pa·​le·​on·​tol·​o·​gy ˌpā-lē-ˌän-ˈtä-lə-jē How to pronounce paleontology (audio)
 especially British  ˌpa-
: a science dealing with the life of past geologic periods as known from fossil remains
To many Americans, and nearly all young ones, paleontology can be summed up in one word: dinosaurs.Jerry A. Coyne
paleontological adjective
or less commonly paleontologic
paleontologist noun

Did you know?

Until the 1820s, hardly anyone even suspected that dinosaurs had ever existed. In the years since, paleontology has sought to discover the entire history of life on earth, from the era of single-celled organisms up into the human era. Paleontologists continue to make remarkable discoveries, such as that a huge meteorite that fell in the Gulf of Mexico wiped out the dinosaurs—all except the birds, the only surviving dinosaurs. "Radiometric dating" can reveal the age (often tens of millions of years) of a rock or fossil or a tiny grain of pollen by measuring how much its radioactive elements have disintegrated. The study of molecules of DNA, RNA, and proteins has also become important for dating. Paleontologists often consult with geologists searching for oil, gas, and coal deposits, since all these "fossil fuels" were formed from plant and animal remains.

Examples of paleontology in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Laura is a science news writer, covering a wide variety of subjects, but she is particularly fascinated by all things aquatic, paleontology, nanotechnology, and exploring how science influences daily life. Laura Baisas, Popular Science, 7 Sep. 2023 Gentry, who holds a PhD in paleontology, has studied fossils in Alabama for years and previously discovered two new species of turtles found from fossils in the state. Timothy Bella, Anchorage Daily News, 1 Sep. 2023 Collections include artwork, archaeological artifacts, paleontology specimens and more Details: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Monday; closed on Tuesday. The Arizona Republic, 16 Aug. 2023 Beyond revealing another record-breaking find, the new study is also a victory for Egyptian and African paleontology, CNN reports. Shi En Kim, Smithsonian Magazine, 11 Aug. 2023 There are also petroglyphs and paleontology exhibits. Evie Carrick, Travel + Leisure, 21 Apr. 2023 Riley Black | | READ MORE Riley Black is a freelance science writer specializing in evolution, paleontology and natural history who blogs regularly for Scientific American. Riley Black, Smithsonian Magazine, 12 Apr. 2023 Other Texas museums have been beefing up their local paleontology programs as well. Asher Elbein Nina Riggio, New York Times, 17 July 2023 But for most of the history of paleontology in the Isle of Wight, only a handful of species have been discovered. Joshua Rapp Learn, Discover Magazine, 14 July 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'paleontology.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from French palaeontologie (later paléontologie), from palae- pale- + ont- (probably from Greek ónta "the things that exist, reality," noun derivative from neuter plural of ont-, ṓn, present participle of eînai "to be") + -o- -o- + -logie -logy — more at is

Note: The French noun was introduced by the zoologist Henri-Marie Ducrotay de Blainville (1777-1850), as a heading for a summary of work done on fossils in 1821 ("Analyse des principaux Travaux dans les Sciences physiques, publiés dans l'année 1821"), in Journal de physique, de chimie, d'histoire naturelle et des arts, tome 94 (janvier 1822), p. liv. Blainville had earlier (tome 90, 1820, p. 80) used palaeosomiologie in the same sense (for "l'étude des corps organisés fossiles," i.e., the study of fossil organisms), in an effort to find a word that included the remains of both plants and animals, but he seems to have judged this coinage inadequate and replaced it with palaeontologie. See Martin J. S. Rudwick, Worlds before Adam: The Reconstruction of Geohistory in the Age of Reform (University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 48-49.

First Known Use

1833, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of paleontology was in 1833

Dictionary Entries Near paleontology

Cite this Entry

“Paleontology.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 21 Sep. 2023.

Kids Definition


pa·​le·​on·​tol·​o·​gy ˌpā-lē-ˌän-ˈtäl-ə-jē How to pronounce paleontology (audio)
: a science dealing with the life of past geological periods as known especially from fossil remains
paleontological adjective
also paleontologic

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