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Society News Paleoprofiles Past PaleoProfiles Robert W. Purdy


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


Robert Purdy

Robert W. Purdy

Profile posted: July 2006
Undergraduate education: B.Sc. in Geology from George Washington University
Postgraduate education: Two years in a paleontology-geology program at George Washington University
Current position: Fossil shark specialist and collection manager of fossil vertebrates at the National Museum of Natural History (the Smithsonian) in Washington, D.C.

Q & A with Robert Purdy

How/when did you first become interested in science/paleontology?
I believe it was when I was 10 years old. My fifth grade class had a hobby fair, and one student brought in fossils that her brother, who was a geologist, had collected. I was hooked on geology/paleontology from then on. When I was 13 years old, we moved to an area where Cretaceous fossils were common. I wasn’t interested in just collecting them but also identifying them. An adult friend of mine had a geology/paleontology library that allowed me to do that. These were books that were not available from our public library.

What was your favorite subject in school?

Science, particularly geology and paleontology.

Do you do fieldwork? If so, how do you spend a typical day in the field? The fun parts? The frustrations?

I spend about two weeks a year leading a collecting party to North and South Carolina. At one site where we are working with the South Carolina State Museum, we are digging in a Pleistocene streambed that contains fossil bones. The Pleistocene started 1.8 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. It was during the Pleistocene that the most recent ice age took place, and it was also during the Pleistocene that our species, Homo sapiens, evolved and expanded.

Fieldwork involves many very carefully planned steps. We begin the day by staking out a one-meter square grid in the area that we plan to excavate (or dig up) in the next few days. After this is done, we begin to gently probe the sandy stream bed with extra long (18") ice picks. When the pick hits an object, we carefully dig down to it. We also make sure that the dirt overlying it doesn’t contain any bone. A skull, jaw, backbone, or limb bone may be uncovered. When this happens, we measure the bone’s distance from the two nearest stakes and the compass direction of its long axis.

We record this information in our field notebooks and on a map that we drew of the excavation area. A field number is assigned to the specimen and written on it; this way we can associate the specimen with its field data back at the museum. We then carefully wrap the specimen for transporting back to the museum.

The most fun is finding a skeleton or a skull. The most frustrating part of field work is spending a day or more in quarries and not finding anything.

            Smithsonian and South Carolina State Museums crews digging for fossil
            bones in a Pleistocene stream bed
The Smithsonian and South Carolina State Museums crews digging for fossil bones in a Pleistocene stream bed. Photo courtesy of Robert Purdy.

How do you spend a typical day when you are not doing fieldwork?

Work days in a museum are not typical; many interruptions to your work occur. It is not uncommon for me to have two or three projects waiting for my attention. In addition to caring for the collections and assisting visiting paleontologists, I get “urgent” requests for grant proposals, loan requests, specimen identifications, etc.

I also have to take computer training, update the text and illustrations for our web pages, catalogue and photograph specimens, answer outside inquiries about specimen or collection history, maintain our vertebrate paleontology collections, conduct tours for groups and VIPs, profile collection needs, maintain my proficiency in identifying specimens, particularly shark teeth, and when time allows, do research. So, as you can tell, it’s hard for me to be able to work on one project for too long before I get interrupted!

What do you like best about your job? What excites you most about your work?

I like seeing the variety of specimens that come into the museum and the challenge of identifying them. I also like researching the history of specimens or collections; some of them date back to the 1830s and 1850s. I think one of the most exciting things about my job is seeing a specimen that is new to science. I recently found a fossil fish skull in the collections, collected in 1929, that I had trouble identifying . I showed it to a Smithsonian intern who was working with a fish curator in the Dept. of Vertebrate Zoology. After a year of study, they published it as a new, and the oldest known, species of moonfish. It’s very exciting to know that I helped bring that fossil to the attention of the scientific community!

            Grady, Dave Bohaska, Don Ward, and Bob Purdy during a break from
            identifying fossils at a fossil fair
Fred Grady, Dave Bohaska, Don Ward, and Bob Purdy during a break from identifying fossils at a fossil fair. Photo courtesy of Robert Purdy.

What is the most difficult part of your job? What bugs you most about your work?

The most difficult part of my work is finding the time to finish a project. What bugs me most is that the number of our staff members has been shrinking annually, and we don’t have enough help to do all that we need to do. And as you can tell from my description of my work above, there is a lot to do!

What has been your most exciting discovery?

It was a six-inch tooth from the extinct megatoothed white shark, Carcharodon megalodon.

If you could find the answer to any one question in science, what would it be?
Shark teeth are very common in the fossil record, however, shark skeletons are made of soft cartilage and are rarely preserved. Shark teeth can vary widely in form, based on my studies of the dentitions (teeth) of living sharks. Within the same species, tooth form varies from the embryo on up to the adult, and even from individual to individual. Very little has been published about tooth variation in living species. Since my interest is shark evolution in the last 10 million years, my question is can we learn enough about the variation in the teeth of living species to make the fossil teeth more useful for evolutionary studies?

What is your favorite fossil and why?

I have to say the teeth of Carcharodon megalodon. These sharks, which attained the length and size of a school bus, could cut through whale bones with their teeth! They were truly impressive predators.

            Carcharodon tooth from the Miocene of Kern County, California
A Carcharodon tooth from the Miocene of Kern County, California. Photo by Sarah Rieboldt, © UCMP.

How were you taught about evolution?

I first learned about it through reading during my teenage years. My cubmaster gave me a copy of Dunbar’s Historical Geology that he used in college in the 1930s. Since then, I haven’t stopped learning about evolution. Each year it seems new fossil specimens are found that fill in gaps in the evolutionary record.

Can you see evolution?

Evolution is a slow, complex process. It happens over thousands, millions, even billions of years, and it is affected by changes in climate, changes in the availability and types of food, for example. A species evolves because the environment in which it lives is evolving also. If a species does not evolve, it may become extinct. So, even though you often cannot see evolution happening, you see its results. Organisms that are adapted to their climates, to their surroundings, are all evidence that evolution is constantly occurring.

What message would you send to “future paleontologists”?

Paleontology is still an exciting field. There are many important fossils yet to be discovered. If you truly love studying paleontology, don’t let the poor job market discourage you. Go for it!

Where can I go to learn more?

To read more about some of Robert’s favorite dinosaurs, or about his research, explore these sites: