I’m a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol, currently in the (yikes!) third year of my PhD. But what exactly DO I DO?!?!? Well I don’t fit into the stereotypes of Jurassic Park and Ross from Friends. I don’t spend most of my days in the hot Mongolian desert carefully brushing sand away to reveal amazing and perfectly intact dinosaur skeletons. Sometimes I wish I did though, because to be honest I spend most of my time in the office, counting.
Yes, counting, This is what I do, count animals form different parts of Earths’ past and from all over the world. But to what end? I’m a ‘Macroevolutionist’ so I like to think about the ‘Big picture’, which sounds grand but to be honest can be a bit tedious because big picture stuff often means gathering lots of data, compiling it, and producing graphs. To add a little excitement to my day sometimes I add colour to my graphs and occasionally throw in a pie chart just to be a little crazy.
Seriously though, my supervisor, Mike Benton, has spent a lot of his career counting and has come up with some pretty intriguing insights about biodiversity and Earth’s past. One of his biggest contributions has been the this graph, which is a count of the all of the tetrapods (amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds) that we have found in the fossil record, from their origin, almost 400 million years ago to the present. As you can see the diversity of tetrapods has risen almost exponentially since their origin to the present day, punctuated occasionally by a mass extinction event, such as the Permo-Triassic event 250 million years ago, when over 90% of Earth’s species went extinct.
But the trouble with this graph is that counting the number of fossils we have from different times is Earth’s history reveals a similar pattern, so it is difficult to say whether Mike’s graph is a true reflection of diversity or simply an artifact of the rock record. This is where my research comes in. I am studying the diversity within communities through time, a study that is independent of these artifacts so I will see if community diversity is similar to global diversity and what the implications are. If you’re still with me and haven’t fallen asleep, tomorrow I will discuss some of early research, including (just for you Will:), Romer’s Gap.