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Re: very general remark

On Thu, 21 Feb 2002, James R. Cunningham wrote:

 useful.  I don't know much about either flight or animals, so I find it all

Sure it is. Friends are looking at me strangely, because I am laughing every day at my computer.

The only addenda I would make are as follows:

1. I've seen biologists, in papers or at meetings, make statements about paleontology that are just as boneheaded as some of the biological remarks made by paleontologists. I'm looking at a paper right now by a group who looked at reptilian phylogeny from a set of nuclear genes (lactose dehydrogenase), came up with a tree and a set of projected divergence times, and proclaimed it "in accordance with the fossil record." That their Alligator - Caiman divergence was at around 30 million years, which *postdates* the first fossil appearance of members of the Alligator lineage by more than 30 years and the first caimans by almost as much, didn't seem to find its way into their paper. And this was published in a fairly prestigious journal.

2. Whenever I give dinosaur talks to groups of museum volunteers, my favorite attendees are always the retired MD's. This is for two reasons - first, they always ask excellent questions; second, I really like watching their expressions as they begin to realize how un-mammalian dinosaurs can be. For example, I often get asked why we don't just look at the epiphyses to gauge the age of a dinosaur. That epiphyses don't ossify separately in archosaurs is something they may not consider.

The reasons for this are very simple - no one person can know everything. Physicians ask about epiphyses because, in their experience, it works. Their experience is largely restricted to animals in which epiphysis fusion works. I've made some less-than-wise remarks because of my croc-centered background myself.

Another issue is that paleontologists often (though not always) come from geological backgrounds. The biology is picked up secondarily. Then again, those coming from biological/anatomical backgrounds are picking up their geology secondarily. This is the curse of working in an interdisciplinary field - one is forever stuck with a certain personal heritage (geo or bio), the need to perpetually return to multiple libraries to review a large number of journals, and the need to collaborate with various other specialists.

And on second thought, that really isn't a curse - it's a blessing.

The earlier statement, that paleontologists can often stand to learn more biology, is absolutely correct. But all scientists can stand to learn more about related fields. This goes for molecular systematists who have never thought about stratigraphy just as much as for geologically-trained paleontologists interested in biomechanics.


Christopher A. Brochu
Assistant Professor
Department of Geoscience
University of Iowa
Iowa City, IA 52242

319-353-1808 phone
319-335-1821 fax