What is a Palaeontologist?

If you loved the movie Jurassic Park and have a passion for dinosaurs and fossils – being a Paleontologist is the job for you!  A Paleontologist is a scientist who studies the history of life on earth.  They explore and find evidence of ancient life, usually in sedimentary rock.  This can include remains of all kinds of organisms: animals and plants.  These studies explain how life on earth has reached its present state.

There are many specialised areas of paleontology:

  • Invertebrate Paleontology:  is the study of invertebrate animal fossils (animals that don’t have bones)
  • Vertebrate Paleontology:  is the study of vertebrate fossils (animals with bones – fish and mammals)
  • Micropaleontology:  is the study of microscopic fossils
  • Paleobotany:  is the study of fossil plants (fossil algae, fungi and land plants)
  • Palynology:  is the study of pollen and spores (living and fossil)
  • Paleoanthropology:  is the study of prehistoric humans
  • Taphonomy:  is the study of decay and the formation of fossils
  • Ichnology:  is the study of fossil tracks, trails, and footprints
  • Paleoecology:  is the study of fossils to determine the ecology and climate of our past
  • Biostratigraphy:  is the study of the vertical distribution of fossils in rocks

What does a Palaeontologist do?

  • researching regions that might have bones and fossils
  • fieldwork – including searching and discovery bones and fossils
  • laboratory work – cleaning the discovered bones and fossils
    chemically analysing collections
  • reconstructing and putting together structures and skeletons
  • preparing exhibits
  • writing scientific papers
  • documenting theories based on findings
  • teaching

Are you . . . ?

  • interested in history?
  • interested in biology?
  • love dinosaurs and fossils?
  • able to work on your own?
  • love laboratory work?
  • loves the outdoors?
  • patient?
  • methodical?
  • love research?
  • organised?
  • good communicator (written and spoken)

How do I become a Palaeontologist?

Most students start off with a Bachelor of Science degree.  Most universities in SA offer this degree.  Choosing subjects from the Life Sciences (Botany, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Zoology, Marine Biology, Entomology, Ichthyology) and Earth Sciences (Geography, Geology and Environmental Science) will be beneficial.

Admission requirements could differ from one university to another.  Please check your chosen universities website for their requirements.

Minimum requirements:


Is the only School in South Africa offering specialist Honours degrees in Palaeontology.


National Senior Certificate with:

English (Home Language or Additional Language) and another language both at rating 4 or above

Either Mathematics at rating 5 or above or Mathematical Literacy at rating 6 or above

Either Life Sciences at rating 4 or above or Physical Sciences at rating 4 or above

Life Orientation at rating 4 or above – but no points are scored for this subject

Any two other subjects (preferably one of which should be another science).


National Senior Certificate (NSC)
Mathematics: 5 (60%-69%)
Physical Science: 5 (60%-69%)
English or Afrikaans: 4 (50%-59%)
Additional language 4 (50%-59%)
Life Orientation: 4 (50%-59%) (Excluded when calculating the APS)
Two other subjects: 4 (50%-59%)
An Admission Points Score (APS) of 30


National Senior Certificate with an APS of 435.
Mathematics 6 (70%)
Physical Science 5 (60%)
NBT in Mathematics, AL & QL to be written

BSc students can then do postgraduate degrees: Honours and PhD’s in specific subjects that you are interested in.


OTHER CAREERS TO CONSIDER: Archaeologist or Land Surveyor

Is becoming a Palaeontologist the right career choice for me?

See below for more info.