Friday, 14 May 2010

Evolving Passions

I've been told that doing a course in palaeontology means I will end up changing my mind several times about what I would like to study. This is a brief run through the different things I have wanted to study within palaeontology over the years.

When I was young it was unsurprisingly dinosaurs which got me interested in palaeontology. I was an absolute dino-nut. I wouldn't even pay attention to pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs because they weren't dinosaurs and used to cringe when people called things like Dimetrodon  a dinosaur. Even the gigantic mammals of the Cenozoic did not do it for me. I think dinosaurs had something exotic about them; they were unusual creatures, but not too unfamiliar. As far as I remember, I had three favourite dinosaurs. On the left is Deinonychus which I possibly discovered properly just after being scared by the Velociraptor  scene in Jurassic Park. That kitchen scene is still one of my favourites. I fell in love with all dromaeosaurs and probably would have been very happy studying those.

Another favourite among the theropods was Allosaurus. I was never a big fan of T-rex, possibly just because every kid knows what T-rex was. I probably wanted to be different and not just favour it, yet I was also drawn in by the large theropods. Thankfully this is no longer my passion. I still absolutely adore these creatures, but dinosaur palaeontology is a very competitive field, even more so when you look at the popular theropods.

 The third of my favourites was a stegosaur. I don't remember the exact reasons I fell in love with this one, but it is Tuojiangosaurus (try saying that when you are drunk). Again, I have no desire to study these beasts any more, despite the fact that I fell in love with palaeontology because of them.

Over the last few years I have been learning about the theory of evolution, which reignited my passion for palaeontology. I knew that I wanted to study evolution in organisms I liked. My favourite transitions included fish to amphibians and dinosaurs to birds. I would have loved to study things like Tiktaalik  or take a look at the famous Archaeopteryx  specimens (I still would, but don't mind if it is not for academic reasons). My favourite though is the early evolution of mammals, possibly the most beautiful transition I can think of.

So, I started my course wanting to study evolution and it was the vertebrates which really drew me in. I probably couldn't foresee any change to this even though I knew it would be a difficult area to break into. At one point I was asked by my tutor what my favourite invertebrate fossils were and I quickly answered "trilobites" without giving it much thought (the one on the right is Ctenopyge). I then started wondering if I would enjoy studying something other than vertebrates, with trilobites being the favourite of course. The answer seemed to be yes. I had gone from dinosaurs, to vertebrate evolution, to trilobites. Fortunately trilobites did evolve and are excellent for studying evolution (though all palaeontology is concerned with evolution anyway).

Since then it has taken yet another twist. I have become fascinated with organisms which came before chordates arrived on the scene (at least from what we see in the fossils) and before even trilobites (though occasionally people think they have found proto-arthropods and compare them to the trilobites). Early metazoan evolution is what is currently fascinating meaning that I have started liking the enigmatic Ediacaran fossils along with the small shelly fossils (SSFs). I like the Cambrian explosion too, but it is what came before that which fascinates me. I remember the first time I saw the Ediacaran fauna and the SSFs; I thought the former were interesting to know about but boring to study and the latter looked rather dull.

I am at the end of the first year now, I have had all of my lectures until September. I wonder what else I will become fascinated with. There are aspects of palaeontology that I find dull, but I know that can change (I recently said gastropods were boring and taphonomy has never thrilled me). I've gone from dinosaurs to vertebrate evolution, to trilobites, to early metazoa, where next?  I know I will always be drawn to evolution, for which I can study almost any group of organisms in the fossil record (invertebrates being the best). I've also been getting interested in the palaeoecology of the Zechstein sea, though that is likely just a personal thing on the side. Where next? We shall see....

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