Ellen Currano, Paleobotanist & Paleoecologist

I study how ancient forests responded to environmental changes. By looking at what has happened in the past (“time traveling with a shovel,” as Kirk Johnson so brilliantly calls it), we can better predict and prepare for what we might be facing in the coming decades. For example, most of my research considers plant fossils from the western US that are 60-50 million years old. During this time, earth was much, much warmer than today: there was no ice at the poles and crocodiles and palm trees lived all the way up in the Arctic Circle. I am interested in how forests work during warm intervals like this, as well as how different forests were across North America. Today, there are huge differences between forests in Wyoming and New Mexico, due predominantly to the very different temperatures. But what about during the Eocene, when Earth was universally warm?

Representative leaf damage on modern and fossil leaves. Galls (a,b), leaf mines (c,d,e), leaf chewing damage (f, g; H=holes, M=margin feeding, S=skeletonization), oviposition (h, i). Scale bar= 1 cm in A-D, F-I. Tick marks in E=1 mm.

Around 56 million years ago, there was an abrupt global warming event caused by massive release of carbon (as CO2 or methane- the jury is still out on this) into the atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at least doubled, global temperatures warmed between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius, and ocean acidity increased. This event had a huge impact on living things, and I have studied how plants and insects responded to that increased temperature and carbon dioxide levels.  While studying this interval is not a perfect analog for the present (rates of change are probably 100 times slower 56 million years ago than today), it is the best offered by the geologic record.

My favorite parts of being a scientist are exploring, discovering new things, and exercising my imagination. I have traveled to beautiful and rugged places all over the world to collect fossils. I get a rush of excitement every time I split open a rock and discover a beautiful leaf that has not seen the light of day for many millions of years. As I am collecting fossils, I take pauses to close my eyes and envision what that landscape looked like when the fossil were alive, transforming the barren badlands in which I sit into lush tropical forests.

My advice to young scientists is to be yourself and to never let anyone convince you that science isn’t cool. Everyone needs science, and science needs everyone. We are all citizen scientists. We can all be professional scientists, regardless of race, skin color, religion, gender, or sexuality.

Ellen Currano is a professor at the University of Wyoming see her website here, and is a co-creator of The Bearded Lady Project.

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