Aaron Woodruff, Paleontologist

Aaron standing in front of a mastodon skeleton at the Illinois State Museum.
I am a vertebrate paleontologist, meaning that I deal in the fossils of ancient back-boned animals. I obtained my degree in paleontology from East Tennessee State University and I currently work as a lab technician at Georgia Tech. My primary research interests are paleoecology and ecomorphology of Cenozoic mammals. In the broad sense, paleoecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environments across prehistory. Ecomorphology is the study of the relationship between an organism’s physical adaptations and its lifestyle. For example, cheetahs are famously the fastest land animals alive today. To become such good runners they have evolved, among other adaptations, lightweight skeletons with long legs and flexible spines. The general lifestyle and behavior of an extinct animal may, therefore, be predicted by comparing its physical adaptations to that of a modern relative or to that of an otherwise comparably proportioned species. Back to the Cheetah example, several species of extinct cats and cat-like predators have been found to have possessed similar body proportions for active sprinting, suggesting that these animals hunted in a similar fashion.

Aside from my paleontological research, another great passion/occupation of mine is paleoart: the artistic representation of a prehistoric organism or environment. Paleoart is a valuable tool for communicating paleontological information to both scientists and non-scientists. We are more likely to process and memorize information presented to us in image format than through text. I personally find great enjoyment in reconstructing animals which no modern human has ever seen alive. It really feels like I am bringing these animals back to life. Furthermore, accurate paleoart is a good way to pull in audiences and raise interest in paleontology. Ask any paleontologist or enthusiast what first sparked their interest in fossils and ancient animals, and most of them will no doubt reference images from a favorite book from their childhood, a museum mural, sculpture, movie or documentary which featured life reconstructions of prehistoric animals. That’s paleoart! Some of my own artwork may be seen on my personal blog Life in the Cenozoic Era in which I talk about various animals from the Age of Mammals.

As a paleontologist, the best thing I can hope for is a large sample size to work with. This can be somewhat difficult in paleontology because fossils, by their very nature, are generally few and far between and are often damaged or incomplete. Whenever possible, having access to a large sample of a given extinct animal is ideal for ontogenic, demographic, and morphological studies among other areas. For my thesis project I was lucky enough to have access to a HUGE collection of fossils belonging to an extinct peccary from a Missouri cave site. Because I had thousands of bones from dozens of individuals to work with, from fetuses up to elderly individuals, I was able to learn some very interesting things about the peccary population from that locality. Another important resource is a good comparative collection of modern and extinct animals for reference. Being able to visit other research facilities or borrow specimens on loan is also a major aspect of acquiring data.

Map showing the location of the Bat Cave fossil site within the state of Missouri (top-left), the most complete Flat-headed Peccary skull from Bat Cave (bottom-left), a mounted skeleton from the American Museum of Natural History (top-right), and life reconstruction by me (bottom-right).

The research we are doing at Georgia Tech involves analyzing the bones of small mammals and looking at how the community composition changes through time. Small vertebrates are good indicators of local climatic conditions because they are generally confined to a small area; many of the smaller rodents never venture farther than 30 to 100ft from their nest in a single day. An elephant can simply walk up to 50 miles per day in search of an area that suits it better should environmental conditions fall outside of its comfort zone. A vole simply cannot do this, and is thus confined to a narrower range of environmental factors. From examining the Natural Trap Cave microfauna we are finding that the local climate has fluctuated greatly over the past 20,000 years. At various intervals the region was home to animals which are adapted to the high desert conditions which characterize the region today, in another layer we may find species that are indicative of wetter or less arid conditions, while in yet another layer we may see animals which should be more comfortable in colder environments farther north.

Repelling ~80ft into Natural Trap Cave to excavate Pleistocene-age fossils.
My favorite part of being a scientist is that I am always learning new and interesting things. I find it very humbling and gratifying to know that my research will contribute to the collective knowledge of the general public. Being able to learn through personal research, exchange knowledge and ideas with other scientists, and to teach what I have learned with other people are all things that I appreciate about my career. Another thing I enjoy is being able to travel to conferences and field sites where I am able to intermingle with other paleontologists and keep up to date with the latest discoveries. My advice to young scientists is go to conferences or local events whenever possible. Volunteer or participate in outreach programs at museums or universities. Also, reach out to professionals for advice or to just satisfy your curiosity. Many paleontologists, myself included, are very active on social media and are happy to chat about our research, share information, etc.

Follow Aaron’s blog Life in the Cenozoic Era or follow his updates on Twitter by clicking here.

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