Looking at past phosphorus accumulation in a Florida lake offers new insight on recent cultural nutrient enrichment

A Holocene Sediment Record of Phosphorus Accumulation in Shallow Lake Harris, Florida (USA) Offers New Perspectives on Recent Cultural Eutrophication

by: William F. Kenney, Mark Brenner, Jason H. Curtis, T. Elliott Arnold, Claire L. Schelske

Summarized by: Mckenna Dyjak

What data were used?: A 5.9 m sediment core was taken in Lake Harris, Florida using a piston corer (a technique used to take sediment samples, similar to how an apple is cored). Lake Harris is a subtropical, shallow, eutrophic body of water (rich with nutrients) located near Orlando, Florida.  

Methods: The 1.2 m sediment core is long enough to provide the complete environmental history of Lake Harris. However, the core must be interpreted first. In order to do so, the core was first dated using lead isotope 210Pb and carbon isotope 14C. The next steps involved using proxy data (preserved physical characteristics of the environment) to determine net primary productivity (the concentration and accumulation rates of organic matter), lake phosphorus enrichment (three forms of phosphorus), groundwater input (concentration and accumulation rates of carbonate material, like limestone), macrophyte abundance (e.g., sponge spicules), and phytoplankton abundance (e.g.,diatoms).

Results: The study found that Lake Harris began to fill with water in the early Holocene (~10,680 calendar years before the present) and transitioned to a wetter climate in the middle Holocene. The transition is indicated by a change in carbonate to organic sediments; a higher amount of organic sediments would suggest an increase in rainfall needed to support the plant life that would become the organic matter. A low sedimentation rate indicates that the lake was experiencing oligotrophication (depletion in nutrients) through the Holocene until around the 1900s. After the 1900s, there were increased sedimentation rates (Figure 1. A, B, D, and E) which indicates cultural eutrophication (increase of nutrients in bodies of water). Phosphates and nitrates from common fertilizers and other human activities (which is why it’s called “cultural eutrophication”) can allow algae (e.g., diatoms) to grow rapidly and reduce the amount of oxygen in the lake. An increased sedimentation rate can be used to determine whether a body of water is in a state of eutrophication, because the amount of phytoplankton (such as diatoms) would increase in accumulation. Total phosphorus accumulation rates can also indicate eutrophication.

Figure 1. Sedimentation rates for (A) bulk sediment, (B) organic matter, (C) CaCO3, (D) total phosphorus, (E) diatom biogenic silica and (F) sponge spicule biogenic silica versus core depth. Near the top of the core we can see a significant increase in A, B, D, E, and F which provide evidence for cultural eutrophication (increased sediment rates).

Why is this study important?: This study shows that, without being disturbed, Lake Harris was prone to becoming depleted in nutrients, the process of oligotrophication. The complete change of course due to human activities (i.e., fertilizer runoff) is more detrimental than was previously considered. This study showed that throughout the environmental history of Lake Harris there was never a sign of natural eutrophication, but rather that of oligotrophication. 

The bigger picture: Cultural eutrophication is a serious problem plaguing many aquatic systems and has serious consequences such as toxic algae blooms, which can have far reaching effects like on the tourism industry in Florida! The extent of damage caused by human activities is shown in this study and can help us understand how lakes responded in the past to the introduction of cultural eutrophication.  

Citation: Kenney WF, Brenner M, Curtis JH, Arnold TE, Schelske CL (2016) A Holocene Sediment Record of Phosphorus Accumulation in Shallow Lake Harris, Florida (USA) Offers New Perspectives on Recent Cultural Eutrophication. PLoS ONE 11(1): e0147331. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0147331

Niklas Hohmann, Master student in Paleobiology

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? The best part are the findings that completely contradict your intuition! Discussing these findings with other scientist and finding out where and why the intuitions failed are the moments where I learn most. I always loved these learning moments that spark curiosity, so aiming for a career in science was a natural thing to do.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?  I study how parts of dead animals such as mussel shells are turned into fossils. This sub-discipline of paleontology is called “taphonomy”, which is Greek and roughly translates as “the science of burial”. The focus of my research to find out how much information about past environments is lost when fossils form. Some shells might for example be very fragile, so finding few fossils of them is not necessarily evidence that they did not play an important role in the past ecosystem.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? Before 1950, very little information about ecosystems was collected. This makes it difficult to assess the impact humans had on nature simply we do not really know how nature looked like 500 or 1000 years ago. By developing tools to reconstruct these ecosystems from fossils, I hope to contribute to the understanding how nature looked like in the past so we can better protect it for future generations.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? All data I use was previously published by someone else and I compile it from the literature for specific questions I am working on. Typically this would be information about shells that were found in a drillcore, their material properties that were determined in a lab experiment, and the environmental conditions where the core was taken.

Aside this empirical data, I borrow concepts from chemistry, physics, and different branches of mathematics for modeling. This can lead to interesting analogies: The way shells are distributed in the sediment is similar to the way heat is migrates through a solid medium, which is in turn tightly connected to particle movement.

The effect of sediment input on shell abundance in the sea floor. When sediment input is low, many old shells will be found at the sediment surface. Typically the ages of shells found at the same place differ by hundreds of years, a phenomenon called time-averaging. When sediment input is high, shells are buried quickly, which protects them from destructive processes close to the surface.

How has your research have you been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? A lot of scientists that depend on access to labs were having troubles getting their work done due to the social distancing measures. Also many of the side jobs that are crucial for students were not available anymore, which put a lot of financial pressure on them.

My research has not been affected much, but all the conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19 have strengthened my belief that science communication should be a central part of scientific practice.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? If you’re already in academia: Don’t specialize too early and look for a mentor you get along with. In general: stay curious and ask all the questions. Especially the ones you think are stupid.

Signs of Injury and Disease in Jurassic Marine Reptiles

Palaeoepidemiology in extinct vertebrate populations: factors influencing skeletal health in Jurassic marine reptiles

Judith M. Pardo-Pérez, Benjamin Kear, and Erin E. Maxwell

Summarized by: Kailey McCain

What data were used? Researchers wanted to create a baseline for measuring overall health of large marine animals in the Jurassic period. Given the prevalence of Ichthyosauria, a large extinct marine reptile, researchers chose to survey five different species/taxa (i.e., biological classification of organisms) that lived at different ocean depths and varied in size: Hauffiopteryx, Stenopterygius, Suevoleviathan, Eurhinosaurus, and Temnodontosaurus.

A total 236 specimens were collected at a Lagerstätte deposit in Germany, which is a site with exceptional (in quantity or quality) fossil preservation.

Figure 1: This image represents four examples of the skeletal pathologies found by researchers. (a) shows stiffness in the femur and fibula (limb bones). (b) shows stiffness in the spinal column. (c) shows a fracture in the gastralium, which provided support in the abdomen. (d) shows a fracture in the rib cage.

Methods: The 236 specimens were classified by species, and then further classified by age range (i.e., juvenile, young adult, adult). Researchers began studying the fossils for signs of trauma that could have resulted from injury or skeletal diseases (pathologies). Due to the large availability of the Stenopterygius specimens, researchers dated and grouped them into three categories regarding the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE). This was a time in the Jurassic Period when the oxygen levels were depleted and toxic greenhouse gases (e.g., carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide) became the major component of the atmosphere; the specimens were grouped as before T-OAE, during  T-OAE, and after T-OAE. The purpose behind comparing pathological data to the T-OAE is to determine if the depletion of oxygen had any significant effect on marine health.

All of the data was inputted into a statistical software, R, to determine any significant correlations and variables. 

Results: The data collected showed that trauma associated with healing was the most common pathology recorded; however, there was not a skeletal region significantly affected more than the others. These commonalities were shared by all five taxa of ichthyosaurs . Additionally, when comparing the overall size of the specimens and percentage of pathologies found, it was determined that the large species were approximately 2.4 times more likely to show signs of trauma and disease. This correlation was also found to be true when looking at the developmental data collected for Stenopteryguis; it was concluded that the adults were 4 times more likely to have signs of disease or trauma than the juvenile specimens.Regarding the data collected for the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event , researchers could not find any significant data that could correlate an increase in pathologies due to the depletion of oxygen.

Figure 2: This image shows a fully preserved fossilized ichthyosaur, Stenopterygius .

Why is this study important? This study showed the differences in skeletal pathologies present in a diverse set of marine reptiles. By differing in size, age, time, and ocean depth, researchers were able to obtain an overall survey of health and easily compare the pathology data to other ecological conditions (e.g., climate change).

The big picture: The research collected in this study provided a baseline for variables that affected the skeletal health of Jurassic marine reptiles. The data supporting the correlations between size and age range of different taxa within the extinct Ichthyosauria can be compared to other extant (i.e., living) reptiles to provide an estimation and a possible explanation for the prevalence of skeletal pathologies.

Citation: Palaeoepidemiology in extinct vertebrate populations: factors influencing skeletal health in Jurassic marine reptiles. (2019). Royal Society Open Science, 6(7). https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.190264

Mima-like Mounds of South-Central United States: A Remnant of Late Holocene Droughts?

Relict nebkhas (pimple mounds) record prolonged late Holocene drought in the forested region of south-central United States

Christopher L. Seifert, Randel Tom Cox, Steven L. Forman, Tom L. Foti, Thad A. Wasklewicz, and Andrew T. McColgan

Summarized by Isaac Pope

Introduction: Even before their first geologic description in the nineteenth century, the Mima Mounds of the Puget Lowland have captivated the human mind. The elliptical dome shapes of the millions of regularly spaced mounds have defied explanation (figure 1), yet these mounds appear to be a globe phenomenon. Across prairies on North America and other continents, mounds resembling the Puget Lowland Mima Mounds (termed “Mima-like mounds”) have incited geologists to propose a host of forces from earthquakes to flooding rivers and even rodents as explanations for these enigmatic mounds (Johnson and Burnham, 2012; Tucker, 2015). Because of the diverse settings in which these mounds are found, some researchers have suggested a single cause of all Mima-like mounds is unlikely, opining that instead a variety of forces may have been the cause. Amid this debate, six scientists have proposed that the Mima-like mounds of south-central United States are the remnants of a geologically recent drought.

The Data: Locally known as pimple mounds, the Mima-like mounds of south-central United States are found on flat benches near rivers and streams across Arkansas, Oklahoma, and nearby states. While some may be currently or historically forested, most mounded areas appear to have originally been prairies or open areas within forests. The mounds are underlain by bedrock or a subsoil pan relatively impervious to water seepage, which may be one reason for the general lack of forests in mounded areas.

The Methods: The research team cored three prairies in Arkansas and Oklahoma to analyze the grain size and potential age of the mound material, collecting six cores of each sampled mound and one core in the low area adjacent to the mound. Four of the mound cores were collected on the North, South, East, and West axes of the mound and a fifth was taken in the center. Taken in a specialized metal pipe, the sixth was collected near the central core for luminescence dating, a method of dating the extent of time since a silicate mineral such as quartz has been buried by observing its reaction with light. Some of the mounds in one of the prairies were also measured using laser-scanner surveying technology to evaluate the asymmetry of the mounds.

Figure 1. The Mima Mounds of the Puget Lowland (Washington) have baffled geologic interpretation for over a century. Numbering in the millions, these dome-like mounds can be found on a number of prairies in the Puget Lowland, while other similar mounds (Mima-like mounds) have been identified across the world. Notice the trees and trail for scale. Photo by the author at Mima Prairie Natural Area Preserve.

The Results: Often steepest on their northwestern slope, the mounds were found to be composed primarily of silt and sand, being coarsest towards the northwest. Luminescence dating indicated that the mound sediment had been deposited within the past several thousand years during the Holocene with age increasing with depth.

Implications: The asymmetry of mounds both in their shape and composition suggest that they are nebkhas or coppice dunes, which commonly form in sub-arid areas as shrubs capture sand and silt in windy conditions. The origin of these Mima-like mounds as relict nebkhas supports extended droughts in south-central United States through middle and late Holocene, which was dominated by winds trending towards east or southeast.

A Broader Perspective: The identification of these Mima-like mounds (“pimple mounds”) as nebkhas provides insight not only into the local paleoclimate but also the potential origin of some Mima-like mounds. The mounds of south-central United States are one of the only local datasets spanning the middle and late Holocene, thereby recording information on the duration and extent of past droughts in the region. It is also possible that other Mima-like mounds, such as the classic mounds of the Puget Lowland, are also nebkhas, although more recent research indicates that a wind-based model for mound formation in the Puget Lowland is unlikely due to the extensive cobbles and boulders among the mounds (Pope et al., 2020). Further study of the nebkhas of south-central United States may continue to reveal information for solving one of the most baffling mysteries of geology

Citation: Seifert, C.L., Cox, R.T, Forman, S.L., Foti, T.L., Wasklewicz, T.A., and McColgan, A.T., 2009, Relict nebkhas (pimple mounds) record prolonged late Holocene drought in the forested region of south-central United States: Quaternary Research, vol. 71, p. 329-339, doi: 10.1016/j.yqres.2009.01.006.


Johnson, D.L. and Burnham, J.L.H., 2012, Introduction: Overview of concepts, definitions, and principles of soil mound studies, in Burnham, J.L.H. and Johnson, D.L., eds., Mima Mounds: The Case for Polygenesis and Bioturbation: Geological Society of America Special Paper 490, p. 1–19.

Pope, I.E., Pringle, P.T., and Harris, M., 2020a, Investigating the Late-Glacial Tanwax Flood—A Lithologic Study of Sediments in Selected Mounded Terraces in the Puget Lowland: Geological Society of America Abstracts with Programs. Vol 52, No. 6, doi: 10.1130/abs/2020AM-358073.

Pope, I.E., Pringle, P.T., and Harris, M., 2020b, The Tanwax Flood at Mima Prairie: Preliminary Results Supporting a Debris Flow Origin of the Mima Mound Sediment: Centralia College Eighth Annual Capstone Presentation Day.

Tabbutt, K. 2016, Morphology and spatial character of the Mima Mounds, Thurston County, Washington: Northwest Scientific Association, 87th Annual Meeting, p. 91.

Tucker, D., 2015, Geology Underfoot in Western Washington: Missoula, MT, Mountain Press Publishing Company, 333 p.

Isaac Magallanes, UChicago Ph.D. Graduate Student

Photo taken at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico in the summer of 2018. I was helping with the GABI RET 2018: The North American Connection.

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in science in general? As a scientist, I enjoy traveling and meeting/learning from people with a diversity of research interests. When I was a kid, I was always curious and interested in the world around me. I would watch PBS shows like NOVA and Nature with my dad. It didn’t matter to me whether I was learning about giant baleen whales or tiny African ant colonies, I enjoyed it all.  Although I was never able to visit a museum or attend a science camp during my childhood, the time spent with my family watching these programs laid the foundation for what would eventually become my passion and career path as an adult.

Although my parents fostered my interest in science, I never saw myself becoming a scientist. I believed I would grow up and do manual labor like my father. As a kid I would often assist my dad with an odd job or install carpet with my brother in law on the weekends. I did not see myself going to college, much less applying for graduate school.

Had it not been for the encouragement from my parents and high school English teachers, I would not have attended Cal State Fullerton as an undergraduate. Although I began my academic journey as an English major, I found myself becoming more interested in science. During this time, I enrolled in Geology 101 to fulfill a gen ed requirement and met my undergraduate advisor Dr. James Parham. He presented the course material in an accessible manner by using local examples when discussing geology and paleontology.

This class became the spark I needed to change my major and embark on the academic journey I am on today. He has and continues to be a great mentor and friend.

Photo taken in Washington Park near the University of Chicago.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?   To be concise, I study ancient vertebrate organisms and the processes that shape their morphology (shape). The term morphology can refer to many different things but I when use it I mean the shape of bones. Throughout my journey this has taken many forms.

As an undergrad, I described a new species of extinct fossil walrus from Southern California. My research also summarized the diversity and geographic distribution of fossil walruses as a group during the last ~18 million years.

As a masters student at the University of Florida, my research focused on studying paleoecology and reconstructing the dietary preferences of extinct mammal herbivores (horses, camels, rhinos, and elephant ancestors) from North Central New Mexico that lived ~16.9-6.7 million years ago.

What are your data and how do you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.? It largely depends on the project, but I primarily rely on museum collections. In some cases, I have collected fossils for my own research through field work, but often I hop on to other student’s field expeditions to lend a helping hand. Camping and hiking are some of the many perks of being a paleontologist that I enjoy.

What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science? In addition to conducting research, I also enjoy participating in scientific outreach. As a student, I have visited K-12 classrooms as a science expert, helped develop lesson plans with teachers, and participated in many pop-up museum events. This is due in large part because my master’s advisor and mentor, Dr. Bruce MacFadden, actively encouraged me to always think about the broader impacts of science.

Recently, I have been working with the “Cosplay for Science” team (of which I am a founding member) in developing unique pop-up museum experiences that bridge the gap between science and pop-culture. My favorite part about being involved with “Cosplay for Science” is getting to attend comic-cons and discuss how science inspires our favorite comic-books, movies, books, video-games, and TV shows. Be sure to check out our Instagram (@cosplayforscience) and follow us for more info on cool pop-ups and interesting content from our contributors!

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? I would say to not be hesitant in seeking new opportunities and experiences. When I began doing research at Cal State Fullerton, I felt like I was entering a whole new world. At first it was overwhelming, but I soon realized that I was not alone and found a strong support group in my lab mates and advisor. These relationships have continued through the years and served as great resource. Science is very fun, but it can also be hard, having the right team around you can help make the journey more enjoyable and fulfilling!

Follow Isaac’s updates on Twitter and Instagram!

Behind the Storm: How Climate Change Affects Women’s Empowerment in Africa and Asia

A Qualitative Comparative Analysis of Women’s Agency and Adaptive Capacity in Climate Change Hotspots in Asia and Africa

by: Nitya Rao, Arabinda Mishra, Anjal Prakash, Chandni Singh, Ayesha Qaisrani, Prathigna Poonacha, Katharine Vincent, and Claire Bedelian

Summarized by: Lisette Melendez

What data were used? This study focused on the lives of 25 women from geographically different areas in Africa and Asia, including deserts, mountains, and deltas. Even though their cultures and livelihoods differed, they were connected by one phenomenon: climate change. Climate change is something that affects humanity as a whole, but the most severe impact will be felt by our vulnerable communities. As summers grow hotter and droughts increase, those whose livelihoods depend on natural resources will face extreme adversity in the coming years.

Figure 1: A map of all the areas that were surveyed in this study.

Methods: The focal point of the study was to investigate how a woman’s agency – or ability to make meaningful and strategic decisions – was impacted by her surroundings. During field research, each woman was interviewed and their livelihood, exposure to environmental risks (like cyclones, flooding, and storm surges), and societal standing were charted. Then, conditions like material possessions, supportive legal systems, and environmental stress were analyzed in each situation to measure the impact each had on the given woman’s life.

Results: With climate change leading to inconsistent rain and extreme temperatures, land becomes infertile and inadequate for farming. Men often migrate away in search of better job opportunities, and while this presents as a source of empowerment for women, with the chance of increasing their involvement in managing money, the research shows it was actually a burden. One young woman noted, ‘Men can easily migrate for work whereas we have to stay here (at home) to take care of the family’. The women were often left alone to provide food for their children and maintain the crops and pay the bills. Even in states with relief programs for floods and droughts, women were often excluded from receiving aid – reinforcing cultural norms that disadvantage women globally. The same trend can be seen in the United States right at this very moment, with up to 90% of women and minority business owners being excluded from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Environmental stress overshadowed the benefits women received from becoming a greater part in household decisions and in the workforce. Why? Because climate change has destructive consequences for the environment in which these women base their lives on. The struggle to simply survive in barren fields forces women to work harder, in poorer conditions, and for lower wages.

Figure 2: The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

Why is this study important? This study provides vital information for governments to implement effective social programs for their citizens. It advances conversations about gender equality on the international stage and urges leaders to commit to gender equality when drafting important documents like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.  

 The big picture: The negative environmental impacts of human-driven climate change are now inevitable: global temperatures will continue to rise, droughts will become more prevalent, and storms will intensify. It is important, now more than ever, to ensure that countries have the necessary social programs that can effectively help people sustainably adapt to the changing environment. Resources and adaptation strategies must be made available to the communities that are most vulnerable to fluctuating circumstances. 

Citation: Rao, N., Mishra, A., Prakash, A. et al. A qualitative comparative analysis of women’s agency and adaptive capacity in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 964–971 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0638-y

Climatic variations over the millennia analyzed for predicting future climatic variability

Little Ice Age climatic erraticism as an analogue for future enhanced hydroclimatic variability across the American Southwest

by: Julie Loisel, Glen M. MacDonald, Marcus J. Thomson

Summarized by: Baron Hoffmeister

What data were used? This study used climate data from climate proxy databases and dendrochronology  along with computer software for modeling climate patterns  

Methods: This study used climate proxy data in conjunction with computer modeling and simulation software to determine hydroclimatic variability (i.e. the change in water conditions) in the North American Southwest.

Results: This study found that in the North American southwest is prone to variable climate conditions such as drought, as well as rapid snowmelt and severe rainstorms that can lead to flooding. Hydroclimatic variability in the southwest has not remained constant over the past one thousand years. In fact, there was high climate variability in the North American southwest during the Medieval Climate Anomaly (MCA; i.e. a period of warm climate that lasted from 950 c. to 1250) and the Little Ice Age (i.e. a period of cooling right after the MCA lasting until about 1850). Results show that the Little Ice Age had a higher amount of variability than the Medieval Climate Anomaly (see Figure 1). This was confirmed using climate data from tree ring growth analysis (i.e. the space between rings indicates the amount of growth) obtained by the North American Drought Atlas, a network of climate data points covering North America (figure 2), as well as climate proxy data from the El Junco diatom index from the Galapagos Islands. A diatom is a single-celled alga with cell walls made of silica. The oxygen used to make the silica is preserved in their shells and can be helpful climate proxy data.

Figure 1. This is a time series that displays annual climate variations based on the Palmer Drought Severity Index (i.e. climate data regarding precipitation and temperature). There is greater variability in the Little Ice age than the Medieval Climate Anomaly, and this can be seen by the bar graph at the bottom of the figure. This bar graph indicates the number of years where variability is above the 90th percentile.

This study also compared climate proxy records from fossil-coral oxygen isotopic records from Palmyra island in the tropical Pacific that recorded El Niño Southern oscillation patterns. El Niño Southern Oscillation is a weather pattern that has irregular periods of variation in wind and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific. Records of these weather patterns can be found in assemblages of certain coral fossils which serve as indicators for sea surface temperatures from the past. These were all analyzed and compared with the El Junco diatom index, and tree ring growth data using computer software. The researchers found a correlation between the El Niño Southern Oscillatory system and drought amplitude in the North American southwest increasing hydroclimatic variability. Also, with recent weather patterns, the computer simulations suggest that a ‘warm Little Ice Age’ scenario with high hydroclimatic variability accompanied by periods of warm and dry conditions is likely to occur sometime during the 21st century. 

Figure 2. The black border is the southwestern portion of North America being considered for this study. The black squares are climate data points provided by the North American Drought Atlas.

Why is this study important? This study shows how past climate change can help us understand how climate can change in the future and what the effects of that might be. In the North American southwest, hydroclimatic variability can lead to floods and drought impairing proper land management. Without experiments like this, climate change and its global effects cannot be understood. The results produced from this study can be used as a model for developing other climate reconstruction models.  

The big picture: This study explores the potential for climate variability modeling using historical climatic data as a reliable indicator for future climate predictions. It is important to be able to understand these historical climate events and weather patterns along with their effects on environments. Successfully being able to do this can lead to well-rounded land and water resource management in the face of climate change. 

Citation: Loisel, J., Macdonald, G. M., & Thomson, M. J. (2017). Little Ice Age climatic erraticism as an analogue for future enhanced hydroclimatic variability across the American Southwest. Plos One, 12(10). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0186282

PRI’s 14th Annual Summer Symposium: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Paleontology

Special guest blog by the organizers of the Paleontological Research Institution’s 14th Annual Summer Symposium, which was virtual and had the theme of: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Paleontology. The event was recorded and links to the YouTube channel can be found at the end of the post!

Who organized this event and what are your backgrounds? 

Caren: My name is Caren Shin, and I’m a PhD student at Cornell University in the Department of Earth & Atmospheric Sciences, advised by Dr. Warren Allmon.

Corey: My name is Corey Hensen and I am a PhD student at Cornell University. I completed an undergraduate degree in geology at the State University of New York at Geneseo and now study stratigraphy and paleobiology under Dr. Warren Allmon.

Dana: I’m Dana Friend and I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, NY. I received a B.A. from Cornell College (Mt. Vernon, IA) and a PhD in Paleobiology from Cornell University. Broadly speaking, my research field is phylogenetic systematics and macroevolution. I’ve planned PRI symposiums for years as a graduate student but this year I served primarily as an informal advisor of sorts and #1 cheerleader for the new cohort of graduate students and the symposium planning committee.

Jaleigh: My name is Jaleigh Pier and I have worked at PRI the last two years on a variety of projects in both the Science Communication and Collections Departments. This fall, I will be starting my PhD at Cornell under Dr. Greg Dietl, which is how I joined the PRI Summer Symposium Planning Committee since graduate students normally plan this event.

Matthew: My name is Matthew Pruden; I am a PhD student at Cornell University in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department. I completed my undergraduate degree in paleontology at the University of Alberta, and now I am studying Conservation Paleobiology under Dr. Greg Dietl.

Vicky: My name is Vicky Wang and I am the Collections Assistant at PRI. My undergraduate degree is in biology from Brown University and later I took classes in paleontology and geology. At PRI I’ve worked mostly on specimen digitization projects (including EPICC) and also helped with a major revision of the collections policies. I don’t have formal training in collections work, so I’ve been supplementing what I learn through work with books, articles, and free resources. From everything I’ve seen so far, the collections stewardship and digitization communities are incredibly generous and collaborative.

How did you come upon this theme? What inspired you all?

In early May, our weekly discussion group read an article that discussed gender parity among palaeontology authors and discussed gender, race, and lack of general diversity in our field. A few weeks after that was George Floyd’s death and the beginnings of widespread protests in the US. In the following week, as emotions and difficult conversations surfaced on social media, we found it particularly hard to focus on work. These events coincided with the beginning stages of planning for Summer Symposium, and we felt very strongly the need to do what we could to change the way things were in our field, and elsewhere. 

Changing the way Summer Symposium was run seemed like a good way to translate those feelings into action. Originally we were going to have three short sessions, each with a different topic, including one on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) in paleontology. But when we reached out to presenters, so many people wanted to contribute to the DEI session that we quickly decided to expand it and make DEI the focus of our entire event. We wanted to create a space to continue these difficult but necessary conversations, especially for one of the least diverse STEM fields. We wanted to bring together a wide swathe of the paleo community to share information and ideas for solutions, to affirm the importance of addressing DEI issues in our field, and to encourage others to begin or continue to make change where they are. Of course we understand that one event can only do so much, and we see our symposium as a link in a chain of many sustained efforts by many different people. 

What were the biggest challenges of organizing the symposium?

The biggest challenge was navigating the virtual conference world, since none of us had experience in planning or running a virtual conference. The organizers of the recent Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) virtual conference were kind enough to meet with us and impart valuable advice. They shared numerous materials with us and patiently answered all of our questions to where we began to feel comfortable with our abilities to run a successful virtual symposium. 

Another challenge was managing speakers across several time zones and coming up with a schedule that allowed enough time for an extended Q&A while also striking the right balance between ample breaks, time to manage potential technical difficulties, and not making the event too long for people in different time zones. Lastly, we collectively put in over 300 hours for this event, and with some of us working full-time jobs and others teaching summer courses or doing their own research, it took a coordinated effort for all of this to come together. 

We think it’s also important to point out that, although our event relied on volunteer labor, we don’t think that’s the necessarily ideal model. We would like to have offered speaker honorariums if we had the funding to do so. We also want to acknowledge the hard work of many other organizers of virtual conferences who are doing this work as volunteers. 

How many attendees were there? How does this compare to last year’s in person event?

More than 200 people attended the event, with participants tuning in globally. We had just under 300 registered for the event. Many of the registrants were interested, but unable to attend on the day of the event and expressed interest in watching the recordings at a later time.

What are the benefits of having online conferences and symposia, in regards to both invited speakers and attendees?

The virtual format allowed us to address the field broadly and gave us more options in terms of who we could invite as speakers (they didn’t have to be in driving distance!). Attendees were able to join from all over the world (North and South America, Asia, Europe, etc.) and across many time zones. In the past, the PRI Summer Symposium has been a highly local event of around ~50 attendees. This virtual format clearly allowed us to reach a much larger (4x larger!) and a more diverse audience. Many people wrote in the feedback survey that not having to pay for travel or an expensive registration fee is what allowed them to participate. We would not also have been able to invite all the speakers we did. We are very grateful to all our speakers, who volunteered their time and effort to support us in this difficult time.

What do you all see as the greatest success of this symposium?

One success is reaching such a broad audience, it was thrilling to see people from literally all over the world attend our symposium! Another was being able to do something to continue the conversation on DEI in paleontology, and hopefully invoke change. It was very gratifying to hear from attendees at different career stages that they wanted to make the field more diverse and inclusive and that they learned a lot from the speakers. A lot of attendees also praised us for sticking to the posted schedule and really appreciated how well-organized the event was. Lastly, to see all of our hard work come to fruition and being received so well was truly amazing! We kept anticipating something to go wrong, but it turned out to be a huge success and was worth all of the effort to make it happen.

One of our attendees, Dr. Kristina Barclay (a collaborator with Time Scavengers) said:

 “As someone who has been working to increase accessibility and diversity in geoscience, this symposium was incredibly valuable! I learned so much, and it was great to learn where I was on the right track, and what other things I can do in the future. It was great to hear from experts and see all of these resources in one place for a highly targeted palaeo/geo audience. Thanks for hosting such an important, successful event!”


What advice do you have for future online event organizers? 

  1. Plan ahead! Especially if you will have time constraints due to other commitments, planning ahead will give you time to learn about transitioning to a virtual format, from researching other similar events and how they were run, to defining your own event logistics and making a plan for advertising the event.  Include cushion in your schedule for transitions and in case some speakers need a little extra time, and to make a plan for how to handle things if something goes wrong. If your event is long, it’s also important to include substantial breaks. Have a thoughtful code of conduct and enforce it.
  2. Ask for help! Being able to ask the SPNHC and iDigBio organizers for advice helped tremendously and gave us a starting point for developing our own materials (which you can find and use here: Moderator Guide, Presenter Guide, Code of Conduct). Our own organization team grew as the event planning picked up momentum!
  3. Seek support! Although this was an all-volunteer effort from both the organizing team and speakers, if you are organizing an event and you are aware of the types of resources required (e.g. financial, technical), see if a nominal registration fee, or other ways to support your event are available. In our case, we opted for speaker-nominated organizations that attendees could check out and support, if they were able.

Check out recordings of the events: https://priweb.org/videos/summersymposium

Event details: https://www.priweb.org/event/summer-symposium

For any inquiries or comments on the event, please email: symposium@priweb.org

Franziska Sattler, Vertebrate Paleontologist & Science Communicator

What is your favorite part about being a scientist and how did you get interested in
science in general? My most favorite part of working in science is how collaborative it is! I get to work with a fantastics election of people, all with different scientific backgrounds, that enrich my research and give me the opportunity to learn from more experienced scientists.

I’ve always wanted to become a paleontologist, ever since I was a young girl and my parents
frequently took me to the natural history museum in my city. I still visit museums whenever I
travel to a new place and love to see how they set up their exhibitions. Science communication
has become a growing passion of mine and I now even get to do it professionally, which brings
me a lot of joy.

In laymen’s terms, what do you do?My research mainly focuses on the tooth growth and replacement of dinosaurs. Both carnivorous and herbivorous dinosaurs replaced their teeth in a certain time frame and pattern and I find it incredibly interesting to find out more about the differences in the species. Working in a research museum also helps me to communicate my work directly with the public.

How does your research/goals/outreach contribute to the understanding of climate change, evolution, paleontology, or to the betterment of society in general? I believe that one of the main quality criteria of good science is the engagement of everybody,
including the public, and the investigation of methods with which we can integrate the biggest
possible diversity of views and perspectives. I love science communication for exactly that
reason. Educating the public on scientific subjects and results leads to a better informed society and raises awareness and interest for research. This way we also encourage the next
generation to consider science as a career path.


What methods do you use to engage your community/audiences? What have you
found to be the best way to communicate science? I have been very fortunate to work in an environment where scicomm is highly encouraged and valued. The Museum fuer Naturkunde Berlin (Natural History Museum Berlin) has offered me my very own education format. With “Kaffeeklatsch mit Wissenschaft” (Lit. Coffee time with Science) people join in relaxed large groups and can examine a certain topic and ask researchers questions without feeling intimidated. On one hand, the concept combines something many people have known their entire lives: sitting together with your family on Sundays, drinking coffee & tea, eating cake and discussing life, their week and discussions about current events. On the other hand, there is science: which is still an often deterrent term, that even today still seems unclear to visitors (“What do scientists actually do all day?”). By combining these two terms, I want to take away the fear of visitors who might otherwise “just come to look around”, and are too shy to actively ask questions or chat along.

Besides that, I organize Pint of Science Germany and Soapbox Science in Berlin together with an awesome team. I have found that many people already join these projects with a lot of knowledge of their own and I always finish each session having learned something myself.

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists? Go to as many conferences as you can and if you lack the funds, look up grants for students, travel grants or see if you can volunteer for free attendance. Many meaningful relationships are made at places like this and it is a lot of fun! I was able to enrich my academic and private life in so many ways, just by joining annual meetings, joining cool projects and making friends at those conferences.

Follow Franziska’s updates, SciComm efforts, & research on her website, Twitter (@ohyeahfranzi & @wisskommkaffee), Instagram (@ohyeahfranzi & @wisskommkaffee), and Facebook!

Building a Character Matrix

Jen here – 

Interested in understanding how we take morphological data from extinct animals and use them to infer an evolutionary history? These trees can be used as a framework to test different macroevolutionary questions regarding species distribution, paleoecology, rates of change, and so much more! We hope to set the stage to explain how each step is done! First things first, constructing a character matrix. 

Before really diving into anything specific, I would suggest you think a little about evolution, phylogeny, and all the basic terminology that goes into this field. I would recommend that you work through The Compleat Cladist: A Primer of Phylogenetic Procedures. This is effectively a workbook that walks you through terms, concepts, and more!

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive guide but rather set you up to explore the program and generate a test character matrix!

Step 1: Learn about your study group

This will involve a LOT of reading and diving into the history of the animals you are interested in. In some instances this is easy, in others it is very difficult! I won’t dwell on this too much but it’s easy to forget where to begin. I would start by using Google Scholar to research your group of interest plus evolution, morphology, phylogeny. Then you will probably have to head to the library armed with a list of literature that is much older than you to really begin your deep dive. Remember that ideas change through time, so starting at the beginning is really valuable to learn how ideas have changed!

What is important is that you also learn about homology and work to understand the homologous elements of your critters. Homology is simply similarity due to inheritance from a common ancestor. The understanding and evaluation of homology may be different depending on the group you are looking at. For example, echinoderms have been considered this way for a while now and there are several schemes. One takes into account the body as a whole and how the elements are connected, the other takes a more specific approach looking at specific plates around the mouth. These are not mutually exclusive schemes but can be used in concert with one another. Another good thing to remember is that some people like to think they are more correct than others – who’s to say, really. Just make sure you do your own homework to form your own opinions and ideas. 

Step 2: Organize your information

There are several ways to do this, you could simply store information in Excel or Google Sheets or you could use a program designed for curating character data. I have used Mesquite for this. Mesquite is freely available software that is 

“…modular, extendible software for evolutionary biology, designed to help biologists organize and analyze comparative data about organisms. Its emphasis is on phylogenetic analysis, but some of its modules concern population genetics, while others do non-phylogenetic multivariate analysis. Because it is modular, the analyses available depend on the modules installed.”

You can easily describe your characters, add new taxa, remove taxa, import or draw a tree and see how characters change across different tree topologies. 

Here is the barebones starting place. I set up a new file and said I wanted three taxa and three characters. Now I can go in and start editing things!


There is a side tool bar where you can easily start to modify the matrix. So you can change the taxon names, add taxa, change characters, add characters, delete whatever you want, and a lot more that I haven’t really messed around with! I suggest that if you are a first time user, you spend some time with your fake matrix messing around. Once you get a sizable dataset in here, it’s best you don’t make any mistakes! Figure out where you may go awry and troubleshoot ahead of time.

Here is my edited matrix where I’ve added in three taxa and three characters. Notice at the bottom where it shows a character and the different states that are available. So when you edit the matrix you can use numbers or the character state – numbers are easier!


An easier way to import your characters and the different states is to use the State Names Editor Window.  This shows you the list of your characters and all the different states it can have – you can easily edit these and it’s a nice way to organize the characters since in the character matrix the text is slanted and kind of hard to read.

Character matrix with the character list on the far left column and the states spanning the rest. The states can be whatever you want – which is where bias can slip in so don’t forget to refer back to your knowledge base and understanding of homology.


The functionality of Mesquite extends quite beyond this. If you are looking for tutorials or to push the limits of the program here is some further reading:

Step 3: Export your matrix for analysis

Extensive export options via Mesquite!

File > Export will give you a series of options to export your file, don’t forget to also regular SAVE your file so that you can revisit your matrix to easily add to it! Most programs that infer phylogenies require a NEXUS file. This type of file has your matrix and often a bit more information about what you want in the analysis or information about the characters. I would suggest using your favorite plain text editor and exporting a few different types so you can see how they are structured and why certain programs may want different files and different information!