Who are the people of SVP?
Members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology come from many different backgrounds and live and work all around the world. Here we highlight the life and work of one of our members so that you can get to know them better. Paleontologists that have been profiled in the past are also listed so that you can go back and get to know them as well: Past PaleoProfiles
Profile posted: December 2006
Undergraduate education: B.A. in Biology from New York University, 1998
Postgraduate education: M.S. in Geosciences from Pennsylvania State University, University Park, 2001
Current position: Ph.D. student in Evolutionary Biology/Paleontology at the City University of New York and American Museum of Natural History
Research area: Biology and evolutionary relationships of hybodont sharks
Q & A with Jennifer Lane
How/when did you first become interested in science/paleontology?
I wanted to be a scientist for almost as long as I can remember. As a child, I loved exploring nature. I’d go for nature walks with my butterfly net, or my Dad would take me fishing and we’d look for fossils along the way. I enjoyed watching science shows, like Nova and National Geographic, on PBS, and visiting the dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History. I think I liked paleontology best because of the sense of adventure and mystery involved. Fossils are like “clues” to Earth’s past, and piecing them together to reconstruct extinct creatures and habitats is akin to solving a puzzle — the puzzle of life’s history on Earth.
What was your favorite subject in school?
My favorite subject was science, especially biology.
Do you do fieldwork? If so, how do you spend a typical day in the field? The fun parts? The frustrations?
There isn’t any fieldwork involved in my current project, which is about the evolutionary relationships of fossil sharks, but I have to travel to museums in many different countries and compare specimens. I did some fieldwork in South Dakota as part of my earlier academic training, and it was a lot of fun. The first time, I was a freshman in college studying ammonites (extinct cephalopods related to modern squid and octopus) — I still remember how exciting it was to crack open a rock concretion with my hammer and find that it was filled with fossils. I also did some more recent fieldwork in Pennsylvania and upstate New York, looking for fossil fish (my research area).
Jennifer in the field with colleagues, collecting Devonian fossils in a quarry in upstate New York. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lane.
A typical day in the field for a fish paleontologist begins with locating the strata (rock layers) where fossils are most likely to be found, and then prospecting by looking for small bits of bone that provide clues for the best places to start excavating. Then, you can use a geology hammer and chisel to begin peeling away rock layers. It can take a long time to find fossils this way, so you have to be patient! But nothing is more fun than uncovering a well-preserved fossil.
Afterward, you chip away the excess rock to make the fossils more transportable, and wrap them up (we often use newspaper and tape for small fossils) to take back to the museum. It’s very important to record information about the locality — that is, the place where the fossils were collected — including the date, weather conditions, how to get there, and which rock layers the fossils came from. Back at the museum, the fossils are given specimen numbers and identification cards so that they can be added to the museum’s collection.
How do you spend a typical day when you are not doing fieldwork?
On a typical day at the museum, I’m usually in my office doing research. For my current research project, I’m studying the biology and evolutionary relationships of hybodont sharks, which became extinct in the Cretaceous period (around the same time as dinosaurs) and were the closest relatives of modern sharks and rays. My research involves examining and describing fossil shark specimens, and comparing them to other fossil and modern sharks to look for similarities and differences.
This data can later be used to make an evolutionary tree, or cladogram, showing how these sharks are related to each other. Besides looking at actual fossils, I spend a lot of time reading books and scientific papers to help me with my research. I also work on publishing the results of my research, so I can share my findings with other scientists — which means I’m often writing, photographing specimens, or working on illustrations for my manuscripts.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you most about your work?
The best part is making an exciting new discovery. It doesn’t happen often, but the possibility is always there. Even just learning an interesting new fact can be rewarding, and for me, this can happen almost every day.
Jennifer in her office at the American Museum of Natural History. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lane.
What is the most difficult part of your job? What bugs you most about your work?
The most difficult part is writing up and publishing the research. There are a lot of steps involved, and once you get to the last one — editing your work, submitting it to other paleontologists for review, and working on revising the final draft — it can become pretty tedious. But seeing your work in print, and being able to share your research with other paleontologists around the world, is definitely worth the effort.
What has been your most exciting discovery?
For my masters’ degree thesis, I described a new placoderm (an armored fish from the Devonian period, roughly 370 million years ago) from a place called Red Hill, in Pennsylvania. It belonged to a previously-known genus, Phyllolepis (meaning “leaf-scale”), but it was a new species, so I got to give it a new scientific name. I called it Phyllolepis rossimontina (“leaf-scale from Red Hill”).
If you could find the answer to any one question in science, what would it be?
I would like to know more about the early evolution of jawed fishes. Very little is yet known about how the major groups — placoderms, chondrichthyans (sharks and their relatives), acanthodians (a little-known group, once called “spiny sharks”), and bony fishes — are related to each other, and this is a very big gap in paleontological knowledge. Part of this is due to a scarcity of well-preserved fossils, so more fossils need to be discovered before this question can be accurately answered.
What is your favorite fossil and why?
My favorite fossil is the coelacanth, once thought to have gone extinct over 60 million years ago — until 1938, when scientists found a living specimen off the coast of Africa! To me, this is one of the most exciting stories in paleontology, and one of the few I know of in which paleontologists had a chance to see how an “extinct” fossil would look in real life, and test whether their previous interpretations were really accurate.
Whom do you admire most in science or the world at large?
The paleontologist/writer Stephen Jay Gould had a big influence on me when I was growing up, and it was his books that helped inspire me to become a paleontologist. Most of Gould’s books are collections of short essays, which made them easy for me as a middle school/high school student to read, and his engaging style and unique perspective on natural history always made for fun and fascinating reading. I learned a lot from him, and I think his books probably influenced many future scientists. I was even lucky enough to meet him once, when he guest-taught one of my college courses on evolution.
Is “evolution” fact?
Yes! Scientists who study living and extinct organisms (biologists and paleontologists) conclude that evolution occurs. In fact, evolution is the basis for all modern biological thought, and is the only “theory,” or concept, that consistently explains most biological phenomena. There is plenty of evidence for evolution — vestigial organs (tiny legs in whales, your appendix), transitional fossils (Archaeopteryx, many fossil invertebrates like bryozoans, etc.), the similarity of species that are close to each other geographically — and even evidence that evolution is still occurring today (i.e., development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria). And when you begin to study biology in-depth, you find even more evidence.
How were you taught about evolution?
I first learned about evolution as a kid, from watching science shows on PBS. I wasn’t really taught it in school until about 7th grade, when we studied it for about a week at the end of the spring semester, but by then I had pretty much learned all about it on my own. The teacher presented it as an accepted fact, but we didn’t really spend much time learning about it. Evolution was covered a little more in my high school biology classes, but wasn’t really presented in-depth until college.
Examining the fossilized braincase of Tribodus, a hybodont shark. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Lane.
How do you use evolution?
I would say evolution is the foundation for the work I do — something I keep in mind during the course of my research, as the basic reason behind the biological diversity that I study. When I’m studying fossil sharks and their relationships, I’m thinking about them from an evolutionary perspective. In my research, I compare specimens and look for similarities and differences between different taxa (kinds) of fossil and modern sharks. If two or more taxa share a feature (for example, head spines) that other, more primitive ones don’t have, I use that feature to group those taxa together. I do this again and again, until I have a long list of shared features. Then, I use a special computer program that looks for patterns of shared features and uses them to make a kind of evolutionary tree, called a cladogram, that shows the most likely relationship between the different shark taxa. This way of discovering evolutionary relationships is called cladistics, and is used by many modern paleontologists. For example, the statement “birds are most closely related to theropod dinosaurs” is based on the results of a cladistic study.
Can you “see” evolution?
I think you can see evolution, in a sense, when you compare closely-related organisms and note their similarities and differences. I remember learning in college that horses and rhinoceroses are related, but it didn’t really sink in until I saw the skeletons of a horse and a rhino placed next to each other at a museum in Cambridge, England. The resemblance was so clear, you couldn’t miss it.
What message would you send to “future paleontologists”?
I would say, if you want to be a paleontologist, follow your dream! Many of the paleontologists I know started out as kids who were interested in fossils, and there is no better job than one you are enthusiastic about. Some practical advice: study hard in science and math, do well in school, and in college choose either biology or geology as a major. Try to get a summer internship at a museum, working with a paleontologist as a mentor. You will need to go to graduate school to get a Ph.D. Many professional paleontologists get jobs as college professors or museum curators, and sometimes both.
Where can I go to learn more?
To read more about some of Jennifer’s research subjects, or see some of her recommended websites, explore these:
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