TAEM interview with Prof. George D. Stanley, Jr. of U. of Montana

Stanley UMPC collections credit_ Todd Goodrich (Photos by Todd Goodrich)

  TAEM- With our Science section expanding so rapidly, The Arts and Entertainment Magazine , is constantly searching the great colleges that we are seen in to explore the many branches of science that they offer. Our student readers have shown a great interest in Marine Biology and Paleontology, and we are delighted to include a University that excels in both.

   Professor George D. Stanley, Jr., of the University of Montana teaches a course that involves the study of marine fossils found on the North American continent and the surrounding oceans as well as many locations throughout the world. Professor, please tell our student readership about your own formal education and what first interested you about this particular branch of the world of science.

University of Montana logoGS-Well my field of science is paleontology, a subject I became fascinated with at the tender age of 10. As an avid fossil collector, I dreamed of one day being a world adventurer and paleontologist and somehow I have kept up with that dream. I received a BA from the University of Tennessee and my PhD at the University of Kansas.  Following my graduation, my education continued as a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum where I developed a, exhibit hall of ancient life and made many valuable contacts for my career.  As a Fulbright Fellow in Erlangen, Germany, I studied corals and the limestone reefs in the Alps. I guess what drew me into the field of paleontology was gorgeous fossils, life and deep time. Paleontologists really are time travellers, reconstructing the ancient past by digging up fossilized life of the past. That’s awesome in any sense.

TAEM- Aside from teaching, you are also the director of the UM Paleontology Center. What work is involved by you for maintaining this department ?

GS-Teaching is one of my great loves but as part-time director of the University of Montana Paleontology Center, I also am involved in research projects and safekeeping of over 100,000 fossils representing not only the heritage of Montana, the Rocky Mountain West, Canada as well as many overseas countries.  The UMPC supports research. Scientists study the UMPC fossils to answer question in their research and the publications resulting are a feather in our cap. A multitude of teachers and school children also tour our fossils and exhibits and each October we participate in National Fossil Day.  Our facilities got an infusion of funds from a grant from the National Science Foundation to upgrade the storage facilities. In addition I am busy directing graduate student research, making field trips and writing up new discoveries for publication in books and journals.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATAEM- Your research is widespread and well founded. Tell us about your study of the Chengjiang biota in China and how you relate this to your students.

GS- The early Cambrian Chengjiang shale is likely the most important marine fossil deposit in the world. This not only because of the amazing and near perfect state of the ancient marine creatures entombed there, many preserved with soft tissues and even hearts and organs, but also because they give scientists a virtual snapshot of what diverse sea life was like some 520 million years ago. That adventure to China was both exciting and rewarding.  I felt privileged to be invited there by Yunnan University Professor, Hou Xian-Guang, who discovered the first fossils of this amazing deposit. I spent time at Yunnan University as a guest professor, interacting with students and researchers while I studied the Chengjiang site. The deposit fall into the interval of what we call life’s “big bang”. A short but crucial interval of evolution when new forms forms appeared and diversified into all subsequent groups of animal life. Some were failed experiments while others survived to become ancestors of major groups today.  What caused that sudden frenzy of evolution is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in my field. When you are there you can split open layers of shale and be the very first to lay eyes on a new form of life. There’s no way to convey the sense of excitement and discovery. I present these weird and whacky creatures to my students to illustrate the dawn of complex life and to amaze, challenge and assault their senses with pure discovery.  The Montana students who accompanied me to China and worked with other Chinese students and scientists, included an artist who sketched 3-D drawings of some Chengjiang creatures now flattened into the shale, helping our team make accurate interpretations.

Stanley in field Chengjiang ChinaTAEM- Another important field of study is the Triassic reefs. Please tell us something about this.

GS- Of course I love to talk about this part of my research. Excuse me if I get carried away but this is a topic I am quite passionate about. You know Dinosaurs are only one small branch in the tree of life, yet the public is so enamored by them that they often forget about the rest of that great diversity which includes not only ancestors of all dinosaurs but ancestors of all forms of life today. Corals and reefs are no exception.  Reefs are the most diverse and glittery tropical marine ecosystem and of course have parallels in tropical rainforests on land. The Triassic period was a particularly important turning point in the modernization of most all life.  The great end-Permian extinction wiped out all ancient corals and devastated reefs. The ancestors of modern corals mysteriously appear in the Middle Triassic, some 8 million years after the end-Permian extinction but they didn’t build reefs until much later. My research on Triassic reefs has pinpointed the first appearance of modern corals and attempted to explain their rise to dominance in reefs of the Late Triassic. This research involves excavations of Triassic reef limestone at sites in mountains and remotes sites around the world. It seeks to answer questions about how modern corals and reefs evolved and how they came to dominate tropical ecosystems of the world. It turned out to be much more complicated than once thought, involving extinctions, recoveries, radiations of life and the evolution of symbiosis. It gets me and my students to beautiful, often remote sites ranging from Alaska and Peru to limestone deposits of Asia and Europe.

Informal picTAEM- How is this connected to your research of the coral reefs of our oceans ?

GS-Well that’s an interesting question which leads me to the present-day crisis in today’s oceans.  While the fact of global climate change and its impact on land is in the public eye, much of the general public may not be aware of the effects on the oceans. Colorful coral reefs, already in decline due to overfishing, global warming and pollution, also are under assault by a less obvious assassin—ocean acidification. The unrelenting and quickening buildup and absorption of carbon dioxide and other gases into the ocean is driving the pH of the seas toward the acid side.  Dissolution of shells and changes in ecology of the reef today is having a negative impact on all of sea life. Projected increases in CO2 combined with other degrading processes, herald, within a time frame of decades, the complete disappearance of corals and reefs. As a colleague of mine said, “A world without reefs is like a Van Gogh painting without color”.  I have found evidence leading me to formulate the “naked coral” hypothesis— the idea that during the collapse of reefs in the geologic past, corals lost their skeletons entirely. If past geologic history is our teacher then in the “business as usual” scenario, the lesson for the future is pretty grim for corals, reefs and all the diverse life forms that depend on them. That also includes also humans. So you see the past is really becoming the key to the future and my research has implications for the present-day crisis.

Stanley's Student with fossils Credits_Todd Goodrich UMTAEM- One of the most interesting finds are the Early Mesozoic fossils in the widespread areas of western North America. What does their discovery show about the land masses and plate tectonics?

GS-Your question is interdisciplinary in relating paleontology to plate tectonics, the geologic force which built the continents and ocean basins. My research on this subject focused on rocks and fossils of the Cordilleran region—that north to south tectonic belt located west of the Rocky Mountains which runs from central Alaska to Mexico.  Rocks in this region present a crazy-quilt pattern of isolated tectonic blocks called terranes. Many terranes present major geologic puzzles because, as strange as it sounds, they were not part of North America until quite recently in their geologic histories. Their additive history increased the real estate of North America by one third. During the Paleozoic to early Mesozoic, many terranes existed as volcanic islands somewhere in the tropical ancient Pacific Ocean and eventually were accreted to the continent piecemeal, by the unrelenting force of seafloor spreading which sent them crashing into, faulting over and doubling up against the growing edge of the continent. One scientist likened the repetitive collisions to the ultimate train wreck, only occurring in slow motion over several hundred million years! On field trips I jokingly I ask the student for their passports because when we reach the middle of northern Idaho, I tell them that they are leaving the North America.  My research focuses on early Mesozoic tropical marine fossils from some key terranes. Colorful sponges, corals, clams and snails as well as swimming ichthyosaurs and other creatures, once populated these ancient reef-rimmed islands, akin to those that now dot the western Pacific. Today they are moved to higher latitudes and are hundreds of miles from the sea.  I call them lost island of the ancient Pacific because their exact positions are mostly unknown. That is the great mystery. The study suggested some were far travelled while others existed closer to the ancient continent. Hypotheses of paleogeography based on geological data continue to be formulated and tested but the nature of the fossil cargo contained in the strata of the terranes often is neglected. My research with students and colleagues shows that fossils from terranes provide valuable clues to reconstructing paleogeography and understanding the evolution of reefs.  They provide a means to independently test the geologic hypotheses. My students and I study the rocks, collect fossils from various terranes and identify them (many are new species). We then, used fancy statistical programs to make similarity comparisons. The resulting data is used to assess terrane movement and test the paleogeography at different points in time. Interestingly, some of our conclusions don’t mesh with results from geologic studies but that is healthy in science because it enables both sides to rethink the validity of their hypotheses.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATAEM- Your research also involves the Mass extinction at the Triassic- Jurassic boundary. What has this study uncovered about the history of our planet, and what are the results about this discovery?

GS-You’ve pointed out a major research agenda in paleobiology, namely the mystery of the mass extinctions and the great dying of life.  One of the five biggest mass extinctions (there are well over 20 of them) occurred at the end of the Triassic, about 200 million years ago. At that time over 75% of all life died out. Scientists debate the causes, ranging from the simple (sea-level change) to the exotic (meteorite impact) and the hot and smoky (volcanic eruptions) but the jury is still out and the “smoking gun” is not yet found. The research I do takes a different approach. While still interested in the causes, I focus on understanding the amazing recovery that took place afterwards in the early part of the Jurassic period. It appears that in the aftermath of the great mass extinction, life experienced a remarkable recovery—one that led to entirely new forms of life and changed the planet. Evolution in the aftermath of a mass extinction, seems to go warp speed but other scientists see a slow, gradual kind of recovery. It seems clear to me that the T/J recovery was not sudden but more step-like, occurring in stages. Triassic coral reefs that I study, collapsed suddenly and large scale ones did not return until many millions of years later.

Once with colleagues I helicoptered to a remote reef in the Telkwa Mountains of western Canada to investigate a large, well-developed Early Jurassic reef. The big surprise came later when I discovered that the massive fossil reef we discovered was built by a single coral species— one known from the Triassic but thought to have gone extinct long before the Jurassic. It seemed clear to us that such reef-building corals must have survived the T/J extinction. Their isolated location on a tropical volcanic island, 195 million years ago, drove home the idea that such remote island settings, we call “refugia”, might have allowed some species to survive while those living near the continents died out. Scientists recognize what is called “Lazarus Taxa”—those forms thought to have died out but which appear to come back from the dead so to speak, because somehow they leapfrog large interval of time while leaving no record. My research suggested that isolated terrane refugia might explain the mystery of the “Lazarus Effect”.

Stanley and paleo collections_Credits Todd Goodrich UMTAEM- Please tell our readers about the Paleo Exploration Project and what it entails.

GS-This project, now completed, was funded by the National Science Foundation. It provided the opportunity for 52 K-12 math, science, and technology teachers and over 80 middle school students from rural eastern Montana, to learn paleontology and geospatial technology. This was accomplished through workshops and summer field experiences and it taught the mostly middle-school students how to apply these skills to understand the way that science works. It taught the teachers important skills to use in improving their classes. Summer experiences took place in the badlands of eastern Montana where dinosaur, invertebrate and plant fossils abound. Some of the students were recruited from five of the state’s seven Indian reservations.

I guess you can imagine the excitement of these middle-school kids camping out, discovering, digging out fabulous fossils, and mapping the deposits. Two of my graduate students were involved in teaching and helping supervise the children. Teachers learned too and helped supervise projects the children did.  At the end of their experience these students presented their projects. Sometimes their work was even better than some done by college students. I can tell you that it was a very rewarding experience for me and my co-organizers.  You can’t imagine how delighted I was when I learned that the Paleo Exploration Project was chosen as an NSF 2010 Highlight.

TAEM- Please describe the field trips that the National Science Foundation has funded for the studies of the time periods that you research, and the locations that your classes have covered for this.

GS-Field experiences are always part of my teaching and an important component of on all my NSF grants which focus mostly on Triassic and Jurassic periods. Only on rare occasions were formal classes involved in the NSF-funded trips. These involved graduate and undergraduate students who were financially supported to work and learn in the field and of course resulted in many senior projects and graduate theses. Field sites ranged from the Alps of central Europe and in the Americas, from the Peruvian Andes to Sonora Mexico, western USA, Canada and Alaska. Many of these are very remote and involved extensive hiking, rappelling by rope, boating or helicopter transport. The UM Paleontology Center is now filled with a wealth of specimens from these trips. I really don’t think I would be as successful as I am without the help of my students. I really enjoy working in the field and visiting far-flung, often isolated sites.  I also regularly publish results with them and find it a very rewarding experience.

Stanley & students Paleo Exploration ProjectTAEM- Tell us about your staff and some of your student achievements from your University.

GS-Well I can tell you that one of the greatest rewards I get as a university professor is to see my students become successful and achieve recognition. Many of my graduate students have recognition and awards at the University of Montana. Many have become researchers and university teachers. Some followed in my footsteps while others branched out to other areas of geology.  One of my students became Secretary of the Subcommission on Triassic Stratigraphy and organized one of the International Geological Correlation Projects while also receiving awards for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities. Another former student won the Medal of Merit from the Canadian Society of Petroleum Geologists and the list goes on. A staff member who assists me in the UM Paleontology Center also used the job to hone professional skills in collection management and she became a university staff ambassador.

TAEM- Professor Stanley, we want to thank you for your time with our interview. Your University, and the research that you perform, are valuable tools in the foundation of student’s education and the furthering of science. We ask that you please keep in touch with us in the future so that our readers can learn more from your work.

GS-It is my pleasure and I certainly will keep in touch.