Society News Paleoprofiles Past PaleoProfiles Theodore Fremd
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: May 2007
Undergraduate education: Colorado State University, 1970–1972; University of Alberta, 1974–1979. Honors in Geology and Zoology Programme; B.Sc., Zoology, Vertebrate Paleontology Lab
Postgraduate education: “Federal Equivalent to Ph.D.” for Professional Experience, per US OPM Section IV-A, 1997 [… but an earned Ph.D. was not completed. I do not recommend this route — finish your education!]
Current position: Museum Curator (Paleontologist); Chief Paleontologist, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument; Science Advisor, Pacific West Region, U.S. National Park Service
Q & A with Ted Fremd
How/when did you first become interested in science/paleontology?
I collected cereal box dinosaurs! As early as I can remember, I was always interested in a variety of scientific disciplines, especially astronomy, paleontology, and the Cactacea (cactus plants).
With volunteer Skylar Rickabaugh, examining Pleistocene strata at Joshua Tree National Park. Photo courtesy of Ted Fremd.
What was your favorite subject in school?
I was fortunate to have an excellent Ph.D. researcher as a physics instructor in high school, and became interested in astronomy at that time. Looking at the night sky is looking into the past: light that has been traveling to your eye for millions of years. In the same way, looking at fossils is like looking into the past. However, my schools did not offer a lot of coursework on biology and evolution. If they did, I’m sure that those classes would have been my favorites, because after many visits to the Denver Museum of Natural History in grade school I was pretty hooked on paleo!
Do you do fieldwork? If so, how do you spend a typical day in the field? The fun parts? The frustrations?
I do as much fieldwork as I can permit myself to do, but suffer from guilt at being paid to do what I would do for fun. The wonderful part about my position is I can and do fieldwork in a wide variety of national park settings. My focus in the John Day Basin, located in the frontier of Eastern Oregon, is to try to reconstruct the paleoecology — the organismal and climate changes through time — by applying a broad range of disciplines and relying heavily on the work of many colleagues.
Typically, I may spend a day looking for fossils ranging in size from tiny seeds and teeth, to enormous petrified trees and fossil mammals at one of over 750 localities we are managing east of the Cascades. A certain group of mammals called brontotheres, are common in this region of Oregon. The fun parts are finding new material in previously unexplored sections and documenting them; the frustrations include burning one’s hands on a black chisel left in the sun on a 110-degree day!
Working with artists to make accurate models of extinct creatures for exhibits. Photo courtesy of Ted Fremd.
How do you spend a typical day when you are not doing fieldwork?
I am currently writing manuscripts, doing research, identifying collected specimens, working on some popular books and exhibit texts, supervising the other paleontological staff, serving on a few graduate student committees, and dealing with a host of professional, curatorial, and administrative tasks. Recent papers include descriptions of new faunas from remote localities. I just finished supervising the development and installation of the exhibits in the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center, our new paleontology museum here in Oregon. Please see the website for some photographs of our new displays.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you most about your work?
What could possibly be better than being a paleontologist in the National Park Service? America’s parks include Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Olympic, and 350 other spectacular wonderlands, most of which have some fossil deposits — some of the best on the Earth, like the ones where I work.
We preserve the fossils on public lands, provide opportunities for the public to appreciate them, and at the same time, engage in lots of original research. There are so many different tasks that I get to do at the National Parks — it’s rarely the same thing from day to day.
With Skylar Rickabaugh in Ipolytamoc National Park at the invitation of the Minister of the Interior, Hungary, examining and sampling the Miocene “Miraculous Tuff” for correlation. Photo courtesy of Ted Fremd.
I also enjoy working with the handful of other Science Advisors in the Service, collaborating on a wide variety of issues affecting the National Parks, such as global climate change. Coming from different disciplines, the other scientists appreciate the “Deep Time” perspective that paleontology can bring to the understanding of modern ecosystems.
It’s so wonderful to be paid to do what you like, and I am so happy to be one of the fortunate people who get to do just that. As if that isn’t enough, one extra perk is that I have fossil species named in my honor! Right now I have three fossils named for me — a Paleocene primate (Micromomys fremdi), an Eocene artiodactyl (Achaenodon fremdi), and an Oligocene rose (Rubus fremdi). It’s always fun to be at the right place at the right time and discover an exciting new specimen, and having one named after you is a great bonus.
What is the most difficult part of your job? What bugs you most about your work?
Administrative tasks; they are necessary and not particularly difficult, but they’re simply not much fun to do. Also, there are a lot of rules where I work, and following rules that you don’t always agree with can be frustrating. That’s probably true anywhere though, and I am still very lucky to have a job where I get to do such fun things most of the time — it makes the paperwork and rule-following worth it!
Working with new specimens in the collections. Photo courtesy of Ted Fremd.
What has been your most exciting discovery?
After almost 35 continuous years of fieldwork, there have been many. I’ve discovered complete skulls of organisms previously known only from fragments, entirely new major localities, taphonomically bizarre remains, the list goes on and on.
If you could find the answer to any one question in science, what would it be?
Hmmm …. Crudely put, I guess it would be: are there other thinking beings in the universe, and where are we going with this? Or, as George Carlin asked, “Where are we going? And what’s with this handbasket?” That’s an old joke, kids — if you don’t get it, it’s okay.
What is your favorite fossil and why?
At the moment it has to be the little fossil from Nunavut, Canada that was just discovered in the last couple of years — Tiktaalik rosea. It is a perfect example of an organism whose existence was predicted by science many years before it was ever discovered. Tikaalik is a transitional fossil. This means that it fills in a gap that existed in the fossil record. In this case, the fossil has characteristics of both fish and early amphibians. The critter has a shoulder, elbow, and wrist like an amphibian, but fish-like fins instead of toes. Its ears are also somewhere between a fish and an amphibian. Evolutionary theory predicts that there should be transitional organisms like this in the fossil record, but they’re very rare. When one is found, it’s always hugely exciting! Other than that, I guess I’m partial to caniform and feliform carnivores — extinct dog-like and cat-like creatures.
With colleagues at the first John Day Basin paleontology symposium convened at the North American Paleontology Convention. Ted is second from the left, back row. Photo courtesy of Ted Fremd.
Whom do you admire most in science or the world at large?
The Dalai Lama is a wonderful example of a world leader who isn’t afraid of science; who can apply profound insight into the nature of reality using both spirituality and scientific evidence. In general, in the world at large, I admire Tibetan Buddhists because some of their teachings anticipated modern scientific discoveries, to an astonishing degree, yet were made thousands of years ago. Some of these traditions include fables of humans evolving from ape-like animals, something approaching quantum theory, spacetime, and so forth.
Is “evolution” fact?
Darwinian evolution by natural selection has been tested again and again, and again and again, it has been able to explain results and predict findings. Things change. That is indeed a fact. And at this time, natural selection is the testable explanation that best fits the facts. As an evolutionary biologist, I have a hard time understanding why some people don’t agree with the science. I can only hope that one day the subject won’t be as political as it is today, because the science is really indisputable and when you understand evolution, so much of the world around you begins to make more sense, look more beautiful, and become more amazing.
How were you taught about evolution?
The first technical exposure was a graduate course offered by my mentor, Richard C. Fox, at the University of Alberta. One could not have had a better instructor.
Surveying for fossils for the NPS Geologic Resources Division. That's the St. Elias Range, Alaska, in the background. Photo courtesy of Ted Fremd.
How do you use evolution?
I use evolution every day. My colleagues and I display evidence of evolution in exhibits in the new paleontology center to help people appreciate nature; I use it daily to interpret the fossil assemblages spanning 45 million years; and I use it to help me understand the complex web of ecosystems that make up the thin veneer of the present. Evolution is at the core of everything I do as a scientist. Without a working knowledge of how evolution works, things just wouldn’t make sense.
Can you “see” evolution?
Evidence for it is all around us. Some of my favorite examples are organisms that coevolved with other species that have since disappeared, leaving what appear to be “maladapted” populations. Without knowing the coevolutionary species, the modern forms make little sense. For example, modern pronghorn (antelope-like animals that live in North America) seem to run much faster than they need to — in fact, they are the second fastest land animal after the cheetah. But since there isn’t a modern predator that runs nearly as fast as they do, why do they have so much speed? It turns out they coevolved with a large North American cheetah, now extinct, so when one sees them running one can almost see them being “chased” by a ghost of predators past. Likewise, some Costa Rican fruits and nuts produce huge seeded fruits that aren’t dispersed by any animal, so most of the fruits rot — not a very effective way of reproducing if you’re a plant. Scientists think that they look the way they do, however, because they used to be dispersed by large elephant-like herbivores, called gomphotheres, that are now long extinct. I think coevolution is the most interesting aspect of paleontological theory; it affects every organism on Earth from bacteria to whales. All things are interrelated — things are the way they are because they changed together over periods of time.
What message would you send to “future paleontologists”?
Would the last paleontologist on Earth please lock the specimen cabinets.
Where can I go to learn more?
To read more about some of Ted’s interests, explore these:
Ask a Question
To ask Ted a question about fossils, or anything else, just email firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll forward your email. If you don’t hear back right away, please be patient. Remember, he may be off collecting more fossils right now!