Nick Smith, Paleontologist

I am a paleontologist interested in the evolutionary history and systematics of Paleozoic echinoderms (i.e. sea stars, sea urchins, and sea lilies). I am currently working with one of the five echinoderm groups that persisted through the Paleozoic all the way to modern day, the brittle star! Brittle stars look similar to starfish, but their arms appear clearly separate from their body (central disk). Brittle stars originated during the Early Ordovician (approx. 485–480 million years ago) and diversified pretty quickly throughout the early Paleozoic. Unfortunately, there is a large, (nearly 60 million year!) gap in our knowledge of brittle stars from the beginning of the Mississippian to the beginning of the Mesozoic, and it has remained that way for the past 30 years. Because brittle stars are made up of thousands of individual skeletal elements, finding fully articulated brittle star skeletons to expand our understanding of their life histories is challenging.

Figure showing the difference in shape between brittle stars (left) and starfish (right). Notice the difference in how the arms appear separated from the central body in brittle stars, but as an extension of the body in the starfish. Images taken from Science Photo Library and jaxshells.org.

To remedy this challenge, I am utilizing a technique that has primarily been used with Mesozoic and Cenozoic aged brittle stars that focuses on the use of morphologically significant (differently shaped) elements from the arm. Skeletal elements of brittle star arms have been proven to be taxonomically significant, meaning that we can identify different genera of brittle stars based on these arm pieces. I collect these skeletal elements by sieving (washing and sorting by size) weathered down shale from Mississippian aged sediment located in southern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Finally, I compare the individual elements with articulated skeletons in museums to assign species names to my elements. I can then use that knowledge to fill in the gaps of our understanding of late Paleozoic brittle stars.

This is an image of the individual skeletal elements from the brittle stars I work with. The skeletal elements on the left half of the image are lateral arm plates (plates that hold the spines of a brittle star), and the skeletal elements on the left are vertebral plates (plates that core the arm of brittle stars). Image taken from Smith and Sumrall, 2019.

My fascination with science and the natural world was when I first completed an animal dissection during the 7th grade. I, however, took a more non-conventional approach to studying geology and paleontology. I first started college shortly after graduating high school with a degree in biology and quickly failed out. It would not be until after I took a break from school and returned to school that I truly understood what I wanted to do with my life. After taking an introductory physical geology course, I realized how I could incorporate my love for geology with my love for organismal biology.

My favorite part of being a scientist is the opportunity to expand our knowledge of the world and the ability to inspire the next generation of scientists! I have had the opportunity to visit places I never imagined I would have the opportunity to visit, learn new techniques to explore the fossil record, and have met and worked with some of the most brilliant minds from all over the world. As a gay cis male in the geosciences, I hope to be able to inspire the next generation of great minds and promote diversity in all STEM fields!

My advice to young scientists is that you should never think your ideas are not worthy. Search, inquire, and explore what you find interesting and then share that knowledge with the world! Realize that it is ok to fail and understand that there is power in failure. Do not give up! Above all else, communicate with other scientists and establish a set of friends/peers that you can share ideas with, ask for assistance when needed, and laugh and cry with.

Follow Nick’s updates on his Research Gate or on Instagram, @nick_smith_28!

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