Photograph courtesy Kenneth Rose
Birthplace: Newark, New Jersey
Current City: Lutherville, Maryland
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I have wanted to be a paleontologist since third grade, when I found my first fossils—a boulder containing Devonian marine invertebrates in Pleistocene glacial drift behind my home in West Orange, New Jersey. The fossils had me hooked, and I never considered any other profession. For several years I envisioned becoming an invertebrate paleontologist, but after finding my first vertebrate fossils in the Pleistocene of Florida (during junior high school), I knew that vertebrate paleontology was my destiny. I had a natural history museum in my basement through high school, and paleontology was always a central focus.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I suppose you could say I got started through my basement museum and early fascination with paleontology. This led (during high school) to contacts with other collectors, clubs, and museums, through which I met prominent paleontologists from Princeton, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian. Without their encouragement I would not be where I am today. In college and graduate school I came under the influence of Elwyn Simons, Glenn Lowell Jepsen, Bryan Patterson, and Philip Gingerich, who are collectively responsible for my devotion to fossil mammals. Bob Emry further nurtured my interests during a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian. During that time, Alan Walker was starting to build a group of physical anthropologists and paleontologists interested in anatomy to train medical students at Johns Hopkins. He offered me a job, and the rest is history!
What inspires you to dedicate your life to paleontology?
Our (by which I mean humanity's) place in the natural world seems increasingly overlooked today. The opportunity to contribute to our knowledge of past life and its diversity, through paleontology, offers a much broader perspective on man's place in nature. The temporal component in paleontology makes it unique in the biological sciences, yielding insights not possible in other disciplines. The chance to discover and study fossils that provide information never before known—to really add to the body of scientific knowledge of the history of life on Earth—makes paleontology particularly rewarding. Add to that that paleontology is just plain fun, and there are probably few other professions whose members enjoy what they do as much as paleontologists.
What's a normal day like for you?
That depends on the time of year. In August-October, a normal day often includes five hours or more of teaching human anatomy to medical and graduate students, and there is little time for research. During the remainder of the academic year, some days are devoted to teaching mammalian evolution to graduate students or undergrads. When not teaching, I often get to spend most or all of the day studying new fossils we have collected in India or Wyoming, comparing them to other fossils and to recent analogues in an effort to understand their relationships, evolution, adaptations, and behavior. Occasionally during the winter, and always during July, I am in the field, with students—either in India (winter) or Wyoming (July), searching for fossil mammals that will help fill in our knowledge of the evolution and diversification of life.
Do you have a hero?
George Gaylord Simpson is my hero. Simpson was one of the most preeminent vertebrate paleontologists and evolutionists of the 20th century, a prolific author of more than 700 articles and more than two dozen books, including classics in evolution, mammalian classification, and biostatistics, as well as mammalian paleontology. Simpson had a particular interest in Mesozoic and Paleogene mammals, the latter which he dubbed the beginning of the Age of Mammals (the title of my own book pays homage to Simpson). I corresponded with Simpson when I was a student and early in my career, occasionally seeking advice on manuscripts. He always replied, and his responses were supportive and inspirational.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
It's hard to choose a favorite—our annual expeditions to the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming, taken together, have surely been the most enjoyable and memorable of all. The abundance of Eocene fossils, the chance to find something never seen before, the wonderful field crews, the good friends we have made in Wyoming, and the beautiful and peaceful natural landscape and wildlife, all combine to make summers in the Bighorn Basin an extraordinary experience, which has kept me returning for 42 years. But I must also mention India. An opportunity, as an undergraduate, to spend several months in India on a paleontological expedition left me yearning to return. Ten years ago a grant from National Geographic enabled me to do so. After exploring Rajasthan in 2001, our team found fossil mammals at Vastan Lignite Mine in Gujarat, the first early Eocene mammals known from India. This project continues, with National Geographic support, and has resulted in discovery of the oldest primates, bats, and ungulates known from India.
What are your other passions?
All aspects of natural history—especially birding and collecting marine mollusks. I am particularly interested in the systematics, diversity, and convergence of marine gastropods. In the last few years I have also taken up freshwater tropical fish. When possible I like to travel, taking in the local culture and history. I also enjoy symphonic music and classic big band music.
What do you do in your free time?
Besides the passions noted above, I'm a crossword puzzle addict.
If you could have people do one thing to help save vertebrate fossils what would it be?
To help save vertebrate fossils, I would like people to understand and appreciate fossils for their scientific value; that fossils are an unrenewable natural resource, many of which are rare or even unique. Placing monetary value (and often high prices) on fossils encourages plundering of sites, and often leads to loss of vital data and restricted access to important specimens.
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In Their Words
The chance to discover and study fossils that provide information never before known—to really add to the body of scientific knowledge of the history of life on Earth—makes paleontology particularly rewarding.
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Paul Sereno earned a doctorate in geology at Columbia University and joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1987.
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