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The Department of Paleobiology of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

The Department of Paleobiology strives to foster scientific and public understanding of the past biological world and its environment

The Department of Paleobiology is one of seven academic research departments that is located in the National Museum of Natural History, the largest unit of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C. The Department’s mission is to foster scientific and public understanding of the past biological world and its environment through research, the use of its collections, outreach through a variety of educational programs, and exhibitions. The primary responsibility of the department’s twelve research scientists is to provide an active research program in the areas of their expertise, to assemble, curate, and study fossil collections at the Museum and elsewhere, and in the process exhibit extraordinary fossils in public spaces at the Museum and train future generations of paleontologists.

The Paleobiology Department houses the National Fossil Collection of the United States that is available for study by all researchers. The Department houses over 40 million fossil specimens that includes Cambrian trilobites of worldwide distribution; early Permian floras of Texas representing extinct lineages of seed plants; Late Cretaceous dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and plesiosaurs; Eocene Green River insects and plants from the Western Interior; and drill cores of miniscule deep-sea foraminifera of the recent past. This record of the history of life representing the past 3.6 billion years consists of 64 percent that is represented by microfossils and invertebrates, 18 percent by plants, and 18 percent by vertebrates. Some of these fossils are archived in the Department’s database and consist of 800,000 specimen records of which 135,000 are primary and secondary type material.

The Paleobiology Department’s personnel is primarily organized by research, collections, staff support, and administrative functions. Currently (mid 2021), the research function consists of 12 research scientists/curators, three retired staff, 12 affiliated research staff, and six postdoctoral fellows. Collections management staff contains 11 technical managers. Support staff have diverse jobs that include the Fossil Preparation Lab with five preparators, three other technical specialists, and a fund manager. Approximately 55 staff constitute the Paleobiology department, of which 33 (60%) are substantially involved in research.

Research scientists in the Department work with numerous colleagues in institutions throughout the world in a collaborative and interdisciplinary manner, involving field and lab work in addressing fundamental questions about the history of life. To this effort, the Department’s research is organized in four sections: micropaleontology, paleobotany, invertebrate paleontology, and vertebrate paleontology. The micropaleontology section involves research on marine planktonic and benthic foraminifera, studied respectively by Dr Brian Huber and Dr. Martin Buzas (emeritus) from Cretaceous Period and Cenozoic Era deposits. Dr Huber’s research focuses on the use of foraminifera to determine Cretaceous climate and oceanography, response of foraminifera to the Cretaceous–Paleogene biotic crisis 66 million years ago, and foraminiferal biogeography and biostratigraphic correlations during the same time interval.

Paleobotanical studies involve Dr William DiMichele, who examines Paleozoic and early Mesozoic plants, and Dr Scott Wing who studies late Mesozoic and Cenozoic plants. Dr. DiMichele reconstructs the morphology and life habits of extinct plant lineages and analyzes their paleoecology and role in Paleozoic systems to determine long-term ecological and evolutionary patterns. Dr. Wing studies the systematics of flowering plants (angiosperms)  to determine late Mesozoic and Cenozoic paleoclimate of the Rocky Mountain region. He also uses plant morphological features and taphonomy to understand the ecologies of plants at major events such as the Cretaceous–Paleogene ecological crisis and the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum.

Invertebrate paleontology is covered by the five research scientists/curators of Drs Selina Cole, Stewart Edie, Doug Erwin, Gene Hunt, and Conrad Labandeira, that collectively study a broad array of invertebrate groups ranging from crinoids (feather stars, sea lilies), bivalves (clams), gastropods (snails), ostracods (seed shrimp), and arthropods (mostly insects); time periods from the latest Precambrian to the recent; and a variety of quantitative approaches. Dr Cole investigates the systematics, paleoecology, and macroevolution of Paleozoic crinoids that were much more abundant and diverse than those of today and analyzes patterns of community paleoecology and extinction. Dr Edie delves into the evolutionary history of bivalves, especially their patterns of lineage diversity and structural changes in body form through time. Dr. Erwin examines the macroevolutionary patterns in the diversification of Cambrian metazoans, evolutionary history of Paleozoic through Triassic gastropods, and the Permian mass extinction event 252 million years ago and its recovery during the Triassic. A long-term study of Dr Erwin is the origins of innovation and its detection in the fossil record. Dr. Hunt specializes in discerning macroevolutionary patterns in lineages of deep-sea ostracods, a group of small, bivalved crustaceans. The quantitative techniques that Dr Hunt has used for ostracods has been applied other fossil groups, such as mammals. Dr. Labandeira has examined the fossil history of arthropods and their associations with other organisms, particularly plants by examining the damage they leave on leaves. He has examined fossil insect diversity, the evolution of insect mouthparts, and the role of major ecological events in insect history.

Vertebrate paleontology has a strong presence in the Department, and is covered by Kay Behrensmeyer, Matthew Carrano, and Nicholas Pyenson, and Hans Sues that study vertebrates ranging from the Permian to the recent. Dr. Behrensmeyer analyzes the paleoecology of terrestrial environments, especially the late Cenozoic (Neogene) of Pakistan and Eastern Africa, the latter often in conjunction with ancient hominid studies. A second interest is vertebrate taphonomy, especially studies involving decomposition and disarticulation of carcasses. Dr Carrano studies large-scale evolutionary patterns within dinosaurs and is particularly focused on systematics of basal theropods; an additional interest is the reliability of the dinosaur fossil record. Dr Pyenson studies Cenozoic and recent marine mammals, especially whales, providing primary data on the ecology of marine mammals and other marine tetrapods, including Mesozoic lineages.

The Paleobiology Department represents a diverse community of researchers, curators, collections managers, technical staff, postdocs, students, visiting scientists, and administrative personnel that support the mission statement of the Smithsonian Institution to provide for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge”. Although the department has significantly downsized during the past two decades, it remains a vibrant center of investigative activity into the fossil record.