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
“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
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 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).

Can you make a living as a paleontologist?

Short one today
as I refer you to professor Donald Prothero’s web page here. This seems to be a precise summary of what you need to know about the profession of paleontology in 2019 — all the practical facts of life for aspiring paleontologists.

Bottom line: Very few aspirants make it to their dream job.
So be nice to the young, wandering PhDs we all know or have heard about. It has to be frustrating for them seeking a position at a university or museum, waiting for an opening. And when they get that job, the duties of the position often take them away from their studies.

Makes me glad that I did not go through the PhD route,
but just started digging and discovering without the tutelage of a traditional professor (Fig. 1). In paleontology, everything you need to know can be found in the textbooks and literature. And you can make contributions as soon as you have something to say.

More changes are coming to the fish portion of the LRT
as taxa currently known by diagram data jump from one node to another. Looking forward to presenting these results.

“An example of why we need heretics”

The following Joe Rogan video (#872, 3.5 hours)
discusses the extinction of North American megafauna about 12,000 years ago, comet research and other issues of interest. The headline (above) is a quote from the video.

There are scientists working today
and over the last century, that were dismissed by critics, accused of pseudoscience, then later lauded for their discoveries and efforts. That doesn’t happen to everybody. The guests also talk about the Spokane megaflood that hit North America and several other topics, often involving comet impacts.




Sometimes it takes the paleo crowd an ‘epoch’ to accept new data

A few short bios here demonstrate 
that paleontology often takes a lonnnggg time to accept data, break with paradigm and adopt new hypotheses. Judge for yourself whether this is due to data, peer pressure, public opinion, inertia, fear, pride, being too busy or what have you.

Thomas Henry Huxley
In the 1860s TH Huxley proposed a relationship between birds and dinosaurs. According to Wikipedia: “Huxley had little formal schooling and was virtually self-taught. He became perhaps the finest comparative anatomist of the latter 19th century. After comparing Archaeopteryx with Compsognathus, he concluded that birds evolved from small carnivorous dinosaurs, a theory widely accepted today.” But not back then.

“Darwin’s ideas and Huxley’s controversies gave rise to many cartoons and satires (cartoon attacks continue in the present day). It was the debate about man’s place in nature that roused such widespread comment: cartoons are so numerous as to be almost impossible to count.”

“Although Huxley was opposed by the very influential Owen, his conclusions were accepted by many biologists, including Baron Franz Nopcsa (that’s good to know!)while others, notably Harry Seeley, argued that the similarities were due to convergent evolution. After the work of Heilmann, the absence of clavicles in dinosaurs became the orthodox view despite the discovery of clavicles in the primitive theropod Segisaurus in 1936. The next report of clavicles in a dinosaur was in a Russian article in 1983.” Even so, that paradigm was not broken for another 17 years. See below.

John Ostrom
According to Wikipedia, “Ostron, revolutionized modern understanding of dinosaurs in the 1960s. His 1964 discovery of Deinonychus is considered one of the most important fossil finds in history. The first of Ostrom’s broad-based reviews of the osteology and phylogeny of the primitive bird Archaeopteryx appeared in 1976.” That’s his legacy. However, his life, as he lived it, was apparently something different and something we can all empathize with.

According to the Hartford Courant (2000), “In 1973, Ostrom broke from the scientific mainstream by reviving a Victorian-era hypothesis (see above) that his colleagues considered far-fetched: Birds, he said, evolved from dinosaurs. And he spent the rest of his career trying to prove it.” With the announcement of the first dinosaurs with feathers from China, Ostrom (then age 73) was in no mood to celebrate. He is quoted as saying, ““I’ve been saying the same damn thing since 1973, `I said, `Look at Archaeopteryx!'” Ostrom was the first scientist to collect physical evidence for the theory. Ostrom provoked a debate that raged for decades. “At first they said, `Oh John, you’re crazy,”’ Ostrom said in 1999.

Robert Bakker
Wikipedia reports, “One alternate hypothesis challenging Seeley’s classification (the dichotomy of Saurischia/Ornithisichia) was proposed by Robert T. Bakker in his 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies. Bakker’s classification separated the theropods into their own group and placed the two groups of herbivorous dinosaurs (the sauropodomorphs and ornithischians) together in a separate group he named the Phytodinosauria (“plant dinosaurs”). The Phytodinosauria hypothesis was based partly on the supposed link between ornithischians and prosauropods, and the idea that the former had evolved directly from the later, possibly by way of an enigmatic family that seemed to possess characters of both groups, the segnosaurs. However, it was later found that segnosaurs were actually an unusual type of herbivorous theropod saurischian closely related to birds, and the Phytodinosauria hypothesis fell out of favor.” Yes, the segnosaurs are indeed derived theropods, but the Phytodinosauria is recovered in the large reptile tree. Click here for a supporting opinion (not supported by a cladogram).

There are several hundred daily readers of this blog
Many read it because they hate it. Others because they find something interesting enough here to keep coming back. Still others drop in to see what’s up only when something big or controversial comes around.

Only every so often
does the world of paleontology comes around to agree with conclusions first found here. The ‘Eoraptor as a phytodinosaur’ hypothesis comes to mind as an example.

On the other hand,
I’ve noticed if I have anything to do with a hypothesis (pterosaur origins, reptile origins, dinosaur origins, etc.), others completely avoid the taxa, avoid the hypothesis and to top it off, Hone and Benton (2009) went so far as to attribute my published work to another worker after earlier (Hone and Benton 2007) making the correct attribution. It can be crazy out there. Not sure why…

Perhaps there is a reason for this conservatism
As readers have seen here on many, many occasions, a long list of paleontologists have come up with incorrect hypotheses, especially in the realm of systematics. As has been demonstrated, much of this is due to relying on old matrices, inappropriate taxon exclusion and inclusion, problems minimized with a large gamut study like the large reptile tree. But that is something that most paleontologists are currently loathe to accept or even test. Then again…

Conspicuous by its absence, Cartorhynchus was excluded from Ji et al. 2016.
Earlier we looked at a new ichthyosaur cladogram by Ji et al. 2016. Yesterday it crossed my mind that the cladogram did not include the Early Triassic Cartorhynchus, which Motani et al. 2014 considered a strange “basal ichthyosauriform.” Earlier here and here we nested Cartorhynchus as a basal sauropterygian/ pachypleurosaur. Montani, Ji and Rieppel were coauthors on both studies. So that team was aware of Cartorhynchus and two years had passed since publication. So, what happened? I can only wonder if the large reptile tree had some influence.

Ji C, Jiang D-Y, Motani R, Rieppel O, Hao W-C and Sun Z-Y 2016. Phylogeny of the Ichthyopterygia incorporating recent discoveries from South China. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 36(1):e1025956. doi:
Motani R, Jiang D-Y, Chen G-B, Tintori A, Rieppel O, Ji C and Huang D 2014. A basal ichthyosauriform with a short snout from the Lower Triassic of China. Nature doi:10.1038/nature13866



Good Dr. Bakker on YouTube

A few notes
from a Robert Bakker (Fig. 1) keynote talk in  2013 at the St. Clair County Community College STEM Conference online here at YouTube.

Figure 1. Robert Bakker in 2013.

Figure 1. Robert Bakker in 2013.

  1. At the age of 16 Mary Anning was correcting anatomical descptions of paleo professors of the time (1820s). They did not like it. (hmm, sounds familiar).
  2. Baby allosaurs ate from large carcasses along with medium (female?) and giant-sized (male) parents based n tooth size. Probable that ‘mom and pop’ dragged the kill back to the lair, like an eagle family.
  3. On the other hand, 66 Deinonychus teeth were preserved at the scene with Tenontosaurus, from 12 attackers. Perhaps not oddly, some teeth were buried in other Deinonychus specimens. Bakker considers cannibalism a form of intelligent recycling and described a similar situation when an alpha wolf displayed a lame paw.
Answering audience questions:
  1. At half the size, Nanotyrannus had larger arms larger than an adult T-rex, so they were not conspecific.
  2. Arms of T-rex had a use! Osborn said for touching during courtship, claws are blunt, not hooks.
  3. Dinosaurs and pterosaurs are closely related (darn, he was doing so good until that point!) Common traits include: large brains, hinge ankles, furry coverings.
  4. Plesiosaurs are way, way off from dinosaur ancestry (actually the large reptile tree finds plesiosaurs closer to dinos than pteros.
  5. What good are feathers? Hard to bite through feathers, samurai armor was once made of lacquered feathers, sun bounces off of feathers, feathers are colorful, etc.
  6. Triceratops was the most dangerous dinosaur of all time.
  7. Favorite dinosaur of R. Bakker: Ceratosaurus, sharp teeth, horn on the face.
  8. Bird feathers are modified scales (on the other hand, Prum and Brush 2002  rethought the origin of feathers and showed that feathers are not modified scales)

The Dinosaur Heresies book by Dr. Robert Bakker.

As everyone knows, Dr. Robert Bakker is the author and illustrator of the Dinosaur Heresies, a big influence on present day dinosaur workers and a big influence on this blog site.

Prum RO and Brush AH 2002. The evolutionary origin and diversification of feathers (PDF). The Quarterly Review of Biology 77 (3): 261–295.

Jessica Noviello’s ‘Behind the Bones’ documentary


Jessica Noviello as your on- and off-camera tour guide to various halls of paleontology as well as various paleontologists of note. Click to view video.

Here’s a video that’s homemade and delightful. A great intro to paleontology and paleontologists. Jessica Noviello is the director, producer and sometime on-screen talent.

Stephen Czerkas

Paleoartist and writer Stephen Czerkas died this week.
I respected his artwork (Fig. 1). He was 63 years old.

Stephen Czerkas paleoartist with his most famous creation, before and after feathers.

Figure 1. Stephen Czerkas paleoartist with his most famous creation, Deinonychus, before and after feathers.

I only met Stephen Czerkas once, 
but saw his famous Deinonychus everywhere. He and his wife Sylvia were at or near the center of dinosaur reconstruction several decades ago when I was just a pup. They published several books. Opened a museum. Introduced the world to sauropod spines and made some bad decisions.

Stephen Czerkas was a serious worker, intent on ‘getting things right.’ To that end he added feathers to his Deinonychus (Fig. 1).

Sorry to see him go. He influenced us all.

Learn more here from Bill Stout’s homage to Stephen Czerkas.


Just for Fun: A Paleontologist’s Dream…


On several levels this is a great moment and great image. Still it inspires a smile as it brings to mind a similar layout in a Gary Larson cartoon from years ago (see below).  :  )

Probably THE classic Gary Larson cartoon draws parallels with the North Carolina professors above, with all due respect.

Probably THE classic Gary Larson cartoon draws certain parallels with the North Carolina professors and their treasured find (above), with all due respect and a tip of the hat to one and all.   :  )

Yes, paleontologists do dream in color.