty check worth a nice year’s salary, even though it had been featured in The New York Times, Newsweek and other publications on their 10-Best-for-Christmas Books. The publisher let it stay on the shelves for only one year due to rising printing costs at the time. Several other books that followed did not make back their advance. They tell me ‘novelty’ is the key to positive reviews and big sales. So keep that in mind when you come up with your book idea.

Big selling paleontology books of the past all broke new ground.

Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton made millions in book sales and movie rights. Of course, the timing could not have been better.

Dinotopia author and artist, James Gurney, also did well in his fantasy book that also became a movie.

The Dinosaur Heresies author and artist, Robert T. Bakker, stirred the imagination of readers and workers who followed and built upon his new views.

The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs author and artist, Greg Paul, likewise filled a niche that made the book a perennial good-seller.

Some writers and artists work for science oriented popular magazines.
They depend on the paleontologists for their news and artwork. I’ve never seen them question results and they cannot use images under Fair Usage because they are in business for profit.

According to MakeaLivingWriting.com
freelancers can make $100 to $2500 per article. That’s when the editor likes your idea. Much time can be spent pitching ideas and striking out.

  • Discover Magazine — $2/word
  • New Scientist — $300+ per assignment
  • Popular Science — $2/word
  • Smithsonian — $1 to $3.50/word
  • Scientific American — $2/word to start according to  Whopays.tumbler
  • National Geographic — $1.50/word according to WhoPaysWriters
  • Science or Nature — academic publications don’t pay contributors and they send back 95% of all submissions.

Sculpture and Discovery
Some paleontologists are in the businesses of providing fossils and models of fossils to museums, universities and wealthy individuals.  They also hire workers.

Triebold Paleontology digs fossils and creates casts for museum and home display. All of my pterosaur skeletons are now casts available there. It was fun to go to a European museum in 2007 with my girlfriend and say, “Hey, I did that Pteranodon!”

Pteranodon model based on the Triebold specimen by David Peters

Figure 2. Pteranodon model based on the Triebold specimen

Staab Studios creates models for museums, film and private collectors

Black Hills Institute supplies prepared fossils, casts and mineral specimens for research, teaching and exhibit.

CMStudio is a small shop that also produces full-size sculptures for dinosaur lovers, museums and businesses around the world.

Paleoartists on Pintrest include Raul Martin, Mark Hallett, and many others.

If you don’t need to make a salary or commission,
but have a keen interest in paleontology, you can be a blogger or create your own website, like ReptileEvolution.com. That way you can document the progress of your studies, invite comments and catch hell from irate PhDs.  :  )

Pteranodon and the albatross

Figure 3. Left: Pteranodon. Right: Diomedea (albatross).

In praise of Smithsonian muralist Jay Matternes

Figure 1. The guiding spirit of all living paleoartists (along with Charles R Knight) Jay Matternes is featured and honored in a recent Smithsonian Magazine online article.

Figure 1. The guiding spirit of all living paleoartists (along with Charles R Knight) Jay Matternes is featured and honored in a recent Smithsonian Magazine online article.

Never met the man.
Would someday like to. What an inspiration! And 50 years ago Matternes was just a young man, working alone, doing his own research and painting, and getting it right every time!

“He’s very influential for me and extremely inspiring,” says Julius Csotonyi, 45, the in-demand paleoartist from Vancouver who completed 59 separate works for the new hall. “Matternes does such an amazing job of realism in his artwork. What he does is make a prehistoric world and prehistoric creatures and not make them look like monsters, as some artwork might portray, but as real animals. His command of lighting is spectacular, the amount of detail that he puts into these pieces is just astounding.”

Read the entire online article here:
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/Meet-master-muralist-inspired-paleoartists-

“I had always thought of myself as an artist/naturalist,” says the now 86-year-old Matternes, from his home in Fairfax, Virginia. Back when he was on ladders and scaffolds doing the original murals, there wasn’t such a term as “paleoart.” But the tenets of the practice are the same, he says. “In order to interpret the past, you have to have a pretty good working knowledge of conditions in the present.”

And there’s a Jay Matternes art book available!
“Many of his preliminary sketches and drawings appear in the upcoming Visions of Lost Worlds: The Paleoart of Jay Matternes, from Smithsonian Books; “so much of which is beautiful in its own right,” says Matthew T. Carrano, the National Museum of Natural History’s dinosaur curator and the book’s co-author with museum director Kirk Johnson.”


References

jay-matternes.com

Ashland, Oregon, pterosaur exhibit

I recognized some of the models
in this traveling pterosaur exhibit (Fig. 1). They came from Triebold Paleontology, but originated at David Peters Studio. Unfortunately, I’m not keen on the poses the exhibitors gave these pterosaurs. Ironically they are sprawling, like lizards, but no one, but yours truly has adopted the lepidosaur origin of pterosaurs hypothesis.

FIgure 1. Pterosaur exhibit

Here’s the way
Pterodaustro should be posed (Fig. 2). It’s a wader, built for walking knee deep into still shallow waters to dip that long filter-toothed mandible — yet able, in a moment to leap into the air and take flight. Still the hind limbs are sprawling.

Figure 2. Pterodaustro sculpture

Here’s the way
Jeholopterus should be posed (Fig. 3), digitigrade with the shoulders directly over the toes.  The long finger claws of this vampire pterosaur were ideal for latching onto and in to, dinosaur skin. And this is the correct skull. Triebold, tossed out the correct skull and placed the more popular, but invalid, Bennett anurognathid skull (the one that mistook the mandibles for sclerotic (eyeball) rings.

Model of Jeholopterus, the famous vampire pterosaur.

Figure 2. Model of Jeholopterus, the famous vampire pterosaur.

Here’s the way
Dimorphodon would run around on the ground – digitigrade (proximal phalanges elevated, too), shoulders over the toes, pedal digit 5 retroverted. Nothing clumsy or awkward about this basal pterosaur! It was fast, agile and keeping those large finger claws sharp for clinging to tree trunks.

 

Figure x. Dimorphodon skeleton.

Figure x. Dimorphodon skeleton. The tail, not found with the rest of the skeleton, making this a chimaera, is too long.

Here’s the text of the online article:
“Long before Tyrannosaurus rex, the world was filled with pterosaurs — bizarre-looking flying reptiles, some as huge as a fighter jet, who ate everything, terrorizing the Mesozoic Age for 160 million years until they, like the dinosaurs, were killed off by a big asteroid.

“That little-known world, our window into which has been vastly expanded by science in the last few decades, has been recreated in a stunning new ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum exhibit that invites you, at one point, to virtually think, feel and fly like a pterosaur by flexing your arms and body.

“Entirely created by the Ashland’s museum staff and volunteers, it was built for under $250,000, a modest amount among museums these days, especially when they saw a San Francisco museum did their pterosaur exhibit for 30 times that, says Steve Utt, co-creator and president of ScienceWorks board of directors.

“Costs for ScienceWorks can be recouped by leasing it out, he says.

“A self-described “Silicon Valley escapee” eight years ago, Utt did all the seemingly magical if not miraculous software and video that plops you right in the middle of the pterosaur’s world, which started 228 million years ago and seems a lot stranger than any science fiction movie.

“Pterosaurs (pronounced “terra-soars”) have replaced the once terrible tyrannosaurus rex, hero of Jurassic Park, as an object of fascination because, says ScienceWorks exhibit director Leo Palombo, “there have been so many discoveries, so much we didn’t know about 10 or 15 years ago, and that’s what you see here — flying reptiles. They are not dinosaurs, not birds. Some had hair, not feathers — so many amazing sizes and shapes.”

“They all used to be called pterodactyls, but that word is outmoded now and applies only to a small subcategory. Displays at ScienceWorks seek to show the immense, newly-discovered range of body types, sizes, combs (those wild shapes on top of their heads), as well as their body architecture, which can only be described as an extremely inventive chapter of evolution.

“Displays explain that pterosaurs in general had long, pointy heads, usually with teeth, could fly up to 70 mph and would gather food by scooping it from water, land or air. They are not like bats, though they have skin-like wings, and these were made possible by the evolution of the fourth finger to hold a wing.

“Many of the exhibits teach you what various species did, how and where they did it — and then you turn around and there’s a video of a familiar beach on the Oregon coast with a couple of pterosaurs soaring in among the breakers, then alighting on our big beach rocks, where they sit and peck and preen. It’s just, simply, hard to believe this ever happened in what’s now Oregon, let alone that we have an accurate, scientific depiction of it.

“Len Eisenberg of ScienceWorks’ science advisory board stands at the most popular interactive pterosaur “ride,” urging participants to arch their heads back and wave their arms, as sensors pick up all these cues. There’s a learning curve and most who try it get chomped by a giant-jawed mososaur (sic) when they crash in the water. You get points for various foods you kill — squid, fish or ammonite. A sign shows the best score of the day, a 20, and you, usually have zero. It takes several times in a long line to get up to the skill of the pterosaur.

“This display and the science around pterosaurs is interesting because we’ve found lots more fossils and footprints in the last decade,” says Eisenberg, “all of which explain how they lived and got food.”

“Another interactive ride shows a seeming x-ray of your flapping human thorax, set beside the ancient creature and giving us a window on how much muscle and thin, fragile, lightweight bone had to be brought into play for it to fly.

“The stunning centerpiece of the new exhibit is the lifesize, 16-foot tall wood model of Quetzalcoatlus, the largest known flying creature of all time, which exhibit technician Rachel Benbrook and others fashioned using Turbo CAD and Adobe Illustrator.

“The public reception to this exhibit has been overwhelmingly positive and,” she says, “many people, seriously, have been blown away. That’s what we want — to inspire and encourage science education to the next level.”
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.”

References

http://www.dailytidings.com/news/20180430/imagination-soars-at-pterosaur-exhibit

A 1986 tribute to every paleontologist’s favorite cartoonist

On July 10. 2020
there was a strange bump in the number of people accessing this blogsite. Turns out 266 people accessed this page on the day cartoonist Gary Larson came back into the news. Here’s a NYTimes article from December 2019 previewing his return. 

Here are 14 minutes of a 1986 interview with Gary Larson
whose Far Side cartoons decorated the doors of every professional paleontologist back in the day. Click on the image to view in YouTube.

The Far Side series ended
on January 1, 1995 with Larson’s retirement.

Figure 1. Gary Larson, recent photo.

Figure 1. Gary Larson, recent photo.

Larson has asked people
not to use Far Side cartoons on the internet, writing a widely distributed letter in which he explains the “emotional cost” to him of people displaying his cartoons on their websites and asks them to stop doing so. If you want to see his work, it’s on his website below.

References
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gary_Larson
http://www.thefarside.com
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Far_Side

 

The evolution of Bugs Bunny

I saw this online and thought I’d save it for a rainy day.
I thought it worth sharing.

Wikipedia compiled this (Fig. 1), convergent, of course with the real rabbit series: MonodelphisPtillocercus > Tupaia > Zalambdalestes > GomphosOryctolagus

Figure 1. The evolution of our favorite 'wascally rabbit' Bugs Bunny.

Figure 1. The evolution of our favorite ‘wascally rabbit’ Bugs Bunny.

Earlier we looked at some spectacular Daffy Duck skeletons. (BTW, I note the included links have largely evaporated). The artist is Hyungkoo Lee.

But we still can link
to other artists who have done similar studies, like Michael Paulus.

Figure 2. I concocted this Ptero Road Runner for a 1990s SVP symposium.

Figure 2. I concocted this Ptero Road Runner for a 1990s SVP symposium on bipedal pterosaurs. Still surprisingly accurate compared to competing depictions!

.

 

 

There’s a giant pterosaur in my front yard!!

Figure 1. The simple house with the blacktop front yard. The mural is hard to see from this angle.

Figure 1. The simple house in Collinsvilled, IL, USA with the blacktop front yard. The mural is hard to see from this angle.

Figure 2. Better angle on the major portion of the Nyctosaurus mural. Missing parts are added in blue.

Figure 2. Better angle on the major portion of the Nyctosaurus mural. Missing parts are added in blue.

A month ago
I moved into a Collinsville, IL, USA house with a 6-car parking lot instead of front yard. Not sure what overtook me, but with a little spare time, a lot of driveway sealer and a can of paint, I added a 30×50 foot Nyctosaurus, the Nebraska specimen (UNSM 93000, Fig. 3) described by Gregory Brown. Missing parts imagined in blue. I’ll need a drone to take a better picture of it. This might be the start of a more elaborate image. Ah, the simple life, with a bit of flair. First pterosaur I’ve painted with a brush in a few decades, I think…

Figure 1. The UNSM specimen of Nyctosaurus, the only one for which we are sure it had only three wing phalanges.

Figure 3. The UNSM specimen of Nyctosaurus, the only one for which we are sure it had only three wing phalanges.

Figure 5. Cast of the UNSM 93000 specimen of Nyctosaurus. Missing parts are modeled here.

Figure 5. Cast of the UNSM 93000 specimen of Nyctosaurus. Missing parts are modeled here.

Full scale models from the vault

Back in the day
when I was writing and illustrating dinosaur books (1988~1992) I also built a few full scale models that I intended to use as subjects for paintings and museum displays. Here are most of them. Other models include the pterosaur skeletons you can see here.

Figure 1. Brachiosaurus skull, carved out of wood. Full scale.

Figure 1. Brachiosaurus skull, carved out of wood. Full scale.

At this point in my life
(1990s) the work (paintings / illustrations) was considered ‘acceptable.’ Even my papers were ‘acceptable.’ Unfortunately, when I started applying phylogenetic analysis to taxa and discovering new and overlooked relationships (published at ReptileEvolution.com, ) my work and manuscripts were no longer considered ‘acceptable,’ despite the fact that early discoveries made here are being re-discovered and validated years later by PhDs.

FIgure 2. Camarasaurus baby model. Full scale.

FIgure 2. Camarasaurus baby model. Full scale.

This Dimorphodon
(Fig. 3) was among the first of the models, based on Kevin Padian’s 1983 running illustrations.

Figure 3. Dimorphodon skull with dog hair for pycnofibers.

Figure 3. Dimorphodon skull with dog hair for pycnofibers.

Not sure why I produced this plesiosaur
because it took up a bunch of garage space and only entertained the mailman. Ultimately it was purchased by the AMNH, but never put on display. Where it is now is anyone’s guess.

Figure 4. Plesiosaur model. Full scale.

Figure 4. Plesiosaur model. Full scale. See figure 5 for the face.

Much of this plesiosaur
was fashioned at the late Bob Cassilly studios, who was a famous St. Louis sculptor and founder of The City Museum. Bob contacted me after seeing my book, Giants, because he had been commissioned to produce some of the giant marine animals pictured therein. Through that friendship in the 1990s, I was able to study specimens, including Sharovipteryx and Longisquama, from the traveling Russian Dinosaur Exposition that came to the City Museum for their first stop.

Figure 5. Plesiosaur model head detail. Full scale. Teeth are tree thorns.

Figure 5. Plesiosaur model head detail. Full scale. Teeth are tree thorns.

Among the smaller full scale models
is this sparrow-sized Pterodactylus in a bipedal pose (Fig. 6), ready to take flight.

FIgure 6. Pterodactylus scolopaciceps (n21) model. Full scale.

FIgure 6. Pterodactylus scolopaciceps (n21) model. Full scale. Later I learned that this genus was plantigrade (flat-footed), when quadrupedal. This one is about to take flight from a bipedal configuration. Digitigrady at this instance would have given Pterodactylus a bit more power in its initial leap during take-off.

And based on the evolution book

From the Beginning, these three (Fig. 7) are fleshed out steps in the evolution of tetrapods, cynodonts, mammals and man. Ichthyostega is a bit out of date now.

Figure 7. Ichthyostega, Osteolepis and Thrinaxodon, all more or less ancestral to humans. Full scale.

Figure 7. Ichthyostega, Osteolepis and Thrinaxodon, all more or less ancestral to humans. Full scale.

References
Padian K 1983. Osteology and functional morphology of Dimorphodon macronyx (Buckland) (Pterosauria: Rhamphorhynchoidea) based on new material in the Yale Peabody Museum, Postilla, 189: 1-44.

A Dinosaur Year 1989 Calendar

This ‘blast from the past’ by request: 
Click here or on image to download all 13 lorez images from my 1989 Dinosaur Year calendar, published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. Thanks for the request, Leo!

I see two copies are presently available from Amazon.com here.

Click to download PDF of cover + 12 months of 1989 Dinosaur Year Calendar pix by David Peters at 72 dpi. It's over 25 years old and you'll find mistakes here. It was a product of its time.

Click to download PDF of cover + 12 months of 1989 Dinosaur Year Calendar pix by David Peters at 72 dpi. It’s over 25 years old and you’ll find mistakes here. It was a product of its time.

The calendar is over 25 years old
and you’ll find mistakes galore. It was a product of its time and the first time I ever painted dinosaurs in settings.

This followed
the book GIANTS and A Gallery of Dinosaurs, which illustrated dinosaurs on white backgrounds, all to the same scale. Both books are available as pdf files here and as used books at several online sites.

Where are the originals?
Collectors purchased all the originals except for the Brachiosaurus family in a pond (December) because it has a razor knife cut in the sky over the mountain top, inflicted upon opening the package at the publisher. It’s hanging on the wall over my monitor as I type this and I never notice the slit.

But wait! There’s more!
Click here to connect to a FREE build-it-yourself paper Pteranodon model.
And click here to connect to a FREE build-it-yourself paper Thalassomedon model.
All you need is 8.5×11″ bristol (stiff) paper, some glue or tape and a scissors or knife. Have fun, kids!

New pterosaur website: www.pteros.com

I see some great things
in the new pterosaur website http://www.pteros.com produced by several artists who show pterosaurs in vivo with skin, fur, colors, highlights and shadows (no skeletons). Those known from only a skull or other parts are illustrated as complete, no doubt based on phylogenetic bracketing.

Nine young, male artists
listed here contribute to the website. The pterosaurs are listed alphabetically here. Pterosaur families are listed here. There environments/formations are listed here. They have a newsletter, but I have not yet seen my first one.

Unfortunately,
like most pterosaur workers, these nine artists don’t know what a pterosaur is. They report, “They were not dinosaurs as most assume, instead being flying reptiles and rather close relatives.” That’s a major weakness because we know what pterosaurs are based on a large scale (674 taxa) phylogenetic analysis, the large reptile tree. And they are more closely related to living lizards than to living birds/dinosaurs. And then there’s the literature (Peters 2000), which has been largely ignored by workers in favor of traditional hypotheses unable to provide specific data.

Fortunately
several of the artists have followed the narrow chord wing with hind limbs outstretched like horizontal stabilizers with pedal lateral digit 5 unbound from posterior uropatagia.

Unfortunately,
several others have not. They continue to follow old deep chord paradigms.

Fortunately,
most of these artists know how to bounce light off of surfaces and their use of perspective and camera angle is fascinating.

Unfortunately
several artists do not have good skeletons under those surfaces. It is so important to precise;y follow the fossil data and not make things up.

Fortunately
there are several artists involved here and they should be providing guidance to each other to avoid errors and ‘raise their game. ‘

Unfortunately
some of the text (as in Rhamphorhynchus) mistakes small adults for babies (Prondvai et al. 2012, and we’ll talk about that paper again tomorrow). Although some papers are referred to, no references are provided. I have not looked at every web page. So, the above comments represent my views on a quick run through…

While we’re talking about pterosaur art…
I found this wonderful Zhenyuanopterus online (Fig. 1, NOT at pteros.com). Not sure who the artist is, but it has an excellent morphology with narrow chord wings and horizontal stabilizer-like hind limbs. If you know the artist, send me the name so I can give credit.

Figure 1. Excellent Zhenyuanopterus by an unknown artist. I'd be happy to provide credit once that artist becomes known.

Figure 1. Excellent Zhenyuanopterus by an unknown artist. I’d be happy to provide credit once that artist becomes known.

References
Peters D 2000. A reexamination of four prolacertiforms with implications for pterosaur phylogenesis. Rivista Italiana di Paleontologia e Stratigrafia 106: 293–336.
Prondvai E, Stein K, Osi A, Sander MP 2012.
Life History of Rhamphorhynchus Inferred from Bone Histology and the Diversity of Pterosaurian Growth Strategies. PLoS ONE 7(2): e31392. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0031392