Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Paleobiology, the best excuse to have a broad focus

Ok, to start I would like to present something that I see as a fundamental aspect of the profession of being a paleontologist - the opportunity to delve into many aspects of science, in a word, being a polymath. I am no polymath, and I don't think that most people that would claim to be should be doing so, but it is unavoidable and irresistible to learn and practice the various disciplines of science when one is a paleontologist.

Although most of us would say that isn't so, perhaps after years of focus describing the same group(s) of fossil animals, there are many fields of science one has to be familiar with to gain any competency in that. Among the skills needed, one must be a an anatomist, geologist, evolutionary biologist, and often practice many other skills such as spelunking, camping (and its various skills of its own), illustration (long gone are the days in which most professionals have illustrators that work for them full time), microscopy, and statistics.

But paleontology isn't restrained to those disciplines either. I recall telling my father many years ago, when he asked, "Are you sure you want to be a paleontologist?", that I commented that in a way, because paleontology is simply the record of the history of life, that it is justifiable to use all means and methods at better understanding that history. If something deemed it necessary for one to understand physiology or chemistry or contact mechanics to figure out how something an ancient organism was like, one could and should. Obviously we cannot all do everything, and for efficiency's sake, we need to collaborate with other specialists when those needs arise. But if there are topics outside the mainstream of classic paleontological methods, such as finding fossils, comparative anatomy, and systematics, the opportunity to subspecialize is there.

Most museum curators do not, and probaly should not, distract themselves from the business of "normal" paleontology, but there are many, many more positions for paleontologists in other fields in academia in which this sort of uniqueness may prove an advantage.

So why would I post this on a blog about Aquatic Amniotes? Well, if there is one "group" of vertebrates that is optimal for exploring paleobiological methods and questions, it is the aquatic amniotes. They are NOT a phylogenetic grouping, but a grouping unified by common physiological, mechanical, and anatomical problems of being in an aqueous environment. Though they appear to often find solutions to these problems that appear convergent, often they are not. In these cases, they provide an excellent opportunity to explore functional morphology, adaptation, and evolutionary developmental biology.

I hope to follow this post up with some fun examples of how a variety of scientific disciplines can be utilized to understand aquatic amniote evolution. I'll try to bring in some work by others on such fields as geochemistry, modeling, materials science, and pathology to illustrate how diverse the fields being used to study aquatic amniotes are. I hope that at least some of the students that may read this will find it encourages them to broaden their horizons, explore other methods and topics, to make them better paleontologists for the future.


  1. Excellent points, Brian, with which I wholeheartedly agree. That's one of the reasons I decided to study paleontology (besides fossils being so freakin' cool!), and I constantly tell students that I believe it's one of the field's biggest attractions.

    Some of the most surprising courses/activities that have helped me in paleontology:

    -Theater scence design
    -Atheletic training courses when I was coaching high school football

  2. Wonderful post, Brian! Paleo is certainly a 'field of many disciplines' as you so rightly point out, and I find myself very much in agreement with Alton concerning this subject as well, especially when discussing the role played by the humanities in our studies. I've written about the link between paleontology and philosophy, as well as that which connects science and literature and have arrived at the conclusion that far too many scientists underestimate the value of these and similar courses to their life's work. Personally, I think that most budding young paleontologists should gather a few theatre courses under their belts because I am unaware of any academic department which is capable of bestowing such an enormous amount of charisma and stage presence upon its participants: traits which are invaluable to any scientist hoping to communicate his or her findings to the public or to their peers.

    I look forward to the upcoming posts in this series with great anticipation!

  3. Thanks guys, I appreciate the complements. I worried that I would sound like an ass, boasting as if I'm some 'expert'. I rather prefer to consider that it's just the opinion of one person, and the rationale I have for approaching the job the way I do... it is totally selfish, but I like to think it keeps thing interesting and, at times, improves the quality of the work as well.

    I agree about the theater experience. I tend toward being fairly gregarious and a bit of a joker, and though I've only spent some summers in student theater groups, I like to think it has helped me feel more comfortable when giving talks at meetings and giving lectures to students in undergraduate and medical school courses.

    I always find it funny that some schools boast that their students don't have to teach, but are supported to devote all their time to research. For some that may be needed, but I think that being a TA not only helps one learn how to conduct fruitfulr research during a busy semester, but also helps them develop their teaching skills. Let's face it, except for some, most of us are likely to get jobs that require some, if not a lot of, teaching. Teaching is a joy, perticularly if you are lucky enojugh to teach graduate students or medical students, because they are REALLY motivated and will work hard to learn. That's why I've always advocated getting some background in teaching anatomy, as the job opportunities and experience teaching material that is VERY relevant to vertebrate paleontology, are MUCH greater for an anatomist.

  4. Though I understand why many academics remain apprehensive about teaching professionally(chiefly that they believe it 'detracts from their research'),I've never dreaded the experience: in fact, I greatly look forward to it. I myself have taught a few very basic herpetology classes and, like you, I feel that bestowing fascinating information concerning subjects we're passionate about upon eager ears is one of the most rewarding experiences imaginable. This sentiment, among others, has spearheaded my decision to attempt to approach a career in paleontology from an anatomical angle as you've advised. As I understand it, quite a few paleontologists make their living as anatomists, largely due to the fact that medical school graduates will seldom teach the subject to subsequent generations, often opting to reap far larger financial rewards for acquiring their M.D.s by practicing instead.

  5. Hey Mark,
    If you are ever in the NY/Long Island area, you are most welcome to checkout NYCOM and our anatomy lab. I'd be glad to share some of the pros and cons of being an anatomy prof.

  6. Many thanks for your invitation, Brian!

    I'm actually going to visit the Stony Brook campus on the 28th to determine if an incoming transfer would be possible and would love to schedule a visit then, assuming that you're available. Approximately how far away is the NYCOM lab from S.B.?

  7. NYCOM is about 38 miles from Stonybrook - I should know, I live near Stonybrook (my wife works there) and I commute to NYCOM everyday. I'd be happy to bring you by campus sometime, or just say hi while you are in the area.