How to Become a Paleontologist with Adele Pentland

Australian paleontologist Adele Pentland with Ferrodraco lentoni

Adele Pentland, Vertebrate Palaeontologist and Expert in Australian Pterosaurs

At Dinosaur Trips, we’re not just interested in dinosaurs and prehistoric life, we’re also interested in the history of paleontology, the paleontologists across generations who have shaped our understanding and appreciation for prehistoric life, and the incredible adventures that are tied to some of the most exciting discoveries in paleontology history.

Which begs the question: How do you become a paleontologist?

To learn more, Dinosaur Trips founder & director Zach Vanasse is chatting with people from all across the paleontology spectrum to learn more about what it’s like becoming and working as a paleontologist.

For this special three-part edition of ‘How to Become a Paleontologist,’ Zach got to talk to Adele Pentland, Australian Vertebrate Palaeontologist, expert in Australian Pterosaurs, and host of the excellent and entertaining ‘Pals in Palaeo’ podcast.

Zach Vanasse: A lot of Dinosaur Trips guests want to become paleontologists themselves and the main question I hear time and time again, and certainly heard it a lot as we were out in Alberta recently, was how does one become a paleontologist?

So I was wondering, Adele, if you could take us through your journey to becoming a paleontologist. Everybody I talk to has a very different story. I guess start a little bit with your background. You’re down under in Australia. So how did you become a paleontologist?

Adele Pentland: Yeah, so I grew up in the suburbs around Melbourne, but I’m currently based in Winton, in Outback Queensland. Winton is sort of known as the dinosaur capital of Australia. So there’s a lot of dinosaur discoveries made out this way. I didn’t always want to be a palaeontologist when I grew up. I actually wanted to be a vet and it just so happened that for my final year of high school, I got pretty good marks, but I didn’t get the marks I needed to get into the program that would then lead me into vet science. 

So instead, I did a Bachelor of Science and I knew I wanted to do biology and chemistry, and I needed to do a prerequisite math course.

And then the fourth unit, I just happened to pick geosciences because the coordinator for that unit was Dr. Marion Anderson, who has done test runs of Mars rovers in the Outback Australia. She was saying that their graduate students were getting six-figure jobs out of uni, and I thought that sounded really great.

So I just kind of fell into the geology program that way, and then when it came time to do some paleontology units we had Dr. Chris Mays, who is a paleobotanist and palynologist. So he studies fossil plants mainly and fossil spore and pollen grains. And Chris was just super charismatic and really passionate about teaching. I was just hooked on paleontology from there.

I finished my Bachelor of Science and then did a Bachelor of Science Honours, which is something sort of more common here in Australia. It’s kind of like a Master’s Program.  It’s a one year research project essentially. I really wanted to work with Chris and I was hoping to do a project on the Chatham Islands, which is a small set of islands off the coast of New Zealand.

I didn’t get into that either, but I ended up working on amber. So the amber that I studied was 40 million years old. It’s from the Eocene. It was many hours spent looking down a microscope trying to find anything trapped in amber. So the biggest thing of interest to us was insects, but we were also finding fossil fungi and fossil bacteria. And yeah, a couple of insects popped up too. 

Oh, wow. So were you at all interested in dinosaurs as a kid or was it really the paleontology part kicked in once you kind of got down the road of geology?

I don’t remember having a paleontology phase or a big dinosaur phase, but I do remember that sometimes I would get my parents to read me these animal fact files from either Australian Geographic or National Geographic. I didn’t want to hear a bedtime story, I wanted to hear about animals.

So I wanted to work on animals. I’m really interested in the taxonomy and learning about different species and how to pick them apart. But that just seemed like a more viable career path. A safer path, I guess, even to a young kid.

I find that really interesting. On your podcast, it’s obvious that the taxonomy, the history, the wildlife nature of dinosaurs is very interesting to you. And I think that’s one of the things that can sometimes even be a challenge for people is thinking that dinosaurs are just for kids.

And what I’m recognizing even more as I go even deeper on this stuff with Dinosaur Trips is that it’s really about studying prehistoric wildlife. It’s about imagining these worlds that existed and just trying to piece it all back together. And there’s something really exciting and feels really alive about that, despite the fact that we’re looking at fossils from 65 to 200 million, 300 million years ago at times.

I think your podcast brings it out very well; the idea that paleontology is something alive and exciting with new and exciting discoveries happening all the time in this field.

Yeah, and I think for me as a kid as well, l I loved Pokemon. I loved fantasy worlds. I think paleontology gives you a glimpse of that. You get to picture the world that is totally different from the way it is now. 

I often talk about Antarctica on the podcast and the fact that it hasn’t always been a frozen land. There were forests, there were dinosaurs running around there as well. 

And there’s also something about also being out in the field and finding the remains of these ancient creatures and getting glimpses into past life, but also the lives of individuals as well. 

Sometimes we find shed teeth at a dig site. So we’ll be digging up the bones of a big long-neck dinosaur and we’ll find these teeth from a potentially scavenging or hunting meat-eating dinosaur. And you just get these little glimpses that highlight the fact that these were living, breathing animals many, many millions of years ago. 

I recently came back from a trip to Alberta and we were at a dig site where you could see evidence of that exact thing. These were mainly Ceratopsian dinosaurs that they were finding; Pachyrhinosaurus. But the other thing that they find in this dense, dense, dense bonebed, which I found really interesting, were exactly what you’re saying; teeth from theropods (carnivorous dinosaurs).

And then you find evidence of the plant life that would have been there, and it just starts to expand your whole ability to try to comprehend what the world looked like 75 million years ago. This idea that this dry, arid environment would have been a lush rainforest, it really sparks the imagination in ways that I think perhaps some people just don’t realize.

Paleontology can feel like it’s either a stodgy science where you’re just looking at old bones, or it’s something for kids where it’s a fantasy world of sorts with dragon-like creatures. But there’s really a lot to be unpacked; and as a paleontologist you get to unpack that all the time!

And that’s the next thing I wanted to dive into with you; digs. You were just out at some digs. Tell us what you’ve been up to and what that experience is like in Australia.

I’ve been really fortunate to be on a number of digs and I’ve also helped run some digs as well. Most of the field work I’ve done has been with the Australian Age of Dinosaurs and the Museum of Natural History in Winton.

But I’ve also done some dinosaur digs on the coast of Victoria and they’re very different. Out in Winton, it’s grasslands, it’s plains, it’s open. There’s not a lot of trees around.

And we’re often digging on private property and we’re very fortunate in that the local landowners, the graziers, the farmers, are normally really invested in the success of our digs. One in particular, if things seem to be petering out, she’ll start to go around and potentially scope out some new dig sites for us.

Out here, we normally need to remove about one metre, which would be about three to four feet, of overburden. And we normally remove that overburden with heavy machinery.

Whereas in Victoria, on the coast, it’s completely different because we dig on national parks land through their permits and we cannot build any permanent structures. And we’re digging in the intertidal zone, so often a day of digging in Victoria, on the coast, starts with shoveling wet sand for an hour or two just to pick up where you left off from the previous day in order to get to your target horizon.

So it’s completely different dig experiences. The rock is also really different in Victoria. It’s as hard as concrete. And I’m sure if I went to Alberta, it would just be completely different again.

Yeah. That’s what I’m just just starting to get a real sense of for myself, it’s not just the geography and the culture that’s unique to each destination, but literally the dinosaur bones themselves, the way you find them, the way you dig for them, the way they’re going to look when you find them; it’s all very different from place to place. 

Yeah, absolutely. Sometimes you can be digging in a floodplain, so there’ll just be bits and pieces of a bunch of different groups represented. You might be finding bits of fish, bits of turtle, plant fossils, bits of sauropod, bits of Megaraptor, bits of theropod.

And then sometimes you’re just at one site and everything’s in a concretion, everything is in this giant rock, you can kind of see glimpses of the bone, but then at that point, your objective is to then try and just recover everything and then send it back to the lab for preparation where they actually have the time and the right tools available to remove that really hard rock from the bone and ensure that the fossil is stabilized and it’s not being compromised and damaged unnecessarily.

So, do you like digging? Is it part of the job that you enjoy?

I think we have a really fun culture in Winton. Obviously the people that you work with can make or break it. And I love the digs in Victoria, too.

But in Winton, normally we have a bit of an open bar situation, so at the end of the day there’s beer, there’s wine, we play, well it’s called bocce but we call it bodgy because our pitch is just so messed up. We just sort of hang out and we have a lot of fun.

And because I also help my husband run a 32, 500 acre sheep and cattle station or ranch, I’m kind of used to being outdoors.

For other people, that’s kind of not for them. I love doing both (digs and lab work), and I have a number of fossils I should be working on in museums. So heading out to dinosaur digs for three weeks in a year is a bit of a guilty pleasure because we don’t normally find many pterosaurs, which is what I’m doing my PhD on.

You learn something new every single dig season.

How to Become a Paleontologist with Adele Pentland

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