Previous Talks

Jess Crumpton-Banks

Image of Jess Crumpton-Banks. Jess is a white woman with fair hair wearing a black jacket and blue scarf. She is standing on a sandy track in the woods and smiling.

University of St Andrews, UK

November 23, 2021

Constraining the role of the Southern Ocean in glacial CO2 drawdown

Atmospheric CO2 has varied in pace with glacial-interglacial cycles over the past 800,000 years, largely due to shifts in carbon partitioning between the deep ocean and the atmosphere. The Southern Ocean is thought to play an important role in these changes, as it is a region of intense upwelling and ventilation of carbon-rich deep waters today; however, the exact mechanism by which it influenced CO2 during glacial periods is unclear. Here I will present reconstructions of pH in the Antarctic Zone of the Southern Ocean over the last glacial cycle which show an increase in sea-surface pH (reduction in CO2) at glacial inception. These data suggest that a shift in regional circulation patterns reduced the ventilation of carbon-rich deep waters, contributing to the transition to a glacial state.

Kimberly Lau

Image is a head-shot of Kimberly Lau. She is smiling at the camera and has shoulder length black hair. Kimberly is wearing a denim shirt.

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Penn State University, USA

November 16, 2021

Tracking Anoxia in Ancient Oceans: Insights from uranium isotopes

The redox state of the oceans strongly influences organic carbon burial, habitability for marine biota, and biogeochemical cycling of nutrients and critical redox-sensitive elements.
There are various methods for reconstructing oxygenation and deoxygenation through Earth history: Of these, inorganic geochemical proxies offer the potential to track redox conditions across a range of temporal and spatial scales. In particular, uranium isotopes ( 238 U/ 235 U) have emerged as a useful tool for reconstructing the redox conditions of the Earth’s oceans. Variations in 238 U/ 235 U, particularly when recorded in carbonate sediments, can track global trends in marine
oxygenation and de-oxygenation. Rapid development continues to refine the accuracy of interpretations of 238 U/ 235 U records. In this talk, I will discuss two case studies: one of how U
isotopes can help eluciate the end-Permian mass extinction and another of how diagenetic modeling can help advance interpretations of these records.

Hagar Hauzer

Image is of Hagar Hauzer on top of the roof of the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research building in Haifa, Israel. Hagar is wearing glasses, a maroon shirt and smiling towards the camera.

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Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel

November 9, 2021

@ 1600 UTC

Development of new foraminiferal proxies for paleochemistry of the oceans

Trace elements are incorporated into the CaCO 3 shells of foraminifera and are widely used as paleo-environmental proxies. These elements are measured as El/Ca ratio in the shell, and are dependent on their respective El/Ca ratios in seawater (and also on temperature, carbonate chemistry etc.). However, seawater Ca concentration (Ca sw ) has
a short resident time (~1 Myr) and its concentration in the ocean varied significantly during the Phanerozoic. Since Na sw has a long residence time (55-260 Myr), foraminiferal Na/Ca can be used as a proxy for past Ca sw concentrations throughout the Cenozoic. To evaluate this working hypothesis, we performed a series of laboratory culture experiments on the large benthic foraminifer Operculina ammonoides, an extant relative of the Eocene Nummulites. Furthermore, the paleo-concentrations of other major and minor elements may then be calculated relative to the Ca in the shells.

Emma Rehn

Image is of Emma Rehn. Emma is seated and counting charcoal by stereomicroscope in the laboratory at James Cook University, Cairns.

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James Cook University, Australia

November 2, 2021

@ 2100 UTC

Burning questions: exploring human-environment interactions in late Holocene savanna fires in northern Australia

How do we find signs of Indigenous cultural burning in palaeofire records, especially in fire-prone
ecosystems like savannas? The answer may be a combination of methods we already have. This
seminar presents a multi-proxy 4600-year palaeofire record from a previously unstudied region of
northern Australia, looking at relative fire intensity paired with other measures to find human

Sajjad Akam

This is a photograph of Sajjad Akam, a dark-skinned man wearing a black jacket, smiling from a boat in
San Francisco Bay.

Iowa State University

October 26, 2021

Carbon-Sulfur Coupling and Temporal Frequencies of Hydrocarbon Seeps in the Gulf of Mexico: Insights
from Authigenic Carbonate Geochemistry

Continental margins of the Gulf of Mexico (GoM) are often characterized by sites with natural seepage of
methane and other hydrocarbons from subsurface reservoirs towards the seafloor. These seepage sites
have a significant impact on the geology and biology of seabed facilitated through complex, microbially
mediated biogeochemical processes. Modern hydrocarbon seepage sites will allow us to examine the
seepage induced biogeochemical signatures imprinted onto the sedimentary record and thereby sedimentary-proxy development to recognize past seep records as well as the broader biogeochemical implication of these geosphere-biosphere interactions.
This talk will present results from investigation on carbon-sulfur (C-S) coupling and temporal frequency of hydrocarbon seeps in the GoM using the stable carbon isotopes (δ 13 C carbonate ), sulfur isotopes (δ 34 S sulfide
minerals ), and radioactive U-Th dates obtained from authigenic carbonate rocks formed at seep sites. Key
results suggested that (i) asphalt seepage has been ongoing for thousands of years in the southern GoM, at
least since 13.5 ka, and (ii) Sulfate-driven anaerobic oxidation of methane and crude oil produces distinguishable δ 13 C DIC and δ 34 S sulfide signatures. The latter observation further enabled developing a novel template based on δ 13 C CaCO3 vs. δ 34 S CRS cross plot to distinguish oil and methane seeps from sediment

Bryan Shirley

This is a photo of Bryan Shirley during field work in Gotland, Sweden. He is a white male with black hair. He is wearing a red scarf, blue waterproof jacket and glasses (not that he normally wears them, he was just trying on a friend’s pair).

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Friedrich Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

October 19, 2021

Big equipment, tiny structures: A multi-analytical approach to unravelling the conodont conundrum.

The increasing ease of access and technological advances of equipment such as scanning electron microscopes (SEM), synchrotron light sources and micro CTs have revolutionised microanalysis in several fields. Techniques like Secondary Electron Microscopy (SE), Energy-Dispersive X-ray Spectroscopy (EDX/EDS) and Electron Backscatter Diffraction (EBSD) are utilised to help decipher physical and chemical properties of fossils on a micro scale. Applying these methods to fossil material can unlock secretes regarding an organism’s function and ecology. Conodonts are microscopic teeth from eel-like vertebrates that are abundant from the Cambrian to Triassic and are constantly utilised in the fields of biostratigraphy and geochemistry, but their ecology remains poorly understood. Here we highlight how the utilisation of a multi-analytical approach can make observations on chemical composition and structure, which have helped address several enigmas revolving around the ecology, function, biomineralisation of these tiny teeth.

Jihad Rachid

Image description: Image is of Jihad Rachid. She is a brown-skinned Moroccan woman with a hijab. She is wearing a lab coat and counting her microfossils (dinoflagellate cysts and pollen) in the laboratory using a microscope.

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Hassan II University of Casablanca, Morocco

October 12, 2021

Tracking climate variability and environment changes of carbonate mounds sediments in the western Mediterranean over the last 14,000 years

The palynology based on dinoflagellate cysts has been widely applied to the upper Pleistocene-Holocene Mediterranean sediments. However, no palynological studies on the sediments associated with the cold-water coral carbonate mounds observed in the western Mediterranean have been undertaken. The analysis of the microfossils (dinoflagellate cysts and pollen) in marine sediments, taken from the Moroccan margin of the Alboran Sea during the MD194 “Gateway” Eurofleets oceanographic expedition in 2013, is the topic of this research. The dinoflagellate cyst assemblages provide a credible record of paleoenvironmental and paleoclimatic development over the interval: Bölling/Alleröd – upper Holocene with a clear dominance over the continental fraction, which despite their low representativity, is proving to be a valuable tool for the paleoclimate interpretation.

Catherine Strickson

Dr. Catherine Strickson grinning at her post-viva celebration.

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Liverpool John Moore’s University, UK

October 5, 2021

A Deep Dive into Dinosaur Heteropody

Why are the forefeet and hindfeet of some quadrupedal dinosaurs such starkly different sizes and shapes? This phenomenon, known as extreme heteropody, is explored in the contexts of centre of mass position, underfoot pressure, trackway preservation, and the unique evolutionary history of these animals from bipedal ancestors to quadrupedal giants. Is there a biomechanical explanation for this phenomenon or do the answers lie elsewhere?

Kate Marriott

Image is of Kate, a fair-skinned blonde woman, standing in front of ammonite paleoart. Kate is wearing a black dress with a black jacket. She is holding in her hand an ammonite that has been knitted.

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Brooklyn College (CUNY)

September 28, 2021

Doing Justice to the Incredible Biodiversity of Ammonites: Mathematical and Visual Perspectives.

In both scientific literature and paleoart, ammonites have been depicted as deceptively uniform for decades, if not longer. Primitive planispirals and outlandish heteromorphs are reconstructed to behave much the same as one another, and worse, very different genera are often labeled with the
indiscriminate moniker “ammonite”. Modern cephalopods have similar hard parts but wildly diverse soft-tissue morphologies, behaviors, and environments—with such variation in shells, paleoenvironments, and buccal remains, why do we treat ammonites as all looking and behaving the
same? Using modern discoveries for soft-tissue anatomy, stable-isotope ratios, and buccal masses of
different types of ammonites, it is possible for paleoartists to extrapolate how specific ammonites may have lived and appeared—as well as just how diverse they truly were. Another new line of defense against the outdated, monochrome view of ammonites is in their sutures, which are strikingly different from each other and certainly evolved from a wide variety of different pressures (though their exact function is still the subject of debate). Sutures can be examined as fractal objects, and a newly discovered tendency of all ammonite sutures occurring in just one portion of them—the lateral lobe and next saddle, or LLS—allows for larger sample sizes, but may also open the door to previously unanswered questions about ontogeny. Finally, we use LLS to once again the ages-old question of whether suture geometry is a reliable indicator of needed taxonomic revision.

Andrew Christ

Glacial geologist Dr. Andrew Christ doing fieldwork in Antarctica

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University of Vermont

September 21, 2021

The Story of Camp Century: the Fossil Ecosystem Under Ice

Understanding the past behavior of the Greenland Ice Sheet is critical for predicting its response to future climate warming and contribution to sea-level rise. Our team has analyzed sediment at the bottom of the Camp Century ice core, collected in northwestern Greenland in the early 1960s. The sediment, frozen under nearly 1.4 km of ice, contains well-preserved fossil plants and leaf waxes from tundra ecosystems that emerged during at least two ice-free warm periods in the past few million years. I will discuss the multiple lines of evidence this sediment contains for the existence and timing of past ice-free events in northwestern Greenland and the implications for past contributions to sea level from the Greenland Ice Sheet.

Bill Lukens

This is a photo of Bill Lukens. Bill is a white man with a short beard standing in front of some trees.

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James Madison University

September 14, 2021

New Insights into Nascent C4-Grass Habitats from the Early Miocene of Eastern Africa

Modern tropical grasslands and savannas are dominated by vegetation that uses the Hatch-Slack (C4) photosynthetic pathway, which has advantages over Calvin Cycle (C3) photosynthesis in a variety of environmental and climatic situations. The proliferation of C4 plants was globally diachronous throughout the Neogene and likely involved unique combinations of biotic and abiotic forcings on regional scales within a backdrop of declining atmospheric CO2. In this talk, new discoveries of early Miocene (17-16 Ma) C4 biomes from eastern Africa will be discussed, with focus on landscape processes and paleoclimate conditions. This work has revealed two surprising findings: 1) early hominoid communities existed across a wide variety of climate and vegetation space, and 2) C4 plants were locally abundant 6-10 million years prior to their late Miocene proliferation on the African continent.

Ryan Mohammed

Picture is of Ryan Mohammed, a dark-skinned man wearing glasses, standing in a vertebrate paleontology collections lab space, holding a fossil, and grinning at the camera.

University of West Indies

September 7, 2021

The biogeography of “breas”: contextualizing the taphonomy, ecology, and diversity of Trinidad’s asphaltic fossil record

Fossiliferous asphaltic sites are rare with the exception of the findings from Rancho La Brea site of California, USA. In the neotropics, such deposits represent opportunities for preservation in otherwise challenging tropical climates. The Caribbean island of Trinidad contains the second largest natural asphalt deposit in the world and has a fragmentary record of brief excavations in the early-mid 1900s which coincided with crude oil exploration. We integrated information from multiple collections databases with archival research and compiled the first comprehensive Pleistocene faunal record for terrestrial Trinidad. Mammalian orders included Cingulata, Pilosa, Proboscidea and Rodentia, with genera that are ecologically consistent with the former savanna connection of Trinidad and Venezuela. Using this information, we infer the Quaternary biogeographic and paleoenvironmental history of Trinidad. Our study contributes both to our understanding of the paleoecology of the Caribbean and northern South America, as well as “tar pits” globally.

Markus Adloff

Picture is a selfie Markus took in a forest. Markus is a white male with a shaved head and stubbly beard. He is smiling into the camera with sunshine on the face. Markus is wearing a blue jumper. In the background is green foliage of the forest.

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University of Birmingham

August 31, 2021

Volcanism, weathering, and the changing carbon cycle – Linking C, Sr, Li, Os and Ca isotope dynamics in an Earth system model

Weathering, erosion and volcanism shape the long-term evolution of climate and biogeochemical cycling at Earth’s surface and changes in these processes thus need to be considered when reconstructing past Earth system states and long-term climatic changes. Yet, they are difficult to reconstruct based on traditional stable isotope systems, and are instead reconstructed using the isotope systems of metals such as strontium (Sr), lithium (Li), osmium (Os) and calcium (Ca). Commonly, isotopic shifts of these four elements in the geologic record are interpreted with isotope-mixing, tracer-specific box models because of their long residence times in the ocean. However, these models often lack mechanistic links between the cycling of the four metals and other geochemically relevant elements, particularly carbon, which complicates the reconstruction of internally-consistent Earth system states. Here, I present our new implementation of Sr, Li, Os and Ca isotope cycling into the Earth system model cGENIE. The model offers the possibility to study these metal systems at equilibrium and under perturbations alongside other biogeochemical cycles and therefore provides a novel tool to understand environmental change in the context of changing geologic processes. Through example simulations I will demonstrate how this new tool can be applied to investigate Sr, Li, Os and Ca isotope dynamics in different Earth system configurations and during environmental change.

Makarius Itambu

Image is a headshot of Makarius Itambu. Makarius is smiling up against a white background and wearing a blue shirt.

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University Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

August 24, 2021

Hominin Plant landscapes at Oldupai Gorge, Tanzania (2-1.1Ma)

Hominin adaptations to changing environments and increasing aridity in East Africa are central to current palaeoanthropological debate, particularly regarding the Oldowan- Acheulian transition. Reconstructions of past vegetation landscapes require a multi-disciplinary approach
that includes paleoethnobotany, archaeology, and geoarchaeology to illustrate long term
environmental trends observed in sedimentary sequences. Olduvai Gorge (Tanzania) contains bedded deposits of recognized value to address questions such as the habitat types that existed during 2.0 Ma, and along palaeo-lake Oldupai during the deposition of upper Bed II (1.5-1.1
Ma). This talk will focus on the key aspects related to hominin plant landscapes during Bed I and Bed II times in relation to available niches that attracted hominin occupations to these localities.

Candela Blanco-Moreno

Candela Blanco Moreno standing in front of the Manzanares river (Madrid, Spain), which is skirted by the typical Spanish anthropogenic riparian vegetation.

Centro para la Integración en Paleobiología, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (CIPb-UAM)

August 17, 2021

Quantitative Paleobotany: keys to the study of the vegetation of the past

The study of plant fossils must deal with a series of problems related to the loss of information during fossil production, transport, and fossilization. Most of the plants found in the fossil record are fragmented, and therefore whole plant reconstructions are complicated. Also, remains that have been transported can induce to error in the interpretation of the original vegetation. When plant organs are abscised, the rest of the plant continues to live, and therefore the calculation of the number of individual plants is problematic if the longevity of their leaves and their seasonal cycle are unknown. Quantitative methods used to analyze fossil ferns from four exceptional Lower Cretaceous localities from Europe have proven to aid in the comprehension of fossil plants and their autecology, giving us a few “brush-strokes” of the landscape of the past.

Tripti Bhattacharya

Image of Tripti Bhattacharya. Tripti is a brown skin woman with dark-hair and is wearing a grey colored shirt. She is standing in front of a globe with arms crossed.

Syracuse University

August 10, 2021

Reorganizations of Pliocene hydroclimate inferred from organic geochemical proxies

Geologic evidence suggests drastic reorganizations of subtropical terrestrial hydroclimate during past warm intervals, including the mid-Piacenzian Warm Period (MP, 3.3 to 3.0 Ma). Despite having a similar to present-day level of atmospheric CO2, existing geologic evidence suggests that the MP featured much wetter conditions on subtropical continents. Here, I present evidence from models and proxies that explore the causes of MP terrestrial hydroclimate. In particular, I present new hydrogen isotopic analysis of leaf waxes that shed light on hydroclimate changes in western North America, where waxes reflect changes in the character and seasonality of past rainfall.  Comparison of these results to a hierarchy of model simulations reveals new perspectives on the potential drivers of subtropical hydroclimate change in the Pliocene.

Deborah Khider

A dark-haired woman smiling for the camera.

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Information Sciences Institute

University of Southern California

August 03, 2021

AI in the paleogeosciences: progress, challenges, and opportunities

“The past is the key to the future.” In a seminal paper from the 1980’s, Bruce Doe recognized the importance of the then emergent field of paleoclimatology to decisions federal agencies would have to make in the face of rising greenhouse gases concentrations. The promise of paleoclimatology is two-folds: (1) to assess the current climate change in the context of climate variations across the decades and centuries, and (2) to validate climate
model outputs. But it wasn’t until recently, with advances in geoinformatics, that paleoclimatology could fully fulfill its promises.
In this talk, I will walk through examples of how advances in artificial intelligence have benefited the paleogeosciences, and in particular paleoclimatology. I will demonstrate how knowledge representation and has helped with the day-to-day work of paleoclimatologists by
broadening access to data and to automated cutting-edge data analytic tools.

Farid Saleh

Farid is drilling a core in the Draa Valley, Zagora Region, Morocco. He is wearing blue jeans, a sweatshirt and sunglasses.

Yunnan University

July 27, 2021

Fossil preservation in the Fezouata Shale with implications in understanding the early stages of the Ordovician Radiation

The Fezouata Shale (Early Ordovician, Morocco) is a unique site that preserved a diverse assemblage of soft parts at the transition between the Cambrian Explosion and the Ordovician Radiation. Herein, classical sedimentological approaches and a large spectrum of microanalyses techniques are applied to investigate the preservation of this assemblage. Fossils from the Fezouata Shale share the same mode of preservation with Cambrian Burgess Shale-type sites defined by carbonaceous compressions and accessory authigenic mineralization. However, the mechanism of preservation (e.g., flow dynamics) is different. Using probabilistic approaches, it is shown that the mechanism for soft part preservation in the Fezouata Shale under-preserved fully cellular taxa such as jellyfishes while preserving equally different modes of life (i.e., endobenthic, epibenthic/nektobenthic, and planktonic/nektonic). This is not observed within the Walcott Quarry (Cambrian, Canada), one of the most famous fossil sites, in which the mechanism for exceptional preservation allowed for the conservation of entirely cellular taxa while underestimating the nekton. Accounting for these preservational biases made it possible to investigate community assembly within the Fezouata Shale and draw conclusions highlighting the complex initial stages of the Ordovician Radiation.

Catherine Davis

Catherine is a white woman with brown hair, wearing a red shirt with sunglasses on her head. She is standing on a muddy bank of the PeeDee River holding a belemnite and smiling.

Yale University

July 20, 2021

Reconstructing paleo-Oxygen Minimum Zones from the shells of low-oxygen tolerant planktic foraminifera

The presence and extent of low-oxygen waters helps regulate global climate and marine nutrient cycles and can define habitats. Observations over the past decades suggest that low-oxygen regions, including mid-depth Oxygen Minimum Zones (OMZ), are expanding in response to our changing climate. However, understanding the long-term trajectory and future of OMZ environments has been limited by fairly sparse reconstructions of their geologic past. Expanding the role of planktic foraminifera as proxies for these pelagic environments has the potential to change this. I will present results from recent work with living and fossil planktic foraminifera to (1) demonstrate the presence of planktic foraminifera in the modern OMZ, and (2) apply findings from modern OMZ-affiliated foraminifera (shell morphology and stable isotope) to the question of vertical positioning of the glacial-Holocene OMZ in the Eastern Equatorial Pacific. The resulting record supports the deglacial expansion of the Eastern Equatorial Pacific OMZ, and a restructuring of mid-water oxygenation and carbon content from the glacial to the Holocene.

Mónica Carvalho

Image of Mónica Carvalho examining Petermannia cirrosa in the Border Ranges National Park, Australia. Mónica is a dark-haired Latina and is wearing a plaid shirt and no glasses.

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Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

July 13, 2021

The end-Cretaceous extinction and the early evolution of Neotropical rainforests

The ecological catastrophe at the end-Cretaceous had devastating effects on terrestrial ecosystems worldwide. Plant fossils indicate varying rates of extinction and recovery from across the globe, nonetheless, biases in the plant fossil record from tropical latitudes have limited our understanding of the long-lasting effects of the end-Cretaceous on tropical forest communities.

In this talk, I will present analyses of >50,000 pollen occurrences and >6000 fossil leaves from localities in Colombia that document plant extinction and recovery of tropical forests resulting from the end-Cretaceous event. Plant diversity declined by 45% at the Cretaceous-Paleocene boundary and did not recover for ~ 6 million years. Pre-extinction rainforests were a mix of ferns, flowering plants and conifers that grew forming open canopies, and sheltered diverse plant-insect interactions. After the extinction, these communities became replaced with Paleocene rainforests that closely resembled modern Neotropical rainforests in plant composition and in having a closed, multistratal canopy structure dominated by flowering plants. These results show that the end-Cretaceous event triggered an anomalously long interval of low plant diversity in the tropics and led to the assembly of today’s most diverse terrestrial ecosystem.

Evan Ramos

Image of Evan Ramos on a hike in the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson, Arizona. He is wearing a gray cap and a gray zipped up fleece.

University of Texas

July 6, 2021

Swift and sustained silicate weathering response in floodplains during the Paleocene-Eocene
Thermal Maximum: Insights from the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming, USA

During the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), rates of silicate weathering are thought to increase and offset the rapid and massive input of CO2 into the atmosphere and ocean.
However, limited quantitative evidence exists of the silicate weathering response on continents to the PETM. Here we show that silicate weathering intensity in the Bighorn Basin, Wyoming (USA) increased
during the PETM and remained high during at least the initial stage of recovery, even as atmospheric pCO2 decreased. Through analyzing the Li isotope composition of overbank sedimentary deposits and
basin-bounding source rocks, we find that soils that formed farthest from ancient river channels are more sensitive to changes in climate than near-channel soils, demonstrating that the secular change is
at least in part controlled by in situ floodplain weathering. The simplest explanation for these changes relates to increased mean annual temperature, pCO2 , and seasonal fluctuations in water table height, all
of which promote mineral dissolution and precipitation reactions. Although the sensitivity to climate from weathering on hillslopes is well accepted, these findings newly demonstrate that weathering in
floodplains also responds to climate change.

Joe Moysuik

Image of Joe Moysuik standing in the foreground with snow-capped mountains in the background. Joe is a fair-skinned man wearing a brown jacket and beige trousers. He is also wearing white gloves and a white helmet.

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University of Toronto/Royal Ontario Museum

June 29, 2021

From Weird Wonders to Spaceships: How New Burgess Shale Discoveries are Illuminating the Origin of Arthropods

Few fossil invertebrates can claim greater public enthusiasm than Anomalocaris. Not only is it alien-looking, but the story of its discovery – being pieced together from fragments thought to belong to different animals – is uniquely compelling. It is becoming increasingly clear, however, that Anomalocaris is not simply a one-off oddball. It belongs to a stem group of arthropods, called radiodonts for their distinctive, radial, toothed mouthparts. I will discuss some of the latest findings from the Burgess Shale and their contributions to our knowledge of these rare and enigmatic animals. New sites discovered by crews from the ROM over the past decade have yielded exceptionally well-preserved remains of radiodonts. These new species are no less bizarre than Anomalocaris itself, sporting frontal claws modified into mandible-like jaws or head carapaces shaped like the Millennium Falcon spaceship. Yet, the insights they provide about distributions, modes of life, development, and evolutionary history are helping to transform the radiodonts from inscrutable “weird wonders” to a model clade for understanding the origin of the arthropod body plan.

Audrey Taylor

Image of Audrey Taylor. She is a fair-skinned woman with blonde hair and wearing sunglasses. She is pictured next to a large succulent in a botanical garden.

University of Notre Dame

June 22, 2021

Atmospheric circulation and precipitation patterns in the eastern Mediterranean during the late Quaternary (Marine Isotope Stages 1–5)

Existing proxy records from the eastern Mediterranean illustrate the region’s sensitivity to polar and tropical influences, with large fluctuations in vegetation documented on glacial-interglacial and millennial timescales. However, evidence for the underlying atmospheric mechanisms that drive precipitation variability, and ultimately changes in vegetation, remains sparse. At the Tenaghi Philippon (TP) peatland in northeastern Greece, the molecular distribution and hydrogen isotopic composition (δD) of sedimentary plant waxes can be used to reconstruct paleohydrology and changes in moisture source, thus providing insight into past atmospheric circulation patterns. In this presentation, I will introduce new, preliminary plant wax records from TP that span from ~7–140 ka and document changes in the westerly storm track associated with long-term and abrupt variability of regional forest cover, sapropel deposition periods, and early human migrations.

Ornella Bertrand

Image is of Ornella Bertrand sitting on an outcrop and behind a white mound preserving a fossil. Ornella is a white woman wearing a dark green shirt with grey field pants. She has a blue bandana and a field hat tied around her neck

University of Edinburgh

June 15, 2021

The impact of environmental changes on the brain evolution of rodents and early placental mammals

Mammalian brain evolution has been studied since the late 1800s. More recently, the use of virtual endocasts has improved substantially our understanding of the behaviour of extinct mammals. Ecological factors and cataclysmic events have been seen as potential triggers for evolutionary change. Past studies have shown that adaptation to a new environment may specifically affect the nervous system. Squirrels and their closest relatives are a great model to test the relationship between locomotor behaviour and brain evolution, while early placental mammals can be used to explore the role of the end-Cretaceous extinction in the emergence of the brain of modern groups. The goal of this talk is to provide an overview of new and exciting findings on how the environment may influence brain evolution in placental mammals.

Chris Lowery

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University of Texas Institute for Geophysics

June 8, 2021

The Mid-Cretaceous Oceanic Anoxic Event 2 on the North American Coastal Plain

The Cretaceous was prone to global carbon cycle perturbations characterized by enhanced organic carbon burial and widespread anoxia in the oceans, called Oceanic Anoxic Events (OAEs). The last major global OAE was the Cenomanian-Turonian OAE2, which occurred roughly 94 Ma. Although this event is well known in the deep sea, records from continental margins are less-well developed. In the modern ocean, the majority of organic carbon burial occurs on continental margins, and so the lack of research in these areas in the Cretaceous represents a critical gap in our knowledge of both the drivers and effects of OAEs. This talk synthesizes recent work on OAE2 on the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains of eastern North America to show the relationship between sea level rise, hydroclimate, and organic carbon burial in these environments. It also summarizes key outstanding questions requiring further investigation.

Tali Babila

Image is of Tali Babila. White skinned women with dark hair. She is wearing a black vest outdoors at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.

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National Oceanographic Centre

University of Southampton

June 1, 2021

Surface ocean warming and acidification driven by rapid carbon release precedes the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) is recognized by a major negative carbon isotope (δ13C) excursion (CIE) signifying an injection of isotopically light carbon into exogenic reservoirs, the mass, source, and tempo of which continues to be debated. Evidence of a transient precursor carbon release(s) is identified in a few localities, although a global signal remains equivocal. Continental shelf sites are advantageous as their relatively high sedimentation rates and limited carbonate dissolution yield expanded marine records, specifically over the CIE onset. I will present foraminiferal δ13C records from a marine continental margin section, which reveal a 1.0­­­­–1.5‰ negative pre-onset excursion (POE), and concomitant rise in sea surface temperature of at least 2°C (Mg/Ca paleothermometry). I used novel laser ablation multi-collector ICPMS to analyze δ11B (boron isotope) on individual benthic foraminifera to document a coupled decline in ocean pH. The recovery of both δ13C and pH before the CIE and absence of a POE in deep-sea records suggest very rapid (< ocean mixing timescales) carbon release, followed by recovery driven by deep-sea mixing. The carbon release during the POE is therefore likely much more similar in mass and rate than the main CIE to ongoing anthropogenic emissions.

Advait Jukar

Advait Jukar holding a pair of calipers and standing in front of a couple of mammoth skulls.

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Yale University

May 25, 2021

Megafaunal Extinctions in South Asia

The megafaunal extinction is one of the one significant, and highly debated biotic crises of the last 100,000 years. Since the days of Darwin and Wallace, naturalists, paleontologists, and ecologists have documented the recent loss of large vertebrates around the world. Extinctions were most severe in the Americas, Australia, and on oceanic Islands, with a number of these land masses losing most vertebrates weighing over 50kg. However, there are exceptions: Africa and Southern Asia still have a diverse assemblage of large vertebrates that include elephants, rhinos, and big cats. Recent studies have documented a relatively limited extinction in parts of Africa, but until now, no one had systematically examined extinction dynamics in the Indian Subcontinent. Increasing evidence suggests that humans played a dominant role on a global scale, with their impacts being more severe in regions where Homo sapiens were the only species of hominin. Indeed, the survival of large vertebrates in Africa has been attributed to the co-evolution of these megafauna with multiple species of humans, but this hypothesis has yet to be tested anywhere outside the continent. India, bring at the crossroads of humans dispersal, with a long history of hominin occupation stretching 1.7 million years at least provides a tantalizing opportunity to study whether the length of human occupation results in low extinction magnitudes. In this presentation, I will briefly talk about the history of megafaunal studies in the Subcontinent, and then present data from research that I have conducted that documents the characteristics of the extinction of large vertebrates over the last 50,000 years.

Nuria Melisa Morales Garcia

Nuria Melisa Morales Garcia in the tomography lab at the University of Bristol visualising finite element analysis results of a jaw of the early mammaliaform Morganucodon

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University of Bristol

May 18, 2021

The feeding ecology of Mesozoic mammals: a biomechanical approach

The origin of mammals and most of their evolutionary history took place during the Mesozoic, so their study is of paramount importance. After teeth, jaws are one of the most common fossils of Mesozoic mammals: can the functional performance of Mesozoic mammal jaws reveal their diets? In this talk, I present the results stemming from my PhD thesis on the relationship between jaw functional performance and diet in small mammals, using a combination of geometric morphometrics and biomechanical techniques, including mechanical advantage and finite element analysis.

Matthias Sinnesael

Image of Matthias Sinnesael. He is fair man with glasses shown smiling taking a selfie in front of a rock outcrop in a canyon.

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Durham University

May 11, 2021

The Cyclostratigraphy Intercomparison Project (CIP) and the website

Cyclostratigraphy is an important concept for understanding astronomical climate forcing and reading geological time in sedimentary sequences, provided that an imprint of insolation variations caused by Earth’s orbital eccentricity, obliquity and/or precession is preserved (Milankovitch forcing). In 2018, the Cyclostratigraphy Intercomparison Project (CIP) assessed the robustness of cyclostratigraphic methods using an experimental design of three artificial cyclostratigraphic case studies with known input parameters. This experiment demonstrated that cyclostratigraphy is a powerful tool for deciphering time in sedimentary successions and, importantly, that it is a trainable skill. The website is the concrete translation of the lessons learned from CIP and its main purpose is to bring together and organize the cyclostratigraphic community. We want to do achieve this by offering high-quality learning materials in cyclostratigraphy, while also providing a platform where scientific results can be announced, and open questions can be discussed.

Shamindri Tennakoon

This is a photograph of Shamindri in the field. The photograph was taken in Carrabelle, Florida. Shamindri is wearing a green shirt, and carrying a bucket. It is a sunny day, and she is smiling. 

PhD Candidate

Florida Museum of Natural History

May 4, 2021

Paleoecological implications of non-lethal marginal traces in clypeasteroid echinoids 

Non-lethal attacks by crustaceans and fish produce marginal traces on sand dollar (Echinoidea: Clypeasteroida) tests in modern environments. Marginal traces with comparable morphology are also observed in fossil specimens. These non-lethal marginal traces may provide quantifiable data on biotic interactions affecting both recent and fossil sand dollars, however, they are underexplored. We characterized non-lethal marginal traces on live-collected sand dollars from the northeastern Gulf of Mexico. The traces were cuspate in shape, healed, and located along the ambitus of the tests, rarely extending into the petals. Marginal traces comparable to the non-lethal traces documented in recent sand dollar specimens were also observed in post-Miocene fossil specimens from Florida reposited at the Invertebrate Paleontology Division at the Florida Museum. The characteristics of modern traces provide a protocol to identify non-lethal marginal traces on fossil sand dollars and help us better understand the evolutionary history of biotic interactions, specifically non-lethal attacks in the echinoid fossil record.

Canfa Wang


China University of Geosciences

April 27, 2021

Image of Canfa Wang. He is wearing a pair of glasses and dressed in a blue shirt. He is standing outside with the Three Gorges Dam and the Yangtze River in the background.

Development and calibration of bacterial 3-hydroxy fatty acid based palaeoclimate proxies

Microbial lipids are sensitive to ambient environmental changes. To date, a number of organic geochemical proxies based on microbial lipids have been developed for palaeoclimate reconstruction. Gram-negative bacteria derived 3-hydroxy fatty acids (3-OH-FAs) have received recent attention for their potential as temperature and pH proxies. However, initial studies from altitudinal transects of contemporary soils – correlating bacterial 3-OH-FA compositions to air temperature and pH – have showed promising results, but also highlight regional differences in calibrations. Moreover, the distribution and performance of 3-OH-FA based proxies in lake and marine sediments remains largely unknown. This is a critical gap in knowledge as lake and marine sediments are the most common archives for palaeoclimate. Here we explore (including the application of machine learning tools) 3-OH-FAs distributions in 186 globally distributed soils to obtain global scale calibrations on temperature and pH proxies. We also investigate the applicability of 3-OH-FA based proxies in lacustrine and marine environments.

Agathe Toumoulin


April 13, 2021

Image of Agathe Toumoulin. She is a white-skinned woman with a pierced nose, dressed in a green glitter-knit jumper. She is giving a lecture to children and has a big smile because one just understood what albedo is.

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Evolution of temperature seasonality from the mid-Eocene to the early Oligocene, a model-data journey

Data and paleoclimate reconstructions allow us to describe better and better late Eocene to early Oligocene climate evolution, and the greenhouse-icehouse transition. However, we have learned mainly about the oceanic realms and terrestrial climate evolution remains poorly resolved. Some studies, mainly on paleobotanical remains, describe a stronger winter cooling through this period. This phenomena would have increased the Mean Annual Range of Temperatures (MATR), and thus result in a temperature seasonality strengthening. But, while it is described in large areas of the Northern Hemisphere, the mechanisms associated with seasonality increase have not been studied in depth.
In this study, we use different late Eocene to early Oligocene paleoclimate simulations (Earth System Model, IPSL-CM5A2) to trace the evolution of temperature seasonality patterns at a global scale and identify the respective contribution of three major forcing: pCO2 lowering, Antarctic ice-sheet formation, and the associated sea-level drop.
We show that the different forcing affect the MATR at zonal to regional scales. pCO2 drop produces large areas of MATR increase at high latitudes through sea-ice formation and albedo feedback. The Antarctic ice-sheet decreases seasonality of a large part of the Southern Hemisphere, but the sea level drop it brings creates multiple MATR increase zones by increasing continentality (coastal area expansion and sea retreat). Together these three forcing allow us to reconstruct seasonality change patterns in good agreement with data and the spatial heterogeneity they describe. The spatial distribution of increasing vs decreasing MATR zones appears partly correlated to that of the Eocene-Oligocene Transition biotic crisis, which calls for more in-depth studies of deep-time climate variability.

Sibusiso Biyela

Science Link

April 6, 2021

Sibusiso Biyela in a standard profile photo stares into the camera wearing a pair of spectacles. The grayscale image depicts him with his large dreadlocks.

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Dinosaurs and Decolonising Science Writing

South Africa has a rich collection of palaeontological finds but very rarely is the science behind it all explained in the almost 10 official indigenous languages in the country. By looking at how the science of dinosaurs is communicated, I investigate the history of colonialism and how science is taught and discussed in South Africa, and how journalists and researchers can use translation of science terms to creatively teach about science concepts that would be otherwise lost in inaccessible language.

Aline Ghilardi

Assistant Professor, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte

March 30, 2021

Photo is of Aline Ghilardi. She in a light skinned woman with brown hair wearing a hat and standing outside in a green mountainous setting.

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Between Bones, Footprints and Social Media

South America contains some of the last uncharted areas on this planet and holds a great deal of scientific potential in natural sciences. In this short talk, I will share with you the privilege of being an early-carrier paleontologist in Brazil and also some of its challenges. I have been for the past 15 years uncovering fossils from north to south in this country. The data I and my research group collected is contributing to the understanding of how local communities of dinosaurs and other organisms reacted to abrupt ecological changes during the breakup of the Gondwana. I will briefly share some of our finds with highlights in paleoichnology and paleohistology. Furthermore, since I strongly defend the Science cycle is never complete without dissemination, I’ll share some of the main strategies I’ve been using to talk with the public about our work and Paleontology in general. Considering Brazil is a country of high social contrasts and not everyone has access to quality education, science communication is an important tool for promoting inclusion.

Flavia Boscolo-Galazzo

Image of Flavia Boscolo-Galazzo. The image is taken at The Royal Society institution in London, Flavia is smiling at the entrance. She is a white skinned (although quite tanned) woman with brown hair wearing a light colored blazer.

Postdoc, University of Bergen

March 23, 2021 1500 UTC

Temperature controls carbon cycling and biological evolution in the ocean twilight zone

The ocean biological carbon pump, the process by which organic matter sinks from the surface to the deep ocean, may be sensitive to global temperature changes. Cooler ocean temperatures should slow respiration and the recycling of organic matter at the surface, increasing the efficiency of the biological pump in delivering organic matter at depth. Very efficient organic matter respiration and recycling at warm temperatures, would instead allow very little organic matter into the deep ocean. Here we test this hypothesis for the global cooling trend encompassing the last 15 m.yr. We use stable isotopes and the reconstructed depth distribution of planktonic foraminifera to investigate biological carbon pump processes at a global selection of sites. Middle Miocene to present-day climate and ocean conditions are simulated using an Earth System Model. Planktonic foraminiferal carbon isotope-depth gradients are compared with simulated carbon isotope profiles obtained using a temperature-dependent parameterization of the biological pump in the model ocean. We show that respiration rates slowed, and the efficiency of the biological pump increased with ocean cooling. In response, the mesopelagic “twilight zone” ecosystem expanded markedly and diversified as food penetrated deeper into the ocean interior.

Heda Agić

Postdoc, University of California Santa Barbara

March 16, 2021

This is a photo of a woman with glasses next to a microscope.

Investigating habitats and affinities of Neoproterozoic eukaryotes with single-fossil carbon isotope analysis

The evolutionary history of eukaryotes (organisms with a complex cell, including animals, plants, fungi) is long and considerably predates the first macroscopic life. The early eukaryotes are preserved in the rock record most commonly as organic-walled microfossils (OWM) and constitute the bulk of the Proterozoic fossil record. Single-celled eukaryotic fossils first appeared ~1650 Ma and diversified into crown-group lineages during the Neoproterozoic (1000-538 Ma), but little is known about their metabolisms, biological affinities, and habitats. It is unclear whether the early eukaryotes were restricted to oxygenated surface waters or refugia, or if they also  inhabited the rest of the water column that was mostly anoxic ferruginous throughout Proterozoic. This information is critical to understand if and how different environmental conditions, e.g. stepwise ocean oxygenation during the Neoproterozoic, impacted eukaryotic evolution.OWM are found in shales deposited in anoxic and ferruginous bottom water, but thus far we couldn’t resolve what part of the water column they inhabited in life. Organic C-isotope analyses of individual microfossils can provide insight into short-term environmental variability and palaeoecology of early eukaryotes. We set out to explore whether different carbon pools influence OWM, with expectation that surface waters will contain heavier δ13C values due to export of light-C via photosynthesis. C-isotopic composition of individual bacterial and eukaryotic OWM was analysed, from shales of the Tonian (<782–729 Ma) Chuar Group in Arizona, USA using nano-EA-IRMS method for analysis of single microfossils. OWM show a wide spread of δ13C values per sample (-35.8 to -12.8‰, average -24‰), presumably incorporating carbon from heterogeneous sources. Mat-builder prokaryotic taxa are consistently depleted and lighter than the bulkrock δ13Corg, consistent with utilization of 13C-depleted carbon at depth, or DIC derived from respired planktonically-produced organic carbon. Some eukaryotic taxa like envelope-bearing Simia and acanthomorph Germinosphaera are enriched (c. -15‰). Simia has the broadest δ13C range in oxic samples, while it is enriched in anoxic ones, indicating it may have lived in surface waters. Other eukaryotes like Chuaria have depleted values, consistent with a benthic mode of life, and polyphyletic leiosphaerids have the broadest range of values per taxon. These results tentatively support habitat heterogeneity in the Chuar Group, and this approach may help us reconstruct early eukaryotic ecosystems.

Ben Otoo

PhD Student, University of Chicago

March 9, 2021

Image is a headshot of Ben Otoo. They are a black person with dark hair and glasses smiling at the camera in front of a painted forest background.

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Whatcheeria and the ecomorphological disparity of early tetrapods

The early tetrapod Whatcheeria is represented by hundreds of specimens from the Mississippian (c.330 MYA) Delta locality (Iowa, USA). While “gratifyingly primitive” and having a consistent phylogenetic position on the tetrapod stem since its description in 1995, there have been a number of outstanding questions about its anatomy and especially its relationships. A variety of taxa and fossils from both the Devonian and Carboniferous have been termed ‘whatcheeriid’, but most of these assessments have not been based on comparison with Whatcheeria itself. There have also been hypotheses as to whether the whatcheeriids are a clade or just a grade of primitive Carboniferous or Devonian-Carboniferous tetrapods.

The large amount of Whatcheeria material permits a redescription the postcranial anatomy in detail and produce the first full-body reconstruction. Whatcheeria has robust limbs and girdles; in particular the humerus has large muscle attachments, implying a powerful retraction stroke. The structure of the forelimb and hindlimb suggest that they would have been well-suited to supporting the body, and in overall body proportions Whatcheeria resembles walking, terrestrially-adapted crown tetrapods from the Permian such as dissorophoids and diadectids. However, Whatcheeria retains a prominent lateral line system on the skull, and the wrist and ankles are primarily cartilaginous- indicators that it probably spent much of its time in the water. We interpret Whatcheeria as an underwater walking animal and propose that this locomotor mode was an important part of early tetrapod evolutionary ecology. This new data also allows for a revised diagnosis for a monophyletic Whatcheeriidae, and the exclusion of nearly all referred material. However, emerging phylogenetic results suggest that whatcheeriids may in fact have a Devonian origin.

Samantha Carter

Postdoc, Ohio State

March 2, 2021

Image of Samantha Carter. She is a white-skinned woman with brown hair wearing a blue sweater. She is sitting in front of an electrical board of a mass spectrometer. 

Barite and the marine barium cycle – from proxy records to models  

The marine barium (Ba) cycle has been linked to the carbon cycle, and Ba-based proxies have been used in many studies to investigate carbon cycle dynamics. Barite (BaSO4) is a mineral that is a minor component of marine sediments and is used as a proxy for export production. A record of barite accumulation over the middle Miocene climate transition (~13.8 Ma) shows large variations in the carbon cycle with elevated export production that coincides with expansion of the Antarctic ice sheet and a carbon isotope excursion. Interpretations of Ba proxies can be complicated due to our limited knowledge of the processes that control marine Ba distribution. The marine Ba cycle has been modeled only as a simple two-box model. While box model approaches have provided valuable insight into some of the large-scale controls on the Ba cycle, they are not able to capture the spatial variability that is observed in the ocean Ba distribution. The Hamburg Oceanic Carbon Cycle Model Version 2.0 (HAMOCC 2.0) is expanded to include the marine Ba cycle. An initial control run shows general agreement between the modeled Ba distribution and that of the observed data. However, there are distinct differences in average Ba concentrations as well as distributions along equatorial belts and in the Arctic Ocean. Model optimization is ongoing, which will work to minimize differences between modeled and observed data. 

Judi Sclafani


February 23, 2021

Image is a headshot of Judi Sclafani. She is a white woman with dark hair, wearing glasses and a baseball cap and standing in front of a rock outcrop.

The evolution of ecological diversity: insights from strophomenide brachiopods

How do ecological traits evolve within clades and in what ways do trait differences explain how species coexist in ecosystems? Answering this question is central to explaining how biodiversity has accumulated over time and how we can conserve it in the future. In this talk, I will present results from my dissertation in which I examined changes in phylogenetic, morphological, and ecological diversity in the aftermath of the Late Ordovician mass extinction event. I will also discuss the perplexing questions that remain about brachiopods, how to begin addressing these questions, and the possible implications for paleoecological theory. 

Weimu Xu

Assistant Professor, University College Dublin

February 16, 2021

Image of Weimu Xu. She is a woman with black hair dressed in a pink jumper. She is standing in front of a spherical sculpture outside.

Carbon release & sequestration: Extreme global climatic change events in Earth history – lessons for future climate mitigation

Earth system processes and feedback mechanisms regulate the release and sequestration of carbon, and therefore changes in the global carbon cycle throughout earth history. Past global change events are marked by major perturbations to the global carbon cycle. In this talk, I will explore processes that control carbon sequestration during the Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (at ~183Ma), one of the largest global change events of the Phanerozoic. I will discuss how we can exploit this understanding to mitigate future climate change through plant-mediated silicate weathering based on controlled growth chamber experiments.

Hazel Richards

PhD Student, Monash University

February 9 2021 21:00 UTC

Image of Hazel Richards. She is a white-skinned woman with brown hair dressed in a black jumper. She is standing in an old museum collection store holding a large fossil mammal bone.

Peculiar Palorchestes: Exploring forelimb form and function in a lost Australian giant

Reconstructing the palaeobiology of extinct taxa is challenging, especially when they have no living representatives and their anatomy differs greatly from animals alive today. The Palorchestidae were a rare and especially bizarre group of Australian marsupial megafauna known from the Oligocene through to their disappearance in the late Pleistocene. Reaching sizes over 1000 kilograms, these distant cousins of the wombat are best known for their ‘tapir-like’ skulls and supposed flexible trunk. With huge narrow claws and robust, oddly-proportioned forelimbs bearing near-flat humeroulnar articulations, how palorchestids used their limbs during life and the palaeoecological niche they occupied has been subject to much speculation.
In this talk I will share the latest findings from my PhD, using recently-described fossils and comparative biomechanics to explore the functional limits of the palorchestid forelimb in the context of other marsupials and potential analogues among living and extinct mammals. The apparent specialisation and functional trade-offs made by Palorchestes may underpin their ultimate demise, and highlight the extent of the marsupial ecomorphological diversity that was lost during the late Quaternary extinctions in Australia. 

Anne-Claire Fabre

Postdoc, Universität Zürich

February 2, 2021

Anne-Claire Fabre is a white women with light hair holding a peanut to attract a beautiful and fluffy aye-aye (named Merlin) which is standing at the top of her shoulder. Photo credit: David Haring

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How in vivo data on extant species can shed light on the paleoecology of extinct species?

The reconstruction of the palaeobiology (ecology, behaviour and lifestyle) of an extinct species is a difficult exercise. Palaeobiological reconstructions assume that the morphology of a species reflects its ecological adaptation(s). Thus, to understand the adaptive nature of the morphology of the skeleton it is essential to study the relationships between bones and muscles in living species and their relation to ecology, locomotion, or behaviour while taking into account potential effects of shared ancestry. In this presentation, I show how  in vivo data on extant species can shed light on the paleoecology of extinct species using two examples:1) the study of forelimb shape in relation to locomotor performance and grasping behaviour; 2) the study of the cranium and mandible shape in relation to bite force in order to make integrative inferences on feeding behavior in extinct species of strepsirrhine primates.

Alyssa Atwood

Assistant Professor, Florida State University

January 26, 2021

Image is a head shot of Alyssa Atwood. She is a light skinned woman with brown hair, positioned against a background of green foliage.

Data-Model Comparisons of Tropical Climate Change During the Common Era

The large-scale circulation of the tropical atmosphere is an essential component of the global climate system, regulating the transport of energy and moisture on regional to hemispheric scales. Billions of people around the globe depend on the seasonal and year-to-year variations in tropical rainfall that are driven by different components of this circulation, including the meridional Hadley circulation and the zonal Walker and monsoonal circulations. Importantly, it is highly uncertain how the tropical atmosphere and associated rainfall patterns will respond to continued anthropogenic warming trends, in part due to persistent biases in the representation of the tropical climate in state-of-the-art climate models. Paleoclimate records are an important tool with which to test the efficacy of such climate models, and in particular, the last 2,000 years (known as the Common Era) has been a major reconstruction target over the last decade due the relative abundance of data and the similarity of the Earth’s boundary conditions to our present climate. Paleoclimate reconstructions of the Common Era generally indicate a long-term cooling trend over the last millennium that was accompanied by widespread changes in tropical rainfall patterns. In this talk, I will review the evidence for these changes based on a compilation of ~70 paleo-hydroclimate records and compare the regional patterns in the reconstructions to those simulated by transient model simulations of the last millennium. While a number of robust regionally coherent patterns emerge from the proxy records, the model simulations exhibit weak forced long-term tropical rainfall changes that poorly agree with reconstructions, suggesting that either the tropical hydroclimate changes were unforced, or the models are unable to capture the forcings, feedbacks, or long-term hydroclimate responses over the last millennium. I will discuss the potential sources of the discrepancies and recommend future steps to better illuminate the mechanisms of the tropical hydroclimate changes over the last millennium.

Karma Nanglu

Postdoc, Smithsonian NMNH

January 19, 2021

Image is of Karma Nanglu. He is standing next to a rock wall in the mountains, wearing gray pants, a blue shirt, a helmet and backpack.

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Worms from the rocks: Burgess Shale fossils shed light on old mysteries

The Cambrian Explosion, marking the rapid first appearance of most major animal groups in the fossil record, is one of the most important biological events to have ever occurred. There is no better place to get a window into this over half-a-billion-year-old event than the Burgess Shale, a fossil site in the Canadian Rockies that has provided unique insights into the origins of animal life for over 100 years. One notable exception to this rule has been the early evolution of the marine worms known as hemichordates, which have historically had a poor fossil record. In this talk, I’ll guide you through a series of recent studies using Burgess Shale fossils that shine a light on hemichordate origins, one of the most mysterious parts of the animal tree of life. These exceptional fossils reveal unanticipated combinations of morphological and ecological characteristics early in the history of this animal group, including surprising combinations of those found in their modern relatives.

Nussaibah Raja

PhD Student, Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg

December 8, 2020

Image is of Nussaïbah Raja. A brown woman with glasses, wearing a white tshirt with stripes. She is standing outside, in front of some trees.

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The dirty truth: scientific colonialism in palaeontology

Analyses of past global biodiversity are severely hindered by sampling biases and gaps in the fossil record, previously been attributed to several geological and biological factors. However, global compilations of fossil occurrences not only reflect the physical aspects of the fossil record, but also document the historical compilation of this data over more than two centuries. This shows who has influence on the fossil data collection, access and availability by determining who has access to specimens and the ability to do research.

Natalie Umling

Postdoc, American Museum of Natural History

December 1, 2020

Image is of Natalie Umling. She is a white-skinned woman with brown hair pictures smiling in front of a landscape..

All the single forams: should we put a ring on area density?

Paleo-proxies of past atmospheric CO2 have demonstrated that continued unabated anthropogenic emissions could result in CO2 levels not documented since the Eocene period, 55 million years ago (Foster et al., 2017). However, many atmospheric CO2 paleo-proxies have large errors or are temporally and spatially limited. The area density proxy of foraminiferal shell thickness and calcification intensity has the potential to provide information about past ocean-atmosphere CO2 exchange and has the benefit of small sample requirements, simple analytical techniques, and the ability to re-use the analyzed foraminifera for other paleo-proxies. Some initial evaluation of this proxy has been done using ‘pristine’ foraminifera from sediment traps and plankton tows (Marshall et al., 2013; Osborne et al., 2016; Weinkauf et al., 2016) and through evaluation of cultured foraminifera (Davis et al., 2017; Henehan et al., 2017). Because foraminifera preserved in marine sediments can rarely be considered ‘pristine,’ we have to account for the additional influences associated with marine sediment burial and diagenesis before this proxy can be applied back in time. Using a series of multi-core core-tops collected from the southeastern Indian Ocean, we evaluate the reliability of utilizing sediment core Globigerina bulloides area density values to estimate surface ocean carbonate parameters. We find that confining area density measurements to a narrow range of values can account for influences related to cryptic speciation and shell preservation, up to a maximum area density value at which diagenesis begins to overprint the surface ocean signature. We investigate the relationship of surface ocean temperatures, carbonate ion concentrations, and phosphate concentrations with our newly defined G. bulloides area density ranges. Our developed calibrations indicate a relative insensitivity of G. bulloides area density to seawater properties, limiting their utility for reconstructing past surface ocean carbonate ion variability. Nevertheless, reconstructing the distribution of area density values in a given sample has the potential to provide valuable information on overall sample preservation as a shift in the distribution of the sample population from more well-preserved, lower area density shells to more poorly preserved, higher area density shells.

Emma Karoune


November 24, 2020

Image is of Emma Karoune on her recent plant and soil sampling project in British saltmarshes.

Open Science Practices in Phytolith Research and Beyond

Open science is becoming an integral part of all scientific research but the extent of these practices in many fields is unknown, including phytolith research. I will present the findings of my recent project concerning the assessment of open science practices in phytolith research. My research assessed data and metadata sharing, and open access, in a sample of journal articles containing primary phytolith data from 16 prominent archaeological and palaeoecological journals (341 articles). It builds on similar studies conducted for archaeological science (Marwick & Pilaar Birch 2018) and macro-botanical remains (Lodwick 2019). I collected data concerning data format, reusability of data, inclusion of phytolith morphotype pictures for identification purposes and a fully described method, use of the International code for phytolith nomenclature (ICPN) and whether the articles were open access. I will suggest steps forward to use as a starting point for discussions in the wider phytolith and academic communities to develop guidelines for greater integration of open science practices and discuss how a move to a more holistic open approach will produce a more sustainable future for our research.

Kaustubh Thirumalai

Assistant Professor, University of Arizona

November 17, 2020

Image is a headshot Kaustubh Thirumalai. He is a brown-skinned man with dark hair, a mustache, and glasses standing in front of greenery.

Methane, Monsoons, and Modulation of Millennial-scale Variability

Earth’s orbital geometry exerts a profound influence on climate by regulating changes in incoming solar radiation. Superimposed on orbitally paced climate change, Pleistocene records reveal substantial millennial-scale variability characterized by abrupt changes and rapid swings. However, the extent to which orbital forcing modulates the amplitude and timing of these millennial variations is unclear. Here we isolate the magnitude of millennial-scale variability (MMV) in two well-dated records, both linked to precession cycles (19,000- and 23,000-year periodicity): composite Chinese speleothem δ¹⁸O, commonly interpreted as a proxy for Asian monsoon intensity, and atmospheric methane. At the millennial timescale (1,000–10,000 years), we find a fundamental decoupling wherein precession directly modulates the MMV of methane but not that of speleothem δ¹⁸O, which is shown to be strikingly similar to the MMV of Antarctic ice core δ²H. One explanation is that the MMV of methane responds to changes in midlatitude to high-latitude insolation, whereas speleothem δ¹⁸O is modulated by internal climate feedbacks.

Thomas Clements

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, University of Birmingham

November 10, 2020

Image of Thomas Clements. A white man with dark blonde hair, sitting while dissecting a seabass carcass. Laboratory equipment is in the background, while two fresh seabass carcasses lie in the foreground.

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All fossils are rotten: understanding decay is key to understanding exceptionally preserved fossils

The fossil record is our only ‘window’ into the evolution of animals and plants throughout geological history. Unfortunately, this window is murky, because nature favours obliteration of organic material – predominately through decay – which acts to remove information from the fossil record. Of course, organics do preserve, and these are usually tissues that have a high preservation potential (are more decay-resistant) such as biomineralised tissues (bones, teeth, shells etc.) which explains their dominance in the fossil record. There are, however, processes in certain depositional environments that allow an organism’s soft-tissues to enter the inorganic lithosphere. These soft-tissue fossils are important as they allow more accurate reconstructions of ancient ecosystems and because they retain vital anatomical information which can be used to investigate animal evolution, especially during pivotal periods of Earth’s history, like the Cambrian Explosion. The science of taphonomy seeks to understand the processes that control preservation of organics, from the immediate moments after death and subsequent burial (biostratinomy), mineralisation, diageneses, and geological processes. My talk will introduce experimental taphonomy and will showcase my work trying to understand three tiers of taphonomic bias: 1) preservational potential of different tissue types within an organism, 2) varying preservational potential of related organisms and 3) the impact of paleogeography on soft-tissue preservation.

Esther Githumbi

Postdoc, Lund University

November 3, 2020

Image is of Esther Githumbi. She is a brown-skinned woman dressed in a gray shirt, jeans, and rubber boots. She is outside and standing next to an uprooted tree

Quantitative pollen-based vegetation reconstructions

Understanding land use and land cover (LULC) change through time is an important aspect when attempting to interpret human-environment interactions through time. Palaeoenvironmental techniques have been crucial in bridging this gap by providing information that has been used to estimate climate change, vegetation change, sea level change etc. through time using a variety of proxies. Producing quantitative land-cover reconstructions has been an aim and a challenge with several methods attempted during the decades. In LandClimII (Land and Climate interactions in Europe during the Holocene project, we use the REVEALS model, which has been tested and validated, in several regions of the world. REVEALS is a Landscape Reconstruction Algorithm model that estimates vegetation abundance/plant cover at the regional scale (100 km x 100 km). The LRA is the most widely tested, validated, and applied pollen-based quantitative reconstruction approach to date.

Jamie McFarlin

Postdoctoral Associate/INSTAAR Affiliate, University of Colorado Boulder

October 27, 2020

Image is of Jamie McFarlin. She is a white-skinned woman with brown hair wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt. She is outside and standing in front of tree.

Recent advances in using the hydrogen and oxygen isotopes of biomarkers in Arctic lake sediments to reconstruct precipitation isotopes  

Global climate models project that over the coming century precipitation patterns will change as temperatures rise. Environmental and social structures are sensitive to regional changes in the hydrologic cycle and more extreme expressions of precipitation (e.g. droughts, flooding) will have far reaching consequences. Predicting local-to-regional scale changes is thus important for helping communities prepare for and navigate a new normal. Geologic records of past climate provide insight into how the climate system responded during periods warmer-than-present. However, precipitation remains a difficult climate variable to reconstruct. The goals of this talk are to provide a broad overview of recent advances in using the hydrogen (H) isotopes of sedimentary plant waxes to reconstruct precipitation isotopes, which relate to moisture pathways and local climate conditions, and highlight where new tools like coupled oxygen (O) and H isotope records or new H isotope proxies show strong promise. In particular, I’ll focus on my work using H isotopes of leaf wax biomarkers to reconstruct precipitation isotopes at multiple sites on Greenland for the last 10,000 years, compare sedimentary wax H isotope data to the oxygen (O) isotopic composition of aquatic insects from the same records, and highlight recent discoveries regarding the strengths and weaknesses of wax biomarkers in this pursuit. Additionally, I’ll introduce ongoing work to relate the H isotopic composition of n-alkyl chains derived from brGDGTs to that of soil and lake water isotopes in Arctic Canada. 

Sarah Shelley

Postdoc, Carnegie Museum

October 20, 2020

Image of Sarah Shelley. She is a white woman with fair hair standing in front of a socially-distanced moose taxidermy in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History mammal collections.

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The Rise of Mammals after the End-Cretaceous Mass Extinction 

Living mammals exhibit vast morphological and ecological diversity from the tiny two-gram bumblebee bat capable of powered flight to the fully aquatic deep-diving blue whale, the largest animal known to have ever existed. The foundations of mammal diversity were established in the Mesozoic, but it was not until after the end-Cretaceous mass extinction and the demise of the non-avian dinosaurs that mammals began to increase in body size, diversify into many new species and establish the extant lineages we recognise today. Despite a global presence, fundamental questions regarding the evolutionary relationships and divergence dates of placental mammals remain largely unresolved. This is thought to be, in part, due to our relatively poor knowledge regarding the palaeobiology and phylogeny of the Paleocene mammals, those species that diversified immediately after the extinction, and which are often perceived as ‘archaic’ precursors to the extant lineages.  

This talk focuses on some of the broader goals of my on-going research into Paleocene mammal palaeobiology and phylogeny and will discuss the findings of a recent project investigating the locomotor ecology of Paleocene mammals. Results from this study show that Paleocene mammals were far from ‘archaic’ precursors, instead they were products of a post-extinction adaptive radiation that combined a basic placental mammal bauplan with inimitable anatomical specialisations not easily comparable to extant mammals, exemplifying their evolution following a catastrophic mass extinction event. 

Aviwe Matiwane

PhD, Rhodes University

October 13, 2020

Image of Aviwe Matiwane. A Black woman with braids, standing upright with her arms crossed, wearing a beige top with white trimmings at the bottom and standing alongside a white wall with two framed painting hanging on it.

A New Approach to Glossopteris Leaf Taxonomy Embracing Morphometric Analyses

Glossopteris leaves are one of the most common and easily recognised Permian fossils across Gondwana, but they are morphologically conservative and taxonomic approaches to species differentiation have been varied, relying on visual estimations of relatively plastic characteristics such as shape, length etc. Species identification in the past has therefore proven to be subjective, inconsistent and extremely challenging.

To address these taxonomic challenges, we have produced the first morphometric study using Glossopteris leaves from two localities in the Karoo Basin of South Africa: a new site on the Ouberg Pass (Northern Cape Province) and Kwa-Yaya (KwaZulu-Natal Province). The Ouberg Pass lies in the southern Karoo Basin, in a region rich in fossils of terrestrial vertebrates of the Tapinocephalus Assemblage Zone. A detailed biostratigraphic framework, together with multiple ash dates in the immediate area, provided excellent context for this study of a well-preserved, middle Permian parautochthonous flora. The Kwa-Yaya locality, in the late Permian Emakwezini Formation of the Lebombo Basin in the eastern Karoo Basin, has yielded a superbly preserved and diverse, parautochthonous flora.  For this study, 43 qualitative leaf features were measured and analysed to identify morphological characteristics that could produce well defined specimen clusters. The morphometric analysis included: leaf length, width, vein angles (proximal, medial, and marginal), mesh areas and width, and leaf area among other features. Fifteen qualitative features were also considered.  Our results suggest that the use of the medial portion of the leaf produced the most discrete clusters; and that a combination of features (vein angles, mesh width, mesh area, and leaf area) provided the most reasonable grounds for morphologically defined taxonomic discrimination of species. This work has been used for the development of a standardized leaf characterization template that we hope will facilitate more reliable and consistent typification of glossopterid leaves in South Africa and other regions of Gondwana.

Allison Karp

Postdoc, Yale University

October 6, 2020

Image of Allison Karp. She is white woman with light hair wearing sunglasses and a blue shirt, and is holding a butterfly on a grassy mountainside. 

Burning Questions: The role of fire ecology in the Neogene expansion of C4 grasslands

Fire is crucial to maintaining modern subtropical grasslands, yet our empirical support for the origins and evolution of this association is limited by a dearth of co­eval records of both grass and fire proxies in pre-Quaternary sediments. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a suite of molecules that can derive both from the burning of terrestrial vegetation and from thermal maturation of organic matter. I developed an approach to quantitatively source these molecules to enable reconstructions of Neogene fire occurrence. Here, I test hypothesis that fire-feedbacks facilitated the rise of C4 vegetation in the Mio-Pliocene using Pyrogenic PAH abundance patterns alongside records of δ13C of leaf waxes on two continents. Fire-derived PAH relative abundances jumped an order of magnitude in association with a rise in grass inputs recorded at the landscape (Pakistan) and continental scale (Bengal Fan) in South Asia, but not in Australia. These results support fire disturbance as a critical mechanism of terrestrial biome transitions, but emphasize the need to reconstruct fire explicitly alongside other climate and ecological variables, as fire-feedbacks can differ drastically between continents.

Jorge Cardich

Asst. Professor, Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia

September 29, 2020

Image of Jorge Cardich. He is a brown-skinned man with dark hair standing in front of a glass pyramid with crossed arms. 

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(Paleo)Ecology of benthic foraminifera in anoxic sediments: the reconstruction of the OMZ off Peru in the last millenium

Benthic foraminifera are testate protists that thrive in several extreme environments, such as sediments of oxygen minimum zones (OMZ). The natural variability of OMZs is shaped by climate and ocean dynamics, but anthropogenic forcing increases the oxygen deficiency near the coast. In Peru, the OMZ is shallow and intense and has suffered changes in the past. How is it responding in recent centuries? Is it expanding with global warming? Here I show how ‘forams’ reflect the changing environmental conditions of OMZ off Peru in the last millenium through their ecological features.

Gabi Serrato Marks


September 22, 2020

Gabi, a white woman with blonde hair, smiles in front of a blurred background.

New speleothem-derived insights into northern Mexican paleoclimate during the first millennium of the Common Era

There were major population centers in northern Mexico, including the city of Teotihuacan, that experienced dramatic shifts during the first millennium of the Common Era (CE), but we lack precisely dated and high resolution paleoclimate records to investigate the climate events under which these civilizations survived or collapsed. I will present a precisely dated speleothem from San Luis Potosí, Mexico (289 ± 13 to 976  ± 29 CE) as a new record of hydroclimatic change. We used stable isotopes and trace metal to calcium ratios to identify several shifts toward drier conditions, indicating the presence of multidecadal droughts. 

Aaron Martinez

Postdoc, Rutgers University

September 15, 2020

Image is of Aaron Martinez. He is a dude with brown eyes and hair obsessed with orange flannels. Shown here in the desert.

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Intermixed Messages: geochemical and paleontological records of the end-Devonian Hangenberg Crisis in the Appalachian Basin, USA

The end-Devonian Hangenberg Crisis constituted one of the greatest ecological and environmental perturbations of the Paleozoic Era. While this biocrisis is considered a global event, its cause and overarching effects remain uncertain, especially within the Appalachian Basin of the United States. We integrate geochemical and paleontological records to characterize the onset and paleoenvironmental transitions associated with the Hangenberg Crisis within the Cleveland Shale member of the Ohio Shale. Organic geochemical proxies such as lipid biomarker analysis and stable isotopes allow us to probe the dynamics of the microbial communities that drove Devonian biogeochemical cycles before, during, and after the extinction event. Results indicate that much of the end-Devonian water column was euxinic (anoxic with free hydrogen sulfide). Regardless of this ubiquitous euxinic signal, there is an overprinted record of bioturbation, or the traces of past burrowing organisms, which suggests that the seafloor was not continuously devoid of life. Despite highly variable water column and sedimentary redox conditions, as well as the extinction known to be occurring in macrofaunal clades, lipid biomarker evidence shows that there is little to no change in the microbial communities that drive the base of the food chain at any point during this biotic crisis.

Emanuela di Martino

Postdoc, University of Oslo

September 8, 2020

Image is of Emanuela Di Martino. She is a white Italian woman with brown hair. She is taking scanning electron microscopy images of bryozoans at NHM London.

A walk through the fascinating world of BRYOZOANS: what can they tell us about the past?

In my research, I use fossil bryozoans as a model system to answer paleobiological and macroevolutionary questions.

Bryozoans are a phylum of invertebrate, aquatic, colonial animals which made their first appearance in the Ordovician and are still successfully colonizing the oceans today.

Although bryozoans were the subject of Charles Darwin’s first scientific paper, at that time they were classified as zoophytes because of their puzzling attributes seemingly somewhere between animals and plants. Even today they are very little known among non-specialists.

Nonetheless, calcified bryozoans provide an optimal model system in studies of biodiversity, paleoecology and evolution for several reasons. They are major components of the marine benthos in both modern and ancient oceans. They are distributed globally in a wide range of habitats and at all depths. They have diagenetically resistant and typically well-preserved skeletons. Their skeletal complexity provides a wealth of characters for a rigorous species-level taxonomy. Furthermore, their skeletal morphology directly reflects life history variation and ecological function, a rarity in the fossil record.

In this talk, I will show examples of what bryozoans can tell us about the past. These include studies from my previous and current research projects in:

i) Biodiversity: I used extensive paleontological collections of Caribbean and Indonesian bryozoans to address the timing of the divergence in species richness between the two regions and to evaluate the relative contributions of differential rates of origination and extinction to the diversity patterns we observe today.

ii) Paleoecology: As the majority of bryozoans live as encrusters of hard substrates such as rocks and shells, substrate availability is a prime factor controlling their distribution, often leading to competition for space among colonies or other organisms. These competitive interactions entail skeletal overgrowths which can be preserved in the fossil record, offering one of the few systems in which to study directly competition and its consequences in the geological past.

iii) Macroevolution: Capitalizing on the polymorphic nature of bryozoans and the separation between feeding and reproductive individuals within colonies, we can tackle the outstanding problem of using the fossil record to estimate trait-fitness associations for phenotypic traits, and ask if such associations are consistent with macroevolutionary patterns of the same phenotypes.

Matthew Jones

PhD Student, University of Kansas

September 1, 2020

Image is of Mathew Jones. He is a brown skinned man with dark hair wearing a grey button-down shirt.

Out of the dark: The mysterious origins and rapid diversification of bats

Bats are the second most species-rich group of living mammals, with over 1400 species currently known. The earliest fossil bats date to ~55 Ma, and new species of Eocene bats continue to be named from localities around the world. Despite their living and fossil diversity, the evolutionary origins and biogeographic history of bats remain effectively unknown. Fossil bats appear nearly simultaneously on continents as distant as Australia and Europe, and no transitional bat fossils are currently recognized. Because the fossil record of bats is acknowledged to be poor compared to that of other mammals, creative methods must be employed to understand the origins and biogeography of the order. I present ongoing work describing some of the earliest known bat fossils, with implications for understanding the paleoecology and region of origin of Eocene bats. I also discuss challenges and approaches for understanding the potential outgroups of bats in the Paleocene.

Charuta Kulkarni

Postdoc, The Open University

August 25, 2020

Image is of Charuta Kulkarni. She is a brown skinned woman with brown hair. She is shown kneeling in the sand near some tall grasses.

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EARNEST: Examining the Agroforestry Landscape Resilience in INdia to inform Social-Ecological Sustainability in the Tropics

The effective management of human-dominated tropical forest landscapes is crucial in the wake of global climate change affecting biodiversity, ecosystem functions, and the livelihoods of billions. Among varied land management practices in the tropics, agroforestry remains one of the most promising, promoting deliberate maintenance of trees on farmlands, facilitating avenues for mitigating climate change and enhancing ecosystem functions. Considering these merits, the Indian Government launched the National Agroforestry Policy (NAP) in 2014, world’s first, nationwide policy with a core idea of increasing the agroforestry area concurrent with the expansion of national forest cover. As one of world’s most populous countries and its fastest growing economies, moving towards “Green India” would be a serious game-changer for this tropical country with positive global environmental implications. The effective implementation of this economically valuable policy falls on the shoulders of Indian Forest Departments (IFDs), who uphold a strict policy of preventing fires in and around forests. Fire is an integral part of forest ecosystem functioning and its strict prevention-suppression could be detrimental to biodiversity. While this scientific evidence emerged from palaeoecology has led to comprehensive fire management and conservation plans in some parts of the world, there is currently a shortfall of evidence-based policymaking in human-dominated tropical landscapes. The disagreement in fire practices in India often instigate serious conflicts between IFDs and local communities that traditionally use fires, hampering implementation and the desired impact of the NAP. In this context, harnessing fossil pollen-based diversity indices (e.g., pollen richness and evenness, and temporal β-diversity), past fire management, the intervals of increased aridity, and land use history, EARNEST examines the synergistic impacts of anthropogenic fires and aridity on local plant diversity in the rainforests of Western Ghats of India, one of world’s biodiversity hotspots supporting the highest population density. By developing a historical perspective, EARNEST deepens fundamental knowledge of tropical agroforestry landscapes and tackles a crucial aspect of the effectiveness of fires in managing these landscapes. It actively resources new knowledge towards designing efficient biodiversity conservation and fire management strategies in the Western Ghats and wet tropics at large. The key message from EARNEST is that for the success of environmental management in any tropical region, it is important to recognise that people are part of the landscape. Fire management and conservation frameworks in the face of future monsoon variability can only be effective if they are planned in tandem with careful incorporation of evidence-based traditional land management approaches.

Project “EARNEST” has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the grant agreement no. 795557.

Caitlyn Witkowski

Postdoc, University of Bristol
August 18, 2020

Image is of Catlyn Witowski. She is a white skinned woman with dark hair. She is wearing a lab coat and gloves and doing laboratory chemical work.

Extending CO2 estimates in the geologic record using a chlorophyll-based CO2 proxy

As the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide (pCO2) continues to rise along with the increasing demands from our growing population, we need to understand the precise relationship between pCO2 and climate (aka climate sensitivity) to brace for the future. Over the past one million years, pCO2 has shown a striking relationship with temperature, as recorded in air bubbles trapped in ice cores. However, beyond the one-million-year ice core record, we must rely on proxies to reconstruct pCO2, i.e. physically preserved material which reflect an environmental parameter. Developing and calibrating proxies remains a challenge, with different proxies suggesting different values throughout time. To provide geologic context for climate sensitivity, we need to better constrain proxy uncertainty.

Here, we apply this proxy over the mid-Miocene Climatic Optimum (16.9 to 14.7 Ma) for several reasons: 1. It may be an analogue for the near future, 2. It seems to behave differently than other climates in time, and 3. It has highly varied pCO2 estimates during this time. We use a refreshed approach to reconstruct pCO2 from the stable carbon isotopic fractionation that occurs during photosynthesis. Possibly providing a more universal pCO2 proxy (both in time and location) in the geologic record, we develop and test the potential of the organic geochemical compounds that are many by most phytoplankton: phytane, a degradation product of the vital pigment chlorophyll that can be found in all photoautotrophs e.g. plants and algae and cholestane, a degradation product of cholesterol found in all (and only) eukaryotes. This refreshed approach, combined with global temperatures, is used to calculate climate sensitivity. We find that this period is not in fact exceptional and its climate sensitivity is firmly within the standard IPCC estimates, thus resolving the enigma of the warm mid-Miocene.

Deepak Jha

PhD Student, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research

August 11, 2020

Image is a headshot of Deepak Jha. He is a brown South Asian man with black hair wearing a blue baseball cap and holding an archaeological stone tool in a field area.

Role of Late Quaternary climate and vegetation composition in the evolution of prehistoric humans in India

The Quaternary is known as “Age of Humans” because of the presence of abundant fossil record of Homo species in the geological records. The period has witnessed extraordinary changes in global climate, which resulted in the extinction of many mammalian species and must have controlled or contributed to the evolution of Homo species. Although the fossil records of early Homo species are absent from the Indian subcontinent, varieties of stone tools unearthed from sedimentary deposits of the Quaternary age suggest the presence of tool-making prehistoric humans on the landscape. Based on the study of excavated artefacts and their morphology, it has been suggested that the prehistoric humans of the Indian subcontinent were using the Paleolithic to Neolithic tools. The age of the prehistoric phase varies from global to regional scale and remains a matter of inquisitiveness. Therefore, it is required to have complete control over the age of prehistoric phases before understanding the role of climate on the Homo evolution.

In this direction, we selected the fluvial sections of the Belan valley situated in north-central India that preserved the signature of prehistoric human settlement from Paleolithic (~100 ka) to Neolithic (~3 ka) interval. For the first time, we conducted analyses of oxygen and carbon isotopes in soil carbonates (δ18OSC and δ13CSC) and compound-specific hydrogen and carbon isotopes in leaf wax n-alkanes (δDC29 andδ13CC29) of paleosol from six archaeological sites to understand the climate-cultural relationship. The results suggest several phases of intensified monsoonal rainfall punctuated by drier episodes, which also partly controlled the vegetation composition in the last ~100 ka. Our study reveals the role of climate and vegetation in controlling the prehistoric population or local migration during the Middle Paleolithic to Early Neolithic phase.

Mairin Balisi

Postdoc, La Brea Tar Pits & Museum

August 4, 2000

Image is a headshot of Mairin Balisi. She is a brown Southeast Asian woman with dark hair wearing a blue-and-white-patterned dress and standing in a green outdoor sculpture park.

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Ancient Originations, Recent Extinctions: Fossil Insights on Extant Carnivore Biodiversity

How ecological traits influence organismal success is a recurring question in paleobiology, particularly as specialization toward extremes may act differently at various scales: traits benefitting an individual may disadvantage its population, species or clade. For example, the ecological specializations of large body size and hypercarnivory (diet over 70% meat) have evolved repeatedly in mammals; yet large hypercarnivores are thought to be trapped in a macroevolutionary “ratchet”, marching unilaterally toward extinction. I examined the relationship between specialization and success over the past 40 million years in North American canids (dogs), a group with considerable ecomorphological disparity and a dense fossil record. Across all canids, a nonlinear relationship emerged between species duration and carnivory: species on either end of the carnivory spectrum tend to have shorter durations than middling species. In two of three canid subfamilies, large-hypercarnivore diversification appears constrained at the clade level, biasing specialized lineages to extinction. However, despite these shorter durations and elevated clade extinction, large hypercarnivores were not disadvantaged at the species level for most of canid history. Extinction was size- and carnivory-selective only at the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary 11,000 years ago, when large-scale biotic and abiotic impacts precipitated the rise of modern carnivore communities primarily comprising fewer predators and smaller species. This trophic and body-size downgrading has continued at the microevolutionary level, producing ecomorphological shifts perceptible in carnivoran species surviving to the modern-day.

Emma Dunne

Postdoc, University of Birmingham

July 28, 2020

Image is a headshot of Emma Dunne. She is a white woman with dark hair. She is wearing a black top and sitting in a room in a museum, surrounded by animal skeletons. A large toothed jaw is in the foreground.

Decoding Deep Time Diversity: Physical, Human & Environmental Drivers of Diversity in the Fossil Record

The fossil record is our window into past worlds and provides critical insights into organisms’ responses to past environmental change. Yet, the fossil record is notoriously incomplete and uneven, impacting our ability to interpret the true drivers of biodiversity patterns in deep time. In this talk, Emma will draw on her own research into Palaeozoic and Mesozoic tetrapods (four-limbed beasties) to explore the various physical (geological) and human factors that bias the fossil record, as well as quantitative ways these biases can be mitigated in order to reveal ‘true’ patterns of past diversity. With these biases revealed, she will then explore the environmental changes that drove tetrapod diversity during two key periods of their evolution: first, the emergence of vertebrate life onto land in the late Palaeozoic, and finally, the establishment of modern ecosystems and rise of dinosaurs during the early Mesozoic.

Pedro Monarrez

Postdoc, Stanford University

July 21, 2020

Image is a headshot of Pedro Monarrez. He is a brown Latino man with dark hair wearing a red gingham shirt standing in front of a sandstone brick wall.

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Alternating Macroevolutionary Regimes in Phanerozoic Marine Animal Body Size

Extinction selectivity is key in predicting which groups of organisms are likely to die out during a major extinction event. This predictive power of extinction assumes that extinction selectivity does not change from background intervals during mass extinction events. The traits that enhanced the chances of survival of taxa during background intervals, however, have at times failed to protect them during a mass extinction event, as the rules of macroevolution changed. In other words, a mass extinction can represent a switch to a distinct macroevolutionary regime from background processes. Moreover, this idea of alternating macroevolutionary regimes between background processes and mass extinctions is not limited to just extinction; origination dynamics are equally important to long-term evolutionary outcomes of pre- and post-mass extinction events. Thus, testing between these possibilities is a fundamental challenge with possible profound implications not only for understanding the origins of the modern biosphere but also for predicting the consequences of the current biodiversity crisis. The evolution of animal body size represents an ideal metric with which to test for the alternation of macroevolutionary regimes, as it scales with important aspects of organismal biology. Using a dataset of marine genera with body size data ranging from the Early Ordovician through Pleistocene, we test for the alternation of macroevolutionary regimes between background intervals and the “Big Five” mass extinction events using capture-mark-recapture approaches. We find that differences between background and mass extinction are more pronounced for origination than for extinction. Thus, the differences in macroevolutionary regimes between background and mass extinctions may be more pronounced during recovery intervals than during mass extinction events themselves.

Omar Rafael Regalado Fernandez

PhD, University College London

July 14, 2020

Image is a headshot of Omar Regalado Fernandez. He is a brown Hispanic man with dark hair wearing a grey jumper and a black knit cap in front of a cliff in Dorset.

What’s in a name? Reconstructing the evolutionary history of the transition from ‘prosauropods’ to sauropods

The sauropod body plan is very clear and simple to identify among dinosaur lineages, with columnar arms, straight gaits, long necks and tails, and rarely small legs. The sauropod body plan is the last to emerge in the sauropod lineage where the body dimensions spanned three orders of magnitude and the locomotion varied from bipedal to quadrupedal; these non-sauropod sauropods are often referred to as ‘core prosauropods.’ The sauropod form seems to be established by the Late Triassic, with a trend to greater form sizes, quadrupeds and reduced chewing apparatus. It has been proposed that the sauropod bauplan evolved gradually from prosauropods through paedomorphosis, where the initiation of sexual maturity occurs at a younger age, making it possible for adults to maintain their juvenile characteristics. Several characters have been attributed to originate this way, such as skull morphology and quadrupedity. Nevertheless, after every character published in the literature has been reassessed some elements of this scenario of gradual evolution could be an artefact from character coding. After a thorough reanalysis of the anatomy of this group, several lines of evidence suggest that Sauropodomorpha has undergone a disparification event, where several lines have developed several feeding strategies and locomotion types. The classical ‘prosauropods’ are better understood as a few smaller clades, suggesting the coexistence of several body plans diversifying before the partition of Pangaea in the Early Jurassic. Additionally, a biotic turnover of the flora during the Triassic-Jurassic transition suggests that more generalist feeding behaviours replaced the specialist herbivores of the Late Triassic.

Neil Brocklehurst

Postdoc, Oxford University
July 7, 2020

Image is of a man with short dark hair wearing a yellow shirt and standing next to a display. The display features a large mounted animal skull.

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The origin of herbivory in tetrapods: the founding of modern ecosystems

The origin of herbivory in tetrapods (limbed vertebrates) was a crucial event in the establishment of terrestrial vertebrate ecosystems. By allowing access to the vast resource represented by plants, it led to considerable changes in patterns of trophic interactions on land. This ultimately gave rise to the first modern style of terrestrial ecosystems, where large numbers of vertebrate herbivores support a relatively small number of top carnivores, during the late Paleozoic.
Terrestrial floras appear to have been “architecturally” modern by the end of the Devonian, with lignified forests, a shrubby understory and a diverse array of herbaceous plants. However, the evolution of terrestrial herbivorous animals lagged considerably behind this and until the late Carboniferous almost all primary consumers in these ecosystems were detritivorous invertebrates. Even following the first appearance of high-fibre herbivorous tetrapods, these remain rare relative to large macro-predators. Instead, there was a greater link between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, with a diverse array of amphibians moving primary productivity from water to support large carnivores. It wasn’t until the Middle Permian crash in amphibian diversity and abundance that more modern terrestrial ecosystems appeared. The establishment of these ecosystems directly impacted on plant evolution. At the local scale the appearance of tetrapod herbivores constrained plant diversity throughout the Permian. This constraint, coinciding with the appearance of smaller, more selective hebivores, is consistent with patterns observed in modern terrestrial ecosystems. This provides an illustration of the potential for fossil data to test predictions of ecological interactions first observed in extant ecosystems.

Heather Jones

PhD, Penn State

June 30, 2020

Image is a headshot of Heather Jones. She is a white woman with light hair and glasses wearing a blue top and black cardigan.

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Size and shape variation in the calcareous nannoplankton genus Braarudosphaera following the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction: clues as to its evolutionary success

Calcareous nannoplankton (which includes the coccolithophores), have been dominant primary producers in the surface oceans since the late Triassic. The largest mass extinction event in their evolutionary history occurred following the bolide impact at the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary ~66.0 Ma, which led to the elimination of over 90% of nannoplankton species. One of the only surviving genera of the K-Pg mass extinction was Braarudosphaera: a nannolith family which unlike the coccolithophores precipitates pentagonal calcite plates (pentaliths). B. bigelowii, the only species of Braarudosphaera to span the K-Pg boundary, is still present (albeit rare) in the modern ocean and forms geographically and temporally restricted blooms throughout geologic time, including in the earliest Paleocene. Morphometric and molecular data indicate that at least four genetically distinct B. bigelowii morphotypes are present in the modern ocean. At present, it is uncertain whether these morphotypes have disparate eco-physiological tolerances that have allowed them to readily adapt to varying environmental conditions. For the first time, we assess changes in both the size and shape of Braarudosphaera pentaliths following the K-Pg mass extinction event at three sites with early Paleocene Braarudosphaera blooms [the Chicxulub impact crater (Mexico), Brazos River (USA), and Agost (Spain)]. Using these data, we assess the role of morphotypic variation within the highly unstable post-impact environment in a range of different marine settings. Our results show that disparate Braarudosphaera morphotypes were dominant in the Gulf of Mexico compared to the paleo-Tethys, likely due to regional environmental differences. In addition, we provide evidence that the dominant Braarudosphaera morphotypes shifted, and that new forms evolved, in response to both local and global environmental change. This ability to rapidly adapt to unstable environments likely helped Braarudosphaera survive the K-Pg extinction, and explains why this lineage has enjoyed such a long evolutionary history. 

Laura Haynes

Postdoc, Rutgers University

June 23, 2020

Image is a headshot of Laura Haynes. She is a white woman with dark hair wearing a green and blue knit cap.

The Seawater Carbon Inventory at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum

56 million years ago, the Earth underwent a rapid climate change event called the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum” (PETM). Sedimentary records show that a massive amount of carbon was released into the atmosphere, causing ocean acidification, warming, and a widespread extinction of deep-sea organisms. To help quantify ocean acidification at the PETM, we are using the boron content (the B/Ca ratio) of the shells of fossilized foraminifera as a proxy for past ocean pH and carbon content. I will present new calibrations for the B/Ca proxy that we have created by growing living planktic foraminifera in seawater chemistry analogous to that of the Paleogene and simulating severe ocean acidification. Using our new calibrations, I will show that the B/Ca proxy supports the theory that volcanic carbon emissions were a major driver of PETM warming.

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