A paleontologist stands next to large fossils in NHMU's collections.

©Mark Johnston/NHMU


Paleontology is the study of ancient life by examining the fossil record. The Museum's paleontology collections comprise nearly 30,000 catalogued specimens, including over 20,000 vertebrate, 5,000 paleobotanical, and 2,000 invertebrate fossils. A “specimen” can be as small as a single-celled organism or as large as an entire fossilized skeleton. Our collections are focused primarily on Utah fossils and adjacent areas of the Intermountain West, and we are the official state repository for fossils found on Utah state lands. 

Most people think of dinosaurs when they hear the word paleontology, and we have many fine specimens from the Late Jurassic and Late Cretaceous periods. In fact, we have the largest collection of the dinosaur Allosaurus (our State Fossil) in the world! But paleontology includes more than animals with backbones. Our invertebrate fossil strengths include soft-bodied specimens from the Cambrian of western Utah (alien-looking ancestors of aquatic creatures we know like sponges, trilobites, and jellyfish) and ammonoids from the Carboniferous of Nevada. Also, our fossil plant (paleobotanical) collections strengths include Late Triassic and Eocene specimens. 

We care for our specimens in a climate-controlled space at NHMU, where they are actively used by researchers from around the world. We also maintain a digital database of important contextual information for the specimens, like where, when, and by whom they were found, as well as the era, rock strata, methods used to prepare the fossil, and much more. We cast replicas of many fossils and use these in school programs and public outreach exhibits. We also digitally scan them and use 3D visualizations in educational programming like Research Quest. 

Volunteers are a key part of our paleontology team. They help in the field (prospecting for new sites and excavating fossils we find), in the fossil preparation lab (removing rock material from around the fossil and stabilizing it with adhesives), and in the collection itself (curating the material, putting information in the database, and photographing specimens). Contact us if you’d like to be a part of the team! 

Like other areas of the museum, our paleontologists also conduct active research. Some of their projects include understanding how ecosystem changes as reflected in the fossil record were affected by climate change. Our collections grow because of research projects, but they also support science by being available to researchers from around the world. 


The museum's paleontology collections contain fossils ranging from microscopic single-celled organisms to giant dinosaur bones!