Dr. Heather L. Ford, Paleoclimatologist

Dr. Ford sampling marine sediment that was brought up from the bottom of the seafloor.

What do you do as a geoscientist?

I’m a climate scientist interested in past archives of climate change. I explore warm climates of the past to help understand future climate change. I look at the ocean’s role in moving around heat and carbon in the earth’s system.

What is your data, and how do you obtain it?

I work on marine sediment from the bottom of the ocean. Within this sediment are tiny fossil shells, the size of a single grain of sand. The chemistry of these fossil shells, formed by protists called foraminifera, can be used to reconstruct temperature, ice volume, carbon chemistry, and many other properties of the ocean. In the laboratory, I chemically clean these shells to remove contaminants and analyze them by mass spectrometry. Using the minor and trace elements of these shells I’m able to reconstruct climate conditions from a warm period approximately three million years ago, the Pliocene warm period, when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are estimated to be similar to today with human inputs.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

My research contributes to our understanding of climate change by understanding the most recent period of sustained warmth. One focus of my research is to understand the tropical Pacific Ocean through time and how it influences global climate. The importance of the tropical Pacific is exemplified by the ocean-atmospheric changes during an El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event which alters global climate. Today, the tropical Pacific is characterized by a western warm pool and an eastern cold tongue. The thermocline, the uppermost layer of the ocean within which temperature decreases rapidly with depth, plays a critical role in this tropical Pacific temperature pattern and ENSO development. During the warm Pliocene, records show the eastern tropical Pacific was warmer than today. My research shows the thermocline was deep which contributed to the warm temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific. This altered tropical ocean-atmosphere dynamics which we call El Padre (figure below).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

I’ve cultivated a group of phenomenal collaborators that I enjoy working with. We ask questions that are relevant to future climate change and are inspired by each other’s dedication.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Take a programing class! I started coding in graduate school and although I am by no means a master coder, I’ve been able to explore datasets and examine relationships in climate data.

To learn more about Heather’s research, you can follow on her on Twitter here or visit her website

Ranjeev Epa, Invertebrate Paleontologist

Fig. 1: End to an intense day of fossil collecting

I am an invertebrate paleontologist. My research interests are mainly focused on paleoecological themes, especially investigating biotic interactions (predator-prey relationships, paleoparasitism) and exploring how variations in body morphology (the form of living things) can be used as a proxy to interpret paleoenvironmental attributes. As an example, in snails, shell shapes and ornamentation (ex. spines or other shell modifications) can be influenced by predators (biotic) and/or by abiotic factors, like flow rate or nature of the substrate (the sediment or rock on which the animal lives).

I work primarily on marine invertebrates. My favorites include gastropods (snails), bivalves (clams), elephant tusk snails (which are very cool), sea urchins, and foraminfera. I started my journey in my home country, Sri Lanka, where I worked on Miocene marine fossils of Aruwakkalu in Sri Lanka (Epa et al., 2011). After joining Ohio University for my masters, I studied the late Oligocene freshwater ampullariid snails of Tanzania (Epa et al., 2017 in press). Currently, I am investigating predatory and parasitic interactions within a collection of Plio-Pleistocene marine bivalves from Florida. Here, I look at predatory drill holes (Fig.2C) and trematode (a group of flatworms) parasitic traces (blisters and pits; see Fig.2A and B) to explore taxonomic selectivities (specific animals getting harmed) and to investigate potential relationships between environmental factors and variability in intensity of such biotic interactions.

Fig 2. A – B: Potential traces of trematode parasitism. A. Pits. B. Blisters.
C. Oichnus paraboloides Bromley, 1981, predatory drill hole produced by a naticid gastropod

Bivalves (clams) are not only pretty (Fig.3) but also one of the key contributors in maintaining good ecosystem health, thus acting as keystone species at local geographic scales. In addition, throughout human history, bivalves (mollusks  in general) have been an important component in the food industry and many communities around the world have direct interactions/dependence on their regional mollusc communities (malacofauna).  Thus, community structure and population dynamics of bivalves affect ecosystem health, human health and, to a large extent, economies of coastal communities.

One of the research questions I address in my doctoral research is the effects and factors governing trematode parasitism among bivalves. Parasitism is known to cause detrimental effects on bivalves. However, little work has been done on paleoparasitology compared with other biotic interactions like predation. So, my research will look in to the geological and modern records/trends of trematode parasitism in bivalves to explore factors that influence variation in parasitism. Using these data, I plan to interpret how climate change can influence parasitism among bivalves and add a novel dimension to stress the importance of reducing our footprint on Earth.

Fig 3. Pectens collected from Sri Lanka

There is so much I love about what I am doing. Getting to work with my favorite animals makes me feel that I have the best job in the world. As a scientist, you have the power to communicate important scientific findings to people with different academic backgrounds and to people that hold different societal positions. This is especially important as at present, as our carbon footprint on the blue planet is a serious cause for concern. My advice to young scientists is simple: love what you do and do what you love. ALWAYS try to maintain a balance in life.

Follow Ranjeev’s research profile by clicking here and keep up with his updates on Twitter here.

Bridget Wade, Micropaleontologist

Professor Bridget Wade

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?

The best part of my job is my interactions with students. I feel very fortunate to have a group of masters and doctoral students working in the lab on various projects that focus of climate change, evolution and improving the geological time scale. Many of the students are international and have different research backgrounds, and thus I get to learn about different cultures as well as benefit from unique insights that they have to science. I also really enjoy how every day is different, and I get to look down the microscope at extraordinary fossil plankton from millions of years ago.

Science wasn’t my first choice – I originally applied to university to study English Literature, but my grades weren’t good enough! So this was a big turning point, but in retrospect I’m really glad that I couldn’t take that path. These days I spend much of my time reading and writing, so perhaps these worlds are not so far apart.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution and climate change?

I use microscopic marine plankton and their chemistry to determine how the oceans have changed over the last 50 million years. I’m particularly interested in how life responds to climatic change and what drives a species to extinction.

What are your proxies, and how do you obtain your data?

Scanning electron microscope images of planktonic foraminifera from the about 14 million years ago (middle Miocene). Image from Fox and Wade (2013).

The microscopic fossils I work on are called planktonic foraminifera. These are about the size of a grain of sand. Their shells are made of calcium carbonate and over time the shells of dead foraminifera accumulate in marine sediments and yield a long fossil record, which we can use to gain information on oceans and climate of the past. I use cores obtained through the International Ocean Discovery Program. Core samples taken from the ocean floor can help form a picture of climate changes which took place millions of years ago. I use the foraminifera to examine changes in evolution and extinction rates and mechanisms in different time intervals, and use their chemistry, such as oxygen and carbon isotopes to reconstruct changes in marine temperatures, track glacial/interglacial cycles, and productivity through time.

What advice do you have for young, aspiring scientists?

Find your passion, focus on the aspects that you enjoy the most and have fun!

Jeanette Pirlo, Paleontologist and Marine Biologist

Jeanette in the collections at the Florida Museum!

I am currently a Ph.D. student studying paleontology at the Florida Museum. My main interest are fossil sharks and how their distributional range (where they live) has changed over time. I have been lucky enough to travel to different places to look for fossils, including Florida, Panama, the Nebraska Badlands, and California. My two favorite finds, so far, have been a Megalodon tooth in California, and a carnivore humerus while in the Badlands. Along with the field work, I also develop and put on workshops for K-12 educators to teach them about paleontology and how to bring it back into their classrooms. I love hosting these workshops because I get to share my enthusiasm for paleontology and give teachers fossils to take back to their classrooms.

Jeanette in the Nebraska Badlands!

I do not have data in the same sense as most scientists because I have just begun planning out my research projects for my dissertation. But I have been working on various projects that allow me to try new data-finding tools, including 3D technology like desktop 3D scanners and microCT scanners. This technology has allowed us to scan fossils and do morphometric analysis on the specimens. I’m excited to see where these skills will take me with my research! Through the workshops I’ve designed, I have been able to create fossil kits for teachers and help them teach climate change, evolution, and geologic time, among other topics, using fossils as evidence for change. I’ve learned how to create programs that are impactful for participants by providing them content that they can bring back to their classrooms. I’m looking forward to continuing this aspect of my work. I enjoy having a direct large impact on communities. As for my research, I am interested in figuring out how shark population distributions will change as ocean temperatures change by looking at fossil shark distributions over deep time.

Jeanette having fun and finding fossils in the field in Panama! It’s not a true field trip until you get messy!

My favorite part of being a paleontologist is being out in the field finding fossils! There is nothing more exciting than finding a fossil because you realize that you are the first person to see a bone of an animal that lived millions of years ago! I also really enjoy taking people out to do fieldwork that have never done it before. To see the joy in their face when they find their first fossil is contagious! I remember how much I love my job and my career because I get to share that enthusiasm with them! My advice to young scientists is to never give up on your dreams! I took an unconventional path to get where I am at, but I am so grateful that I followed every chance I got, even the scary ones! Follow your dreams regardless of what they may be, science or not. It’s not easy and you will have days when you’re ready to give it all up, but know that it is true what they say, when you get to do what you love, it stops feeling like work!

Kelly Dunne, Project Engineer


Inside a signal cabinet, using the controller to adjust signal timings at an intersection.

I am a project engineer with a B.S. in civil engineering and an M.S. in traffic engineering, working in the transportation department of a large suburb (150,000 residents). My responsibilities are diverse: overseeing the operation of the city’s 100 traffic signals, addressing and mitigating traffic safety and congestion concerns, reviewing commercial and residential development plans, studying parking trends in the downtown, implementing bicycle routes, meeting with residents, and managing construction projects.

My previous position was as a design engineer for a transportation engineering firm. Working for a consultant is the more typical civil engineer career path. This involved a lot of design work for new roadways, intersection expansions, bike paths, and roundabouts. There was a mixture of creativity (what’s the best way we can solve this traffic congestion?) with traffic engineering principles (at a given design speed, how long should the left turn lane be?). There was also a lot of CAD work: a good engineer needs to be able to produce constructable plan sets that meet the state transportation department’s standards. I eventually left this job because I wanted to have more ownership of projects and to be able to focus on one community instead of various project locations spread throughout the state.

The software in the Traffic Management Center is connected to traffic signals throughout the city and displays information in real-time. Live cameras are used to observe traffic conditions.

Working in the public sector is a unique challenge for an engineer because it involves many non-technical duties such as presenting project updates to City Council or explaining city ordinances to residents, but still requires a technical background. While there is limited design work as compared to a consulting firm, the satisfaction in creating something from nothing is still present when crafting new policies or establishing long-term development plans. A big part of the reason I set myself on this career path was because I wanted to be able to help the public. My role directly impacts the lives of tens of thousands of people. While it’s definitely behind the scenes, the things I do on a daily basis serve to make residents’ lives safer, more economical, and less frustrating.

My favorite part about being an engineer is knowing about day-to-day things that most people don’t ever stop to consider. Do you know that a traffic signal doesn’t detect a vehicle by weight, but because a car’s metal disrupts the electromagnetic field of a sensor in the pavement? Or do you know that roadways function as ancillary drainage systems and are actually designed to flood after a heavy rainfall in order to keep the water from getting into basements? Or that installing four-way stop signs at intersections can actually increase overall speeding in neighborhoods?

For any young people interested in a career in engineering, I would encourage you to not be intimidated. Engineering has a reputation for being a challenging major in college, but it’s not impossible and it’s not only for the whiz kids. If you find something that interests and excites you, don’t let the fear of failing hold you back. Determination, passion, and attitude will help you reach your goals.

Aaron Woodruff, Paleontologist

Aaron standing in front of a mastodon skeleton at the Illinois State Museum.
I am a vertebrate paleontologist, meaning that I deal in the fossils of ancient back-boned animals. I obtained my degree in paleontology from East Tennessee State University and I currently work as a lab technician at Georgia Tech. My primary research interests are paleoecology and ecomorphology of Cenozoic mammals. In the broad sense, paleoecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their environments across prehistory. Ecomorphology is the study of the relationship between an organism’s physical adaptations and its lifestyle. For example, cheetahs are famously the fastest land animals alive today. To become such good runners they have evolved, among other adaptations, lightweight skeletons with long legs and flexible spines. The general lifestyle and behavior of an extinct animal may, therefore, be predicted by comparing its physical adaptations to that of a modern relative or to that of an otherwise comparably proportioned species. Back to the Cheetah example, several species of extinct cats and cat-like predators have been found to have possessed similar body proportions for active sprinting, suggesting that these animals hunted in a similar fashion.

Aside from my paleontological research, another great passion/occupation of mine is paleoart: the artistic representation of a prehistoric organism or environment. Paleoart is a valuable tool for communicating paleontological information to both scientists and non-scientists. We are more likely to process and memorize information presented to us in image format than through text. I personally find great enjoyment in reconstructing animals which no modern human has ever seen alive. It really feels like I am bringing these animals back to life. Furthermore, accurate paleoart is a good way to pull in audiences and raise interest in paleontology. Ask any paleontologist or enthusiast what first sparked their interest in fossils and ancient animals, and most of them will no doubt reference images from a favorite book from their childhood, a museum mural, sculpture, movie or documentary which featured life reconstructions of prehistoric animals. That’s paleoart! Some of my own artwork may be seen on my personal blog Life in the Cenozoic Era in which I talk about various animals from the Age of Mammals.

As a paleontologist, the best thing I can hope for is a large sample size to work with. This can be somewhat difficult in paleontology because fossils, by their very nature, are generally few and far between and are often damaged or incomplete. Whenever possible, having access to a large sample of a given extinct animal is ideal for ontogenic, demographic, and morphological studies among other areas. For my thesis project I was lucky enough to have access to a HUGE collection of fossils belonging to an extinct peccary from a Missouri cave site. Because I had thousands of bones from dozens of individuals to work with, from fetuses up to elderly individuals, I was able to learn some very interesting things about the peccary population from that locality. Another important resource is a good comparative collection of modern and extinct animals for reference. Being able to visit other research facilities or borrow specimens on loan is also a major aspect of acquiring data.

Map showing the location of the Bat Cave fossil site within the state of Missouri (top-left), the most complete Flat-headed Peccary skull from Bat Cave (bottom-left), a mounted skeleton from the American Museum of Natural History (top-right), and life reconstruction by me (bottom-right).

The research we are doing at Georgia Tech involves analyzing the bones of small mammals and looking at how the community composition changes through time. Small vertebrates are good indicators of local climatic conditions because they are generally confined to a small area; many of the smaller rodents never venture farther than 30 to 100ft from their nest in a single day. An elephant can simply walk up to 50 miles per day in search of an area that suits it better should environmental conditions fall outside of its comfort zone. A vole simply cannot do this, and is thus confined to a narrower range of environmental factors. From examining the Natural Trap Cave microfauna we are finding that the local climate has fluctuated greatly over the past 20,000 years. At various intervals the region was home to animals which are adapted to the high desert conditions which characterize the region today, in another layer we may find species that are indicative of wetter or less arid conditions, while in yet another layer we may see animals which should be more comfortable in colder environments farther north.

Repelling ~80ft into Natural Trap Cave to excavate Pleistocene-age fossils.
My favorite part of being a scientist is that I am always learning new and interesting things. I find it very humbling and gratifying to know that my research will contribute to the collective knowledge of the general public. Being able to learn through personal research, exchange knowledge and ideas with other scientists, and to teach what I have learned with other people are all things that I appreciate about my career. Another thing I enjoy is being able to travel to conferences and field sites where I am able to intermingle with other paleontologists and keep up to date with the latest discoveries. My advice to young scientists is go to conferences or local events whenever possible. Volunteer or participate in outreach programs at museums or universities. Also, reach out to professionals for advice or to just satisfy your curiosity. Many paleontologists, myself included, are very active on social media and are happy to chat about our research, share information, etc.

Follow Aaron’s blog Life in the Cenozoic Era or follow his updates on Twitter by clicking here.

Linda Dämmer, Geologist and Paleoclimate Proxy Developer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kristina Barclay, Paleoecologist

Collecting marine snails (Tegula funebralis and Nucella ostrina) at Bodega Marine Reserve (UC Davis, Bodega Bay, California) for a six month project investigating how shell growth is affected by ocean acidification and the threat of predation.

I look at biotic interactions, such as predator-prey interactions, and how these relationships develop through time, or are affected by environmental change. I’m lucky because I get to study both living and fossil organisms, and try to find connections between the patterns in modern and fossil ecosystems which might help protect modern ecosystems faced with climate change. This is called conservation palaeobiology. Basically, I want to know how and why animal relationships got to where they are today, and figure out how to protect those relationships.

For my PhD research at the University of Alberta, I am mostly working with marine snails and one of their main predators, crabs. Crabs are very strong and try to peel the shells of snails, much like you would an orange. The predatory behavior by crabs can leave scars on the snail’s shell. We can see this on both live animals and in the fossil record, and it can tell us how successful the predators are or how many there were. But because I’m interested in bigger picture questions, like how animals interact with one another, I get to study many different organisms! For example, I have also done a lot of work on both living and fossil encrusting organisms (like barnacles) and how they interact with the animals that they encrust (see Dr. Mark Wilson’s Meet the Scientist post here).

Encrusting organisms (sclerobionts) on a fossil brachiopod shell (Waterways Formation, Fort McMurray, Alberta, Late Devonian).

My main question for my current research is how predator-prey interactions have and will be affected by climate change. All of the carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere by humans is being absorbed by the oceans, and this makes the water more acidic. The more acidic the water is, the harder it is for animals that have shells or hard parts to grow those structures. For animals like snails that use their shells to defend against crabs, this might mean they will be vulnerable to predators. If the snails are wiped out because they can’t protect themselves, what will happen to all of the animals that rely on snails for food? There could be very large ecosystem changes, which is especially scary as we rely more and more on the oceans to feed our growing global population. I just finished a six month experiment that investigated how living snails respond to ocean acidification combined with predation, but now I also want to see how past ocean acidification events have affected snails and their ecosystems. If we know what happened in the fossil record, we may be able to prevent it from happening again to our animals today.

I accidentally interrupted a giant sea star (Pisaster brevispinus) eating a giant clam while doing field work on modern ocean ecosystems near Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, Vancouver Island, B.C.

The best part about being a scientist is being able to explore what interests you, and to hopefully make a difference that benefits the animals and ecosystems you care about. I also get to be outside, either looking for fossils, or studying live ocean animals, which is so much fun! I’m also a science educator, so inspiring young kids, especially young girls, to pursue their interests in science is incredibly rewarding. Find a topic that interests you, but don’t be afraid to explore other possibilities. It’s important to think big picture, and to have other questions if your favourite one doesn’t work out. You also want to make sure that your research is somehow applicable to areas that are of interest or concern to a lot of people. Most importantly, though, I would say to never be afraid to ask questions, and make sure you ask lots of them. Sometimes you’ll feel like everyone is so much smarter than you, but I guarantee they are feeling the same way. Anyone can be a scientist, so long as you are passionate and never stop asking questions.

If you are interested in learning more about Kristina’s research check out her website here and/or her twitter here.

Roy E. Plotnick, Paleobiologist

I began my career working on eurypterids (sea scorpions), which were the largest arthropods of all time. I still occasionally study various arthropod fossils from all parts of the fossil record. I recently described the oldest known insect ears. This was part of a broader interest in the evolution of sense organs – when and why did organisms first evolve organs such as eyes and antennae? But I have also studied many other groups of fossil organisms, including crinoids (sea lilies), brachiopods, and sea anemones.

A lot of my research involves doing experiments, although the idea of “experimental paleontology” may sound odd. One example is a series of studies on how organisms live on soft muddy bottoms. I did experiments on how various kinds of ancient organisms may have prevented sinking in or being pulled out of the sediment. This may help us to design better anchors for boats. Another example involves studying fossil preservation: what are the environmental conditions that either allow or enhance the formation of a fossil? A third example involves studying how animal behavior controls what types of movements an animal makes and what types of trace they can leave behind. The goal is to understand what are known as trace fossils; the preserved remains of tracks, trails, burrows, etc.

Ear on the leg of a fossil cricket from the Eocene Green River Formation. Ref: Plotnick, R. E., and D. M. Smith. 2012. Exceptionally preserved fossil insect ears from the Eocene Green River Formation of Colorado. Journal of Paleontology 86(1):19-24.

Almost by accident I got interested in the history of caves and their impact on the fossil record. Leading a class field trip, we stumbled upon a 310 million-year old cave, one of the very every oldest caves in the world. This site and others like it have produced a treasure trove of amazingly well-preserved fossils, including some of the oldest conifers. I am also interested in describing the statistical properties of the fossil record. I recently showed that the locations of fossil sites are fractal; that is, they are clumped in space and these clumps are clumped and so on. A statistical method I developed to study the rock and fossil record has been since used in many areas of science, including cancer research! I have also investigated the current extinction of life on Earth, sometimes called the Sixth Extinction. This a major part of global environmental change. My research is focused on helping us better compare what is going on now with what happened in the geologic past.

The ability to pursue so many different areas of research is what I love best about being a scientist. An added benefit is that I usually have to team up with other scientists who know more than I do about the subjects we are interested in. And I also get young scientists involved. I have two pieces of advice for young scientists. First: read, read, read. Know what has been done so you can learn what important questions remain to be solved. Second: look outside the usual boundaries of your field for inspiration and ideas.

Stephanie K. Drumheller-Horton, Paleontologist

All kinds of things can move, alter, or even destroy animals’ remains after they die, but before they fossilize and are discovered by paleontologists. The study of these processes is called taphonomy. I specialize in taphonomic processes affecting vertebrates (animals with backbones), especially archosaurs (crocodiles, dinosaurs, and everything in between).

American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) bite mark collection on cow bones, at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, Florida.

I work a lot with living animals to better understand extinct ones. In my bite mark research, this includes collecting crocodylian bite mark examples on pig and cow limbs. I have spent a lot of time at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm collecting data. By studying modern bone surface modifications, I am trying to find novel marks or patterns of marks, which can be used to positively identify similar structures on ancient bones. This lets me identify fossil traces left by particular behavior types or organism groups.

Bone surface modifications are traces on bone surfaces left by other members of or features in its paleoenvironment. This includes everything from sediment abrasion to carnivore bite marks. All of these different types of bone alterations can tell us something about the environment in which the affected animal lived and died. However, we can only access this information if we are able to correctly identify and interpret the marks. Once we can differentiate these marks, we can start asking questions about evolution and paleoecology. What kind of environment was here when these animals were alive? Who was eating what in this ecosystem? How did this animal become fossilized, and what might that tell us about the diversity of the original environment? Paleontologists are not the only people to consider how bones have been altered through time. Forensic osteology is a field of science dedicated to studying what happened to human bones based on features left on the bone material. Read more about forensic osteology here.

A) Line drawing cross section of a stereotypical mammalian long bone, with explanatory illustrations bite mark classifications. Photographic examples of bite mark types: B) Two pits made by an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus); C) Puncture made by an American crocodile (Crocodylus acutus); D) Score made by a Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis); E) Furrow made by a New Guinea crocodile (Crocodylus novaeguineae). Scale bars = 1 cm. From Drumheller & Brochu (2016).

The thrill of discovery is a big draw. When I find a new fossil out in the field, it’s pretty exciting to know that I am the first human being to ever see it. I feel the same thing about collecting data from lab experiments and field observations. Publishing a finished paper on a project can feel like you’ve been keeping a really cool secret, and now you finally get to share it with everybody.

Take as many opportunities to branch out and explore different fields as you can. You never know where they might lead you. My last semester of undergrad, I needed one more class to graduate. I already knew I wanted to be a paleontologist, I had actually already been accepted into graduate school. I ended up signing up for a forensic anthropology class, just because it sounded interesting, and my school had a world class program in the field. It was that class that introduced me to taphonomy and the study of bone surface modifications. One random elective class ended up shaping my entire career path.

Find out more about Stephanie’s research by checking out her Research Gate profile here or get more immediate information from her twitter here. Stephanie was part of a crowd funded experiment, found here, to excavate the Arlington Archosaur Site.