The Importance of Mentors and Advisors Through My Academic Career

Helping to bring in a core aboard the RV JOIDES Resolution, Summer 2017. It took many years of training and several awesome advisors for me to get to this point in my life, where I could participate in super cool science and be a confident researcher!

Adriane here-

I wouldn’t be where I am, academically speaking, if it weren’t for a couple factors: my stubbornness, drive to succeed, love of fossils and learning, and support of my family and advisors. But here, I want to talk about how important my advisors have been and still are in my academic life.

I’m a first-generation student meaning that neither of my parents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Since grade school, I knew I would attend college, as my mom never said ‘If you go to college…‘; rather, our conversations regarding my education began with ‘When you go to college…‘.  As I grew older, I knew college/university wasn’t the only career path for me, but to attain my goals and dreams, I knew I would need to one day go to graduate school. But first, I had to get through high school and an undergraduate program.

I had a hard time in high school, as I was constantly bullied for being the shy, quiet nerd. I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and every chance I got, I skipped class to go ride our horses. Predictably, my grades suffered. By the time graduation rolled around, I knew I didn’t have the GPA to get into college; in addition, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I began taking classes at my local community college, and long story short, I fell in love with geology as soon as I took my first class. By the time I graduated magna cum laude from community college, I was accepted into James Madison University in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

At first, I felt out of place, as everyone in the Geology department at JMU knew one another and had formed friendships.  I felt like an outsider, a feeling that was amplified by being a first-generation student and a transfer student. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one: other students in my program also came from community colleges! Still, my confidence in my ability to conduct science and be a great student were low. University classes were a different type of beast compared to community college courses, and the pressure was on.

As I moved through my geology program and took more classes, my confidence started to build. As a student in the Geology department, I was required to do undergraduate research. I was both excited and nervous about this, but knew it was going to be a challenge that would make me a better candidate for graduate school. By the second year into my degree, I had taken a paleoclimate and paleontology class. I absolutely loved both, and wanted to do a research project that included fossils and revealing something about our Earth’s oceans. The opportunity arose when one of the department’s professors, Dr. Kristen St. John, sent out an email with an opportunity to construct a foraminiferal biostratigraphy from deep sea sediments in the Gulf of Mexico. I leapt at the opportunity! I still remember the day I approached Kristen to tell her I was interested in conducting research with her. I think my face got red just talking to her, and I had to convince myself for a good 10 minutes that I should talk with her before I actually did.

Kristen (left) and I at my first Geological Society of America meeting. Here, I was presenting my undergraduate research.

I did start doing research with Kristen, and it went extremely well! I loved learning all the different species of foraminifera, and would spend hours at the microscope. I remember one day, Kristen came into the lab and told me I was working and researching like a Master’s student. I was over the moon excited to hear this, because it gave me hope that I would, and could, succeed in graduate school! Kristen was a very encouraging advisor, meeting with me weekly to chat about research and helping me find relevant papers. She, along with our department head Dr. Steve Leslie, even took me to the United States Geological Survey in Reston, VA one day to meet with a planktic foraminifera specialist! After this, Kristen introduced me to her good friend and collaborator, Dr. Mark Leckie, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. I was able to go to UMass as an undergrad and work with Mark for a few days to conduct stable isotope analyses. It was an awesome experience, as I was able to network with two scientists outside of JMU. I was, and forever will be, grateful to Kristen for investing her time in me to make me a better scientist and more confident researcher.

By the third Fall I was at JMU, I attended my first big geology meeting where I presented my undergraduate research. It was here that had also set up meetings with potential graduate school advisors. I was still torn between majoring in paleoclimatology or paleontology, so I had contacted professors working in both fields. My heart was set on going to UMass to work in Mark’s lab, but at the time, his lab was full and he didn’t have funding. I was crushed, but carried on. I met with several professors at the meeting, all of whom were encouraging about pursuing an MS degree with them at their university. One of the other professors I met with at the meeting was Dr. Alycia Stigall, who was a friend of my undergrad professor Steve. I sat down with Alycia for about 20 minutes, and instantly liked her (read her ‘Meet the Scientist’ post here).

My last year in undergrad, I ended up applying to about 6 universities for graduate school. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get in, as my confidence was still lower than most students’. The day I got the email from Alycia that I was accepted in her lab and the Ohio University program as a fully-funded teaching assistant, I cried with joy! I moved to southeastern Ohio the following Fall to start my life as a Master’s student specializing in paleontology. It was here, at Ohio University, that I met Jen.

Me, Jen, and Alycia at an outcrop in Estonia. This was my first international geology meeting.

Working with Alycia and with her other graduate students was an amazing experience. At JMU, I never had confidence in my math skills, but after taking a few classes at Ohio, I was doing statistics and learning how to code. I taught my first paleontology labs, and even helped Alycia create a new class for the department. In addition, I was able to publish my first paper during my first year, and present research at an international meeting. I flourished working alongside Alycia, as I felt totally comfortable in her lab and with her. Most of the other graduate students in the lab were from divorced, low income, and/or conservative families, so we had a lot in common. I didn’t feel like an outsider, and often talked with my lab mates and Alycia about my home life.

But it wasn’t just that I was comfortable at OU, I had a mentor, an advisor, a colleague, a friend, and a role model all in one. Alycia was the role model I needed at this time in my life.  My fiance and I were talking seriously about marriage and about the future, and I wasn’t sure how this would work while I was in graduate school. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to balance work and life, and moreover, even have a life outside of grad school (at this time I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD). But Alycia assured me I could have both a successful career and home life. She herself was (and still is) amazing at balancing her academic and home life. It was because of Alycia I knew I, too, could be an awesome scientist with a family.

Me, Steve (from JMU!), Steve’s PhD advisor, Stig Bergstrom (me and Jen’s ‘Paleo-Grandpa’), Alycia, and Jen at the geology meeting in Estonia.

By the time I graduated from Ohio University, my confidence was soaring. I knew I could do anything I wanted to, mostly because I had been trained to critically think, problem solve, and had a killer work ethic. That spring of graduation from OU, I had been accepted to the PhD program at UMass Amherst in Mark’s lab (remember Kristen’s friend I worked with from undergrad?). Life has a funny way of working out, as I never thought I would ever get the chance to work at UMass. But here I am!

When I first started at UMass, I was scared to death. I wasn’t as confident my first year at the university as I had been at Ohio University for a few different reasons. First, this was the first R1 university I had attended (R1’s are universities that grant MS and PhD degrees, and generally have large and intense research programs). Second, I felt like an outcast (again) with my slight southern accent, coming from a lower-income family, and being a first-generation student. Third, I had totally switched interests from invertebrate paleontology in the Ordovician (~450 million years ago) to working in the field of Neogene (~15 million years ago) paleoceaonography (although I will always consider myself a paleontologist first before a paleoceanographer). I had a lot to learn, on top of a lot of work. But I persevered, asked a LOT of questions, and continued on.

Conducting field work in Colorado with Raquel and Mark.

Lucky for me, Mark is just as great an advisor as Kirsten and Alycia, something I am very grateful for. When I wanted to go on a scientific ocean drilling expedition, Mark worked closely with me to craft a well-thought out application (I did get accepted, read about my experience here and see above image). He also gave me the opportunity to build and teach an upper-level geology class, an experience that most graduate students don’t get. Through teaching and researching, I have regained my confidence, and know once again that I can do anything I put my mind to.

So, there are a few words of advice I have from my university experiences for any student wondering how they’ll make it in grad school and/or with low confidence:

  1. Find an advisor that you can trust, and that you click with. In my opinion and experience, this was the most important factor when choosing a graduate program and advisor. My close relationship with my previous and current advisors are one of the reasons I’ve succeeded as a graduate student.
  2. Find a mentor. Advisors and mentors are not equivalent. Advisors will help you through your education, but mentors are guides who will help you navigate life. Some advisors are also mentors, while others are not. Other times, mentors come in the form of lab mates and friends. Both advisors and mentors are crucial to survival in graduate school.
  3. Find your people. Make friends in and outside of your department. Being a student is hard, and finding friends to commiserate with and draw inspiration from are essential.
  4. Believe in yourself. This is cheesy, and easier said than done, but change begins with you. When you start being confident in your abilities, you’ll find your confidence will increase over time. Also, reading A LOT of published literature helps here too.
  5. When you are able to, be the mentor/advisor for younger versions of yourself. By helping students from all backgrounds and identities gain confidence in themselves and learn how to conduct research, we can all make STEM fields more accessible and welcoming to all.

Dino Tracks, Conglomerates, and High School Students; Oh My!

Adriane here-

Serena and I with one of the dinosaur trackways. The tracks are next to our hands on the left side of the image.

This post is about an education outreach field trip I participated in a few weeks ago. Usually when I go out in the field, I’m either teaching undergraduate geology majors, or with my advisor and lab mates to collect samples for research. This trip was a totally different experience for me, my advisor, Mark, and my lab partner, Serena: we took 18 high school students on a day-long field trip to three stops in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts! I was really excited for this trip, as I do not get to work specifically with high school students very often. The group we took out in the field was a science club from Holyoke High School in Holyoke, MA. This group of students was very diverse, with most coming from Hispanic backgrounds, some of mixed race, and several that spoke Spanish as well as English. But it wasn’t their diverse backgrounds that intrigued me the most, it was their sense of community and friendship, how they treated one another like siblings instead of classmates. This made spending time and getting to know the students all the more special, and made for an amazing day out in the field!

Mark explaining to the students how we concluded that this area was once an ancient lake. If you look carefully, you can see fossil ripple marks in the center of the image!

The students started their day with hot chocolate at 8 am before we  picked them up and whisked them outdoors! Our first stop of the day was at the Dinosaur Tracks along Route 5 in Holyoke, MA. Here, over 100 dinosaur tracks are preserved in the Early Jurassic (about 200 million years old) Portland Formation accessible to the public. We talked about the paleoenvironment (the ancient environment) of the area and how the tracks were preserved. In short, the rocks here were deposited along a lake edge, where the dinosaurs would visit for a cool drink. The students were excited by the tracks and the beautiful views of the Connecticut River.

Our second stop of the day was a famous outcrop in the valley called Roaring Brook. This spot is really fun as it’s on the eastern border fault that formed in the Early Jurassic as the supercontinent Pangaea was beginning to rift apart. It was at this spot that the Earth’s crust was pulled apart, causing a block of crust to drop down relative to the blocks to the east and west. This formed the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts as it is known today. Roaring Brook is characterized by massive blocks of igneous and metamorphic rocks that are found beside sedimentary rocks called conglomerate. The waterfalls at Roaring Brook are made of the conglomerate, which the students had a wonderful time climbing over!

The students exploring the conglomerate rocks at Roaring Brook.

After Roaring Brook, we took the students to University of Massachusetts Amherst, where we work, to one of our more famous dining halls. The students loved this (and quite frankly, it’s always a treat for us to eat here, too!), and it gave me and Serena a chance to chat with the teachers.

Our last stop of the day was the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. This is one of my favorite natural history museums, partly because it holds the world’s largest collections of dinosaur footprints as part of its Hitchcock Ichnology Collection. The students were given a personalized tour around the museum by one of the curators, where they learned about mammoths, mastodons, sedimentary structures, and of course, dinosaurs!

The students are given a brief overview of the Beneski Museum before looking around. Smilodon (a Pleistocene saber-toothed tiger) is in the foreground.

At the end of the day, I found myself reluctant to say goodbye to the students, and eager to work with them again. Before we dropped the high schoolers back at their campus, we gave them a survey to determine if our field trip was successful (did they learn science, did they have fun) and if they had any suggestions on how to improve future trips. Through this survey, we found out that only a few students had ever been on a field trip. This surprised me at first, as I remember going on field trips throughout my K-12 education. Talking with the teachers, however, gave me a more grim picture: public education funding is limited, and has become more so over the years. This is happening in all public education systems across the country. Teachers’ jobs are becoming harder because of these funding issues, but the real losers in the situation are our students. This field trip made me realize how important working with public school students is, as they and their teachers need all the help and support they can get in these times of public education budget cuts.

Thus, we in the UMass Geosciences department are planning another field trip with the students in the Spring to go fossil collecting in New York. Ideally, this will lead to a long-term partnership between the science educators in public school systems and our university.

Editing Science Chapters

Adriane here-

The sign in front of the IODP building in College Station, Texas, on the Texas A & M University campus.

Last summer, I participated in a scientific ocean drilling expedition (check out my previous posts here and here). More simply, I spent two months on a ship in the Tasman Sea, recovering sediment cores from the seafloor. We drilled the newly-named continent of Zealandia to determine the geologic history of the now-submerged continent. I sailed with about 30 other scientists from different backgrounds, which means that we learned a ton from the cores we recovered and learned  a lot from one another.

But all this new knowledge is useless if it isn’t written up and available to other scientists. So while we were on the ship, we wrote up our findings in documents we call ‘Site Chapters’. A site is what we call each new location where we drill. The scientific results from each site will eventually be published into chapters available online to the public.

While we were on the ship, the scientists had only a limited time to spend writing up their site chapter sections (every different group on the ship contributes a different section to the chapter; for example, as a paleontologist, I was only responsible for writing up the chapter section that deals with fossils). This writing time-crunch often leads to good, but not great, writing and figures. Thus, there comes a time after the expedition when some of the scientists that sailed together meet up for a week and thoroughly edit all the chapters.

At one point, I was working on our Biostratigraphy sections with two laptops! Thankfully, we were supplied plenty of snack and coffee to keep us motivated, as we had to be alert and pay attention to every little detail while editing!

At the end of January, the science party, including myself, met at Texas A & M University in College Station, TX. The university is home-base to the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), the program through which our expedition was organized and funded. Not all the scientists attend this ‘editorial party’, as only about 1 to 2 scientists from each group are needed. For example. there are two paleontologists (myself and another researcher from Italy) out of the original ten paleontologists that sailed working on the fossil-specific section for our site chapters. All in all, there was about 12 of us edition our chapters.

We spent 5 days in a room together, with access to all of our files and figures that we typed and created on the ship. In the room with us were 4 support staff, whose sole job it was to support us in any way they could. For example, they helped us edit figures, they gave us access to additional files that we needed, and they edited our chapters for grammar and spelling. The support team also formatted the chapters to a very specific style.

Beautiful echinoderms stuck in the limestone building blocks on the campus! Yes, I did try to get them out; no, I was no successful.

So why spend all this time on editing, drafting, and formatting a bunch of science-y stuff? There are several reasons! First, all IODP expeditions are paid for via taxpayer dollars, so the science that we do at sea and our major findings should be made available for public consumption. We anticipate that our chapters will be published online, available to everyone for free, in February 2019. Second, there is a diverse group of scientists that sail on the ship, and thus a diverse (and global) following of other scientists that are interested in what we did and what we found while at sea. Publishing our finding lets others interested in our science know what we collected, the age of the material, and if there is anything they could possibly work on in the future. The chapters also serve as a record and database (there will be an online database of findings as well) for others.

Editing is hard work, so it was important to take regular breaks and have some fun. Luckily, the weather was warm (or at least warmer than in Massachusetts) and sunny! Our lunches were catered everyday, and a few of us often went on walks around campus. Lucky for me, the limestone blocks that are used as walls around campus were filled with fossils, which provided me plenty of entertainment!


Linda Dämmer, Geologist and Paleoclimate Proxy Developer

The great thing about science is that there is always something new to discover, always something new to try, always a new question to answer, always a new challenge. If you’re curious enough, there will always be ways to improve our understanding of how the world works. And as a scientist you’re free to explore all these avenues. Even though every single scientist is only looking at a tiny fraction of everything there is to discover, we still all contribute to the same, big, never ending puzzle. And I find that strangely appealing.

Inspecting a shallow marine site near an active submarine volcanic vent field on the Aeolian island of Panarea, Italy in May of 2017 (Mount Stromboli erupting in the background). Photo by Caitlyn Witkowski (NIOZ/Utrecht University).

By developing and improving methods for paleoclimatologists and paleoceanographers my research helps other scientists understand how the complex system that is our planet’s climate developed and changed over time and reacted to changing parameters in the past. Only if we understand this well enough we will be able to predict reliably how the climate system will be behave in the future.

The main problem we, as geoscientists, have with learning about the climate of the past is that we can’t go back in time to directly measure the temperature or the composition of the atmosphere and oceans (unfortunately our colleagues who are working on time travel are way behind their schedule, but they say it doesn’t matter 😉 ). And unless you’re only interested in the last few centuries, nobody has left us their notes in a neat lab book with all the information we are looking for listed up in a table. Therefore, we have to look at the next best thing: ‘nature’s lab book’, natural records of past environmental conditions. For example we can use ice cores, tree rings, sediment cores, corals and other fossils to learn about the past. But what exactly do we look for in these natural archives? Which particles, organisms, compounds, molecules or minerals have stored valuable information about, for example, temperature, sea water salinity, or composition of the atmosphere? And how do we unlock these data? That is what I’m working on. I’m trying to connect the environmental conditions with the resulting signals in the natural records that we find all over the world.

A benthic foraminifera (Amphistegina lessonii) up close. The scale bar here is 200 microns (1 micron = one millionth of a meter). The bright green, fluorescent part of the shell grew during an experiment that included a fluorescent dye. This way we can tell which areas of the shell are relevant for our measurements.

I do most of my work on living foraminifera (unicellular organisms with a carbonate shell) and the ratio of different elements in their shells. I use benthic (bottom dwelling) foraminifera and keep them under a range of different controlled conditions in the lab to improve our understanding of how environmental signals can be found in their shells.

In addition to this I also do field studies, where I sample foraminifera and collect environmental data from different locations and compare them to the relationships that were previously found in the laboratory settings. This means I get to travel a lot and use a wide range of sampling methods. I get some of my samples from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, more than 3 km (≈1.9 miles) below the surface, by taking sediment cores with a research vessel. I crawl through the mud of the intertidal zones along the Dutch Wadden Sea coast to collect living benthic foraminifera from the mud surface by scraping off the top layers of the sediment. I snorkel through the acidified ocean around the volcanoes of the Aeolian Islands in southern Italy to find species that survive these harsh conditions. I scuba dive in the Caribbean Sea to collect living planktic foraminifera one by one using a glass jar. I take hundreds of cubic meters of sea water during scientific cruises to filter out all the plankton in there and then spend hours and hours staring through a microscope to identify all the tiny species.

I’m currently trying to develop a new proxy that will help us learn more about the ocean pH and the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration of the past. To do so, a graduate student and I are using tropical benthic foraminifera. We keep the foraminifera under several different CO2 levels, which represent today’s as well as pre-industrial conditions and concentrations that are expected for the next century.

In addition to that, I’m now calibrating an already existing proxy (the ratio of magnesium (Mg) to calcium (Ca) in carbonates, which correlates well with temperature) to a species of oysters. This method has not been applied to these oysters yet. Doing this will improve the paleoceanographers’ ‘toolbox’ for climate reconstruction in intertidal (the area at a beach between low and high tides) settings, where the most commonly used proxies can’t be applied, since they are based on planktic foraminifera and most of them live in the open ocean, far away from the coast.

Linda is a PhD student at the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research in the Department of Ocean Systems; Utrecht University, Faculty of Geosciences, Department of Stratigraphy & Paleontology. To learn more about Linda and her work, visit the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research New Generation of Foraminiferal Proxies website.

Curating a New Fossil Collection

Yep, we’re really into puns.
Fossil turtle shells from the Oligocene (~32-34 million years), along with a turtle coprolite (fossil poop) from the Eocene (~47 million years).

Adriane here-

Last year, the Department of Geosciences at University of Massachusetts Amherst received a very generous donation of fossils. Being a fossil freak myself, I was over the moon excited to set up the new collection and help make the display for these precious fossils. Our department already has an impressive collection of minerals (the Rausch Mineral Gallery, which is open to the public weekdays from 9 am – 5 pm), so a fossil gallery was the perfect compliment to this. The department decided to call the collection the Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection, after the generous donor.

Teeth of Hyracodon, a pony-like organism that lived during the Oligocene.

Setting up the fossil displays was quite a task, but one of the most fun tasks I have participated in during my time at UMass as a graduate student! Unwrapping boxes upon boxes of vertebrate and invertebrate specimens was better than Christmas morning as a kid! There are several amazing fossil specimens, but one of my favorite is a Triceratops horn fragment. Other impressive specimens are the two nests of dinosaur eggs and two individual eggs.

An Edmontosaurus metatarpal (toe bone).

In addition to the fossils donated to us, the Geoscience department also has an impressive collection of Paleozoic invertebrate fossils that were collected by a previous professor (who has long since retired). The last cabinet in our fossil display was reserved especially for these fossils. My previous research experience was with Paleozoic invertebrates, so I (quite happily) undertook the task of selecting, identifying, and setting up these fossils.

A piece of a Triceratops horn.

My advisor Mark, my lab partner Serena, and I were tasked with organizing the display in cabinets next to our mineral gallery. We decided to order the specimens according to geologic time, with the youngest fossils on the right side of the room and the oldest on the left. In addition, we also tried to separate the fossils within each cabinet by terrestrial and marine organisms. This way, visitors can see how life on Earth has changed and evolved through time on land and in the oceans.

A Eubrontes trace fossil. Eubrontes is the name given to the dinosaur track. This one in particular came from western Massachusetts, and is about 200 million years old!

Rock, mineral, and fossil collections within universities and colleges are very important resources, as they allow the students in those institutions access to the collections through research, curating, and learning activities. Professors can also incorporate the collections into their teaching curriculum if they wish to. This semester, the Historical Geology students at UMass will each be assigned a fossil from the collection. As a class project, each student will write a one-page description of their fossil, and will include facts about the organism. These pages will then be print and bound in a book kept by the fossil collection so visitors can learn more about the extinct organisms. In this way, the students are learning about geologic time, evolution, and paleontology, and also science communication!

An Oviraptor egg, with a plastic model behind it to illustrate how the young dino would have grown inside the shell.

The collections are great tools for education outreach and science communication. For example, I have used the Rausch Mineral Gallery housed at UMass to teach local Boy Scouts about natural resources and important minerals we use in our everyday lives. Late last year, the first group to see the fossils was a science club from one of our local high schools. The kids were amazed at the fossils! When I told them our oldest fossils were ~550 million years old, they were seriously impressed. In the world of paleontology, dinosaurs are often king, so it’s always a sweet victory when I can get people to marvel at our Earth’s earliest multi-cellular invertebrate creatures.




Keichousaurus hui, a marine reptile that live about 240 million years ago.
Two eurypterids, Eurypterus lacustris. Eurypterids are commonly called ‘sea scorpions, and are the state fossil of New York. These two are from the Silurian Period and lived ~430-418 million years ago.
An unidentified leaf fossil with excellent preservation. Notice how the leaves and stem are clearly visible.
Two Devonian (~385 million years) brachiopods. They may not look like much, but these specimens are extra special because their lophophores, which were internal feeding structures, are preserved!
A Plesiosaur vertebrae (back) and humerus (front). Plesiosaurs were marine reptiles that preyed on other marine organisms. This specimen was found in southern Colorado and is Late Cretaceous (100-66 million years) in age.
A piece of a Hadrosaur jawbone. Hadrosaurs were duck-billed dinosaurs. This specimen came from the Late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation and is 70-66 million years old.
Fern fossils from the famous Mazon Creek locality in northern Illinois. The fossil are preserved in concretions, and when split, there are two halves of the fossil.
A Eucalyptocrinus specimen. This species belongs to the Class Crinoidea, which includes modern animals such as modern ‘feather stars’.
The final product! The Lawrence Osborn Fossil Collection is housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst,  Department of Geosciences, and is open to the public during weekdays from 9 am-5 pm.

Rapid decline of vertebrate populations

Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and decline

Gerardo Ceballos, Paul R. Ehrlich, and Rodolfo Dirzo

Global data from the study of terrestrial species. Species richness (maps on the left) indicates the number of species; number of decreasing species is presented on the middle maps; percentage of decreasing species is presented at right. The top 3 maps are for all vertebrate animals, and the lower maps are separated my the major groups (mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians). The cooler the color on the percentage decreasing maps, the more severe the loss of those animals.
Data: The scientists used a large data set of vertebrate populations (27,600 species and a more detailed data set of 177 mammal species from 1900 to 2015) to examine how the ranges of vertebrate animals have become smaller due to growing populations of humans that are pushing the animals out of their natural habitat. A lot of animals that are not considered endangered have experienced a huge decline in their numbers, indicating that animals all over the world are being IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This data was was superimposed in a 22,000 grid of 10,000 km3 quadrats covering continental lands. A species was considered decreasing if their ranges (where that species lives) shrunk over time, or if there was a reduction in the number of species. This approach was also applied to 177 species of land mammals to see how their populations have changed through time.

Results: The scientists found that even in populations of animals that are not considered threatened, the rate of population loss is extremely high. In this study, 32% of the known vertebrate species are decreasing, meaning they have shrunk in population size and the ranges, or land in which they live. In the more detailed data set of 177 mammals, all of them have lost 30% or more of their ranges, and more than 40% of the mammal species have experienced severe population declines.

This map represents the percent of population extinctions in 177 species of mammals. The maps were made by comparing historic ranges of the animals to the current ranges. Cooler colors indicate areas that are experiencing the most severe population extinctions (for example, the east coast of the US, southern Australia, and northern Africa).

Why is this study important? This study uses a large data set of vertebrates to examine patterns of species through time to specifically assess how humans are impacting the ranges and populations of the animals. The current decline of species on Earth isn’t happening slowly; instead, it is happening at an accelerated rate. This study highlights the idea that Earth and all its creatures may be in the Sixth Mass Extinction, and remediation efforts are necessary and need to be enacted now in order to save animal populations.

The Big Picture: Humans are fundamentally changing the Earth and the animals that live on it. Through habitat destruction and expansion of housing and urban areas, to name just a few causes, we are taking habitats away from animals. Combined with climate change, the Earth’s animals are experiencing a biodiversity decline.

Citation: Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., and Dirzo, R., 2017. Biological annihilation via the ongoing sixth mass extinction signaled by vertebrate population losses and declines. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1704949114

Fossil Collecting at Westmoreland State Park, Virginia

Adriane here-

An aerial view of Horse Head Cliffs at Westmoreland State Park overlook the Potomac River. The beautiful parallel layers of sediment contain fossils. Image courtesy of the VA Department of Conservation & Recreation.

Every now and then (well, as often as I can to be honest), I go fossil hunting with family, friends, and colleagues just for fun! There’s nothing like finding the remains of extinct animals and plants out in the field yourself. Although there are very few places where fossil collecting is prohibited, there are very few state parks and places in the US where it is encouraged. One of these places is Westmoreland State Park in Montross, Virginia.

This very well may have been the first place I found my very first fossil. I remember my dad had taken my siblings and I to the park one Saturday afternoon to play in the Potomac River and in the creeks and marshes nearby. But, once he told me we could find shark’s teeth on the river banks, my eyes were glued to the sand, systematically sweeping the ground in front of me. Lo and behold, I did find a shark’s tooth! And, it was a tooth that belonged to Carcharodon megalodon (or just Megalodon for short), one of the largest sharks to ever cruise the Earth’s oceans!

Stratigraphy of Westmoreland

Sifting for fossils on the banks of the Potomac River.

Westmoreland State Park is known among locals for its fossils, but any Virginia geologists will tell you the real gem of the park is its stratigraphy (well, OK, the fossils too). The oldest sediment that contain the fossils was laid down in a shallow extension of the Atlantic Ocean about 23-25 million years ago, during the lower Miocene. Younger sediments from the Pliocene (~5.3-2.5 million years ago) and Pleistocene (~2.5-0.01 million years ago) were laid atop the older Miocene deposits. Together, these different rock and sediment layers are called the Chesapeake Group. In the study of rock layers (=stratigraphy), a group includes different rock formations, each with their own name. For example, the Miocene formations in the Chesapeake Group (at least in parts of Virginia) are called the Calvert and Eastover formations.

After these formations were deposited, sea level dropped as glaciers on Greenland continued to grow. This allowed for rivers to flow further out into what was once a sea. Rivers are very powerful eroding mechanisms, as they have the capacity to move large boulders and wear down rocks (think of the Grand Canyon; it was made by the Colorado River cutting through the rock over time!) One of the rivers that now flows into the Atlantic Ocean is the Potomac River. This river is now eroding the Chesapeake Group formations, releasing all the fossils that were once contained in the rocks. Thus, some of these treasures wash ashore at Westmoreland State Park for visitors to find!

Fossils of Westmoreland

A small C. megalodon tooth found at Westmoreland State Park.

Over nearly a decade of visiting Westmoreland State Park, I have accumulated hundreds of shark teeth and found tons of other fossils. Some of these include whale teeth, vertebrae, rib bones and ear bones, dolphin teeth, vertebrae, rib bones and ear bones, fish vertebrae, shark vertebrae, coprolites (fossil poop), an alligator tooth, and mammal teeth. Most of these fossils are Miocene in age, but some are from the Pliocene and Pleistocene.

One of the most famous fossils to come out of the Chesapeake Group are those of the baleen whales. Several new species of whales have been found in Virginia in formations from the Miocene and Pliocene. One of these species, Eobalaeonoptera harrisoni, was found only five minutes down the road from my home in Virginia! E. harrisoni is a beloved icon of the area, in which it was found, so a complete cast of the whale now hangs in the Caroline County, VA visitor’s center.

The cast of Eobalaenoptera harrisoni that can be visited in the Caroline County, VA visitor’s center. Image from the Virginia Museum of Natural History.

Rocky Mountain Field Trip

Megan here-

Image 1. Grand Teton National Park (in the red ellipse) is located in the northwest corner of Wyoming, just south of Yellowstone National Park.

An exciting perk of attending the University of Wyoming for graduate school is the annual Rocky Mountain Field Trip. This year, the geology faculty planned an adventurous trip to Grand Teton National Park and its surrounding areas (Image 1). Over five days, current and new graduate students explored the unique geology of the Tetons by learning about mountain formations, glaciation, and sedimentation in northwest Wyoming. By the end, we were able to develop an understanding of how this stunning area formed, and how it may change in the future.

Image 2. The view from AMK Ranch stretches across Jackson Lake to the Tetons. This photo looks southwest and shows the northern part of the north-south trending range.

For the first few days of the trip, we were lucky enough to stay at the AMK Ranch, which is home to the University of Wyoming-National Park Service Research Station. From here, we had a stunning view of Grand Teton National Park’s most impressive features: the high-standing peaks of the Teton mountain range (Image 2). These mountains are tremendously tall (the Grand Teton’s peak is 13,775 feet in elevation) due to a complex tectonic history of extension and uplift. Essentially, the mountains uplifted while the valley to the east dropped down. The pointed horns of the Tetons are a result of glacial sculpting during the Pleistocene Epoch.

One of the best parts of this trip was the variety of geology and geologists (Image 3). We learned about glacial geology, sedimentology, structural geology, hydrogeology, paleontology, and so much more. The professors and guests who joined us along the trip had a massive breadth of geologic knowledge. Not to mention, we were able to explore a national park with a geologic lens. That’s one of the most exciting things about being a geologist; you can look at landscapes with towering mountains and glacial lakes, or with meandering rivers and rolling hills, and you can envision the multitude of processes that formed that landscape.

Image 3. New and returning graduate students, UW professors, and even the UW provost mimic the pointed peaks of the mountains on a hazy day in Grand Teton National Park. Photo courtesy of Robert Kirkwood.


FossiLab Outreach at the Smithsonian

Andy here-

One of the most enjoyable activities I got involved with while at the Smithsonian Institution – National Museum of Natural History was FossiLab. FossiLab is a windowed room where volunteers and scientists go about doing work that needs to be done in the museum. Some of the volunteers there do is look through sediment samples for tiny fossils. That’s time consuming work, but it can be done, and done well, with a few afternoons of training. Most of what the volunteers engage in re-housing fossils. Besides research and education, the Smithsonian also very importantly stores lots of items. The NMNH stores over 40 million fossils, and the fossils are only one part of what that particular museum has. Some of these fossils need to be put in new boxes, since the old ones aren’t doing a good job storing them anymore. So, they spend hours cutting new styrofoam to cradle to fossils just so, making new custom ‘housing’ that will keep the fossil safe for decades to come. This means I’ve gotten to see many cool fossils, like Miocene aged dolphin ancestors collected by the scientist who found (though didn’t name) the first Triceratops.

The rare view from the other side of the glass in FossiLab with an empty museum.
An example of some of the measurements on a planktic foraminifer (image generated by Melanie Sorman)

I, as a scientist, was doing research while I was in FossiLab. I study planktic foraminifera. In particular I’m interested in how their history is changed by climate. Can we detect how their evolution was altered by changing climates in the past? While upstairs in FossiLab I spent lots of time measuring individual foraminifera to understand their shape. I was doing this with forams which lived about 100 million years ago in a warm interval, trying to understand the evolution of one particular aspect of their shape. Certain species of foraminifera develop a ‘keel’, a build-up of calcite on the outer-edge of the shell. Yes, if you look at it just right, it does look like the keel on a boat. The question that we’re attacking is ‘did the keel develop from one lineage, or did several independent lineages develop keels simultaneously?’. This is important for a few reasons. The keel is a key feature of the test (internal shells), and has been thought for years to indicate that the foram lived deeper (though that’s not always the case). Also, much evolutionary research in forams depends on understanding how different species are related. We know this really well for the Cenozoic (65 Million years ago to the present), but the Cretaceous has several really important ancestor-descendent relationships that we just haven’t figured out yet. This is one of those. There’s a sign in front of the microscope that I used explaining much of this, and a little slideshow that plays with more detail.

FossiLab also has a door that lets the volunteers or scientists walk out and talk to folks. If people watched for a while, then I’d usually get up and go talk to them. I have a little tray filled with objects to talk about what I do. First, I’d hand them a tray of microfossils (which to a naked eye, look like sand) and ask them to make observations about what they saw. Usually I’d get “It’s sand!”. I then put the tray under my WoodenScope and show them that each ‘grain of sand’ they saw was actually tiny shells. We’d talk about what forams are, and how we use a big boat called the R/V JOIDES Resolution with a drill on it to get them. Describing coring goes like this: 

“Have you ever stuck a straw through a cake?”

“Yes!” Oddly, 80% of the groups have somebody that’s done this.

“OK, so what happened? What’s in the straw?”


“But what’s on top?”

“Right, you get the cake layers. There’s icing on top, then cake, then if it’s a really good cake, there’s another layer of icing and more cake. The ocean is just like that, there are layers. The JOIDES is our straw, and we’re using the cores to sample the layers in the bottom of the ocean.”

Then we finish up by talking about what forams can tell us. We count up forams because if we have more of a kind that likes warm water, then we can tell the water was warmer at that time in that location, or more cold loving forams means colder water.

To finish the interaction, I let the kids or adults ask as many questions as they want. Usually it ends with the parents telling them they have to go.

Global risk of deadly heat

Global risk of deadly heat

Camilo Mora, Benedicted Dousset, Iain R. Caldwell, Farrah E. Powell, Rollan C. Geronimo, Coral R. Bielecki, Chelsie W. W. Counsell, Bonnie S. Dietrich, Emily T. Johnson, Leo V. Louis, Matthew P. Lucas, Marie M. McKenzie, Alessandra G. Shea, Han Tseng, Thomas W. Giambelluca, Lisa R. Leon, Ed Hawkins, and Clay Trauernicht

Data: This study was conducted by gathering data from previous studies and looking at the number of lethal heat events that have occurred around the world from 1980 to 2014. The study also estimates the percentage of the population that is at risk from increased air temperatures and humidity due to human-induced climate change in the future.

The number of days per year that different areas are exposed to deadly heat and humidity (‘threshold’). The simulations, a-d, are from models into the year 2100. A) historical data from other published studies; B) RCP 2.6 scenario where nearly all emissions are cut; C) RCP 4.5 is a scenario where most emissions are cut; D) RCP 8.5 is the ‘business as usual’ scenario where emissions are not cut at all.

Methods: The authors used data from 911 previous studies to use in their analysis. They collected information on the place and dates of lethal heat events, or extreme heat events that led to human deaths. The number of days per year that surpassed the heat threshold for which humans can live in was assessed for each year (1980-2014). To determine how much of the population may be at risk of heat-related deaths in the future, the scientists used four different CO2 scenarios to model air temperature and humidity to year 2100.

Results: From the previous studies, the scientists found 783 cases of human mortality linked to excess heat from 164 cities in 36 countries. Cases of heat-related deaths were concentrated to mid-latitude regions, with high occurrences in North America and Europe. Temperature and relative humidity of an area were both found to be factors important to identifying regions where climate conditions may become deadly, as these are related to human’s ability to regulate their body temperature. Currently, around 30% of the Earth’s population is exposed to climate conditions that are considered deadly. By the year 2100, this number is projected to increase to 48% under a CO2 scenario where emissions are drastically cut, and 74% under a CO2 scenario of increased emissions.

Why is this study important? This study highlights the health risks posed to humans due to increased heating of the Earth. Several countries and large cities, mostly concentrated at the mid latitude regions and equator, are at most risk.

The big picture: Under all emissions scenarios, whether we cut emissions drastically or keep emitting CO2 at the same rate, an increased percent of the human population will be at risk of heat-related deaths. This study emphasizes the importance of aggressive mitigation to minimize the human population’s exposure to deadly climates linked to human-induced climate change.

Citation: Mora, C., Dousset, B., Caldwell, I. R., et al., 2017. Global risk of deadly heat. Nature Climate Change, 7, 501-506. DOI: 10.1038/nclimate3322