What is your favorite aspect about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
At the beginning of college one of my professor’s suggested that I take an introduction to geology course, and within a few weeks I was hooked! Before that, I had no idea that geology and earth science was a subject that people studied. But I was hooked on the idea that my classes were teaching me more about the world around me- and I still am! I love studying subjects that directly affect people and communities, so now I research historical hurricanes and different types of flooding.
What do you do?
An issue that comes up more often in the news is the frequency of intense hurricanes. These storms impact huge numbers of people along coastlines all over the earth; now we worry that these big storms might be happening more often or might be getting stronger. However, we do not have long historical records around the world of how often these storms used to happen. The really cool thing about geology is that we can look further back in time using things that nature leaves behind. I go to lakes and marshes near the coast to collect sediment- we take a big empty tube and stick it into the earth to learn about big floods that have happened in the past. It works kind of like sticking a straw into your drink and putting your thumb on top, except we do this with mud and sand. When we look at the layers in the mud, the deeper down we go is further in the past, like the pages in a book. Layers of sand tell us that a big storm happened there in the past, pushed into the lake by huge storm waves that bring sand in toward land from the ocean and beach. Counting how many of these sand layers there are helps us understand the frequency of storms through history. Knowing more about the past can help us understand how to help prepare for these storms, help protect coastal populations, and whether they are happening more frequently now.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
Most of the global population lives within 60 miles of the coast, so studying storms and coastal flooding is really important. Boston, MA is one of many cities globally that is along the coast and vulnerable to coastal flooding, especially with the additional threat of sea level rise. Each year during hurricane and nor’easter seasons we are repeatedly reminded of the threat that these storms pose to the coastal populations of the eastern United States, not to mention other parts of the globe. The more we can constrain the frequency and strength of storms, the better we can serve and protect the people of Earth from these huge floods. I am motivated not only to be active in the research I do studying coastal flooding, but also to play a role in disseminating knowledge to public and policy spheres. The research I am involved in can help inform hurricane and nor’easter preparedness for populations all along the coasts, helping decide where structures will get built and how storm water management and adaptations plans are designed.
What are your data, and how do you obtain them?
Most of the data that I use comes directly from sediment, either at the bottom of lakes or on wetlands and marshes. As it builds up over time at the bottom of lakes, we can look down into the mud and read a history through the different grain sizes from sand to mud, the types of animals that lived there, and the types of materials that make up the sediment!
How do you engage with the science community and with the public?
I recently got to participate in the AGU Voice for Science program- an incredible opportunity to learn more about science communication and meet other scientists interested in outreach. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is the largest society of earth and space scientists around the world, and they have some very cool opportunities for outreach and science communication training. So far, my outreach experience has mostly been in educational programs to get children interested in science. This program through AGU broadened my experience in science communication into policy, and we got to do congressional visits to talk to Senators and Representatives from various states about science funding. I think a really critical aspect of outreach is building relationships with the communities you want to impact and making yourself available for their questions and concerns. We often approach outreach with the attitude that we have expertise about a specific issue to offer people, but they may be interested in an entirely different subject. Asking a community what their interests and questions are before you go in with your own is a really valuable way to build trust and a strong working relationship for future research and outreach. I am excited to see how my outreach will change in the coming months after learning so much from this workshop!
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
Pursue your goals, even if they seem out of reach or even impossible. And never hesitate to ask others for help and advice!
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!
What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you become interested in science?
I got interested in science because I loved nature videos as a kid. I specifically remember one about the Alvin exploring the deep ocean that I would watch over and over, and I thought that being a scientist must be the coolest thing in the world. After that, I had a series of passionate and supportive teachers and mentors that nourished my interest in science and equipped me with the tools I needed to pursue a career in it.
There are a lot of things I love about being a scientist, but I think my favorite is the opportunities science has given me to meet people from different backgrounds. I have a network of peers, collaborators and mentors all around the world and I have learned so much, both as a scientist and a human being, from all of them.
What do you do as a scientist?
I study glaciers and ice sheets, the huge masses of ice that exist today in Greenland and Antarctica. I’m interested in how they responded to climate change in the past, so that we can better predict how they will respond to climate change in the future. This is particularly important today, because the ice sheets are melting at an accelerating rate and causing sea level to rise along coastlines around the world. To do this, I run computer model simulations of earth’s climate and ice sheets and compare the results with geologic data. I use these comparisons to understand what caused past changes to the ice sheets (for example, atmospheric or oceanic warming) and make predictions of how much sea level rise occurred during past warm periods.
How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?
My research helps us understand the stability of ice sheets as the climate warms, which is one way we can improve predictions of sea level rise in the coming decades.
What are your data, and where do they come from?
For my research, I work with a lot of continuous climate records derived from ice cores and marine cores, which has been a great way to learn about those archives and given me some amazing opportunities to get involved with fieldwork. If you want to read more about that, you can find information on my blog.
Another part of my work that I am passionate about is making science more equitable. In many ways throughout history, scientific discourse has been dominated by some voices at the expense of others. In the U.S. today this is exemplified by the over-representation of white men as professors, in leadership positions, and as award recipients. This hinders scientific progress and is harmful to our community. Science advances by testing new ideas and hypotheses, which is inefficient when not everyone is invited to the table to share their ideas. Unfortunately stereotypes, discrimination, and harmful working conditions (among other factors) have kept many brilliant people from pursuing scientific careers, and especially academic ones.
At UMass, I have been working with a group of graduate students to address this through BRIDGE. BRIDGE is a program that encourages departments to identify and invite Scholars from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM who are early in their careers to participate in an existing departmental lecture series. We also ensure that we provide the Scholar with a platform to share their personal experiences with obstacles and opportunities in entering and remaining in academia, so that current graduate students are better equipped to navigate that process. This is a small but meaningful way to make sure that all scientists feel like they have role models who have had experiences they can relate to, and we have found that many graduate students do really benefit from it.
What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?
If you want to be a scientists then you should already start thinking of yourself as a scientist. The sooner you start experimenting with that identity and what it means to you, the better prepared you’ll be for actually doing science. I remember the first time I started meeting the “real scientists” whose papers I had obsessed over as an undergraduate. The idea of meeting these big names was overwhelming and intimidating and I doubted that I could ever occupy the same profession as them. Looking back at that almost ten years later, it’s clear to me that was a false distinction that only served to hold me back.
Being a scientist starts with being curious or interested in something and simply asking questions about it. How does it work? What happens if I do this? If you are asking those questions about anything, then you’re already thinking like a scientist, and you can do anything that a scientist can do. Some of those things that a scientist does are more exciting than others (doing experiments and taking measurements compared to writing grants, for example) but my advice would be to try all of it. Writing grants based on your own ideas is scary because there’s a potential for rejection, but it’s extremely important to try, and there’s no end to what you can learn through that process. It’s taken me a long time to understand that rejection of one of my ideas isn’t a rejection of my worth as a scientist; and conversely, when you apply for a grant or scholarship and you do get it, there’s an incredible feeling of validation and support.
So I would say get started as early as possible looking for opportunities to get rejected. Apply for everything you can. A lot of things won’t come through, and you have to learn to accept that. But other things will, and getting that recognition will not only be good for your self, it will pave the way for other opportunities and lead you to new research questions. And if you’re ever intimidated by an application, don’t be afraid to reach out to people who have been there before – more often than not we are willing to support you through the process.
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 do a lot of research for my PhD, and some of that research is painstaking and tedious. But some aspects of research are just downright fun! Today I’m going to talk about one of my favorite parts of my research: taking very high-resolution and close-up images of my fossil plankton, foraminifera!
Because the fossils I work with are so small (about the size of a grain of sand), we need a very unique system to take high-quality and close-up images of them. To do this, people who take images of microfossils use scanning electron microscopes, or SEM for short. An SEM uses electrons reflected off the surface of the fossils to create an image. To do this, the interior of the SEM is a vacuum, and the fossils need to be coated with a conductive material. At our university, we use platinum to coat our fossils.
The first thing I do before I can take images of my fossils is to pick out specimens that I want to photograph. These are then placed onto a small, round piece of double-sided sticky tape. The fossils are so tiny, I can fit tens onto one small piece. This sticky piece is then placed onto a glass slide. We call the fossils, tape, and glass a ‘stub’. Once all the fossils are in place, I then put the stub into a coating machine. This machine coats all the fossils with a very thin layer of platinum while in the presence of xenon gas. The entire process is very quick (about 30 minutes at most). Once the specimens are coated, they’re ready for imaging in the SEM!
The SEM itself is a rather large contraption, but incredibly amazing! The entire machine is operated from a computer that sits on a desk beside the SEM, so everything is pretty self-contained and right there. The first thing I do after coating is to mount the stub on the stage within the SEM. This is simple: it involves taping the stub to a metal piece, which in turn fits snugly onto the stage element of the SEM.
Once in place, I then slide the door to the SEM shut and vent the machine. Venting means I push a button on the computer, which tells the machine to begin creating a vacuum inside its chamber. This process takes about ten minutes or so.
After the chamber inside the SEM is under vacuum, I can then begin the process of photographing my fossils! Everything from this point forward is operated using software on a desktop computer that talks to the SEM. Just like a camera, the images have to be focused before taking the actual picture. This can be either very easy, or very tedious. There are several factors to determining how the image looks on the screen: are the levels balanced, is there charging on the fossils that’s causing a disturbance, the distance of the stub fro’m the camera, etc. There are controls on the computer program that allow the user to make changes and adjustments as necessary.
I find that the best way to focus the image is to zoom in very close to the fossil I want to photography. In this case, ‘very close’ means zooming in more than 2,000 times or more, so I’m really getting up close and personal with the fossils! I use a technique where I select a small window of the entire image, and use the tools in the program to tweak and focus the image in that smaller box. This is a faster way to focus, and when I’m happy with the results, I can apply the changes made to the small area to the entire image.
Once the settings are adjusted and correct for my fossils, I can then get through taking images pretty quickly! Each image includes a scale bar to indicate the size of the fossil and the magnification, which is helpful and necessary to include with each fossil picture. For this project, I was very interested in taking close-up images of the surface of my specimens, and also taking a side-view of the shells (quite unfortunately, this means I had to break open some foraminifera shells once placed on the stub and before coating).
Once all the images are taken, I can then download them onto a thumb drive and work with them on my own computer. This involves using other photography programs such as Adobe Photoshop to crop the fossil images and place them onto a black background.
Although the process of taking SEM images of fossils is incredibly fun, it’s also vastly important for research. I will include images of all my fossils in a publication. This way, other researchers will know how I tell one species apart from another, and the different characteristics of each plankton species. Ideally, I’ll have pages and pages of fossil images, called plates, included with my publications!
Morphospace expansion paces taxonomic diversification after end Cretaceous mass extinction
Christopher M. Lowery and Andrew J. Fraass
Summarized by Adriane Lam
The Problem: There is no doubt that species today are going extinct due to human activities, such as habitat loss, climate change, and the introduction of invasive species that take over areas. For example, the Florida Panther used to range throughout the southeastern U.S., but due to humans expanding into their habitat, they now only occupy a mere 5% of their former range. Polar bears are also facing loss of their habitat due to melting ice and snow caused by human-induced warming. But if humans were to disappear tomorrow, how long would it take for Earth’s flora and fauna to bounce back to the number of species before humans were here? This is a hard question to answer, but to begin to quantify this, paleontologists can use the fossil record.
In this study, the scientists looked at the time before, during, and after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event that took place ~66 million years ago. This was one of the largest mass extinction events in Earth’s history, where about 75% of all species on Earth went extinct, including the non-avian dinosaurs. It is also an important mass extinction event to study because the event that wiped out all those species was very rapid. During other mass extinction events in Earth’s history, the extinction events themselves took on the order of millions to hundreds of thousands of years (read more about extinctions here).
The rate at which humans are altering the Earth today is unprecedented to any climate change event in the geologic past (see our ‘CO2: Past, Present, & Future’ page for more details). Thus, scientists need to compare the rate at which we are losing species today under a very fast climate change scenario to another event that was also very fast. Therefore, studying the end-Cretaceous mass extinction is particularly valuable: it was a very quick event and one that is most comparable to the rate at which we are losing species today.
Data Used: In this study, the scientists used the fossil record of planktic foraminifera to see how long it took for life to recovered after a mass extinction event, the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Planktic foraminifera are single-celled protists (not animals) that live in open-marine environments. They have occupied our oceans for the past ~165 million years. These protists produce a calcium carbonate (same material seashells are made of) shell, or “test,” that grows to be about the size of a grain of sand. When the foraminifera die, its shell sinks to the seafloor. Over millions of years, these shells are preserved at the bottom of the ocean. Making the fossil record of planktic foraminifera an archive of extinction and evolution events for the past 165 million years of Earth’s history! The scientists who conducted this study used this amazing fossil archive to see how long it took these marine protists to return to pre-extinction levels after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.
Methods: As part of his master’s project, Andy Fraass compiled a database of first and last occurrences of planktic foraminifera species. First and last occurrence datums are often used in paleontology to examine how long in geologic time a species existed. The authors used these data to examine when planktic foraminifera species evolved and went extinct (Figure 1).
This dataset collected, but left unpublished until this paper, also included measurements of the species’ tests, such as the number of chambers in the shell, how quickly the chambers expanded from the earliest chamber to the last, etc. From these measurements, the authors calculated test complexity. This is a metric that shows how ‘complex’ planktic foraminifera shells became through time. For example, a species with a simple shell might have simple chambers arranged in a spiral pattern. A more complex species might have a more extreme test (Figure 2). The test complexity of each species was then given a score, with 1 being the simplest, and 4 being the most complex or extreme.
In foraminifera, the shape of the test can be assumed to have some sort of relationship to the organism’s life strategy, or its niche, basically. A species’ niche is where and how it can live and interact with the environment. For example, humans occupy a broad range of niches: our technology allows us to live in very hot to very cold climates. On the other hand, polar bears have a very narrow niche. These animals only live in the tundra biome in the Northern Hemisphere on the ice and hunt seals. A specific foraminifera might only live at a particular depth in the ocean, or in water that’s above or below a certain temperature, or in regions with a certain abundance of food, etc. These niches are the scaffolding on which species diversity is built.
During a mass extinction event niche spaces are often completely disrupted or destroyed along with the species that occupy them. Thus, paleontologists have hypothesized that after an extinction event, the number of species cannot simply bounce back to what it was before, but the number and size of niche spaces has to be rebuilt first. This may cause the observed delay in the recovery of species after mass extinction events. This paper provided the first test of that hypothesis with real data.
Because the shape and characteristics of a planktic foraminifera’s shell is related to its niche, the authors used average test complexity of all the foraminifera that were alive at different points in time to reconstruct how many niches were occupied by forams before and after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Higher average complexity suggests a wider variety of niches were occupied, while lower complexity suggests that fewer niches existed.
Results: The authors found that there was a huge drop in the number of species after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction (Figure 1), which was not a surprise and something we have know about for a while. But the other finding was that along with a huge drop in the number of species was also a huge drop in the test complexity (Figure 3). It took about 5 million years for test complexity to reach the levels it was at before the mass extinction event. That’s a really long time!
Another interesting find is that test complexity increased before species diversified. That is, new niches were created faster than new species to fill them after the mass extinction event. This study shows that before a lot of new species can evolve, there need to be a few species that evolve and open new niche spaces first.
Why is this study important? Today, humans are having a huge effect on the ability of species to survive on our planet. Through destruction of species’ habitats and niche space, we are pushing more and more species to the brink of extinction. Importantly, there are also thousands of species that have already gone extinct from human activities (such as the Tasmanian Tiger, Passenger Pigeon, Sea Mink, Caribbean Monk Seal, Quagga, Elephant Bird, Haast’s Eagle, and many more). If we keep causing animals to go extinct, we may see a loss of biodiversity that rivals those of mass extinctions that have taken place in the geologic past. But until now, we didn’t really know how long it took for new niche spaces to be filled and how that would affect how fast new species can fill those niche spaces.
This study gives us a clue: it may take as long as 5 million years after a mass extinction event for new niche spaces to be created. It then takes additional five million years for diversity, or the number of species, to rebound to pre-extinction levels. The bottom line is that it takes 10 million years for the biosphere to recover from a mass extinction event. This means that even though humans have been on Earth for a very short period of time (geologically speaking), we will have a huge impact on the flora and fauna, even if we were to disappear tomorrow.
Citation: Lowery, C. M., and Fraass, A. J., 2019. Morphospace expansion paces taxonomic diversification after end Cretaceous mass extinction. Nature Ecology & Evolution https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0835-0
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!
I am a paleoceanographer. Basically, I study how the ocean changed in the past, in order to understand how it might change in the future. To do this, I primarily use foraminifera, which are sand-sized plankton that have a hard shell that is easily preserved in ancient sediments. In fact, in many places far from land the sea floor is entirely made of foraminifera and other microfossils (fossils so tiny, you need a microscope to see them properly or at all). To get the microfossils, I often go in the field or to sea. I do a lot of work with core samples of both ancient and modern sediments from the deep sea and on the continental shelf, and also collect samples from outcrop on land where the sea used to be.
My research touches on a number of societally relevant topics, although if I’m honest my main motivation is just to better understand how the world works. I like when my work addresses specific problems like declining oxygen in the oceans, but there is value in all kinds of science, and you never know what discoveries might lead to an important insight into processes that are significant today. That being said, much of my work focuses on how anoxia (i.e., no dissolved oxygen in the water) develops in the ocean, and how marine life responded to it in the past.
A combination of warming water due to climate change and plankton blooms due to increased nutrient runoff from agriculture on land has led to a recent decline in the amount of oxygen in the oceans. In turn, this had led to an expansion of deadzones (places in the ocean where marine life cannot live) on continental shelves and in bays and estuaries. The modern ocean is losing oxygen at a similar rate to the just before major anoxic events in the Cretaceous Period about 90 million years ago. These past oceanic anoxic events are useful partial analogs to understand deoxygenation in our oceans and its effect on marine life (the short version is it drives a lot of extinction).
I also study how life recovers after major mass extinction events, particularly the End Cretaceous mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs and 75% of life on Earth. That mass extinction was caused by an asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico. The impact caused particles to fly into the atmosphere, blocking the sun. Because of this, photosynthesis crashed, and everything went extinct in just a few years. This is probably the only major event in Earth history that happened faster than modern climate change, so it’s a useful analog to understand how ecosystems rebound after a rapid extinction event. We are not (yet) experiencing a sixth mass extinction today, but rates of extinction are undeniably high because of human activity. How the biosphere (the plants, animals, and various other life forms on Earth) will recovery once human disruption finally stops is an important thing to understand. Unfortunately, results from the past suggest that life will take millions of years to bounce back.
The best part of being a scientist, in my opinion, is working to solve problems that I find interesting (this is my main advice to aspiring scientists, too, find something that you think is interesting and that will hold your attention. There are lots of important things we don’t know and you don’t have to pick the highest profile one). The other best part of being a scientist is the opportunity to work in the field and go to sea and work with friends from all over the world to solve a problem. I got into geology because I wanted a job where I could be outside at least part of the time, but the chances to travel have surpassed all of my expectations.
Chris is currently a Research Associate at the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. He was a member of a drilling expedition that recovered a core from the Chicxulub crater, where the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs hit. Chris and his team were featured in the NOVA documentary ‘Day the Dinosaurs Died’, which is freely available online here. To learn more about Chris and his science, you can follow him on Twitter @clowery806.