Type specimen of the Velociraptor skull
Museum scientists in the Division of Paleontology study the history of life on Earth through the discovery, analysis, and comparison of fossil remains of dinosaurs, mammals, birds, fishes, reptiles, and invertebrates. The Division is divided into two departmental units, for invertebrates and vertebrates. Since 1990, the Division’s joint expeditions to the Gobi Desert of Mongolia with the Mongolian Academy of Sciences have yielded spectacular discoveries of dinosaurs, birds, and mammals. These expeditions continue the Museum’s groundbreaking work in this location in the 1920s under the leadership of Roy Chapman Andrews. Other recent expeditions have brought the Museum invertebrate fossils from Morocco, dinosaur fossils from China, and fish fossils from Brazil.
Norman D. Newell led the invertebrates department through the later half of the 20th century. He specialized in the systematics and evolution of Paleozoic bivalves (clams) and he helped to establish the study of paleoecology and mass extinctions.
Fossil Protoceratops baby
The Department of Vertebrate Paleontology was founded in 1892 by H. F. Osborn (who later became Museum president—the first Museum president trained as a scientist). Under Osborn, the Department grew through many expeditions, including the 1920s Central Asiatic Expedition into the Gobi Desert, which resulted in numerous discoveries of dinosaurs. After Osborn’s retirement, the Department was led by George Gaylord Simpson, Edwin H. Colbert, and Bobb Schaeffer. Because of these three curators’ research, the Museum became central to the study of paleozoogeography (Colbert), the "Evolutionary Synthesis" (Simpson), and functional morphology (Schaeffer).
Much of the Department’s activities in the second third of the 20th century concentrated on fossil mammals. Today, scientists in the Division of Paleontology continue to study the history of fossil vertebrates throughout the world, employing the latest techniques combined with traditional approaches to expeditionary work.
The Division’s invertebrate paleontology collection numbers more than four million specimens and includes a large number of North American ammonites—marine animals that lived some 400 million to 65 million years ago.
The Museum’s vertebrate paleontology collection is the largest and most diverse of its kind in the world, including more than one million specimens. The vertebrates department has benefited through the years by a close association with the Frick Laboratory, resulting in the transfer to the Museum in 1968 of the fossil mammal collection amassed by Museum Trustee Childs Frick.
The Division’s combined collections fill 13 rooms on ten floors. Little of these vast holdings can be displayed in exhibits, for reasons of space or fragility. Most of the specimens are retained in storage for study by Museum staff and visiting scientists and students.
Specimen being photographed for digitization project
With the advent of the Internet, however, the technology now exists to open the doors to the entire collection, including its world-renowned assemblage of dinosaur fossils. The entire collection is being digitally imaged for on-site access, along with catalogue information, field notes, field photographs, and historical documents about the collection.
Both the vertebrate and invertebrate fossil collections are open to qualified researchers. The visiting and loan policies are available on the Division Web page.
Part of collection storage facilities
In November 1999, the Division moved its dinosaur collection and its invertebrate type collection into the C. V. Starr Natural Science Building, a new eight-story facility with state-of-the-art climate-controlled storage. This step will ensure the preservation of irreplaceable and highly fragile prehistoric specimens for future generations. The Division also houses two fossil preparation laboratories and two libraries, with a reprint collection for invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology.