SVP Cohen Award Interview: Niels de Winter

Following the annual meeting, we're highlighting the student and early career award winners from the society. Over the next week or two, we'll be running brief interviews with awardees on the research related to their award. First up is Niels de Winter (VUB, Free University of Brussels, Belgium--you can also visit the research group's Facebook page), recipient of the Cohen Award for his project, “Trace Element Seasonality in Fossil Vertebrate Teeth: In Search of New Palaeoenvironmental Proxies.”


Q: Briefly, what is your academic background up to this point? How did you get interested in paleontology?

Like many, my interest in paleontology started early, mostly by reading books about dinosaurs as a kid. I have also been collecting minerals since as long as I can remember. Both hobbies stemmed from an interest I have had since I was very young, namely to find out why things in nature are the way they are. Naturally, I decided to start a bachelor in Earth Science at Utrecht University to follow my interest. At Utrecht University, I tried to steer my curriculum towards biogeology as much as possible, which led me to choose the master Earth, Life and Climate, which combines geochemistry and biogeology courses. Most of the expertise in paleontology at Utrecht University involves micropaleontology. Frankly, this did not interest me as much as macro-paleontology, so I decided to learn more about geochemistry. For my master's thesis I stumbled upon the amazing opportunity of working with Dr. Hemmo Abels and Prof. Philip Gingerich on stable isotope geochemistry in fossil mammal teeth from the Eocene strata of the Bighorn Basin. This research changed my perspective and got me very interested in the geochemistry side of paleontology and its use in reconstructing paleoclimate. When I got in touch with my current professor Philippe Claeys, he gave me the opportunity to write my own research proposal to work on this topic. I did and got funded by IWT in Belgium so I could start my PhD here.

Q: Why study seasonality in past environments? What makes teeth a good study system for such work?

Reconstructing past environments is extremely important for our understanding of how system Earth functions. A big thing in earth science nowadays is climate reconstruction, because that research lends us more perspective on the present climate, how it can change, and what happens when it does. Most studies in paleoclimate focus on these long-term trends in climate change, which are very important and interesting. However, such reconstructions often give us one data point in a thousand years or so, and a lot can happen in this time. The interesting thing about seasonality studies is that we can get a snapshot of paleoclimate during a very short time period (a few years). This gives us a lot of information that we can superimpose on these longer climate trends, and with which we can place them in the right perspective.

Mammal teeth are very interesting for this sort of work for two reasons: Firstly, they fossilize very well. Bioapatite, the material that makes up tooth enamel is very durable and can preserve its chemical composition very well through geological time. Secondly, most mammals I study live on land. This allows us to potentially reconstruct seasonality in land climates. Many paleoclimate studies focus on marine strata. An example are the marine bivalves, which I also study for paleoseasonality. Studying land animals gives us information about land ecosystems that we can compare to our sea-based reconstructions.

Q: What kinds of research methods are you using? (e.g., equipment, analytical techniques, etc.)

I study both the stable isotope ratios and the trace element concentrations in mammal tooth enamel. That means that we use Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (IRMS) and several techniques for trace element analysis. One of those techniques that has seen a lot of development in our lab recently is micro X-Ray Fluorescence analysis (microXRF). This machine is very versatile and allows the measurement of trace element concentrations in geological samples without destroying the sample. This is very important if we want to study, for example, precious museum specimens. The microXRF technique also lets us measure very small scale features down to 25 micrometer, which is ideal for analyzing small fossils and fast-growing teeth.
Another technique that my colleague Christophe Snoeck and I have recently set up in our lab is the extraction procedure for phosphate in bioapatite. This procedure allows us to measure stable oxygen isotopes in the phosphates of tooth enamel and other bioapatites, in addition to the conventional stable isotopes in carbonates. I am very excited about this technique, because it gives us an additional proxy to work with in paleoseasonality studies.
deWinterhorse.jpgQ: How will this award help you accomplish your research?

The above mentioned microXRF technique is rather new and needs to be further developed for the use on bioapatites. This would require more bioapatite standards, which we can acquire using the award money. In our PLoS ONE paper, we demonstrate that microXRF can be used to measure seasonal variations in trace elements in modern horse teeth, but we need more independent verification of those findings. I'd like to use the award money to repeat the same experiments on other modern taxa as well as on fossil specimens. This will not only show whether the technique can work on these other taxa, but will also allow us to discuss the meaning of these trace element concentrations in tooth enamel in more depth. Beside the money, we are also definitely still looking for specimens to work on. So, if anyone would like to get involved in some multi-proxy geochemistry on his/her fossil teeth, I think there is a lot of potential for collaboration!

Thank you, Niels, and good luck on your research!

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