Scientists gather information about dinosaurs by relying upon a variety of resources at their disposal, the first of which being human intuition and the ability to observe and theorize. Fossils and the timeline established by the fossil record help scientists turn theory into fact by providing credible evidence that can either support or discredit their theories. Paleontologist have to analyze the fossil evidence that they find and compare it with other discoveries in order to grasp its meaning and importance. In the beginning this practice was usually hit or miss and it wasn't until a vast body of fossil evidence was collected that a clearer image of dinosaurs began to emerge. In recent years advances in technology have aided paleontologists greatly in their research of dinosaurs and have provided them with new tools to utilize in the course of their work.
Paleontology became an established scientific field during the 1800's after first being only a leisure activity for intellectuals who enjoyed studying fossils. In that early period researchers only had a few scarce resources to go on. Created by a group of scientists who together studied the fossil record and began to notice some interesting characteristics of the fossils they studied, Paleontology evolved each time a new discovery was made. Soon the methodology of the science began to evolve as well and it wasn't long before significant steps had been made toward figuring out the mystery of fossils. Today, scientists have a variety of technological advances that aid them in their research, though from time to time a return to the basics is required.
Fossils- Fossils are the primary resource from which we learn about dinosaurs. From their fossils we can determine the overall size and shape of dinosaurs, their probable appearance, and if teeth are found a classification as either a carnivore or herbivore can be made. Fossils also tell us what family of dinosaurs certain specimens belong to and even what time period they lived in.
Trace Fossils- Though trace fossils may only give us footprints at times, or even indentions that hint at the dinosaur's shape, sometimes they offer us much more than that. Trace fossils may not include an actual fossilized dinosaur, but in some cases they offer information that complete fossils cannot. Trace fossils have offered Paleontologist information regarding the external appearance of dinosaurs, including the texture of their skin, and in some cases the presence of feathers.
Coprolites- One way of finding out information about any creatures, especially dinosaurs, is to find out what they ate and Coprolites provide us with evidence of that. Coprolites are fossilized dung, and can be analyzed to find out what kind of food the creature that left it consumed. Occasionally the stomach contents of dinosaurs have been fossilized themselves, such as other dinosaurs that became a source of food. These unique specimens provide us with information regarding the hierarchy that existed in the dinosaur world and the interactions between the creatures.
The Fossil Record- The fossil record gives Paleontologists an idea as to when certain fossils appeared over time and while there is some controversy regarding the accuracy of these determinations, it is the standard technique for dating specimens.
Radiometric dating- this form of dating involves analyzing the decay rates of radioactive materials within rock samples to determine their age within .5% accuracy. There are some problems and limitations with Radiometric dating however, one being the fact that the radioactive materials that are used to make the determinations only occur within rocks of a volcanic origin. This means that the only fossils that can be dated are those which appear in volcanic samples of rock, or if rock samples from the same strata layer as where the fossils are found can be collected.
Geochemical Evidence- Geochemical evidence reveals many of the secrets that the naked eye cannot, and by using this technique both Paleontologist and Archeologist as well search for prehistoric life whose traces have been trapped inside of rock. Scientists use geochemical evidence to search for previous life forms such as Eukaryotic cells, which are the building blocks of multi-cellular organisms.
At times the benefits of technology have to be put aside and a reliance upon basic human deduction is neccesary. For Paleontologist this represents a return to the practices of the first fossil hunters and analysts, but it is still the best tool that any scientist has at their disposal.