Roy E. Plotnick, Paleobiologist

I began my career working on eurypterids (sea scorpions), which were the largest arthropods of all time. I still occasionally study various arthropod fossils from all parts of the fossil record. I recently described the oldest known insect ears. This was part of a broader interest in the evolution of sense organs – when and why did organisms first evolve organs such as eyes and antennae? But I have also studied many other groups of fossil organisms, including crinoids (sea lilies), brachiopods, and sea anemones.

A lot of my research involves doing experiments, although the idea of “experimental paleontology” may sound odd. One example is a series of studies on how organisms live on soft muddy bottoms. I did experiments on how various kinds of ancient organisms may have prevented sinking in or being pulled out of the sediment. This may help us to design better anchors for boats. Another example involves studying fossil preservation: what are the environmental conditions that either allow or enhance the formation of a fossil? A third example involves studying how animal behavior controls what types of movements an animal makes and what types of trace they can leave behind. The goal is to understand what are known as trace fossils; the preserved remains of tracks, trails, burrows, etc.

Ear on the leg of a fossil cricket from the Eocene Green River Formation. Ref: Plotnick, R. E., and D. M. Smith. 2012. Exceptionally preserved fossil insect ears from the Eocene Green River Formation of Colorado. Journal of Paleontology 86(1):19-24.

Almost by accident I got interested in the history of caves and their impact on the fossil record. Leading a class field trip, we stumbled upon a 310 million-year old cave, one of the very every oldest caves in the world. This site and others like it have produced a treasure trove of amazingly well-preserved fossils, including some of the oldest conifers. I am also interested in describing the statistical properties of the fossil record. I recently showed that the locations of fossil sites are fractal; that is, they are clumped in space and these clumps are clumped and so on. A statistical method I developed to study the rock and fossil record has been since used in many areas of science, including cancer research! I have also investigated the current extinction of life on Earth, sometimes called the Sixth Extinction. This a major part of global environmental change. My research is focused on helping us better compare what is going on now with what happened in the geologic past.

The ability to pursue so many different areas of research is what I love best about being a scientist. An added benefit is that I usually have to team up with other scientists who know more than I do about the subjects we are interested in. And I also get young scientists involved. I have two pieces of advice for young scientists. First: read, read, read. Know what has been done so you can learn what important questions remain to be solved. Second: look outside the usual boundaries of your field for inspiration and ideas.

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