The Colgate Scene
September 2002

Out of the past

[Photo by Mark Abraham]

Douglas Erwin '80 sometimes imagines himself scuba diving, which in itself isn't unique. What separates the paleontologist's daydream from the mundane is its location and time -- in the waters surrounding the Guadalupe Reef in the primordial ocean that covered what is now west Texas, near the end of the Paleozoic era more than 251 million years ago.

"From the fossil record we know what the hard-bodied or skeletonized animals looked like back then, but we don't know what the soft-bodied animals were like," said Erwin. "I'd love to see how many of them made it through the Paleozoic era."

The author of five books and more than 120 papers, abstracts, book reviews and commentaries, Erwin is a specialist in mass extinctions, particularly the Permian extinction, which ended the Paleozoic era. (His 1993 book, The Great Paleozoic Crisis: Life and Death in the Permian, is considered a leading text on the Permian event.) His journeys into the Earth of eons ago have taken Erwin throughout the world, to an associate professorship at Michigan State University and, ultimately, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, where he chairs the paleobiology department and was recently named the museum's interim director.

"I became a paleontologist because of [Bob Linsley]." The Paleozoic era, which lasted from about 543 million to 251 million years ago, is Erwin's passion and element. It's the era that saw the emergence of the first insects, reptiles and amphibians; a time when the seas teemed with trilobites, forerunner of spiders and lobsters, and brachiopods, bivalve shelled animals that still exist. It's also a time that doesn't resonate in the public's consciousness nearly as much as the Mesozoic era that followed, the heyday of the dinosaurs.

"A misconception about paleontologists is that we're always digging up dinosaurs," said Erwin. "People are fascinated with understanding the life of the past and dinosaurs are a part of that fascination because they are big, fierce and dead. But there were Paleozoic animals just as fascinating that the public doesn't know about." Among the creatures Erwin finds fascinating are the sea lilies, tentacled animals similar to starfish, and the eurypterid, a three-foot-long scorpion-like predator whose 400-million year-old fossils Erwin recalls finding while doing field work as a Colgate student.

The Paleozoic era fell between the Cambrian explosion, an evolutionary burst of animal origins dating 545 million to 525 million years ago, and the Permian mass extinction event, an ecological catastrophe 251 million years ago that wiped out 85 percent of marine life and 70 percent of vertebrates on land. Considered the least understood of the five great mass extinctions in Earth history, the Permian event is believed to have had a death toll three times greater than the extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. "It's the only mass extinction insects have suffered," Erwin said. "It almost took out the cockroach for good."

But while the Permian extinction almost made things easier for your local exterminator, it also made room for every life form that followed, and ushered in the ages of reptiles and mammals. "For a paleontologist or evolutionary biologist that's the most interesting part of the Permian extinction," Erwin said. "We've discovered a whole dynamic to the recovery process. There were many species who survived the extinction but didn't survive the aftermath. There was no place for them."

As with many such journeys, Erwin's voyages into the past began with a much different destination in mind.

"I had two criteria when I was looking for a college," said the Los Angeles native. "First, I wanted to attend a small liberal arts college. I grew up about a mile and a half from UCLA, so I knew what a big school was like and I knew I didn't want to go to a place like that. My other criterion was that a school offer ornithology, and Colgate did."

But a geology seminar Erwin enrolled in during the fall of his first year helped change his mind. The course, which was taught by James McLelland (now Charles A. Dana Professor of geology, emeritus), prov- ed to be a turning point for Erwin.

"The course fascinated me. I had never studied geology before," said Erwin. "I was hooked, particularly when we got into continental drift and the relationship between evolution and the movement of the continents. Eventually, that became the topic of my term paper."

His interest piqued, the following semester Erwin enrolled in a historical geology course taught by Robert Linsley (now Harold Orville Whitnall Professor of geology, emeritus). He graduated with a degree in geology, never once taking a course in ornithology. Erwin went to earn a doctorate in geological sciences from the University of California at Santa Barbara, and credits his teachers at Colgate for preparing him well for the rigors of being a scientist.

"Jim McLelland, Bruce Selleck, and others were great to learn from, but by far Bob Linsley had the greatest influence on me," Erwin said. "I became a paleontologist because of him."

These days, the demands of being interim director of the world's most visited natural history museum keep more of Erwin's attention focused on the present than on the distant past. "I was quite surprised to be asked to take this job. I accepted because the museum is a wonderful place to work and because of the deep respect I have for the people here."

But there will still be time for the aspect of being a scientist that Erwin most enjoys -- field work. "My greatest satisfaction as a scientist is finding out how the Earth works, how things have worked in the past, figuring out things that we've never discovered before, doing field work in places that haven't been well studied and you have no idea what you're going to find," Erwin said. "I'm getting paid to do what I want, what I'd prefer to do anyway. That's pretty rare."

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