The final quarter of the 20th century saw the development of molecular phylogenetics, which investigates how closely organisms are related by measuring how similar the DNA is in their genomes.
Molecular phylogenetics has also been used to estimate the dates when species diverged, but there is controversy about the reliability of the molecular clock on which such estimates depend.
Palynology, the study of pollen and spores produced by land plants and protists, straddles the border between paleontology and botany, as it deals with both living and fossil organisms.
Micropaleontology deals with all microscopic fossil organisms, regardless of the group to which they belong.
Trace fossils are particularly significant because they represent a data source that is not limited to animals with easily fossilised hard parts, and they reflect organisms' behaviours.
Also many traces date from significantly earlier than the body fossils of animals that are thought to have been capable of making them.
Paleontological observations have been documented as far back as the 5th century BC. It now uses techniques drawn from a wide range of sciences, including biochemistry, mathematics, and engineering.
The science became established in the 18th century as a result of Georges Cuvier's work on comparative anatomy, and developed rapidly in the 19th century. Use of all these techniques has enabled paleontologists to discover much of the evolutionary history of life, almost all the way back to when Earth became capable of supporting life, about .
These lagerstätten allow paleontologists to examine the internal anatomy of animals that in other sediments are represented only by shells, spines, claws, etc. However, even lagerstätten present an incomplete picture of life at the time.Estimating the dates of these remains is essential but difficult: sometimes adjacent rock layers allow radiometric dating, which provides absolute dates that are accurate to within 0.5%, but more often paleontologists have to rely on relative dating by solving the "jigsaw puzzles" of biostratigraphy.Classifying ancient organisms is also difficult, as many do not fit well into the Linnaean taxonomy that is commonly used for classifying living organisms, and paleontologists more often use cladistics to draw up evolutionary "family trees".Paleontology even contributes to astrobiology, the investigation of possible life on other planets, by developing models of how life may have arisen and by providing techniques for detecting evidence of life.Vertebrate paleontology concentrates on fossils of vertebrates, from the earliest fish to the immediate ancestors of modern mammals.