2009 Romer Prize Recipient
I have spent my entire life in areas devoid of vertebrate fossils: I was born on Long Island, New York, spent my formative years in St. Lucie County, Florida, and received my higher education in Chicago, Illinois. As such, I have from the very start been reliant on museum collections for inspiring my paleontological interests. Like many children from the northeast, my first experience with vertebrate fossils was staring in rapt amazement at the exhibits in the American Museum of Natural History, an institution I was to visit at the very least yearly from age 1 onwards. Whereas most of my preteen peers lingered in front of the kangaroo-postured Tyrannosaurus
or box-skulled " Brontosaurus
" skeletons (this is back in the mid-80s, before the renovations), I was far more obsessed with a darkened corner of the old Hall of Early Dinosaurs containing the Permian tetrapod fossils. These cases were filled with the classic taxa from the red beds of the American southwest: Eryops
, as well as Moschops
from the South African Karoo. These bizarre creatures from long before the age of dinosaurs latched onto my imagination, and were made all the more intriguing by the discovery that they included among their ranks the earliest members of our own stem lineage, the Synapsida. My obsession with synapsids carried on through high school, when I began corresponding with Prof. James Hopson of the University of Chicago about some recently-described Russian therapsids that I thought had been misinterpreted by their discoverers. The exceedingly gracious replies from a titan of synapsid research to an upstart pretender such as myself greatly influenced my decision to attend college at Chicago, and later continue my graduate career there as a student of Neil Shubin.
My research primarily concerns broad-scale questions of synapsid evolution, especially with regards to patterns of cranial morphology over time. As the dominant terrestrial vertebrates of the Permo-Triassic, non-mammalian synapsids bore witness to some of the most extreme environmental shifts in Earth history: the transition between carnivore and herbivore-dominated communities between the Early and Late Permian, the devastating Permo-Triassic mass extinction, and the increasing aridification of the Triassic, to name some key examples. Unraveling the relationships between these changes and morphological shifts in synapsids reveals not only the genesis of Mesozoic communities but also the origins of mammals.
It is with humility and great appreciation that I accept the Romer Prize, especially considering the unparalleled contributions to Permo-Triassic vertebrate study made by its namesake. I am deeply grateful to my professors and classmates at the University of Chicago and my colleagues at the Field Museum for all of their support. Although I am happy to have finally experienced field-based paleontology as a graduate student, the core of my research program remains reliant on the vast collections of synapsid fossils housed in museums, and I sincerely thank the curators and collections managers across six continents that have made my work possible.
Photo courtesy of Christian Kammerer.