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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: June 2005
Undergraduate education: Maîtrise ès Sciences Naturelles, University Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris 6, France
Postgraduate education: DEA de Paléontologie (Master of Palaeontology), University Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris 6, France; Ph.D., University Pierre and Marie Curie, Paris 6, France, under Prof. Eric Buffetaut
Current position: Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology, Geological Museum, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
Q & A with Gilles Cuny
How/when did you first become interested in science/paleontology?
When I was eight years old, my father bought me a book about palaeontology illustrated by Zdenek Burian. I was so impressed by all the reconstructions of these long-dead animals that I immediately decided that it would be my future job. And I am very stubborn. I still have this book on the shelves of my office to remind me why I am here!
Do you do fieldwork? If so, how do you spend a typical day in the field? The fun parts? The frustrations?
Currently, most of my fieldwork takes place in Thailand and in China, but I’ve also done fieldwork in France, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, England, Denmark, Tunisia, and Madagascar. I study small, resistant fossils of vertebrates, called microfossils, and specialize in shark teeth. My fieldwork rarely involves the making of big plaster jackets or spending a lot of time at the same place.
Normally, my fieldwork requires a lot of mobility, and I move often from one potential site to another to take samples, anything from 20 kg (45 pounds) to one ton. Samples of sediment containing fossils are collected, and then shaken through a fine-meshed screen under water (this is called “screen-washing”) the sand and rock bits fall through and the fossils are left behind. Normally, for each day spent on a site collecting samples, one to three days of screen-washing follows. Sometimes we screen-wash near a river or a pond, sometimes in the backyard of a hotel. In Thailand, we have a fully equipped field station that makes the job much easier.
Whether you find something or not, almost everything is fun during fieldwork. You are with friends and it’s good to be outside, meeting different people and learning a lot about different cultures (not to mention palaeontology) everyday. Being in the field is also a great time to get to know your students. Of course, fieldwork is best when we find something really interesting. So far (fingers crossed), I’ve never had a problem finding something interesting . The only frustrating part is working with bureaucracies (governments and officials) to obtain permission to work. I remember that I had to wait two weeks in Antananarivo, Madagascar, before receiving the official authorization to go into the field. That was not fun, but was also partly my fault. I was young and lacked experience. I’ve learned a lot since then.
Gilles with Belgian colleagues screen-washing sediments in a Belgian river. Photo courtesy of Gilles Cuny.
How do you spend a typical day when you are not doing fieldwork?
My activities at the museum are quite varied: taking care of the fossils, welcoming scientists visiting the collections, answering queries from the general public or from journalists, sorting vertebrate microfossils under a binocular microscope for my research, writing papers and reports, doing a bit of teaching (this is not my primary duty), and, unfortunately, attending various meetings and doing administrative work. But the great thing about this job, is that each day is different from the one before.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you most about your work?
Diversity. The work is never the same from day to day, and I have many opportunities to travel and to meet people from very different cultures. You learn a lot every day about fossils, but also about people.
What is the most difficult part of your job? What bugs you most about your work?
Spending a lot of time with a microscope looking for tiny fossils may be quite boring from time to time, especially when you don’t find anything very exciting. But a single nice specimen makes you forget and allows you to continue on for hours. The only thing that really “bugs” me is doing paperwork and attending meetings, but there’s no choice, it comes with the job. If it lets me work in the field and study fossils, it’s worth it.
What has been your most exciting discovery? What are the other exciting discoveries yet to be made that are of interest to you?
I probably made my most exciting discovery while looking at the microstructure of a small shark tooth using a Scanning Electron Microscope. This microscope made it possible for me to see the finest details of the tooth. What I saw when the tooth was highly magnified proved that Hybodus minor (the “owner” of the tooth) was not a hybodont at all, but a primitive neoselachian (a “modern” shark)! I was really excited. This shark was considered to be a typical hybodont for more than a century! It was like finding out that peas were a fruit and not a vegetable!
Gilles sampling teeth of a modern ray for microstructure study. Photo courtesy of Gilles Cuny.
Currently, I am focusing on the hybodont shark faunas from the Early Cretaceous of Thailand. So far, we have found no less than six new species that appear to be restricted to Asia, and I am not so sure what kind of hybodont lineages they belong to or what their history is. This is very exciting.
The big mystery I would like to solve is the appearance of the modern sharks and rays. I would like to discover when exactly these animals appeared on Earth, how they are related to each other, and if their appearance is somehow related to the biggest of all extinctions, the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, when 95% of all life on Earth disappeared.
What is your favorite fossil and why?
Do I have a favorite fossil? Probably not. Most of the time, my favorite fossil is the last one I found and am currently studying … until I find the next one, and then that becomes my favorite!
Who do you admire most in science or the world at large?
Admiration can be a dangerous thing. As a scientist, I always have to question ideas and/or results to search for something that is as close as possible to the truth. This is true of my own ideas, but also of other scientists’ ideas. If you admire someone, you are no longer objective towards his/her results and/or ideas. I have a special feeling towards Marie Curie though.
The accomplishments of this woman at a time when science was dominated by men, and taking into account she was a foreigner in France, forces my admiration. But this is also due to the fact that I did all my undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the University Pierre and Marie Curie, and after that, I got a Marie Curie Fellowship from the European Union to go to the University of Bristol. Therefore, as you can see, there is an important link between her and me!
Do you think “evolution” is fact ?
Evolution is fact. I see it everyday of my life when looking at fossils, but this is certainly not limited to my narrow palaeontological field. Evolution is change over time. I see it everyday in the news have you heard of the “bird flu” virus in Asia? There has been a lot of talk about how it’s changing as it moves through Vietnam, being first restricted to birds, but suddenly evolving new kind of proteins at its surface enabling it to infect human beings that’s evolution. The discovery of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is another example. We have bacteria now that no longer go away when the patient is given penicillin that bacteria has evolved to be able to survive in our bodies, even when we are given the right medicine.
The succession of fossils in time is another demonstration of evolution. We can see species change through time. Did you know that horses used to have more than just one toe on each foot? Or that whales used to have four legs and walk on land? Snakes had legs once, and birds evolved from dinosaurs! It’s true! We can see it in the fossils!
How were you taught about evolution?
Evolution is a mandatory part of the biology teaching in France. I had my first course about evolution in grammar school, when I was 14 years old (“Classe de quatrième”) and again in “terminale” when I was 18 years old. It was then part of my day to day teaching at the University through zoology, botany, genetics, geology and palaeontology courses. I even took a special course about evolution (not mandatory at Paris 6 University) during my second year.
How do you use evolution?
Evolution is in everything I do. It provides the framework in which my research makes sense. Study of the succession of fossils leads me to propose a certain number of hypotheses, hypotheses that can then be tested against the data I have collected.
Gilles teaching reptile morphology to fourth-year Thai students in the Maha Sarakham Zoo wih colleague Chantima Piyapong. Photo courtesy of Gilles Cuny.
For example, when I look at the relationships between hybodont and neoselachian sharks, I might think that competition between the two kinds of sharks led to the hybodont’s disappearance. If neoselachians had a clear advantage over hybodonts, they would have had better access to food and resources, which could then lead to the extinction of the hybodonts.
Think of it this way: Imagine there are two teams playing a game in a swimming pool. The purple team is given flippers to wear on their feet, the green team isn’t. What would happen if these two teams had to race against each other, and the winner would get eliminated? Since the purple team has flippers, they are going to win the races more often than the green team so, slowly, the green will all be eliminated.
Bringing the analogy back to the oceans where my sharks once lived, winning these “races” could mean more food, or the ability to capture breeding territory. I want to know if the purple team is like the neoselachians, and the green team is like the hybodonts. Did the neoselachians have some kind of evolutionary advantage that allowed them to swim faster than hybodont sharks, making them go extinct?
To answer this question, I need a good understanding of how the two groups are related, and the pattern of their evolutionary history. I would need to look at the relative abundance of both groups through time and see how it fits with my hypothesis of competition. If competition with neoselachians is a reasonable explanation for hybodont extinction, I would expect that hybodont diversity will decrease while it increases for neoselachians (you’d expect to see more and more red swimmers and fewer blues as the blues are converted to reds in the game described above).
It doesn’t end there, however! I can look at the distribution of the sharks according to their environments, say, fresh water versus marine, and see how this could modify my first hypothesis: did some sharks specifically adapt to some environments in order to survive competition? Then I can add the diet of the different animals to see if this again modifies my previous hypothesis. And so on. Evolution is the only frame that allows me to test my hypotheses. Without this frame, it simply doesn’t make any sense. It can be very frustrating in the sense that it cannot give me the “truth,” but just an approximation of it. On the other hand, it gives me this extraordinary power to test what I think is the truth, and to develop a model that best fits the data I’ve collected. In doing this, I am actually independent of the frame, and I am testing the frame itself — that means evolution, and the details of its mechanisms.
What message would you send to “future paleontologists”?
I can send only one message. If you want to do this job, be sure you love it. To travel a lot is often a problem if you want a family life. Also, you may spend 12 hours a day at your office for pay that is not that good. Don’t count too much on quiet weekends at home. You may have to find work abroad. If you don’t love palaeontology, you’re going to hate your job within five years.
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