Palaeontologist

Palaeontologist

Lorna Steel

How did our young scientists get interested in the natural world?

Lorna Steel - Palaeontologist

A palaeontologist studies fossils. Lorna specialises in flying reptiles known as pterosaurs. She helps to look after the collections of fossil reptiles, birds and amphibians at the Museum, which means she is a curator.

What made you want to be a palaeontologist?
Lorna Steel

Lorna Steel

Some of my earliest memories are of visiting the Natural History Museum with my mum and younger brother. I still have a dinosaur postcard from a visit when I was 4! But it wasn't until the final year of my biology degree at university that I studied basic vertebrate palaeontology, and got really into it.

After my degree I spent my savings on a specialist 1-year course and then worked as a university research assistant for a year. A nearby museum gave me a summer job leading fossil-hunting trips for families, and this led to a full-time job there. After a few years I applied for 2 jobs at the Natural History Museum, and to my surprise I got one of them!

What advice would you give anyone wanting to be a palaeontologist?

You need to study science at school. Biology and geology are the most relevant subjects. For many jobs, you will have to be a student until you're about 25 or even older!

Go fossil collecting, but make sure you do it legally and safely, and go with someone who knows the site well.

You can volunteer in museums, but remember that not all palaeontologists work in museums. Many collect and study fossils in their spare time, not as a paid job.

What subjects at school were you best at?

I was really good at art. In fact I did well in most subjects because I liked learning, reading and writing. I really loved history.

What's the best thing about being a palaeontologist?

The best thing about being a palaeontologist in a museum is being responsible for the care of important specimens. I meet interesting people from around the world, and help them to use our collections for their research. I also get opportunities to travel to conferences and to do fieldwork.

Talking about my work to adults and children visiting the Museum at Nature Live events is also great fun.

What's the worst thing about being a palaeontologist?

The worst thing is if a fragile specimen gets broken, although we have very good conservators who can repair them.

I also hate having to move heavy specimens. The pterosaurs that I work with are not too bad but some of the dinosaur specimens are difficult to move.

What's the most exciting thing you've found, discovered or researched?

A few years ago when I worked for a museum on the Isle of Wight, I named a new type of pterosaur. I called it Caulkicephalus trimicrodon, which refers to the local nickname for people from the island, and 3 small teeth in the jaw.

Parts of the skull had already been found by local collectors. I had a day off work to take my driving test, so I went to the site and found part of a wing bone, before rushing off for my test. The examiner didn't mind talking about pterosaurs instead of parking, and I passed.

The pterosaur is in the museum in Sandown. There is an artist's reconstruction on Pterosaur.net and the Dinosaur Isle website.

What's your favourite fossil?

The 190-195-million-year-old pterosaur Dimorphodon, found at Lyme Regis by Mary Anning in the 1820s. The skeleton is almost complete, but it's missing the long tail. We also have a half-metre long tail, lacking the rest of the pterosaur. I hoped they would fit together but they don't.

What's your favourite thing on display in the Museum?

I'm not sure. I like all of the marine reptile fossils, but the one that stands out is the big ichthyosaur skull found by Joseph Anning, Mary's brother. I also think the pregnant ichthyosaur is amazing but it makes me feel sad when I look at it.

What's your favourite website about palaeontology?

I often visit Pterosaur.net because it was my website. Now I let other people run it because I don't have time.

What's your favourite book about palaeontology

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Pterosaurs by Peter Wellnhofer. And for dinosaur fans there's The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Dinosaurs by David Norman. Both authors are experts in their field and I like the artwork by John Sibbick.

Are there any clubs or societies that young people can join or go to if they want to take their interest further?

Yes, there's Rockwatch, run by the Geologists' Association. They publish a magazine, organise activities and hold field trips.

What would you do if you weren't a palaeontologist?

I worked in an archaeology museum for a while and I enjoyed that. If my hobbies are anything to go by, I should have been a motorcycle mechanic or a tattooist, but I would also like to work in wildlife conservation or animal welfare.

Further info

Flying reptiles

Fossil hunting guide

Mary Anning

Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery

External links

Rockwatch

Pterosaur.net

Dinosaur Isle

Glossary - what does that word mean?

Pterosaurs – flying reptiles that lived 228 to 65 million years ago, at the same time as dinosaurs.

Vertebrates – animals that have a vertebral column (a spine).

Geology – the science and study of rocks, the Earth's history, make-up, and structure.

Conservators – people who care for items in a museum, to keep them in good condition, and fix them if they get damaged.