Women Time Travelers and the Study of Ancient Life

Imagine uncovering the bones of once-living animals that are millions of years old that no one has seen before, or leading an expedition to the Gobi Desert to search for dinosaurs. These are just a few of the thrilling adventures of women scientists, aka fossil bone hunters, that are told in the forthcoming book Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology, which I co-authored with Susan Turner (Johns Hopkins University Press, October 2020).

Although women have made significant progress in STEM fields, they remain underrepresented, including in the field of paleontology. One-third of women earth scientists are paleontologists with 17% of those specializing in vertebrate paleontology, the study of backboned animals from the earliest fish and their relatives to humans. Two decades after the largest professional organization of vertebrate paleontologists—the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP)—was founded in 1940, women made up less than 10% of the membership. Now, women SVP members comprise 36% with the greatest growth among student members. Despite this growth, less than 25% of members of the society have jobs as curators or professors.  Change has been slow and for many years paleontology was mostly a “boys’ club.”

As a vertebrate paleontologist for more than 50 years, my curiosity about fossils began at summer camp in central Oregon. There, I participated in an excavation unearthing the bones of fossil horses, tapirs, rhinos, and carnivores more than 40 million years old, an experience that fueled a life-long passion for hunting fossil bones. You might ask, why study fossils? Knowing that you are the first person to set eyes on an extinct animal that once roamed a very different earth is awe-inspiring in itself. But even more so is the satisfaction of fitting the bones together, piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of an ancient animal. Fossils represent our natural heritage and as such, they provide unique reference points for understanding changes in animal communities and diversity through time. Fossils, therefore, give us a historical perspective. These records of past life lead us to evaluate the ongoing biodiversity crisis and our evolutionary future.

Although largely unrecognized until now, women have played key roles in defining and developing vertebrate paleontology over the past 200 years. In addition to pursuing research on fossil vertebrates, women have also contributed to the profession as curators, collection managers, illustrators, preparators, and outreach educators. Beginning in the mid-19th century, the earliest fossil marine and flying reptiles were discovered in England by pioneer fossil collector Mary Anning. During this time women were often the artists for their paleontologist husbands, fathers, and brothers; later they were writing and illustrating fossil books on their own. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women earned university degrees and field collecting was undertaken in earnest in Europe and the US. Dorothea Bate, the first woman employed at the British Museum of Natural History (although in an unpaid position) excavated mammal fossils from numerous sites in Europe and the Middle East, eventually becoming a curator. Tilly Edinger spent her early life in Germany at the Senckenberg Museum where she began her landmark study of vertebrate fossil brains. She narrowly escaped to the US during Nazi persecution and later became the first woman president of the SVP. But, near the mid-20th century when the SVP was founded, women were behind the scenes, solely reporting on society news. By the late 20th century, change was afoot and more women collected and described fossil vertebrates not only from the US and Europe but also further afield from the former Soviet Union and China. During this time vertebrate paleontology maintained its geologic roots but significantly expanded its biologic component, which has continued to the present. In modern times, new techniques were employed by women including CT scanning, which enabled 3D visualization of fossils and paleogenomics, the reconstruction and analysis of genes in extinct organisms. New directions evolved such as conservation paleontology that uses data from the fossil record to understand climatic change.

Women, lured by fossils, have traveled, often to remote places and made significant discoveries both in the field and in the lab. Field research teams led by women have forged international collaborations among scientists. Kate Trinajstic’s fossil fish excavations in Australia resulted in the discovery of the earliest (350 million years old) fossil fish mothers preserved with intact embryos and mineralized umbilical cords. Women-led travel to the High Arctic includes Mary Dawson’s and Jaelyn Eberle’s fossil mammal expeditions that provided evidence for a land bridge connection between Europe and North America, a “highway” for land animals 50-55 million years ago. Jenny Clack’s research team discovered in Greenland the earliest vertebrates to move from water to land 350 million years ago. Julia Clarke’s field excavations to Antarctica led to findings of feathered dinosaurs aka birds. Other research teams included Mary Leakey’s African early man expeditions, Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska’s Polish-Mongolian expeditions to the Gobi Desert, and Jingmai O’Connor’s fieldwork on early birds in China. More recently, attention has centered on outreach activities designed to improve the public understanding of science, evolution, and paleontology. One such effort being undertaken by paleontologist Bolor Minjin has helped repatriate illegally exported Mongolian dinosaur fossils in the US and elsewhere. She has also established the Institute of the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs in her native country to encourage local students in learning about their rich fossil heritage.

As for other areas of STEM, women vertebrate paleontologists have faced barriers and challenges including implicit bias, sexual harassment, racial discrimination, gender pay inequity, and motherhood. Interviews with contemporary paleontologists enabled us to share stories of how women managed to overcome these obstacles in order to build careers in the field. Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan at the University of Cape Town, South Africa recounts: “Growing up in South Africa during the apartheid days, I felt oppressed as a black person. I had various restrictions imposed on me ... I could not live close to the University so traveled 2 hours per day; I was not allowed on most of the buses; I was not able to stay overnight in the Free State, which is the heart of the famous Karoo basin- so directly [this] affected my fieldwork. The challenges of being a mother and balancing my career was really nothing compared to the oppressiveness of apartheid.” In response to a query about overcoming barriers and leading field expeditions, Anjali Goswami at the Natural History Museum, London commented: “But it is really, really worth doing ... because ... we are the face of science and the more we do that, the more it becomes accepted and the more we are able to inspire young women in those countries to rise up and become leaders in science in those fields.“ Our interviewees also provide recommendations to aspiring fossil hunters. Jaelyn Eberle at the University of Colorado noted: “I take my kids in the field..., and I bring my graduate students out. I think there is the idea that you are either a scientist or a mom but not both. I think that’s a myth, it’s quite doable to be both, a good scientist and a mom.” Broad perspectives such as these help ensure that women’s contributions to the field are celebrated and encouraged for future generations of thrill-seekers passionate about hunting fossil bones and unraveling the history of life.

Order Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology – published on October 27, 2020 – at the following link: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/rebels-scholars-explorers

Annalisa Berta is professor emerita of biology at San Diego State University. She is the co-author of Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Paleontology. She is the author of Return to the Sea: The Life and Evolutionary Times of Marine Mammals and The Rise of Marine Mammals: 50 Million Years of Evolution.