The paleobiology program concentrates on studies of terrestrial paleoecology, paleoclimatology, and biodiversity within the context of systematic biology and biostratigraphy. Faculty interests cover vertebrates and plants. Collaborating faculty study marine invertebrates and microfossils.
Penn has strong research interests in vertebrate paleontology, concentrating on Mesozoic terrestrial vertebrates, especially dinosaurs. Such activity is reflected in recent field projects in China, Egypt, Argentina and Montana. Recent student research topics include studies of sauropods, theropods, ceratopsians, ornithopods, dinosaurian bone histology, functional anatomy, heterochrony and biogeography. Other non-dinosaurian topics include Cretaceous sarcopterygian fishes, Devonian fishes and tetrapods, and Cretaceous squamatans. Students in this program are strongly urged to take veterinary gross anatomy, which may open doors to career opportunities in biomedical education. Research opportunities are enhanced by active collaborations with scientists at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and the National museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution.
Paleobotany (Paleoclimatology, Paleoecology, Taphonomy)
Hermann W. Pfefferkorn
Arthur H. Johnson
Members of the paleobotany group use fossil plants to reconstruct past climatic conditions and to investigate paleoecology at levels from individual plants to plant communities and entire landscapes. Our research focuses on the late Paleozoic and the late Mesozoic-early Cenozoic. The study of ancient ecosystem structure and dynamics is central to understanding Earths ecological processes. The plant fossil record offers access to these processes on several scales of time and space through study of specific aspects of ancient plants and plant communities. Such information can be applied to general problems in ecology and evolution. Additionally, plants are excellent proxies for climate, indicating through morphology, architecture, and isotopic composition the conditions to which they were adapted and under which they lived, providing tests for models of past climates. These studies are worldwide in scope and are strongly quantitative in approach. .
Our research in Late Paleozoic paleobotany covers the Carboniferous and Permian. Ongoing investigations focus on vegetational changes accompanying the onset of global glaciation in the Late Mississippian, the dynamics of tropical vegetation during the height of the Carboniferous ice age, and the disassembly and reassembly of tropical vegetation during the Permian.
Our Late Cretaceous and Tertiary paleobotanical studies focus strongly on relationships between floristic and paleoclimatic changes during this warm interval in Earth history. Current studies are examining the origin of modern tropical forests, the responses of vegetation to climatic change, forest structure and physiology at high latitudes and the coevolutionary relationships between plants and animals. One of the outstanding events in terrestrial evolution is the rapid rise in abundance and diversity of the angiosperms during a relatively brief geological interval. Exceptionally preserved, in situ, Cretaceous fossil floras are under study to establish the relative contribution of flowering plants to vegetational biomass and overall plant diversity in various environments. Throughout this period, the presence of forests at high latitudes presents opportunities for studying the evolution of physiology and the origin of deciduousness
A period of rapid global climatic warming occurred at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. We focus on this period to study the effect of climate change on floristic composition. Centered largely on western NA, due to the abundance of fossil material and extensive documentation of the stratigraphic/temporal context, these studies provide students extensive experience in field work and sample collection. Students learn the use of statistical approaches in the analysis of morphological, taxonomic and plant assemblage data to evaluate trends in morphology, composition and diversity of floras and to infer paleoclimatic settings. Such reconstructions are then compared with those based on stable-isotope ratio proxies and climate models.
Current Research in Vetebrate Paleontology
1. Bahariya Oasis, Egypt: This area originally was excavated by Ernst von Strvmer in the early 20th century. During the Cretaceous, this area in modern-day Egypt was a coastal environment. Recent work has unearthed numerous new taxa, including new theropods, sauropods and coelacanths.
2. Chubut, Argentina: Bajo Barreal Foramtion. Description of novel Cretaceous sauropod, ornithopod and theropod dinosaurs, and the paleobiogeographic relationship between this area and modern-day Africa during the breakup of Gondwana.
3. Montana & Wyoming, U.S.: Morrison Formation, an area of renowned dinosaur preservation. Description, taxonomy, and systematics of new sauropod fauna and their geological and biological relationship to other sauropod fauna.
4. Canada: Systematics of hadrosaurs.
5. Mah-Zong-Shan, Northwestern China: Description and systematics of early ceratopsians and bird ancestors, and many other dinosaurs from this recently opened area.
Current Research in Paleobotany
1. Bighorn and Powder River Basins, WY , Williston Basin, ND: Paleocene-Eocene climatic and floral change. These outstanding exposures permit collection, stratigraphy, sedimentary interpretation, palynological and isotopic analyses.
2. Northeastern Colombia: Paleocene flora of the Neotropics. Megafossil analysis of coal deposits; paleoclimate reconstruction. In collaboration with Ecopetrol and Carbocol.
3. Big Cedar Ridge, WY. Late Cretaceous floral taxonomy and composition. A critical period for angiosperm radiation, the remarkable flora preserved at this site has been quantified, but extensive taxonomic work remains.
4. Pakistan: Comparative analysis of Eocene flora. Project on hold due to current political environment.
5. Peru: Studies of the flora and vegetation of the Paracan paratropical floral belt and its global paleoclimatic implications.
6. China: joint work with Chinese colleagues on Carboniferous and Permian floras, with focus on understanding species similarities, floristic composition and change over time.
7. Poland and the Czech Republic: Early to early Late Carboniferous, study of the understand the initial phases of the Carboniferous ice age. Collaborative work with Polish, Czech and Ukrainian colleagues.
8. Central and Eastern United States: Vegetation dynamics during glacial-interglacial cycles, coal composition.
9. Southwestern U.S. (Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Oklahoma): Environmental and floral change during the latest Pennsylvanian and Permian icehouse-greenhouse transition.
10. Axel Heiberg, Nunavut, Canada: reconstruction of an Eocene forest. Site has remarkable preservation of in-situ forest.
11. Various locales in the Canadian and Siberian Arctic: paleoclimatic reconstruction using fossil wood isotopes.
12. Evolution of deciduousness in the conifers: examination of the origins of deciduousness in the Cupressaceae and Pinaceae and its relationship to the light-dark seasonality at high latitudes.
13. Evolution of physiological constraints under the high-latitude light regime.
Penn is centrally located in a region of rich paleobiological resources. The Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia (ANSP) has a superb library and collections; the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution, and the American Museum of Natural History are within convenient commuting distance by train. Our faculty works on plants, invertebrates, and vertebrates. Collaborative arrangements provide additional opportunities for study and research.