The Paleontology Path
Written by Ava   


Who knew dinosaurs were in his future? Brian Switek certainly didn't, though he grew up gawking at their skeletal architecture, figures, and fossils. Despite having a deep love for these reptile ancestors, the New Jersey resident took it upon himself to study other topics, until he found himself back where he started--seeking out the paleontology he grew up enjoying immensely.

Perhaps the study of dinosaurs was meant for this paleontology buff and he took it upon himself to get all he could from his paleontology prospects.

Along the way, he picked up some blogging prospects, too, creating Laelaps for the Scienceblogs.com crew and Dinosaur Tracking for a blog with Smithsonian magazine.  

And yes, he also found some other cute cuddly critters along the way...

Read all about Brian's paleontology path, the kittens that make him smile, and the blogs that have changed his life. 

What is your background and why choose to focus on paleontology instead of mainstream biology or something along those lines?
 
When I was a little tyke, only five years old or so, my parents took me to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City to see the dinosaurs. I was already deeply interested in dinosaurs, but the skeletal architecture of the beasts really captured my imagination. I could have sworn that I could almost hear the “ghosts” of the dinosaurs breathing in the dimly lit hall. There was nothing I wanted more than to be a paleontologist.

As I grew older, though, the prospect of becoming a real fossil hunter became more and more dim. When it came time to pick a college my parents and high school advisors told me that if I wanted to study paleontology I would have to go out west, but since I could not afford to do that I had to change plans. My interests switched to marine biology and I enrolled at Rutgers University. (It turns out there are paleontology programs here in the east, but I didn’t know that at the time.)

I was unhappy at Rutgers from the start, and my academic path was far from easy. An impenetrable wall of math-heavy courses stood between me and what I really wanted to study (sharks!). I ultimately left for a year and a half to get an associate’s degree in education from Union County College, and when I returned to Rutgers in the fall of 2005 I decided to take two “fun” classes with the rest of my coursework: “Paleontology” and “Evolution and Geologic Time.”

My passion for fossils was rekindled. I had never lost interest in them entirely, but it was not until this point that I gained a deeper, intellectual understanding of ancient life. Then, in the spring of 2006, I ran smack into creationism. As part of one of my college courses I was planning on teaching a group of elementary school students about whale evolution. It seemed innocent enough, but the principal of the school said “No.” He didn’t want phone calls from irate parents who objected to evolution.

This baffled me. Up until that point I had never encountered modern creationism. I thought that almost everyone agreed that evolution was a reality. This reinforced my interest in paleontology and evolution, and I readily devoured every bit of literature about evolution I could get my hands on. I am still a voracious reader of science books three years later, and much of what I have learned I have taught myself outside of my college courses. This not only led me to start blogging, but also to start making contributions to the academic literature (my first peer-reviewed paper, involving the history of paleontology, will be published soon).

I would argue, though, that paleontology is a part of “mainstream biology.” Field work and fossil hunting is an important part of paleontology, but comparative anatomy, genetics, studies of development, and other disciplines are also essential to understanding the life of the past. There are few disciplines that I can think of that synthesize so many different sources of information about evolution, and I think paleontology is a sterling example of the interdisciplinary nature of what modern biology should be.

What can dinosaurs teach us about the dinosaur-related animals (reptiles, etc)  of today?
 
If there is any group that the study of dinosaurs can tell us more about, it is birds. That’s because birds are living dinosaurs! During the past 30 years an impressive array of evidence has confirmed that birds evolved from small, feathered dinosaurs closely related to the “raptors” of Jurassic Park. While birds are very different from mammals, amphibians, and other vertebrates alive today, a lot of the things we think of as “bird” characteristics (like feathers) appeared in dinosaurs first.

Dinosaurs are not studied in isolation, though. One of the most important tasks of a paleontologist is to place dinosaurs in proper ecological context and understand the world they lived in. The ancestors of modern amphibians, mammals, &c. were alive then, too, and they even had extinct relatives unlike anything alive today. Since we know that modern species did not just appear overnight, but are the present forms of lineages that have been evolving for over 3.5 billion years, the fossil record is essential to understanding how the still-changing diversity of life on earth came to be. 

You are a science writer, but you also blog about dinosaurs for the Smithsonian. Tell me about that experience.
 
I started my blogging career as part of a scholarship contest at ProgressiveU.org in the fall of 2005. I was one of the runners-up to the top prize, but when it was over I still wanted to keep writing. To this end I started “Laelaps” over at WordPress.com, and after about a year ScienceBlogs.com asked if I would like to join them. I jumped at the chance, and about a year after that Smithsonian magazine asked if I would like to write about dinosaurs for their blog Dinosaur Tracking

Keeping up two different blogs can be a bit of a challenge. Anything I write having to do with dinosaurs, from the latest research or goofy dinosaur news, goes to Dinosaur Tracking. Laelaps is a more personal blog that reflects what I am interested in on any given day.  

The main difference between the blogs, however, is that I work with an editor on Dinosaur Tracking and I do not on Laelaps. While I do like the freedom I have at Laelaps, I have a wonderful editor at Dinosaur Tracking who has greatly improved the quality of my writing. I want to make science accessible to as many people as possible, and it is helpful to have someone who can point out when I have forgotten to define a particular term or when I have to make a concept more clear. It also keeps my posts at Dinosaur Tracking short and sweet; I have the tendency to be long-winded when my “internal editor” is in charge.

Where does the name Laelaps come from?
 
The word “Laelaps” has different meanings depending on who you ask. If you ask a classical historian they will tell you that it is the name of a dog in Greek mythology that always caught what it was chasing. If you ask an entomologist they will say that Laelaps is a genus of mites that infests rodents. In the context of my blog, though, “Laelaps” was the name given by the 19th century paleontologist E.D. Cope to a smaller cousin of Tyrannosaurus that lived in what is now New Jersey about 65 million years ago. No one has yet found a complete skeleton, just bits and pieces are known, but the banner on the top of my blog has an approximation of what it might have looked like based upon another tyrannosaurid from eastern North America called Appalachiosaurus.

The dinosaur from New Jersey is no longer called “Laelaps”, though. It turns out that the mite I previously mentioned was named “Laelaps” first, and this means that it has priority over any other animals given the same name. This provided a golden opportunity for Cope’s academic rival, O.C. Marsh, to rename the dinosaur. In the footnote of a description of another dinosaur in 1877 Marsh called the predator Dryptosaurus, and while that is unquestionably the proper name, I have to admit that I like “Laelaps” a bit better. I thought it was a name that did a good job of representing my interest in dinosaurs, paleontology, and the history of science. 

You may be a dinosaur enthusiast, but you include posts and photos about lots of different animals on Laelaps? Why not simply stick to dinosaurs?
 
Dinosaurs are fascinating, but there are lots of other animals that are just as weird and wonderful! Mammals like giraffes, apes, elephants, and whales are just as interesting as any dinosaur, and they all have their own evolutionary histories, too. Fossil mammals usually don’t get the same attention that dinosaurs do, but as I think they are just as intriguing.  

More generally, though, Laelaps is a personal blog where I tend to write about whatever I am interested in on any given day. My affection for dinosaurs is couched within a wider appreciation for zoology, the history of science, and evolution, and much of what I write can be tied back to these broader subjects.

Furthermore, many of the creatures I love to write about are extinct, and the study of living animals can often help us understand creatures that we will never get to see in life. Evolution connects everything.  
Do you own any pets?
 
Yes. My wife and I have two cats, Chase (an 8-year-old male) and Charlotte (a three-year-old female). As a kid I had a lot of fish, lizards, and frogs, but it was not until I adopted Chase three years ago that I had any mammalian pets. (In fact I was mildly allergic to cats at first.)

Adopting Chase directly led to adopting Charlotte. From the very beginning Chase liked me best and sort of became “my” cat. My wife wanted a little kitten of her own, so soon after Chase was settled in we adopted Charlotte. For one reason or another, though, Charlotte became much more affectionate towards me than my wife, so the plan didn’t quite work!  

What is so special about the kittens you photograph repeatedly?
 
My wife and I take in foster cats for a local feline rescue mission, so each one is a little guest in our apartment. I try to take photographs of all of them. These go into an album of all our foster cats, and I share a few on the web now and then just because they are too cute to keep to myself!  
Why do you choose to help rescue kittens?
 
About two years ago a friend of my wife’s became involved in the local feline rescue mission and asked us if we could take in a homeless cat for a little while. I wasn’t sure at first, but it turned out to be a real joy. Many of these animals were abandoned by their owners or even put on the slate to be euthanized. Given another chance they were likely to find a good home. I wanted to give them that chance. 

So far it has been a great success. My wife and I have cared for over 30 cats and all but a few have found permanent homes. We don’t do much other than treat them as our own, but it is enough to help them until a family is ready to adopt them. It can be hard to give them up sometimes, but it feels good to know that they are living better lives now.  

Explain how animals, fish, and other creatures play a role in evolution and why you choose to blog about the theory.

 
That’s a big question! The short answer is that every organism alive today has an evolutionary history that can be traced back to the origin of the first life on earth. There is still a lot that we have to learn (which is good since it means I will still have a job!) but every living thing speaks to the reality of evolution.

That is why evolution is so fascinating! It is such a grand concept that you can dig into it from many different angles. If you like to breed guppies to have brilliantly-colored tails, for example, you are artificially mimicking the selection process that is so important to evolution in nature. (Indeed, artificial selection was very important to Charles Darwin’s argument about evolution by means of natural selection.) Likewise, other pets like dogs and cat take on a whole new character when you understand how they fit into the fossil record.  

Living cats and dogs shared a common ancestor about 42 million years ago when a major split occurred among the Carnivora (the group of mammals that cats and dogs belong to). The early members of either side of the split did not look like modern cats and dogs, and the early members of both groups gave rise to many different kinds of creatures that have no living descendants (like short-faced, bone-crushing dogs and saber-toothed cats). Indeed, modern cats and dogs represent only part of a wider past diversity, and while my cats might not be descended from saber-toothed cats, it is amusing to think what they might look like if they had!

There are all sorts of other ways evolution affects how we understand the world and our place in it, too. I just focused on familiar pets here, but if you love animals at all it is difficult not to wonder where they came from or why they are the way they are. Evolution can help answer those questions.  
What are your future projects?
 
I always have more projects than I have time for. There are so many things I want to write and never enough time. At the moment, though, my big project is a book about transitional fossils that is tentatively titled Written in Stone. In it I use the history of debate surrounding transitional fossils to explain how many familiar creatures (like birds, horses, whales, and even humans) evolved and how modern paleontology is incorporating new lines of research to help explain how some major evolutionary transitions occurred. It is the kind of book that I have always wanted to read, so I decided to write it myself.

Stay tuned to Laelaps for more details about when you can expect to see it on bookshelves.

Thank you very much for interviewing me, Ava. It has been a pleasure.

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