Eleanor Gardner, Avian Taphonomist and Science Outreach Specialist

I consider myself an avian taphonomist – a unique niche within the field of paleontology – as well as a science outreach specialist. I will first explain my research interests and then discuss my path to a career in science outreach.

Examining Late Pleistocene avian fossils in a cave on Royal Island, Bahamas
In case the word is new to you, “taphonomy” is the study of what occurs between the death of an organism and its discovery as a fossil. I am interested in better understanding the circumstances that lead to differential preservation of avian skeletal elements, including depositional environment, scavenger activity, age- and gender-related effects, among other factors. Through my work, I try to explore what drives preservation biases in the fossil record of birds.

Diagram of bird skeleton with color indicating the 5 most commonly preserved bone elements. The five bones in order of abundance were humerus, tarsometatarsus, the coracoids, ulna, and the tibiotarsus.
My research has mainly centered upon actualistic taphonomy experiments, which means that I conduct experiments with modern organisms and environs in order to make inferences about the past. For projects conducted via the University of Georgia (as a student) and via the University of Tennessee at Martin (as a faculty member), I collected humanely-killed chickens and ducks of known age, sex, and diet and put their carcasses out in different types of environments in different climate regimes. One thing that I was especially motivated to investigate was any role that medullary tissue might play in the preservation potential of avian leg bones. After the publication of Schweitzer and others in 2005 documenting possible soft-tissue preservation in a T. rex femur, I became fascinated by the concept of medullary tissue preservation. Medullary tissue is a reproductive-specific tissue in female birds that forms along the innermost layer of limb bones during the egg-laying cycle; it acts as calcium storage for production of the egg shell. Because it is formed rapidly and then utilized (broken down) rapidly, there is a net loss of calcium from females’ skeletal elements. Because of this, it might be expected that a gender-based preservation bias exists in the avian fossil record. In addition to this particular factor, my experiments have examined the roles of age (juvenile vs. adult), environment (habitat, temperature, humidity, pH, lithology, etc.), bacteria and fungi, and scavengers (including insects, invertebrates like crabs, and vertebrates like alligators, raccoons, and bobcats). Publications reporting my results are forthcoming!

In 2016, a large review paper that my coauthors and I had been working on for about seven years was published. It morphed from a literature review for my thesis into a multivariable analysis of the roles of paleoclimate, environment, and bird body size in avian fossil preservation. It is my hope that the paper will inspire future avian taphonomy studies to improve collection of climate-related data. Understanding how climate change has impacted the avian fossil record could shed further light on questions about speciation and extinction of birds throughout time.

Interacting with young visitors at the Aurora Fossil Festival in Aurora, North Carolina, as part of the FOSSIL Project
My other passion (and now my career) is science outreach and education. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies, I was involved in public outreach events with my universities, local nature centers and parks, and regional museums. After getting established in my first job – which was as a geology instructor at the University of Tennessee at Martin – I became motivated to engage underserved K-12 girls in the community and so I began leading a science-focused Girl Scout troop. My move in 2015 to the Florida Museum of Natural History brought me even further into the world of public outreach and education as the coordinator of a project funded by the National Science Foundation called FOSSIL: Fostering Opportunities for Synergistic STEM with Informal Learners. In this role, I’ve been able to help develop and lead paleontology workshops, foster connections between amateur and professional paleontologists across the world, and collaborate on science education research. (Learn more about FOSSIL by clicking here). Organizing opportunities for people to share with others their paleontology skills, experiences, and enthusiasm has been enormously rewarding. In mid-August of this year, I’ll be starting a new job with the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute & Natural History Museum as their Outreach and Engagement Coordinator. I’m really excited about continuing to work with the public in a new capacity to foster a greater understanding of science and an appreciation for the Earth and its history.

Being creative, asking questions, and devising ways to get others excited about science (most often about paleontology) are all aspects of my jobs that I have loved. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in science, know that there are a wide variety of different positions and career paths, so keep your options open! Explore your curiosities and read, read, read as many peer-reviewed papers as possible.

Eleanor has recently started her position at the Kansas Museum of Natural History! Don’t forget to check out the myFOSSIL community here and an interview with the Fossil Guy here.

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