What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general?
I love trying to understand the paths that organisms took throughout evolutionary history, so I really like studying fossils in order to understand modern animals. I grew up loving dinosaurs as a kid and I guess I just never grew out of that phase, but I’ve always been interested in pretty much all animals- fossil and living. When I was an undergrad, an opportunity arose to participate in a short field course in Costa Rica about bat ecology. I brought it up to my parents and they didn’t say yes, but they didn’t say no either, so I applied and ultimately was able to travel to Costa Rica and spend three weeks in the rainforest studying bats. During my Master’s degree I started to merge my interest in bats with my interest in paleontology and ultimately ended up where I am now: studying bat paleontology and evolution.
In laymen’s terms, what do you do?
I study the evolution of mammals shortly after the extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs. My main focus is on the paleontology of bats and other small, insectivorous mammals- creatures like shrews and hedgehogs- during the first two intervals of time following that extinction: the Paleocene and Eocene epochs. Bats are a particularly interesting group to work with because they show up suddenly in the fossil record at the beginning of the Eocene epoch, about 56 million years ago, and they are almost instantly found worldwide. We have no idea where they came from or what their ancestors looked like.
How does your work contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general?
Powered flight has only evolved four times in the history of life: in insects, pterosaurs (the flying reptiles that lived at the same time as the dinosaurs), birds, and bats. So evolving flight is really hard to do, but it unlocks a lot of opportunities for the animals that can do it. Unfortunately, we don’t know as much about how bats achieved flight as we do about how birds did. There’s no equivalent of Archaeopteryx for bats, so there is still debate as to the closest relative to bats. There are more species of bats than any other mammals except rodents, and bats do everything from pollinating tropical forests to controlling crop pests. The ability to fly clearly helped bats become some of the most successful mammals on the planet, but since we don’t know what they evolved from, we have no idea how they became such specialized creatures.
What data do you use use for your research?
Since the earliest bats known from the Eocene look pretty much like modern bats, a lot of my research has focused on little insectivorous animals from the Paleocene Epoch. A lot of mammals from that time period are known only from their teeth. This is less challenging than it sounds because mammal teeth are very diagnostic, sometimes even down to the species. In particular, I’m focusing on one group of insectivorous mammals known mostly from their teeth called nyctitheres. There has been some thought that they might be related to bats, but that has never really been tested explicitly. So I spend most of my time looking at tiny nyctithere and bat teeth under a microscope in order to conduct a thorough analysis of their relationships.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists?
Be curious about everything, even if it isn’t super closely related to the field you are interested in. I love going to talks about things like ecology and genetics, and I end up learning a lot that I can apply to my field. Or I learn things that help me understand what my fossil animals would have been like when they were alive, how they interacted with their environment, and how they evolved.
Also, get involved and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most scientists I know really like what they study and they are happy to talk to students who are interested. When you get to college, reach out to professors and ask if you can get involved in doing research in their lab. But don’t feel bad if you don’t know something. No one can know everything about a particular field, no matter how long you study it. So ask people if you don’t understand what they are talking about, or a phrase or concept that they used- there’s no shame in that.
Keep up with Matt’s updates by checking out his website by clicking here.