What is Paleontology?

Fossil Handbook Cover Illustration

Cover illustration for Volume 1 of Goldring's Handbook of Paleontology, 1929. Courtesy of New York State Museum.

Paleontologists like Goldring spent most of their time doing research, not creating exhibits.  But what, exactly, was Goldring researching?

Paleontology is the study of prehistoric life, especially through fossils.  Goldring described fossils as "the remains of plants or animals, or the record of their presence, preserved in the rocks of the earth." Paleontology combines a lot of other sciences, such as biology and geology.  When Goldring worked on the Gilboa forest exhibit, she was doing paleobotany, the study of prehistoric plants.  Her goal was to figure out what the plants used to look like based on the mineral evidence they left behind.  

Geologic Timescale

Simplified Geologic Time Scale, USGS




Because prehistory covers billions of years, geologists and paleontologists break up geologic time into more manageable pieces called eons, eras, periods, and epochs.  Goldring specialized in the Devonian Period, a time of transition between a world dominated by marine life to one in which plants and insects lived on land.  Although the beginning and ending dates for the period shift as new research is published, paleobotanists generally agree that the Devonian trees fossilized at Gilboa lived around 390 million years ago.  

Paleontology in the 1920s
What is Paleontology?