Selina R. Cole, Paleobiologist

Collecting Devonian fossils in Spain
I am a paleobiologist interested in how evolutionary patterns are generated over geologic time through biological and environmental processes. Recently, my research has focused on why some organisms are at a greater risk of extinction than others. We know from the fossil record that species go extinct, but extinction patterns are not the same for all groups – some survive for millions of years, others are relatively short-lived. I focus on identifying what factors make a group more or less susceptible to extinction, including things like environmental tolerance, feeding ecology, body size, and habitat preference. I also incorporate phylogenetics (the study of evolutionary relationships among species) into my research to determine whether extinction risk is similar for species that are closely related.

I primarily work with fossils belonging to a group of sea creatures called crinoids, which are cousins to animals like starfish and sea urchins. Crinoids have an excellent fossil record that goes back almost half a billion years. There is also a lot of variation among crinoids in terms of their feeding styles, the habitats they lived in, and how their skeletons are constructed, so they are excellent model for exploring factors that contribute to extinction risk.

Much of my time is spent working in museum collections to document variation across hundreds of features in fossil crinoids, take measurements of specimens, and collect paleoenvironmental information from the rocks the fossils are embedded in. Other important data for my research comes from new species of fossil crinoids that I have collected and/or described myself, which helps improve our knowledge of species’ geographic and temporal distributions. Finally, I analyze my datasets to infer the evolutionary relationships between crinoids and to determine what factors contributed to differential extinction patterns.

A) Examples of fossil crinoids with different feeding structures and corresponding habitat requirements. B) Geological durations of crinoid genera in the fossil record, organized by their evolutionary relationships and color-coded by habitat.

Although grounded in the geological sciences, the field of paleontology is an important complement to biology and the study of living organisms because it includes a temporal dimension: the fossil record. The overwhelming majority of species that have ever lived are now extinct, so studies of extinct organisms are important for fully understanding the history of life. By identifying factors that caused past organisms to go extinct, we can better infer the extinction risk of species living today. This is important because species are currently going extinct at an unprecedented rate as a result of human-caused climate change and habitat destruction, which has the potential to significantly impact many aspects of society, such as fisheries, agriculture, and environmental sustainability.

One of my favorite parts about being a scientist is that I get to do a wide variety of jobs. On any given day, I may collect data from museum specimens, work at a computer to program a new analysis, write up research results, do science outreach with the public, conduct field work to collect new fossils, travel to a new part of the world to do research, or describe and illustrate a new species of crinoid. It never gets boring, and I get to stay creative by coming up with ideas that will take my research in new directions.
If you decide to study science, do so because it’s something you love. Pursuing a career as a researcher is hard work, but it’s worthwhile if you’re studying subjects you enjoy. It can be easy to get lose sight of what initially got you excited about research in the first place, so be sure to occasionally step back and remind yourself why you are passionate about what you do. Give yourself time to enjoy what you study and explore new research questions, which will help cultivate your scientific creativity and curiosity.

Lena is currently working in the Department of Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History. To learn more about her work visit her website here or her twitter here!

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