Scavenging the fossil record for clues to Earth's climate and life
Meet the Scientist
The goal of this page is to introduce you to our diverse field by exploring what individual scientists do! We hope that you will learn how many different avenues you can take to explore paleontology and deep time. Each guest scientist will also explain what type of data they use, why they enjoy science, and share some advice for young future scientists.
“Let me get this straight: You are a Biology major that takes Geology classes, and you work for Chemistry?” A friend said that to me many years ago. It seemed funny back then, but it still true. I have always loved the natural sciences, and my experiences as a student and as a college instructor have allowed me to participate in these three fields.
My research involved studying the relationships between sediment types, burrowing animals, and the burrows shapes that they make. Although this may like a strange topic, consider this: Insects and mammals can’t burrow into groundwater (water stored in sediment underground), so their burrows stop at the water table (the boundary between dry soil and water-soaked soil). Many plants cannot live if their roots are submerged, so the roots also stop growing at the water table. Because roots and burrows can be preserved in the fossil record, they can be used to determine past climate conditions. For example, if a paleontologist finds that roots and burrows found in a rock layer all have the same depth, then there was groundwater in the past. In addition, the paleontologist could determine that 1) there was enough precipitation to allow water to soak into the ground, 2) there is enough accessible water for an ecosystem to live, and 3) there may have been a river or lake nearby as the water table is near the soil surface.
Burrows, tracks, trails, and root casts are called trace fossils. Trace fossils can also be used to determine what organisms were present in an ancient ecosystem, how diverse the organisms were, and what environmental conditions were. Much of this work is done by studying actual burrows produced in the field and in the laboratory. My work involved allowing trapdoor spiders, wolf spiders, and tarantulas to produce burrows in the lab. After moving the spiders into a new habitat, I poured plaster into the burrows and measured the dried casts.
One of the big goals of our lab group is to determine the relationship between burrow-shape and burrow-maker. Several arachnid species have been studied in this lab: scorpions, whip scorpions, and spiders. We have found that although these groups are closely related, they all produce very different burrow shapes, and that shapes appear to be related to the behavior of the species as well as its body shape. My favorite part about being a scientist is seeing something that may be mundane and knowing there is a complex story behind it. For example, a piece of limestone used to line a flower bed represents a past environment, the skeletons of small organisms, and the transport of chemical elements from the continents to the oceans.
For the past few years, I have focused more on teaching than on research. I have been lucky enough to teach at three universities in both chemistry and geology. I have worked with many kinds of students, both science and non-science majors. Much like Time Scavengers is addressing, I have found that many of my students have very little interest in science or think that they can’t understand it. In my classroom, I encourage students to find relationships between the material and their daily lives. Although I have enjoyed my research programs and am proud of my work, I have decided that education is my real strength. I am starting a licensure program this fall to earn my teaching licensure for high school earth science and life science. I hope that my research experience and multidisciplinary approach will encourage all of my students to appreciate the natural world and never stop learning about it.
For people wanting to become scientists, I want to offer two pieces of advice: 1) All of the sciences intersect in some way, so don’t despair if you have to study one you hate to get to the one you love, and 2) The more experiences you have, the better prepared you will be for a career or in graduate school. Find ways to become involved in research or outreach. Apply for internships, even if they don’t pay!
Mike helped lay the ground work for developing a website on their lab’s ichnology projects called the Continental Neoichnological Database. Click here to learn more about the database.
As a paleontologist I study the evolutionary relationships of ancient echinoderms (relatives of modern day sea urchins and sea stars). To accomplish this, I use morphological characters (shape and other data points measured on a fossil) to create a phylogenetic tree, or evolutionary hypothesis about the relationships and relatedness of groups of echinoderms. Currently I am working with a group of echinoderms called Paracrinoidea and I am trying to create a phylogenetic hypothesis for the group.
The paracrinoids missed the memo on how to be an echinoderm and are completely asymmetric (while other echinoderms exhibit some sort of symmetry) and have other unusual morphologies for their feeding structures. Because of these unusual characteristics paracrinoids have not been able to be placed into an evolutionary hypothesis and are therefore unable to be used to answer any other evolutionary questions that we may have. My research will allow this group of echinoderms to be better understood and eventually be used in other evolutionary studies. Additionally, because my research is based in understanding evolution I am able to use my organism as well as other organisms to help teach others about the concept of evolution and organisms and the environment changing through time.
My favorite part about being a scientist is getting to teach others science. I am very passionate about scientific education and outreach. I have always remembered sitting in my eighth grade science class and seeing my teacher be so excited to teach us about rocks and minerals and that excitement and wonder about the world around me has never changed. As I continue my education in geology I have come in contact with many professors who are just as excited about science as my 8th grade teacher was and their passion for teaching has impressed upon the importance of being excited about science education. I aim to be able to continue to teach and do science outreach throughout my career as a scientist to spark the same passion for science that my teachers have instilled in me.
For all of the young scientists out there, the best advice I can give you is to just go for it. If you are still in high school don’t be ashamed to like science, because science is really awesome! Take some time to get familiar with the basic concepts of whichever discipline you enjoy, search out articles that interest you, talk to your teachers about ways they can help you continue to learn more. If you are in college look for internships, talk to professors about doing an independent study on topics you are interested in, get involved in a research project with a professor. If someone tells you can’t do this or that it’s too hard of a field to get into, don’t listen to them if it is really what you want to be doing. Science is hard, I can’t lie about that, but it is also so rewarding if you are willing to work hard and just go for it.
As a paleontologist I study how fossils are preserved in the fossil record (taphonomy), and how morphology changes within species across space (geographically) and through time (stratigraphically) in response to several processes such as ontogeny (development) and environmental change.
As a Curator in a museum, I use my research to teach our community about the process of science and why paleontology and geology are important to our society today. I am also very passionate about public science literacy, and am involved in educational program and exhibit development as well as lecturing on a variety of science topics in geology and paleontology.
My research is specimen-based, and requires a lot of intensive fieldwork. This is fantastic for me, because I love to be outside and being active. I get all of the trilobite specimens for analysis by hammering them out of the rock layers. I then bring them back to the laboratory where I prepare them out of the rock, photograph and measure them, and then conduct my mathematical modeling and statistical analyses to test my hypotheses and answer my questions (while generating new ones!).
Understanding the biotic response to climate change is crucial for our society, especially in the face of our current climate crisis, but modern biological studies are not long enough to document the long-term impact of these changes. The fossil record is an excellent resource to study species’ response to environmental change over the long term because it shows us the consequences of previously run climate change “experiments” in Earth’s history. My research shows that trilobite populations can track their preferred environment over millions of years and through constant climate perturbations rather than evolve new adaptations or go extinct. This response is consistent with many other examples in the fossil record and shows us that migration is a viable and successful response to climate change for many species.
My favorite thing about being a paleontologist is that it is the closest thing to time travel that we have. When I am in the field, I am looking at fossils that take me back 450 million years in Earth’s history, and I am usually the first person ever on Earth to have seen and collect these fossils. The fact that I am traipsing around an ancient ocean that once covered most of the United States still blows my mind. As a scientist in a museum, I also enjoy teaching the public about the amazing planet we have and the relevance, to their lives, of the world-famous paleontological resources in their back yard. There is nothing more rewarding than a child in awe.
Whatever path your career takes you on, be passionate about it. Whether you want to be a paleontologist, another type of scientist, or pursue a non-science career, if you are passionate about what you do, you will never feel like you are going to work. I look forward to what every day brings because every day is different.
Last summer I got the opportunity to sail on two research vessels through the new NSF funded program STEM Student Experiences Aboard Ships or STEM SEAS. I served as a graduate student mentor on the very first transit aboard the R/V Oceanus in May and as an instructor on the August transit aboard the R/V Siquliak. As an aspiring paleoceanographer, I was excited about the opportunity to experience life on a ship as sailing as a biostratigrapher aboard the JR is something I hope to accomplish during my graduate career. As an aspiring teacher and mentor, I was excited about the opportunity to get to know a promising group of undergraduates and share my passion for geoscience.
So, what exactly is STEM SEAS? STEM SEAS is an NSF funded program that takes advantage of empty berths on UNOLS research vessels during transits. UNOLS ships are operated out of universities across the country and sometimes when the ships travel from port to port in between scientific expeditions there is no science party on board. Our program brings undergraduates aboard the ships for a 6-10 day mobile classroom experience. The students received mini-lectures on topics like oceanography, climate change and micropaleontology and were able to participate in shipboard science like coring and the collection of plankton. The program works to address the low retention rates in STEM disciplines, the lack of diversity in the geoscience community, and the predicted workforce shortage in geosciences.
STEM SEAS targeted groups of students in times of transition to address the issue of low retention in STEM fields. Circumstances of transition include declaring or switching a major or advancing from a 2-year college to a 4-year college. At these times students may be without guidance or strong mentorship and are vulnerable to attrition, in other words dropping out of science majors. Aboard the ships we addressed these issues by talking about the best way to find mentors and reflecting on the types of support systems the students already had in place. Not to mention, being on a ship for the first-time fosters quality bonding time and the students made lasting relationships with each other that are sure to help them feel supported through the next phases in their academic careers.
Our program is dedicated to a broad view of diversity to include students with many identities currently underrepresented in STEM including race, gender, geographic location, institution type, ability and veteran/military status. STEM SEAS gives a diverse group of students the opportunity to explore geoscience in a hands-on fashion with close faculty mentors. It is not our hope that every student will switch their major to geoscience (although some do!) but that our students are empowered to see themselves incorporating science into their lives and careers in some way.
It’s unfortunate that while we live in a time where geoscience is in the news daily, in the form of discussions about climate change, sea level rise, floods, or earthquakes, many high school and college students will not take a geoscience class in their academic career. With a looming geoscience workforce shortage and the pressing issue of climate change, it is imperative that we empower our youth to engage with issues of climate and environment. Once our students return home or to their campuses, they must present some aspect of their STEM SEAS experience to their community. This ensures that STEM SEAS is not only introducing the students, but also their communities to geoscience.
What is next for STEM SEAS? After a very successful pilot year, STEM SEAS continued into summer 2017 on a transit down the east coast of the US. This transit will be open to undergraduates from an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). Partnering with an HBCU is in line with the mission of STEM SEAS and we are excited to add another cohort of STEM SEAS students to our alumni community. To stay up to date, follow us on Facebook!
To follow Raquel’s updates please check out her Twitter here. Check out the STEM SEAS webpage here, to keep up to date with new projects.
It has been my pleasure to be President of the Dry Dredgers since 1988. This group of amateur paleontologists in existence since April of 1942 just recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. Personally, I am a retired mechanical engineer but am now enjoying my work as an avocational paleontologist.
Part of what I do now is volunteer work at the Cincinnati Museum Center’s Geier Collections and Research Center. There I work in the Invertebrate Paleontological Collections as one of a number of assistants to the curator doing curating, cataloging, organizing and identifying specimens in the research collections. Working in the collections is educational and exciting but I also do my own research in paleontology.
My interests in paleontology have always been varied but one theme consistent throughout has been my desire to know more about a fossil than what the scientific name happens to be. A number of my projects, all based upon self-collected specimens, have ended up in publications in various journals of paleontology. My most recent published work concerned my discovery of a new species of crinoid (sea lily) in the Cincinnatian: Deepwater occurrence of a new Glyptocrinus (Crinoidea, Camerata) from the Late Ordovician of southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky: revision of crinoid paleocommunity composition, Kallmeyer and Ausich, 2015, doi: 10.1017/jpa.2015.72.
Although I have specialized in the fossil crinoids from this area for a long time, they are not my only interest. I am currently working with two professional paleontologists and another member of the Dry Dredgers at a site that preserves abundant Stromatoporoids (a kind of sponge with a hard skeleton during life). Just as I had done with my interest in crinoids, I had to learn about these creatures by reading and studying the available professional literature and by talking to professional paleontologists who study these animals. This particular group of animals has been problematic for years in that no one knew of any modern equivalents for comparison. Recently a modern group of sponges called sclerosponges has finally provided some basis for comparison. Although not the same as stromatoporoids, they are similar enough to help us understand the ancient forms.
My fascination with stromatoporoids in general is that they are poorly known. My particular study concerns those within a restricted range in a geologic formation known locally as the Elkhorn. The preservation of the stromatoporoids at this site is unique within the Upper Ordovician in this area in that they are silicified (preserved with silica replacing the original skeletal material) rather than the more common preservation in calcite. The preservation has also retained much of the original internal structure that is used to identify these animals to a specific species. Most stromatoporoids in the Upper Ordovician are preserved in calcite and the internal structures have been recrystallized into an amorphous featureless mass. Mamelons (rounded cone shaped protrusions) on the surface of the stromatoporoids in the study layer are almost completely worn flat. In the living animal, mamelons were the structures supporting flow of water and waste products out of the sponge.
Study of this site and the stromatoporoids preserved there will ultimately reveal the environment in which they lived. The exposure is alternating shales/mudstones and limestone type layers that will tell us about the original water depth and water chemistry. The fossils we are studying have their bases on a siltstone layer. This layer is capped by a tan shale layer about 150mm thick that is itself capped by a dark gray 30mm thick shale. The tan shales represent influx of muds and clays from areas far to the east originating from storm surges. The dark gray material represents muds high in organic content.
Initial examination by professional paleontologist Carl Stock (University of Alabama) indicates that the stromatoporoids in these strata represent two different species and perhaps two different genera in the Family Labechiidae. Further study is required to answer many questions: what was the source for the silica that allowed silicification of the stromatoporoids; does the silicic preservation give clues to the original composition of the stromatoporoids (calcite or aragonite); what caused the nutrient rich dark gray layer to form; what set of conditions caused the erosion of the mamelons on the exterior of the stromatoporoids in this layer?
The discovery and publication of information or fauna that is new to science is one of my favorite parts of doing research. There is always a great sense of accomplishment when the field work and detective work of literature research comes together to answer some unresolved question. My advice to anyone interested in the earth sciences is to follow the path that drives your passion for learning. By doing this, regardless of your field, you will do your best work and derive the greatest sense of accomplishment.
I use computer simulations to look at ways the global climate might change as Antarctica melts. As the ice sheet melts, water runs off and chunks of ice calve off from the sheet and float out into the ocean. The world’s oceans are all connected and water moves around allowing it to distribute heat, salt, and nutrients around the planet. All of the water and ice running off changes how salty the water is and that in turn impacts that movement altering aspects of the climate such as global temperatures and precipitation patterns. Every part of the climate system is connected in these really complex but deeply beautiful ways. I study those connections to learn what might happen to the climate in the future.
Currently I am using data from Rob DeConto and Dave Pollard’s (2016) regional ice sheet simulations that they developed to model the Antarctic ice sheets. This data are really cool because their modeling techniques are state of the art. When their results were published in 2016 it made a big splash both in the scientific community and in the media. Now I am using their data, which was modeled just for Antarctica, along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Representative Concentration Pathways data, which describes how greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere could evolve, and putting it into a global model that ties together land, atmosphere, oceans, and ice to take the research one step forward and see what their predictions for Antarctica might mean for the climate system as a whole.
Most people are aware that the polar ice caps are melting as the planet heats up from all of our greenhouse gas emissions. This melting has significant impacts for how climate will change. There are a lot of feedbacks in the climate system and so there are these interactions where climate change causes the ice caps to melt and the melting of the ice caps then causes the climate to change in other ways such as altering ocean circulation. My research specifically looks at how the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet might change the climate, with a focus on changes in ocean circulation. Ocean circulation has a large influence on the planet with ramifications for global temperatures, sea ice distributions, and wind patterns. There is a subtle interplay between all of these things and I will be trying to determine what might happen based on what the computer simulations predict. The goal is to shed light on what may happen to our climate as the melting occurs in hopes of furthering our knowledge and spurring action to mitigate the severity of climate change.
One of my favorite parts of being a scientist is learning how our universe works. I used to be an astronomer and studied stars and galaxies, then I worked on gravitational waves and quantum mechanics, and now I study the earth and the oceans. I love learning all I can about how natural systems work because they have a fascinating logic to them all centering on physics and mathematics and it is very beautiful to me.
My advice to young scientists is to find a support group who will encourage you to grow and explore. Being a scientist can be difficult and occasionally a bit lonely. Most of what kept me going throughout undergrad and my masters work were my fellow students in the programs and clubs I was involved in, and my mom who is always a great cheerleader for me. There will be a lot of times along the way that it will be discouraging, especially if you are a member of a group traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. It is really helpful to have people to work with, study with, and talk to through the tough times. In addition to giving you the support to continue with your work you will also gain friends and collaborators that you will have going forward in your career and in your life.
I love paleontology. I’ve been active in many aspects of the science, from describing new fossil species to analyzing ancient parasites, but the topic I enjoy the most is the ecology and evolution of marine communities that lived on hard surfaces like rocks and shells. When you pick up a shell on the beach, chances are there are numerous tiny organisms that have encrusted its surface or bored holes into it. These hard substrate dwellers, called sclerobionts, represent a community type that dates back more than half a billion years. They are easy to find in the fossil record, so they can be studied to address deep questions about how communities evolve over long intervals. With this research I have traveled the world with my students examining fossil sclerobiont communities throughout the fossil record. Another advantage of the project is that I’ve gotten to know well a diverse set of fossil groups, especially echinoderms, bryozoans, and the dozens of animal types that drill holes in rocks and shells.
My type of paleontology, called evolutionary paleoecology, makes important contributions to understanding our dynamic world today. Long-term studies from the fossil record show how ecosystems respond to environmental perturbations, enabling us to predict the ecological patterns that will result from contemporary climate change. This work also gives us a rich ecological context for the epic story of life’s evolution.
Science was my destiny from childhood because I was fascinated with nature and the questions we can ask about it. Sharing these ideas with others in a community of inquiry is a great joy, so I became a college professor. Watching generations of students grow intellectually while addressing questions about the history of Life has been immensely satisfying. I have been very fortunate to have a career in which doing science has been inextricable from teaching science.
My advice to a young scientist is to think of the world around you in a series of questions, and then make sure your education is rich and diverse so you learn what questions are most interesting and useful. The successful scientists I know are always asking how things work like they do, and then they test for themselves answers that don’t seem to fit the evidence they see. Paleontology is ideal for this kind of science because we have the long and diverse record of nature over billions of years. Endless intriguing questions!
To learn more about Mark and his research visit his website here or his Twitter here.
I study how ancient forests responded to environmental changes. By looking at what has happened in the past (“time traveling with a shovel,” as Kirk Johnson so brilliantly calls it), we can better predict and prepare for what we might be facing in the coming decades. For example, most of my research considers plant fossils from the western US that are 60-50 million years old. During this time, earth was much, much warmer than today: there was no ice at the poles and crocodiles and palm trees lived all the way up in the Arctic Circle. I am interested in how forests work during warm intervals like this, as well as how different forests were across North America. Today, there are huge differences between forests in Wyoming and New Mexico, due predominantly to the very different temperatures. But what about during the Eocene, when Earth was universally warm?
Around 56 million years ago, there was an abrupt global warming event caused by massive release of carbon (as CO2 or methane- the jury is still out on this) into the atmosphere. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at least doubled, global temperatures warmed between 4 and 8 degrees Celsius, and ocean acidity increased. This event had a huge impact on living things, and I have studied how plants and insects responded to that increased temperature and carbon dioxide levels. While studying this interval is not a perfect analog for the present (rates of change are probably 100 times slower 56 million years ago than today), it is the best offered by the geologic record.
My favorite parts of being a scientist are exploring, discovering new things, and exercising my imagination. I have traveled to beautiful and rugged places all over the world to collect fossils. I get a rush of excitement every time I split open a rock and discover a beautiful leaf that has not seen the light of day for many millions of years. As I am collecting fossils, I take pauses to close my eyes and envision what that landscape looked like when the fossil were alive, transforming the barren badlands in which I sit into lush tropical forests.
My advice to young scientists is to be yourself and to never let anyone convince you that science isn’t cool. Everyone needs science, and science needs everyone. We are all citizen scientists. We can all be professional scientists, regardless of race, skin color, religion, gender, or sexuality.
I am a computational biogeographer. Biogeography is the study of where species live, and why. Traditionally, the “why” has been divided into “Ecological Biogeography” and “Historical Biogeography.” Ecological Biogeography has focused on environmental and ecological controls on distribution, such as temperature and precipitation. “Historical Biogeography” has focused on how geographic ranges evolve on geological timescales and across phylogenetic trees, primarily dealing with rare dispersal and vicariance events.
I believe that it is high time that these two traditions were re-integrated, not just in verbal models and interpretation, but with formal probabilistic models, using the computational tools of statistical phylogenetics. My work focuses on building these tools, and using them to answer Big Questions in evolution and biogeography.
I develop computational methods that biologists can use to infer the biogeographical history of their study group. Decades ago, biology and biogeography could be done by studying species really hard, and then coming up with a “gestalt” guess at the phylogenetic relationships, evolutionary history, biogeographical processes, etc.
However, in the 21st century, what we want is statistical testing of our hypotheses. Furthermore, we don’t want to test the crude null models available in traditional statistics (“Are these two averages different? Give me a p-value!”). Instead, we want to test actual mechanistic models that include the processes that we think have produced the data we observe. When the data are geographic ranges, the processes are things like dispersal, vicariance, speciation, and extinction, among others. These require specialist software and custom models. Working on these is a large part of my work. This includes my R package, BioGeoBEARS (http://phylo.wikidot.com/biogeobears ), but also other work in phylogenetic dating methods, bioinformatics, and biogeography.
As a “methods person”, I get to work on all kinds of datasets. I have coauthored papers on everything from cyanobacteria to assassin spiders to fishes to dinosaurs. I do, on occasion, get out in the field, and sometimes gather my own data – for example, I manually coded 400+ characters on each of 80 representatives of an evolving tradition of antievolution legislation (Matzke 2016, Science), which has been copied from state-to-state in the U.S. since 2004 ( data and code is freely available here: http://phylo.wikidot.com/matzke-2015-science-paper-on-the-evolution-of-antievolution ).
But, normally, I work with already published data. These days, data and methods are so complex that I think it is important to have specialists in both. Modern research requires both advanced data and advanced methods. There are a few people out there who complain about “data parasites,” people who do research using previously-published data. But, strangely, no one ever complains about “methods parasites”, even though almost every published scientific paper in ecology/evolution is using computational methods that the authors did not develop from scratch by themselves! Science is a collaborative, international process of producing data and methods and sharing them for the public good. And I think that’s part of why science is fantastic!
My biogeographical work is aimed at more than just estimating the biogeographical history of a particular group. The point of constructing formal probabilistic models, and statistically testing them, is to help us understand the important processes that have produced our data. I want to measure the relative importance of dispersal and vicariance, the relationship between geographic distance and dispersal probability, the importance of various traits for dispersal, etc. Eventually I want to include paleoclimates, the uncertainty in our estimates of plate tectonic history, climatic niche evolution etc. (and do all of this in a formal Bayesian statistical framework).
I think that a better understanding of biogeographical processes, especially dispersal and climatic niche evolution, has obvious relevance for predicting the long-term fate of species under various future climate change scenarios.
Therefore, my favorite part about being a scientists is discovering new things! Solving problems!
To any young scientists, if you want to become a professional scientist, ask yourself these questions, and keep asking them:
Are you doing what you most want to be doing? I.e., what you find most interesting, and what you would probably be doing in your free time anyway if you had some other job?
Are you prepared for 4-6 years of graduate school, followed by (probably) 4+ years of postdoc/job searching?
Does your research have some vague form of attractiveness / interest to some kind of community both in science and outside? What’s your “meal ticket”? To get postdocs and a permanent job, you have to develop some kind of “thing” that you are known for – a model system, a kind of analysis, something. What makes you stick out from the pack? You don’t have to figure this out at the beginning of graduate school, but you should definitely figure it out by the end.
Do you have some kind of backup job idea if the become-a-professor thing doesn’t work out? Almost any scientist has various skills that can be used outside of the university – lab techniques, field techniques, literature review, technical writing, statistics/data analysis/graphical data display, R coding, etc. If you have some kind of notion of 4, it really reduces the stress behind figuring out 1-3.
If you can say “yes” to 1-4, then you should stay in science. If not, there are easier ways to make money, and they include things like 9-5 hours and regular vacations! It’s not a “failure” to leave science, it benefits yourself and the world to take your scientific skills out into the world outside of academia.
That’s my advice at the moment at least! I’ve got one year of funding left in my current postdoc, and after 5 or so job interviews I still haven’t landed one! I feel like it will happen eventually, but I still think about option “4” regularly! Basically, permanent professor jobs in biology are ridiculously hard to get, and no one should sugar-coat that for young scientists!
Nick Matzke is a Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) Fellow in the Moritz Lab at the Centre for Biodiversity Analysis (CBA), Division of Ecology and Evolution, Research School of Biology, The Australian National University. To learn more about Nick, visit his website here.
Read more about what Darwin wrote about this forest in the Voyage of the Beagle:
The geology of the surrounding country is very curious. The Uspallata range is separated from the main Cordillera by a long narrow plain or basin, like those so often mentioned in Chile, but higher, being six thousand feet above the sea. This range has nearly the same geographical position with respect to the Cordillera, which the gigantic Portillo line has, but it is of a totally different origin: it consists of various kinds of submarine lava, alternating with volcanic sandstones and other remarkable sedimentary deposits; the whole having a very close resemblance to some of the tertiary beds on the shores of the Pacific. From this resemblance I expected to find silicified wood, which is generally characteristic of those formations. I was gratified in a very extraordinary manner. In the central part of the range, at an elevation of about seven thousand feet, I observed on a bare slope some snow-white projecting columns. These were petrified trees, eleven being silicified, and from thirty to forty converted into coarsely-crystallized white calcareous spar. They were abruptly broken off, the upright stumps projecting a few feet above the ground. The trunks measured from three to five feet each in circumference. They stood a little way apart from each other, but the whole formed one group. Mr. Robert Brown has been kind enough to examine the wood: he says it belongs to the fir tribe, partaking of the character of the Araucarian family, but with some curious points of affinity with the yew. The volcanic sandstone in which the trees were embedded, and from the lower part of which they must have sprung, had accumulated in successive thin layers around their trunks; and the stone yet retained the impression of the bark. It required little geological practice to interpret the marvelous story which this scene at once unfolded; though I confess I was at first so much astonished, that I could scarcely believe the plainest evidence. I saw the spot where a cluster of fine trees once waved their branches on the shores of the Atlantic, when that ocean (now driven back 700 miles) came to the foot of the Andes. I saw that they had sprung from a volcanic soil which had been raised above the level of the sea, and that subsequently this dry land, with its upright trees, had been let down into the depths of the ocean. In these depths, the formerly dry land was covered by sedimentary beds, and these again by enormous streams of submarine lava—one such mass attaining the thickness of a thousand feet; and these deluges of molten stone and aqueous deposits five times alternately had been spread out. The ocean which received such thick masses, must have been profoundly deep; but again the subterranean forces exerted themselves, and I now beheld the bed of that ocean, forming a chain of mountains more than seven thousand feet in height. Nor had those antagonist forces been dormant, which are always at work wearing down the surface of the land: the great piles of strata had been intersected by many wide valleys, and the trees, now changed into silex, were exposed projecting from the volcanic soil, now changed into rock, whence formerly, in a green and budding state, they had raised their lofty heads. Now, all is utterly irreclaimable and desert; even the lichen cannot adhere to the stony casts of former trees. Vast, and scarcely comprehensible as such changes must ever appear, yet they have all occurred within a period, recent when compared with the history of the Cordillera; and the Cordillera itself is absolutely modern as compared with many of the fossiliferous strata of Europe and America.
Basically, Darwin came upon a fossil forest, and interpreted it into an entire vision of an ancient coastal forest that was sunk beneath the ocean, buried under thousands of feet of sediment, uplifted as the Andes rose, then uncovered for him to find. His poetic statement here is part of his whole geological interpretation of the Andes, which is one of the major achievements of the Voyage of the Beagle, and fundamental to understanding Darwin’s later approach to biology. Darwin notes that he took some of the wood with him, and I think many other pieces must have been taken over the years, because this was the only stump we could find, and it was a much less impressive specimen (no bark/rings that we could see) compared to the others.
I am a molecular paleoclimatologist, meaning I examine organic molecules (biomarkers) preserved in the geologic record to study past climate and environmental change. Biomarkers are compounds which can be traced to a single organism, class of organisms, or environmental process. They are useful tools for reconstructing climate, environment, and ecosystem changes because they record conditions at the time of their deposition, and can be preserved in sediments for millions of years.
My research is focused on discovering how the climate and environment in the Arctic has changed in the past. Due to anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change, the Arctic is currently undergoing rapid and unprecedented change. Paleoclimate records help us understand the natural variability of the climate system. They provide perspective on the extent and rapidity of current change, and can help predict how climate may change in the future.
My study site is Lake El’gygytgyn (Lake E), a meteorite impact crater formed 3.6 million years ago, located in northeast Russia ~100 km north of the Arctic Circle. I generate my data by extracting the organic material from samples from a sediment core from the bottom of the lake. I measure abundances and distributions of the biomarkers preserved in the sediments to reconstruct climatic and ecosystem changes over the last one million years. This period of Earth’s history is part of the Pleistocene, an epoch dominated by strong alternations between cold glacial periods and warm interglacial periods (see the ‘CO2: Past, Present, Future‘ page for a discussion on glacial and interglacial periods). By examining the biomarkers at Lake E, I can determine changes in variables such as temperature and precipitation associated with these climatic cycles. I can also use the biomarkers to identify what plants lived around the lake, and what sorts of primary producers (algae) were present in the lake. This information on past environmental variability is valuable as the climate continues to change rapidly.
I love being a scientist because I get to learn something new every day! There are always new questions to be asked and answers to be found either in my own research or the scientific literature. I enjoy working with colleagues and students to generate datasets that provide new insight about Earth’s climate. I also love that my job provides me with many opportunities to travel and meet new people!
For anyone who wants to be a scientists, know that being a graduate student is often incredibly challenging. There is so much to learn, so much research to be done, and numerous demands on your time. I think it is essential to develop a strong support network. This can include family, friends, your cohort, colleagues, and mentors. These people will help encourage and inspire you if you get discouraged or distressed by the trials of scientific research. They will remind you why you began a career in science in the first place—your love of learning!