A Critical Appraisal of the Placement of Xiphosura (Chelicerata) with Account of Known Sources of Phylogenetic Error Jesús A. Ballesteros and Prashant P. Sharma Summarized by Maggie Limbeck
What data were used? Data were collected from whole genome sequence projects and RNA sequence libraries for all 53 organisms included in this study. Because there are four living species of horseshoe crabs and many living representatives of arachnids (spiders, scorpions, ticks) genetic data was able to be used as opposed to morphologic (shape and form) data. Organisms from Pancrustacea (crabs, lobsters, etc.) and Myriapoda (centipedes and millipedes) were used as outgroup organisms, organisms that are included in the analysis because they are part of the larger group that all of these animals fit into (Arthropoda) but have been determined to not be closely related to the organisms that they cared about in this study.
Methods: Several different methods were used in this study to estimate the evolutionary relationships between horseshoe crabs and arachnids. By using multiple different phylogenetic methods (different calculations and models to estimate relationships between organisms) these researchers had several different results to compare and determine what relationships always showed up in the analyses. In addition to all of these different methods that were used, two different scenarios were tested in each method. The researchers wanted to be able to run their data and see what results they got, but also test the existing hypothesis that horseshoe crabs are sister taxa to land-based arachnids.
Results: The vast majority of the phylogenetic trees that were produced in these different analyses showed that horseshoe crabs are “nested” or included in the group Arachnida and are sister taxa to Ricinulei (hooded tick spiders). The only analyses that returned results different from this, were those that were forced to keep horseshoe crabs as sister taxa to the land-based arachnids, but those trees had very low statistical support of being accurate.
Why is this study important? This study is particularly cool because it highlights interesting problems associated with using genetic data versus morphologic data and problems with understanding evolution in groups that diversified quickly. Chelicerates (the group of Arthropods that have pincers like spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs) diversified quickly, live in both aquatic and terrestrial settings, and have many features like venom, that all appeared in a short time frame geologically. By gaining a better understanding of the relationships between the members of Chelicerata and Arachnida researchers can start to look at the rates at which these features developed and the timing of becoming a largely land-based group. This is also an important study because it has demonstrated that relationships we thought were true for horseshoe crabs and arachnids for a long time may not actually be the case.
The big picture: The research done in this study really highlights the major differences in relationships that can be demonstrated depending on whether you are using morphological data or genetic data. This study found that by using genetic data for 53 different, but related organisms, that horseshoe crabs belong within the group Arachnida rather than a sister taxa to the group. It’s also really cool that this study was able to demonstrate evolutionary relationships that are contrary to what have long been believed to be true.
Jesús A Ballesteros, Prashant P Sharma; A Critical Appraisal of the Placement of Xiphosura (Chelicerata) with Account of Known Sources of Phylogenetic Error, Systematic Biology, syz011, https://doi.org/10.1093/sysbio/syz011
The idea to write this post spurred from conversations with colleagues (thanks, David!). A commonly asked question is ‘What do I need to do to become a paleontologist’? or ‘How did you become a paleontologist?’. Rather than write up a post on my experiences as an individual, I sent around a survey to collect data from as many paleontologists as I could. I requested information (via Twitter) from individuals that are professional paleontologists, meaning they are in some regard paid for the knowledge and expertise as it relates to paleontology. I ended up with 125 responses, including my own. I’ll provide the initial questions as headers with the data or comments represented below it.
TLDR: The responses provides evidence that there is not a single way of navigating your educational and professional life to becoming a paleontologist. It is by no means a linear path for all of us, but in many cases a twisting, winding road.
Did you always want to be a paleontologist?
Along my own paleontological journey I have asked friends, mentors, and colleagues how they have found paleontology. It is most often not a clear path. The options to select for this question included: (1) always; (2) discovered along my educational journey and; (3) much later in life.
50.4% of responders (n=125) said they had always wanted to be a paleontologist. This was unsurprising to me as many people I have met actually collected fossils from a young age. 43.2% of responders said that paleontology was not their original educational goal but that’s where they ended up. This indicates that although may responders knew their career path early in life, just as many did not.
What level of education have you received?
The options to select for this question include: high school, some undergraduate, undergraduate degree, some graduate level work, masters, PhD, or an ‘other’ box where people could write in their answer.
The majority of responders (56.8%) hold a Ph.D., followed by 26.4% holding an MS degree. The remainder includes ‘some undergraduate’, ‘undergraduate degree’, and ‘some graduate level work’. An important takeaway from this plot, that many people often forget, is that anyone with questions about the natural world can be a scientist. People with a variety of backgrounds hold careers or jobs as paleontologists. Additional degrees and fancy diplomas are not what define paleontologists, or scientists in general.
Did you start at a community college or return to one?
Other countries do not have a community college option or similar educational structure, paleontologists outside of the US were included in the ‘NA’ category. Largely, responders did not attend a community college as part of their educational path (71.3%), but 24.6% of responders did attend a community college. This category includes paleontologists that went back to restart their educational journey, those who took summer courses, those that took community college credits in high school, and those who attended a community college to begin their undergraduate degree. In general, there is still stigma in the academic community about the value of community colleges. These data show otherwise: Community colleges are wildly under-appreciated institutes that are often the catalyst for sparking an interest in STEM fields, including paleontology.
What was your undergraduate degree focused on?
Responders had the option of selecting multiple options or writing in their own. The options included: biology, geology, earth science, chemistry, environmental science, or paleontology. This question was intended to reflect a major or focus of the graduation but the results may include other specialties as well.
Clearly shown from this diagram is that over 50% of users studied biology, geology, or a combination of both. Which rings true with my experiences and anecdotal evidence I have gathered over the years. This diagram clearly indicates that although more than 50% of paleontologists studied the aforementioned subjects, these are simply not the only routes to entering the field of paleontology.
Did you do research as an undergraduate or high school student?
Research is an integral part of higher education and often can provide the learner with information on their path forward. Not everyone has the opportunities or time to pursue research during undergraduate programs. Especially when paid positions are not always readily available.
The results of this survey question show that the large majority of responders (85.6%) did conduct research as an undergraduate or high school student. This indicates that research at an early stage is common among professional paleontologists, but not necessary.
If you said yes to the above question on research, was this research related to paleontology?
Undergraduate or high school research can come in many forms. I was interested in determining if everyone that had conducting research early in their academic career was in a paleo-related lab group or not. This plot had a lower total response than the previous question, at 108 responders. 81.5% of responders said that the research they conducted was directly related to paleontology whereas 18.5% replied that their research was not directly related to paleontology.
This indicates that conducting paleontological research at an early stage in your career is not vital to becoming a paleontologist, but many professional paleontologists were exposed to paleontological research at an early stage in their career.
Where are you currently employed as a paleontologist?
The three largest portions of the pie chart include those in academia, specifically faculty members and students working toward their graduate degree. The next highest value corresponds to people working in the museum sector – either education or research related roles.
Not everything could appear on the pie chart so here is what was included with response amount in parenthesis:
Faculty member (39); Graduate school (28); Museum staff (research or education; 17); Postdoctoral researcher (8); Research specialist/scientist (5);Paleontological resource mitigation consulting (4); Museum staff & high school educator (3); Museum staff (research or education) & Faculty member (3); Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (2); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education; 2); Non-profit (2); Government (1); Higher education staff (1); Biology education staff (1); Cultural Resource Management: Field and lab technician (1); National Parks (1); High school educator (1); Graduate school & Museum staff (research or education) & National Parks (1); Freelance paleontologist, author, science communicator (1).
If you discovered paleontology later, what was your original career path?
In the first question of this survey, many people responded that paleontology was something that came to them later in their lives. I was interested in what these people’s original career paths were. Many had different original aims in terms of field of study. I would also like to include a few quotes to showcase how variable career paths can be.
“Minored in geology while getting a BA in Spanish, paleontology was my favorite class in my minor. Worked in sales, but the science of the products I worked with reminded me of my childhood love of science leading to my return to school for a bachelor’s degree in Geology.”
“Geology undergrad, then police officer for >30 years, then Geoscience MSc (masters degree), now PhD”
“I started taking graphic design classes at the local community college at 27 and took historical geology as a general education requirement. That introduced me to the idea of being a paleontologist.”
What experiences outside of formal education helped you maintain interest in paleontology?
Total responders to this question were 115 individuals, with a lot of overlap among responses. I’ve sprinkle some quotes throughout to bring light to several specific examples. Something that struck me is that many people included aspects of their research, but many more included information on informal learning settings such as public lectures, museums, fossil collecting, and joining clubs and groups in the area. Many responders indicated that they were volunteers at museums, and some had even mentioned this experience had provided them an avenue into their current positions. Others had led summer camps to engage young scientists in paleontology, and this helped them stay excited about fossils.
“There was an older fellow around town who was an amateur fossil hunter and knew a lot about the local history, archaeological, and paleontological record of the area. He’d take my dad and I out to fossil and archaeological sites. Also, definitely fossil activities at museums! I was always the kid chipping away at rocks. “
Other responses included aspects of various media: books, TV shows and series, documentaries, and internet resources. People of influence that came up by name include: Neil Shubin (with specific mention of Your Inner Fish), Stephen Jay Gould, David Attenborough, and Ned Colbert. Topics mentioned included: geology, paleontology, and evolutionary biology.
“Lots of museum visits, as well as books on dinosaurs, paleontology, and evolution. I also got involved doing fossil preparation for a commercial paleontology company which allowed me to experience the non-academic side of the field.“
Another major theme involved communication. Respondents indicated they would reach out to paleontologists, members of the USGS, museum staff, and educators with their questions. To me, this indicates that communication helped these now-paleontologists foster passion and commitment to a subject or topic. Taking the time to respond to questions from those interested in the field can really change lives. The paleontology community on Twitter was mentioned as a way to find like-minded people and get a peek into their science lives. Another responder explained that their interest was maintained by the supportive and friendly community they had found in paleontology. Much of this indicates that maintaining interest in a topic relates to strong connections made with others through communication and shared interests.
“I have watched many paleontology documentaries and love visiting natural history museums. Those two mainly are what shaped my interest in paleontology. I later volunteered at a paleontology research center, in which I was able to get my foot in the door.”
“I volunteered at the San Diego Natural History Museum while I attended school at University of California San Diego. Books are also very helpful, especially if you want to maintain a sense of familiarity with topics that you’re not directly interfacing with (example: I worked mainly with invertebrate specimens, so I had to feed my hunger for vertebrate work with lots of mammal/dinosaur texts). Social media is a huge source for feeding my general curiosity. Follow as many paleontologists as you can and reach out!”
“Museum visits, reading, and the classic -David Attenborough. Having said that, I have never been nuts for dinosaurs, or so very interested in palaeontology growing up. It wasn’t until college (Geology A-Level) that I discovered how much more there is to Palaeontology, and its applications in different industries. I loved being outdoors and I wanted to travel, and palaeontology is great for that -there is fieldwork travelling season, and then there’s conference travelling season.”
What advice do you have for students interested in becoming a paleontologist?
This was an open answer question that had 114 responses. I did my best to synthesize them. There was considerable overlap so I’ve attempted to summarize a few key aspects. I’ll also include lots of quotes throughout this section. Some may be abbreviated from their original version.
Reach for the stars. And take math.
First, there were a lot of actions that I could easily pick out: explore, read, get involved, collaborate, communicate, learn, get experience, volunteer, engage, share, be flexible, apply for everything, ask questions, network, go to class, and find a supportive mentor. Other skills and subjects that were mentioned include: data science, programming, and 3D modeling.
Network and start gathering research experiences early! Don’t be shy to just cold call/email researchers (and follow up if you don’t get a response after a while). The worst they can say is no! Also, it’s great to make friends and talk to researchers outside your field, particularly biologists and ecologists. You’ll learn a lot just by being around them, naturally develop your communication skills, and might even find that it can lead to awesome collaborations! It’s also so important to protect your hobbies outside of school.
Networking, collaboration, and communication are another three answers that came up often. This could be in regards to attending conferences, engaging others on Twitter, or asking questions about jobs/research/etc. Responders indicated that science is not an isolated endeavor but is more enjoyable when you can collaborate with others that share your interests on the material or questions. Others noted about how their supportive mentors and supervisors helped them pursue their passions. Often mentors outside your department or exact field can really help you grow and see past any difficulties that may be occurring.
Don’t drop the humanities. Being good at maths is great, but learn to write properly and construct an argument. The most important skill any scientist can have is the ability to write concisely and well.
Find a mentor who supports you. I had several professors along the way try to talk me out of a career in paleontology, but it only took one professor to spark my interest and kept me interested by mentoring me through independent studies and undergraduate research. I should mention that this professor was not in my own department, but went out of her way to help me!
Be flexible – many responders indicated that their path had been altered along the way and being flexible allowed them more freedom and the ability to shift focus. Someone event went from studying dinosaurs to crinoids! That’s a huge shift but remember that the organism you study is not just because they are super cool but because they allow you to ask specific questions that you are interested in answering. It is also okay to change your mind. You should not stay in a program or field that you are uncomfortable in or that you are no longer passionate about.
Always keep your goal in mind. It’s not always an easy journey but the subject and its community are just wonderful. And also stay educated on related topics like geology, ecology, or evolution. Even if you won’t find a job in paleontology, you are likely also qualified for several other jobs. Keep on rockin’.
Share your passion and seek out colleagues and mentors. Science is not done alone. Your ideas will improve as you talk with people in and outside your field of interest. When I think about my journey I think most about the people that guided my path with their suggestions and encouragement.
There were a few other terms that came up regularly in responses: enthusiasm, perseverance, persistence, patience, and dedication. There is no correct path into paleontology and many paths are challenging. There were several responders that suggested they would not recommend you/young scientists go into the field of paleontology and that the field is highly competitive, and that you need to be aware of this before entering it. This is not limited to paleontology.
Every experience in life is relevant to helping you pursue a career in paleontology. As a high school student, I had a part-time job cleaning toilets, typing news articles, and developing film at my local newspaper. It wasn’t glamorous, and it wasn’t science, but I learned people skills, teamwork, and how to stick to a deadline as part of this–all skills that I use now. Also, learn how to communicate. This is just as important if not more important than proficiency with science. An effective paleontologist, no matter what they do (field collector, preparator, educator, researcher, student) needs to be able to communicate effectively in multiple media. Practice writing, and practice writing a lot. Good writing takes work.
If you are interested in becoming a paleontologist, these folks left their information so you could check them out line to see what they are investigating or doing at this time.
These paleontologists have left their handles so you can follow them on Twitter/Facebook/social media. A lot of these scientists also have their personal websites linked in their profile if you want to learn more about what they do and the research they’re involved with. Feel free to reach out to them if you have questions about being or becoming a paleontologist!
I was representing the Florida Museum, Thompson Earth Systems Institute, and the FOSSIL Project! The conference was held over two full days at a local hotel conference center. The first day had an opening keynote presented by the amazing paleontologist, Dr. Lisa White from the University of California, Berkeley. She spoke about all of the digital resources available through the University of California Museum of Paleontology website. Many of which I knew about because I had used them as a tool some time during my academic journey!
The keynote was followed by breakout sessions where we could go learn about different programs, activities, and/or resources that had been implemented or evaluated by educators. This was a lot of fun for me to listen in and engage with. I learned a lot about different programs or lessons that are available for a variety of topics. Then we returned to the main ballroom to do networking discussions on different topics. I was leading a discussion on ‘Teaching Evolution through the Fossil Record.’
In my session we went through a few different questions and talked about successes and challenges that had been faced in the classroom, such as: (1) Do you teach evolution in your classroom and is it met with resistance? (2) Do you already incorporate fossils into your lessons on biodiversity? Would you want to or could you more? (3) New and different ways to include fossils into your lessons. (4) Is geology content a barrier for you or your students? At the end of our discussion we were to determine three takeaways and three recommendations for the future.
Fossils are important aspects of teaching evolution and biodiversity
Tangible and physical evidence such as fossils or the timeline where you walk through
Accessibility barriers in terms of cost of fossils and other tools
Finding community connections to help get fossils or content expertise
Exploiting online resources and technology to 3D print your own fossils
Using fossils to teach other subjects outside of evolution
After the discussion session, I had to run across campus for a meeting with the FOSSIL Project team. I missed one session of talks and lunch during my meeting but I was able to return to the conference for the last two sessions where people were sharing content and experiences. The conference adjourned shortly after that and picked up the following day first thing in the morning. I was part of the keynote panel that began promptly at 8 AM. This panel consisted of three early career professionals in related fields. We each gave 5 minute presentations on how our research incorporates large data sets and some information on outreach initiatives we have been part of. Following our presentations we fielded questions from the audience on our research, past experiences, and outreach events. It was a very successful hour and I was very fortunate to be invited to participate!
Overall the conference was a huge success. There were not many participants, maybe 100 at most. So it was a very small intimate conference and everyone had so many fantastic ideas and resources that I really learned a lot!
I recently took my geology students on a field trip to Blowing Rocks Nature Preserve on the eastern coast of Florida near Jupiter Island. This class is my upper level Sedimentary Petrology class made up of mostly geology majors (we mostly study the formation and identification of different types of sedimentary rocks, like sandstone and limestone). I wanted to show you all what we saw!
The rock that is shown here is the Anastasia Limestone, which was deposited in the late Pleistocene, which spanned about 2.5 million to 12,000 years ago. The ocean levels were much higher than they are currently, when this rock was made. We know this because the limestone that comprises the Anastasia was made underwater. Now, this limestone is exposed all along the eastern shore of Florida.
This limestone is really cool because once it was exposed, it began weathering in unique patterns. First, the energy of the waves is breaking the rocks down bit by bit. This is something we call mechanical or physical weathering. You can see evidence of this mechanical weathering by looking at how the rocks get narrower closer to the bottom-the waves usually only reach that point at high tide, so the rock above it isn’t nearly as affected (image 1). This mechanical weathering can make a few different types of features: sea arches (image 2) and sea stacks (image 2) are the kinds of things we can see here.
The cool geology doesn’t stop here though! Chemical weathering (i.e., breaking down the rock using chemicals-the most common one is water) also affects the rocks strongly here. Limestone is easily eroded away in the presence of acid, so any acidity in the ocean water or from rain above can wear away the rock in interesting patterns. Water splashes up on top of these rocks from regular wave action-that water slowly erodes the rock away, leaving small pits in the rock (image 3). However, what makes this place famous are the large pipes that are created from a mix of the chemical and mechanical weathering processes here. These pipes are quite literally large cylindrical tubes that have been worn out of the rock through hundreds of thousands of years (image 4). Water, when it comes in from waves, rushes up through these tubes and explodes out of the top! Sometimes, these can spray as high as 50 feet-hence the name of the park, Blowing Rocks (video 1)! As we go forward into the future, these pipes will continue to grow larger because they are continuously being worn down by wave energy.
There were some cool fossils on this trip, too! If you look closely, you can see lots of trace fossils from creatures who made burrows into the rock (image 5) and you can also see a lot of clam and snail fossils (mollusks!) Many of these fossils are broken up and the edges have been rounded-this is because of the higher energy waves constantly breaking them down (image 6). My students and I also found a living Portuguese man o’ war (image 7)- this isn’t a jellyfish because it isn’t a single organism, but it’s a closely related colonial organism. The man o’ war has long tentacles that can give humans very painful (but rarely fatal) stings. If you see one on the beach, don’t touch it! They are fairly common on the eastern coasts of south Florida, so be warned! All in all, my students had a great time on this trip, and they learned a lot about how rocks can change due to weathering over time. I hope you enjoyed it, too!
I study information sciences at the University of Tennessee. Why is it called information sciences and not information science? The information sciences are a very broad field, containing many other fields such as data management, knowledge management, librarianship (public, academic, and specialized), archiving, museum studies, and information-seeking behavior studies, among others. This is really true of most sciences, as biology, geology, physics, and chemistry all contain multitudinous specialized fields within the broad discipline.
Here at UT, we have some undergraduate and doctoral students in the School of Information Sciences, but the majority of the students are in the master’s (MS) program. This is because in the library and information sciences, an MS is considered the terminal degree. It is a professional degree, meaning that rather than a focus on research and producing a thesis or dissertation like many grad school programs, there is a focus on learning theories and practical skills that librarians and information professionals need to do their jobs.
Librarians at many colleges and universities have faculty status, even though they are not doing full-time teaching or research. This is important because the services they provide are integral to all of the research and teaching that occur on campus. Many information professionals and librarians, especially academic librarians, already have graduate or undergrad degrees in other fields, which gives them a good foundation for knowing the potential information needs of the patrons they serve. Many librarians spend some amount of time on their own research, either within the information sciences or in other areas they have expertise in.
I also have a previous graduate degree, an MS in planetary geology. I decided to continue and get another MS in information sciences rather than try to find a job as a geologist right away. I knew I did not want to get a PhD and be a professor doing full-time research or teaching. However, I did want to find a way to stay involved in the planetary research and teaching community in a support role. With a degree in information sciences, I could work as a GIS specialist (What is GIS?), a technical information or data management specialist, or as a librarian specializing in an area related to planetary science. These are all jobs that exist within organizations such as academic and specialized libraries, USGS/NASA/NOAA, and private planetary science institutes and industries.
Since joining the School of Information Sciences last fall, I have had several opportunities to explore career options in this field. I got a position this as a Community Fellow with the Earth Science Information Partners (ESIP). ESIP receives funding from NASA, NOAA, and USGS, and contains many member organizations who are working to improve all aspects of information and data management in the earth sciences. In my position as a fellow I get to attend their two annual meetings for free and to participate in any of their clusters (groups focused on a specific topic), as well as working more closely with one particular cluster. This gives me the opportunity to see what is going on in earth science data, as well as find new people to collaborate with. I have also been able to participate in a couple of research projects focused on Earth and planetary science data. I got the chance to travel to the American Geophysical Union meeting in Washington DC in December to collect data for one of these projects. I had never been to Washington DC before, so that was a cool experience. I will even get to travel to the 4th Planetary Data Workshop in Flagstaff in June to present some of my research, so stay tuned for a post about that!
A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota
Robert A. DePalma, Jan Smit, David A. Burnham, Klaudia Kuiper, Phillip L. Manning, Anton Oleinik, Peter Larson, Florentin J. Maurrasse, Johan Vellekoop, Mark A. Richards, Loren Gurche, and Walter Alvarez
Summarized by Jen Bauer, Maggie Limbeck, and Adriane Lam, who also comment on the controversy below
What data were used?
Data used in this study were identified from a new site, which the authors call Tanis (named after the ancient Egyptian city in the Nile River Delta), in the layers of rocks called the Hell Creek Formation. This formation is famous amongst paleontologists because it contains lots of dinosaur fossils from the late Cretaceous (about 66 million years ago). In this study, scientists found a new layer of fossils within the Hell Creek Formation that is unlike anything paleontologists have seen before. Those who found the site examined the rock’s features and fossils, which includes densely packed fish fossils and ejecta from the Chicxulub meteoric impact. The Chicxulub impact is what caused the dinosaurs to go extinct, and finding a layer of rock that was deposited minutes to hours after the impactor struck Earth is a very rare and exciting find.
This study included a variety of approaches. The rock features (called sedimentology) and fossil features of the Tanis area and event deposit are described to determine what caused this deposit in the first place. The authors also identified other pieces of evidence to aid in better understanding the situation at hand. Ejecta deposits were described as well, in comparison to ejecta deposits that are found closer to the impact site in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.
Much of the sedimentology can be related to other aspects of the Hell Creek Formation in southwestern North Dakota that is an ancient river deposit that has some marine influence. In the Cretaceous period, central North America’s topography was very low which allowed for a seaway to form. This was called the Western Interior Seaway, and was home to a diverse number of animals such as plesiosaurs, mososaurs, large sharks, and ammonites. Several rivers likely drained into the Western Interior Seaway, much like the Mississippi River drains into the Gulf of Mexico today.
From studying the characteristics of the rocks within the Tanis site, the authors of the study concluded that this site was part of one of the rivers that drained into the Western Interior Seaway long ago. When the impactor struck Earth in the Yucatan Peninsula, it send huge waves (tsunamis) into the Western Interior Seaway and into the rivers that drained into the seaway. These huge waves pushed fish, ammonites, and other creatures into the seaway and into the rivers. The Tanis site is one such place where these animals that were pushed into the rivers were deposited and preserved. But not only were marine animals preserved at the site, but also land plants, such as tree limbs and flowers.
The fossils found in the Tanis deposits are all oriented in the same direction, indicating that they have been aligned by flowing water. The abundance and remarkable preservation of these fossil fishes and tree limbs suggest a very rapid burial event (the best preserved fossils are often the ones that experience very quick burial after death). The orientation of the fossils at the site along with the mix of marine and terrestrial life further supports that these fossils were deposited from very large waves from the asteroid impact disturbed this region.
Within the Tanis deposit there are also ejecta spherules, microkrystites, shocked minerals, and unaltered impact-melt glass. These are features that are commonly associated with the Chicxulub Impactor. When the impactor struck Earth, it was so hot it melted the underlying rock, sending tiny bits of molten rock into the atmosphere. These bits of molten rock quickly cooled and eventually fell back down to Earth, where today they are found all over the world. Today, these ejecta spherules and impact melt-glass all mark the huge end-Cretaceous mass extinction event that occurred 66 million years ago.
Why is this study important?
The Cretaceous-Paleogene (K/Pg) extinction event is one of the ‘Big Five’ mass extinction events (click here to read more about extinction). Like many extinction events, it is often difficult to determine the specific causes of mass destruction. However, the K/Pg extinction event is unique because scientists have many lines of evidence that a huge impactor struck Earth, sending clouds of ash and gas into Earth’s atmosphere. The new Tanis site that the authors uncovered preserves a snapshot into this catastrophic event.
This finding is very important because scientists know better understand what happened directly after the impactor hit Earth. In addition, several new species of fish have been discovered at the Tanis site, which will be important for additional studies about fish evolution through time.
DePalma, R.A., Smit, J., Burnham, D.A., Kuiper, K., Manning, P.L., Oleinik, A., Larson, P., Maurrasse, F.J., Vellekoop, J., Richards, M.A., Gurche, L., and Alvarez, W. 2019. A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1817407116
What’s all the commotion about?
It’s not every day that paleontologists make the national news, but this paper and the article written about it in the New Yorker (click here) caused a lot of commotion within the paleontological world. This is a great and potentially groundbreaking find, however, what caused the commotion was the sensationalist attitude of the New Yorker piece that left a lot of paleontologists uncomfortable. So what’s the big deal here? We break down a few (not all) of the issues with this article:
1. Breaking of Embargo
Although the published study is very exciting and will add greatly to our knowledge about the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event, the media hype around the study was handled very poorly for several reasons. All published studies go through peer review. This is when a paper is sent out to multiple other scientists who read the article and make sure that it is scientifically sound and is a good piece of science based upon other good science. During this waiting period while the paper is going through peer review or being finalized with publishers, the authors should avoid talking with popular media or publicizing their paper. When publishing in academia there is a period of time (embargo) where access to the findings of a paper is not allowed to the public. This is for a variety of reasons, having to do with copyright transfer, finances to support the journal or publisher, and more.
The New Yorker press article was released almost an entire week before being available for the community to examine. This means that the embargo was violated.
The reason embargos exist is to give journalists and the researchers they talk to some time to look at fresh findings and determine what the story is, whether it’s worth telling, and if there’s anything suspicious about what’s presented. – Riley Black (Slate article)
2. Paleontologists as Rough-and-Tough Dudes (and Unusual Folks)
The New Yorker article was also controversial because it framed paleontologists as belonging to a narrow demographic (read: white men who love the outdoors). Not all of us in paleontology are men, not all of us are white, and not all of us came into geology loving the outdoors (see the great diversity of folks working in paleontology on our ‘Meet the Scientist’ blog). Paleontologists have had to work very hard to break through the stereotypical conception of what we do and who we are, and this article did not help to address the great diversity of scientists working in the field of paleontology.
In addition, the New Yorker article only quoted and interviewed other male scientists, many of whom have been working in the field for decades. The article left out the voices of women and early-career researchers who have made valuable contributions to the field of paleontology. For more on this, read the Slate article by science writer, Riley Black “It’s Time for the Heroic Male Paleontologist Trope to Go Extinct”.
This article also reinforces the “lone-wolf” stereotype of geologists and paleontologists-a man going out west, few to no other people around, and spending his days looking for paleontological treasure. This image is perpetuated through the article because the author chose to continually highlight the privacy and secrecy asked by the De Palma. While this is certainly an attitude held by some paleontologists, the reality is that the majority of us work in teams. Time Scavengers is run by a large team of people and so is our research! Like working in any field, we all have our strengths and better science happens when we invite people to work with us who have different strengths and can help us.
Lastly, the article frames paleontologists in a not-so-flattering light. In one paragraph, the article states “…I thought that he was likely exaggerating, or that he might even be crazy. (Paleontology has more than its share of unusual people).” Firstly, what does unusual even mean? The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) fields are full of intelligent, diverse, and colorful folks from all walks of life. To imply that any one branch of science has ‘its share of unusual people’ is unfair and regressive.
3. Dinosaurs as the Star of the Show
Paleontology is not just diverse in terms of the people who work in the field, but also in terms of the different types of life that we work with. For example, our Time Scavengers team, we have folks who work with fossil plankton and echinoderms. In fact, most paleontologists work with invertebrates- animals that do not have backbones, or any bones at all. Some of the most foundational findings in paleontology are based on the fossil record of invertebrates and early vertebrates. Regardless, most of the public’s fascination lies with dinosaurs (we understand, they were gigantic, ferocious, and unlike anything that’s alive today).
However, this fascination with dinosaurs can lead to over exaggeration of studies and sensationalizing, which is exactly what happened with this article. The published study of the Tanis site only mentions one dinosaur bone out of all the fossils found. The real story here is about the wonderful assortment of fish, tree, and flower fossils, some of which are completely new to paleontologists.
Dr. Steve Bursatte, Paleontologist at University of Edinburgh commented on both the New Yorker article and the PNAS article on his Twitter account, click here to read more. He comments on the broken embargo and how the New Yorker article sensationalized the ‘dinosaur’ side of the story.
4. Proper Handling of Museum-Quality Specimens
The article that was published in the New Yorker raised a lot of concerns within the paleontology community regarding the handling and storage of the fossils that were found at the Tanis site. It is clear from the article that DePalma had a bad experience early on with fossils that he had loaned a museum not being returned to him, however, by maintaining control over the management of his specimens, it undermines those people working in museums who have degrees and years of experience handling fossil and other specimen collections. Anyone who has borrowed specimens from a museum knows the immense amount of paperwork that goes in on all ends to make sure the specimens leave a well documented trail.
Jess Miller-Camp, Paleontology Collections Manager and Digitization Project Coordinator at Indiana University commented on the New Yorker article and addressed her concerns as a museum professional, click here to read her Twitter thread. She comments on the process of loaning specimens to and from museums and proper ettiqute. Read her thread to learn more about this and why museums should be asked to comment.
In 1997, a T. rex nicknamed Sue was sold at a Sotheby’s auction, to the Field Museum of Natural History, in Chicago, for more than $8.3 million.
This quote is misleading. No museum would have adequate funds to secure Sue. The California State University system, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and other individual donors aided in purchasing Sue for the Field Museum. The Field Museum rallied resources to ensure this valuable specimen remained in a public institution.
In addition to proper storage and archiving of fossils, one of the key tenets of any kind of scientific research is reproducibility– how well can other scientists replicate the results that you got. In paleontology, being able to look at the exact same fossils that another scientists looked at is a key part to reproducibility, as well as allowing the science of paleontology to advance. Whenever a paleontologist finds something they think is “new” to science, or is a really important find (special preservation, currently undocumented here, etc.) if you want to publish a paper on that fossil, the fossil needs to be placed in a public institution like a museum or a similarly accredited fossil repository. This way, future scientists are able to track down that fossil you published on and continue working on understanding it, or using it in other studies. Keeping fossils that are published on in museums is also critical because it ensures that that fossil has a safe place to be stored after being worked on and is less likely to be lost in an office or lab space!
5. Respecting the Land and Indigenous People
In the field of paleontology, people, who are more often than not white, venture into another country or a part of the ‘wilderness’ to find fossils and sites that are completely new and never-before-discovered or seen. These lands that contain fossils were owned by indigenous people long before Europeans arrived in North America, and were likely known about centuries before. Often, when sensational popular science paleontology articles are published, the authors leave out the voices of indigenous people and respect for their land. In the New Yorker article, there was no mention of the indigenous people that lived in the Dakotas, or how their ancestors perceived the dinosaur and fish fossils in the area. To frame amazing paleontological finds as being in desolate wastelands is harmful and erases the narratives of people who have lived in these lands for centuries.
For a more thorough discussion on this topic, click here to read the Twitter thread by Dr. Katherine Crocker.
Click here to read a article written by Dr. Roy Plotnick in Medium that also summarizes the issues and causes of commotion surrounding this astounding find.
Part of my new job is working on the National Science Foundation (NSF) funded FOSSIL Project that has created a social community that shares resources, help, and more on paleontology related ideas (myfossil.org). Every few years the funding group, Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) has a Principal Investigator (PI) meeting, to bring all of the project leaders together to share updates and brainstorm new ideas. I was selected as the FOSSIL Project representative to attend the event. This involved putting together a poster summarizing our project and what has happened over the past four years the project has been operating. I also included where we hoped to be heading in the future as we are working to make the platforms more community driven.
This was my first real dive into NSF. I had submitted several postdoctoral fellowships to NSF but never really engaged with program officers outside of emails or been in the audience of talks by different NSF staff members. The first day was primarily listening to different NSF staff explain and explore the various outlets of funding through NSF, the different programs to apply for funding, and the importance of the annual report. I took a considerable amount of notes because as an early career professional, it’s likely I will need to know some of these people and programs as I move forward in my career.
There were breakout sessions where we could explore specific things in more detail. The first session I attended was on identifying informal places where people have some time to engage in science content. There was a brief introduction to different projects going on right now and then we spent much of the remaining time in small group discussions. We shared our own experiences with conceptualizing and implementing programs in different places and then discussed other spaces where we could introduce people to science. Some of these include: sporting events, airports, bus stations, and much more! Places where people go on a regular basis that we could introduce some brief content into. The next session I attended was on three key components: identity, interest, and engagement. There was a recent task force that really dove into these three topics and interviewed members of the research field to get at the components from all viewpoints. If you are interested in learning more head to: Informal Science.
There was a poster session where we could explore the other AISL projects and network with potential collaborators. It was split into two sessions but I didn’t feel this was very effective because the rooms were sort of spread out and no one seemed to really stick to the schedule. So, I didn’t get to interact with as many people as I was hoping to but those that I did engage with were interested in the program and were very friendly. The final day of the event included a morning filled with small group discussions on broadening participation in STEM. I had a really interesting small group and we had a lot of interesting conversations about our projects and experiences.
Overall, this was a greatly informative experience for me. It was sort of a last minute trip but I really made the most of it and left with a lot of knowledge. I think getting to meet and listen to some of the NSF program officers really helped personalize them. It’s difficult sending proposals into the internet void and only having a few interactions with a staff member. Everyone I listened to and interacted with was very eager to help others succeed.
A couple of years ago my mom and I took a road trip to eastern Washington state to visit Drumheller Channels in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. This is an area containing giant basalt columns, part of the Columbia River Basalt flows, as well as some of the landscape known as the Channeled Scablands, remnants of the catastrophic Ice Age floods (check out the Ice Age Floods Institute for more info).
The Columbia River Basalt Group (CRBG) is a large igneous province in eastern Washington. Large igneous provinces are usually made of very low viscosity (runny) lava which has erupted from fissures in the ground and spread out to cover a large area. The CRBG is a series of lava flows (more than 350!) that cover an area of about 163,700 km2 (63,200 mi2). These lava flows altogether are more than 1.8 km (5,900 ft) thick. These flood basalt eruptions occurred from about 17 million years to about 5 million years ago
As basalt cools, it forms a hexagonal pattern on the cooling surface exposed to the air, similar to the pattern you see in mud as it dries. From the side this pattern looks like rows of columns next to each other, and beautiful landscapes made up of several stacked flows of this “columnar basalt” are a common sight as you drive through eastern Washington. The other major component of the eastern Washington landscape, the Channeled Scablands, are the result of flooding that occurred toward the end of the last ice age. They are called Channeled Scablands because the landscape consists of many interconnected channels and coulees and appears very rugged. This landscape has turned out to be one of the most important pieces of evidence in shaping our current understanding of how geological processes have shaped the surface of the Earth.
Before J Harlen Bretz started studying this landscape in the 1920s, geologists thought all Earth processes were extremely slow and gradual in making any changes in the landscape. This was a reaction to the suggestion by young earth creationists that the earth was formed rapidly by catastrophic events. The response of geologists to this idea was to immediately dismiss any hypothesis that the landscape had formed rapidly and insist that everything had happened very slowly and gradually. J Harlen Bretz became interested in some interesting erosional features he saw in eastern Washington and began doing intensive fieldwork in the area in 1922. As he continued to map and record his observations of the features he saw there, he became more and more convinced that this landscape had not been formed gradually but had been shaped by giant floods from further east. There are giant ripples here, giant channels and coulees, and giant “potholes” where rock has been plucked up by water rushing past. These features could not be explained by very slow and gradual erosion. Today, geologists understand that while many features are formed slowly, the landscape has also been formed in places by catastrophic events, some of which we can see today in volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis.
If you want to know more, here are a couple of good books to start with. Check with your local public library!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science in general? I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember. My dad was working on his Master’s of Science in Biology when I was a kid and I loved going to class with him to look at cells under the microscope and helping him collect insects in the field behind our house. I got into paleontology specifically when I learned how common it was to find mastodon fossils in fields near my house. I wanted to find one of those mastodons! I love that as a scientist I still get to do these things that I loved as a kid.
What do you do? In undergrad I said that I majored in hugging trees and minored in playing in the dirt. I would say that’s still true. I use the size and shape of leaves to figure out the ancient temperature and precipitation (paleoclimate). I do this by studying modern plants and applying what I learn to fossil plants. Specifically, I use the size and shape of tropical African leaves to study the paleoclimate and environment in Kenya during the evolution of our early ancestors.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change and evolution? I like to say that I am the context. As a paleobotanist, I study the ancient temperature, precipitation, and environment.What was the world like when our early ancestors were evolving. Was it hot or cold? Was it wet or dry? Was the landscape open or forested? Was there water nearby? Understanding this can help us understand the context of human evolution.
What are your data and how do you obtain them? Because I study both modern and fossil plants, I get data from a couple of different places. For modern leaves, I primarily use existing collections from herbaria. A herbarium is like a library of plants. For hundreds of years people have been pressing leaves, collecting seeds, and drying fruits and I can use these collections to understand the range of size and shape of leaves from tropical Africa. In addition, I study both previously collected fossil leaves as well as fossils I collected myself. This means that I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few months studying collections in the National Museum of Kenya as well as doing my own fieldwork.
What advice would you give to young aspiring scientists? It’s okay to ask questions. Very often other people have the same question but are too afraid to ask.
It’s okay to ask for help. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of strength. Knowing what you don’t understand or can’t do alone shows that you understand what it takes. It’s okay to reach out to scientists that you admire. Scientists tend to be very excited to talk about their research and are happy to hear that people are interested! Scientists are humans too.
This post will focus on something that can be a little confusing if you’re not a researching scientist and that is how we publish our research!
So we’re going to start this with assuming that we already have a scientific study that has been written down. A paper generally follows this pattern: an introduction of what your study is about and why it matters, background information to help the reader learn a bit about the broader material that your study fits in with, methods and materials (i.e., how you did your study and what did you use to do it?), the results of your study, the discussion of your results (i.e., what do your results mean?), the conclusions (summary of your results and their meaning along with any future work that might rely on this specific paper), acknowledgments (i.e., thanking people who helped you collect data, supported you during this process with helpful comments, or anyone who helped pay for your research), and references (i.e., the other published papers that you cited in your article that helped explain related information or gave credibility to the types of methods you used, etc.
So, now that we have ourselves an awesome study, let’s get it published! Should be pretty straightforward, right? Well….not exactly. There are a lot of steps to publishing. Some papers can be published relatively quickly (a few months) whereas others can easily take longer!
Step One: Choose a journal
There are a bunch of journals that publish scientific papers. In general, you should choose a journal that requires peer-review (more on this process later). All reputable science journals require your paper to be read by a number of scientists (usually two or three) in your field to make sure your paper will be a good contribution to science. Second, you should choose a journal that publishes papers similar to the one you wrote. What that means is that not all journals publish the same things. Some journals specialize (e.g., The Journal of Paleontology publishes papers that focus on paleontology), whereas other journals, like Nature, will publish all types of science papers that they think their readers will find interesting. In my most recent publication, I chose the Journal of Paleontology. Once a journal is chosen, you have to format your paper to the journal standards using the correct font/font size, reference style, etc. Every journal has its own format and most journals won’t agree to read your paper unless it’s largely formatted correctly.
Step Two. Submit!
This takes place via an online platform and can take a little bit of time (an hour or two, usually). You upload: your text for the paper, any images you have for the paper, tables, data, and explanations of the data. You also upload a cover letter explaining to the editors of the journal why your paper belongs in their journal (e.g., this paper is of similar interest to readers that your other paper, published last year, was). You are often asked to suggest reviewers to read your paper. This is because you, the author, probably know more experts in your field (in my case, echinoderm paleontology and evolution) than the editors do. It really helps them when you can suggest a few reviewers (usually between two and four).
Step Three. Editor’s decision!
The editor will read your cover letter and your paper and decide if it’s a good fit for their journal. If it is a good fit, they will send your paper out to a few reviewers, specialists that can comment on the analyses you used, the validity of your conclusions, and whether it’s significant enough for publication.
Step Four. The reviews!
Peer reviewers have a set amount of time to read and comment on your paper (usually two weeks to a month). Peer reviewers are generally not paid for their work-it’s something called “academic service”. Usually, people who publish papers expect to review one or two papers for each one that they publish. The reviews will have a mixture of positive, neutral, and negative comments. They’re focused on strengthening your paper, so you might see comments on making certain sentences more straightforward, making images higher resolution so features can be seen, or comments that require more work (e.g., a reviewer might think you need to run different analyses to be considered for publication). Overall, comments should be helpful (not cruel) and they should be about the paper NOT the author (e.g., “this paragraph needs restructuring to make the point clearer”, as opposed to “the author didn’t write this paragraph clearly”).
Each peer reviewer will mark your paper as one of the following: “accepted with no revisions”; “accepted with minor revisions”; “accepted with major revisions”; “revise and resubmit”; and “not publishable in this journal”. Major revisions usually means running new analyses or rewriting large portions of text. Just because a paper isn’t accepted doesn’t make it bad, either. It may very well mean that the reviewers felt that it didn’t belong in that particular journal! Usually, the editor will take the decisions of the peer reviewers and make a final decision on whether the paper will be accepted.
My most recent paper was accepted with minor revisions-I had to rephrase some of my conclusions and reviewers had me strengthen some of my arguments by using data from other recently published papers. All in all, peer review is a very important step towards making your paper better!
Step Five. Revising.
Very, very few papers are rated as “accepted without revisions”. Usually, reviewers point out a few things, at least, that could make your paper stronger. For most journals, you have to “respond” to these. Meaning, you take the comment by the reviewer and state that you agree with the change or disagree and provide your reasons why. In my personal papers, this could range from “this sentence isn’t clear-rewrite” and I would respond with “Yes, I see how this could be unclear. I’ve rephrased to XXX”. Or, a reviewer might say, “I disagree with this interpretation based on X. This should be revised to say Y”. I could respond with “I disagree with the reviewer’s interpretation and here’s the evidence to back up my claim”. I could amend the text in my paper to strengthen my argument and provide more evidence for my claim, too.
Step Six. Are we done yet? Well….no. Not yet.
Once you get the reviews and make all of the edits, you have to go back to step two: submit! Once you do this, the editor will determine if the changes you have made are sufficient or if it needs to go through a secondary round of peer review (in which case, please return to step four!) Once the editor has decided your paper is acceptable for publication, the editor will make sure your paper conforms to all journal standards and there are no glaring issues (e.g., you forgot to label your scale bar or forgot to put a reference for an in-text citation).
Step Seven. Proofs!
Copyeditors have the job to go through your paper line-by-line, word-by-word to make sure everything is grammatically correct, properly cited, and has no typos. They’ll send you a copy of your paper in the proper format-with all of the images set on the page, looking just how it will look printed in the journal or online. Your job is to go through the paper carefully to make sure you don’t see any extra mistakes or typos.
Step Eight. Celebrate!
Your paper will be published online very soon. Great work!