Fossils vs Marine Biology: Which History of Science is More Fun

I study the history of science. Normally, I focus on the history of a science called paleoanthropology, or the fossils of human ancestors, but this summer, I mixed it up and studied the history of a different science. I worked at the Marine Biological Laboratory in beautiful Woods Hole, Cape Cod, helping to tell the history of the the Lab. Though this was different my normal fossil work, it gave me the opportunity to  practice recording history, telling stories, and digitizing awesome old photos.

As August comes to a close, I thought I’d look back on the summer and compare my brief stint in the history of marine biology to the history of paleoanthropology. Both disciplines have strengths and weaknesses, so I thought I’d set it up as a competition. This, of course, is my completely subjective opinion of which history I think is more interesting. It’s meant to be fun and entertaining. So here it is:

A face off!

History of paleoanthropology vs. history of marine biology
(or, what’s super awesome about each field of research)

Screen Shot 2015-07-09 at 9.22.39 PM

This face off is based on my own experience with each subject. Those I’m interested in paleontology in general (love all fossils!(, I’ll focus on what I know best: paleoanthropology. I’ll compare paleoanthropology with marine biology in the classic categories: Who, What, Where, Why.  For each category I will ask the very scientific question “which is more awesome?” But in the process I hope to highlight some interesting particulars in each area of research.

Where? Landscape 


Marine Biology: ocean. (Me watching Cape Cod sunset!)

Area where the fossil was found

Paleoanthropology: Ethiopian desert

  • Paleoanthropology

    While fossil hunting happens in many different places, I’m most familiar with the paleoanthropology research conducted in the Ethiopian desert (as many of the paleoanthropologists I know do their fieldwork there). It seems a little dry, but i’ve heard the coffee is great!

  • Marine Biology

    Marine Biology is generally conducted at the seashore. This means tons of beach days, epic sunsets, and lots of playing in the sand. Sometimes, there’s even scuba diving. It’s pretty fun.

The category goes to: Marine biology. It’s hard to beat those sunsets.

What? Objects of Study


Objects: Squishy things like Starfish

Objects: old bones like Lucy

Objects: old bones like Lucy

  • Paleoanthropology

    The objects of study are, of course, generally fossils. Essentially, paleoanthropologists study really old, dead things.

  • Marine Biology

    Many marine biologists study what I would lump together as squishy things (that’s my scientific name for it, haha). Squid, fish, etc.

The category goes to: Paleoanthropology. While squishy things are pretty cool, its hard to beat a fossil that has held together for MILLIONS of years. Bottom line: dead things are cool.

What? (Part 2) Abundance of Objects of Study

2.8 million year old jaws are rare. Image: Brian Villmoare/PA

2.8 million year old jaws are rare. Image: Brian Villmoare/PA

Collecting objects of study just requires a net! MBL History Project

Collecting objects of study just requires a net! MBL History Project

  • Paleoanthropology

    Paleoanthropologists face on major challenge with their objects of study: hominin fossils are very rare. Pieces of fossil jaws and such are often fragmented and separated in time from the closest comparative fossil by hundreds of thousands of years.

  • Marine Biology

    Marine specimens, however, are much more plentiful. They are easy to get, either by going down to the seashore with a net, or getting on the collecting boat. In Cape Cod, for example, sea urchins are everywhere. You need more squid for your experiments? Place the order with the collectors and they will likely fill it.

The category goes to: Marine biology. Marine biologists have way more crabs to study than paleoanthropologists do fossils.

Who? The People


Roy Chapman Andrews looking for the missing link in Mongolia, 1928, AMNH Digital Special Collections

MBL History Project

MBL History Project

  • Paleoanthropology

    The history of paleoanthropology is full of interesting characters. From Roy Chapman Andrews searching for evidence of early man in the Mongolian desert, to modern paleoanthropologists digging around in caves, it takes a certain type of interesting person to search for fossils.

  • Marine Biology:

    Throughout history, marine biologists have also been a colorful bunch. Whether they are dressed head to toe in scuba suits or getting muddy in the marshes while collecting organisms, they are equally as interesting to learn about as fossil hunters.

The category goes to: It’s a tie—throughout history, both groups have worn funny costumes, or sometimes suits out in the field. Also, both disciplines require the scientists to spend some time outside, which is cool.

Why? The Purpose

This picture provided by the American Museum of Natural History shows a mural depicting Neanderthal life that hasn't been displayed in decades at the museum in New York.

Charles Knight early man (AP Photo/American Museum of Natural History)

John Trinkaus's notebook for MBL Embryology Course: MBL History Project

John Trinkaus’s notebook for MBL Embryology Course: MBL History Project

  • Paleoanthropology

    Of course, the questions paleoanthropologists ask about evolution and the history of life on Earth is focused on our own lineage (hominins) ultimately leading to our own species.

  • Marine Biology

    Marine biologists are more focused on larger questions about life on the planet, and it turns out there is a TON of life in the ocean. Studying marine organisms paints a broader picture of how evolution works than the human story does.

The category goes to:This category is where I see major similarities. Both disciplines are searching for organisms, living or dead. Both are trying to answer questions about evolution and about life on earth, past, present, and future. But this one goes to paleoanthropology. Human origins? Duh. Call me narcissistic but I want to know how WE, as humans, got to where we are today. How did we acquire such large brains and become such unique creatures? These are questions paeloanthropologists can answer more directly.


Hopefully this post was a little fun, and provided some insight into the kinds of things I’ve been up to lately. Also I hope that this post suggests that there are some interesting similarities between these two fields. In both paleoanthropology and marine biology, I like to ask questions such as “how do we find things?” Be it fossils in the desert or squid deep in the ocean, the hunt for scientific knowledge begins with finding little guys that give us clues about life: past, present, and future.

2 thoughts on “Fossils vs Marine Biology: Which History of Science is More Fun

  1. Pingback: Why would a fossil hunter visit a Marine Biological Lab? | Paige Fossil History

  2. Pingback: Why Would a Fossil Hunter Visit a Marine Biology Lab? | Paige Fossil History

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