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Meet a Paleontologist

Dr. Plotnick Dr. Samuels looking for fossils that may have become exposed by weathering and erosion at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon.


Dr. Plotnick Dr. Samuels carefully digging a fossil for the research collection at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon.


Dr. Joshua X. Samuels

Museum Curator / Chief of Paleontology

John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

NFD Kid's Page Interview...

What are you working on now?

My passion is studying how the anatomy (body structure) of animals relates to their ecology (how they live). It is amazing what the bones and teeth of animals can tell you about what they eat and how they move. My focus lately has been on rodents (like beavers, squirrels, and mice) and carnivores (like dogs, cats, and otters). I have been studying how the skeletons of living animals are adapted to swim, dig, climb, and run. With that, I can infer what extinct species were like, and study how their evolution relates to past climate and habitat changes.

Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?

I first studied at the College of Idaho for a bachelor's degree in biology, and then I went to the University of California - Los Angeles, where I received my PhD. I have always wanted to know how extinct animals lived and evolved, so I studied functional morphology and biomechanics. My dissertation looked at the evolution of beavers, examining how rodents have adapted to swim, dig, and eat tough plants (like trees). My favorite classes were Mammalogy, where we got to study living animals like kangaroo rats, and Comparative Anatomy, which allowed me to study the bones, muscles, and organs of a wide range of animals, from fish and frogs to alligators and lions.

Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?

When I was 3 years old I loved dinosaurs, went around picking up rocks everywhere, and told people I was going to be a paleontologist. Unlike most kids, I never grew out of it. Every visit to a museum or to the wilderness as a child confirmed that was what I wanted to do with my life.

What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?

While prospecting during my first summer here at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, I saw the jaw and part of a leg from an oreodont (a hoofed mammal related to pigs and camels) eroding out of a hill side. When I crawled up to it, I was amazed that to find part of a tiny squirrel skull sitting on the surface next to the leg. Then when I started to excavate the oreodont leg, I found a pair of sabertooth jaws in the rock next to it. I was shocked and amazed to find so many great fossils just stacked on one another.

Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?

As I mentioned before, when I was child I loved dinosaurs. However, once I got into college, I learned more about the thousands of other animals that are known from the fossil record. Many, like the beavers, squirrels, and mice that I have worked on, are important, but often overlooked. Find something that you like and learn all that you can about it. If you work hard, you can have a career that you love.

NFD Kid's Page Paleontologist Interviews:

Cassi Knight  Roy Plotnick  Thomas Holtz  Sidney Ash  Joshua Samuels  Alan Titus  Vince Santucci  Josh Bonde 
Michelle Pinsdorf  Glenn W. Storrs  Rebecca Hunt-Foster  Arthur J. Boucot  Robert B. Blodgett  Greg McDonald  Eric Scott  Sally Shelton 
Hans Deitre-Sues  Jim Kirkland  Alton Dooley  Karen Chin  Erica Clites  Katie Loughney  Richard Kissel  Andrew Heckert 
John Repetski  Christy Visaggi  John Hoganson  Scott Foss  Bruce Schumacher  Scott Sampson  Greg Liggett  Jere Lipps 
Matthew Miller  David Brezinski  James Hagadorn  Kari Prassack  Tony Fiorillo  Mike Fracasso  Diana Boudreau  Phil Varela 
Mindy Householder  Andrew Milner  Don Prothero  Bill Parker  Kenshu Shimada  Jason Schein  Robyn Henderek 

Cassi Knight
Roy Plotnick
Thomas Holtz
Sidney Ash
Joshua Samuels
Alan Titus
Vincent Santucci
Josh Bonde
Michelle Pinsdorf
Glenn W. Storrs
Rebecca Hunt-Foster
Arthur J. Boucot
Robert B. Blodgett
Greg McDonald
Eric Scott
Sally Shelton
Hans Deitre-Sues
Jim Kirkland
Alton Dooley
Karen Chin
Erica Clites
Katie Loughney
Richard Kissel
Andrew Heckert
John Repetski
Christy Visaggi
John Hoganson
Scott Foss
Bruce Schumacher
Scott Sampson
Greg Liggett
Jere Lipps
Matthew Miller
David Brezinski
James Hagadorn
Kari Prassack
Tony Fiorillo
Mike Fracasso
Diana Boudreau
Phil Varela
Mindy Householder
Andrew Milner
Don Prothero
Bill Parker
Kenshu Shimada
Jason Schein
Robyn Henderek


Last updated: June 12, 2013