July 18, 1999
Neil and Ted's Excellent Adventure
A pair of Philadelphia paleontologists jet off to the Arctic, eat yuppie grub and maybe just maybe, change our understanding of evolution.
by Sono Motoyama
photographs by Trevor Dixon
Neil and Ted are a team. They complete each others sentences. They boyishly jockey for position in a conversation. They joke around together. And they compete in the subtle, perhaps unconscious way that is an undercurrent of many friendships. But mostly they work together very well. They even say as much. "Were a good team," Ted says.
Neil and Ted are paleontologists, part of the latest wave of young turks who have helped revitalize the field over the past several decades. Earlier in the century, from the early 30s to mid-60s, paleontology, the study of past life forms, had become stagnant, even complacent. Many paleontologists seemed satisfied to collect fossils, name them and describe them. But starting in the 60s, the science became more rigorous, biological theories were applied more precisely, links to evolutionary theory were explored, and basically the younger paleontologists began to kick butt and question the received wisdom of their forerunners. The result has been an explosion of new discoveries and some alterations in accepted theories of evolution, changing a musty, dusty field into a newly vital one.
Last year Neil and Ted unearthed the specimen they fondly refer to as "Fish Fingers," which landed them a date with Ted Koppel on Nightline.
Neil Shubin, an associate professor of biology at the University of Pennsylvania with a Harvard pedigree, and Ted Daeschler, associate research curator in vertebrate paleontology at the Academy of Natural Sciences, are a recent incarnation of the paleontological renaissance. Enthusiastic, young, articulate and media savvy, the two have done innovative research and made groundbreaking discoveries right here in Pennsylvania that would be the envy of many an older scientist. Their work has been featured on Nightline, and in the Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times and National Geographic (twice).
And just last week, they jetted off to the desolate, chilly territory of Nunavut in northernmost Canada on an expedition that could vault their careers to new heights and bring prestige to Penn and the Academy. Their mission is to find pre-dinosaur-age fossils and they hope to shed light on the largely undocumented transition of life on earth from water to dry land.
If Neil and Ted are a team like Butch and Sundance or Bill and Ted, its unclear who is Butch or Sundance or Bill or Ted. Certainly, Neil has been in the business longer, even though he is the younger of the two. As Ted will admit with some amount of forced jocularity, "Neil was on the fast track and I was on the slower track." A Philadelphia native with a doctorate from Harvard in organismic and evolutionary biology, Neil has been teaching at Penn for 10 years.
"Dr. Shubin is probably one of the most distinguished paleobiologists studying vertebrate evolution," says Dr. Andrew Binns, chair of Penns biology department, under whose rubric Shubin falls. "In terms of Penn, Dr. Shubin is one of our star scientists. Hes very articulate, and hes a great teacher. Obviously, its nice to have such an incredibly high caliber of scientist and educator amongst us."
Last year Neil won a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on early tetrapods (a tetrapod is any creature with four limbs) and has been published in some of the most well-respected peer-reviewed scientific journals in the field. "Dr. Shubin has presented a hypothesis of general patterns of the development of tetrapod limbs," says Dr. John Bolt, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Field Museum in Chicago. "He has significantly changed the way we think about this field." The study of limbs is crucial to evolutionary science because, for one thing, human development would have been impossible without limbs.
But if Neil is the theoretical guy with a strong background in biology, then Ted, a former Jerseyite, is the hands-on rock guy, who studied geology as an undergraduate at Franklin & Marshall College and then earned his doctorate at Penn studying under Neil.
Though Neil and Ted first met as teacher and student, being of similar age (38 and 40, respectively), disposition (bluff and optimistic), and even appearance (they both sport full beards and are about the same height), Neil and Ted became fast friends and partners. It was Teds doctoral project that produced some pretty amazing fossil discoveries at sites just a few hours from Philadelphia. And it was these discoveries that put Neil and Ted on the media map.
Out of the Ooze and Born to Cruise
In the Devonian period, from 410 million to 360 million years ago, the earth was a very different place. Pennsylvania was a subtropical swamp and, along with the rest of North America, part of a land mass that included Greenland and Europe. The greening of the earth had just begun, and flora could be found only near waterways; the land was devoid of vertebrate life all creatures (with the exception of some insects) were in the water, thus the Devonian is also called the Age of Fishes. It was from one of these fishy ancestors that all terrestrial vertebrate life sprang: amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and eventually humans.
In memory of our aquatic ancestors, one of Neils graduate students, Marcus Davis, has hanging on the wall of his office a framed woodcut of a fish with legs climbing out of the water that says "Out of the Ooze and Born to Cruise" and another of a fish head with the inscription "Mother." He takes the study of evolution, shall we say, personally. Just as the first amphibians were just basically specialized fish, he says, so too are humans. "Were still specialized fish to this day," he says in tones softened by his native Atlanta. "I have an aunt who researches my family history and tries to go as many generations back [as she can]. And Im doing it too, just much further back. Im trying to understand the transition from a fish to an amphibian, but Im also uncovering my own our ancient past."
It was at some point in the late Devonian that a trailblazing fish decided to sprout limbs and walk on land. Except, of course, it wasnt quite that simple, as Marcus explains. There were many intermediate stages in this crucial period in the history of vertebrate life. The first thing to understand is that there were (and are) two classes of fish, ray-finned fish and lobe-finned fish. "When you think of a fish, youre usually thinking of a ray-finned fish," Marcus says. "Those are the fish that are most common today." Their fins have spiny rods that radiate outward. Lobe-finned fish, however, are our more likely ancestors they have bonelike structures in their fins that closely resemble the structure of our arms or legs. New fossil discoveries give strong evidence that these structures existed long before any of them walked on land. They may have helped fish to maneuver in swampy areas, to travel over land for short distances if ponds were drying up, or to escape predators. These limblike appendages gradually developed into recognizable limbs, with toes or fingers. At some point well probably never know exactly when or what species did it one creature developed limbs strong enough to support it on land and became the Ur-amphibian.
The first discovery of an early tetrapod was back in 1929, in Greenland, called Ichthyostega. It had a head, backbone and tail very much like a fish, but also short, sturdy legs. For most of the century this was the lone example of a Devonian tetrapod. But recently, new fossil finds have been made around the globe in Scotland, Latvia, Greenland, Australia and Russia, and two fossils Teds babies were unearthed right here in Pennsylvania, bringing the world total of Devonian tetrapod fossils up to a whopping nine.
The Pennsylvania discoveries were made in a region that was thought to have been thoroughly explored. "When I started my project in Pennsylvania, the reputation of the rock formation that we were working in was, Oh, youll find a scrap of a fish [fossil] here and a scrap there but nothing good," Ted recalls. "Well, I dove in anyway."
In 1993, Ted, working under Neils mentorship, stumbled on his first important find. While fossils of other early tetrapods indicate that their limbs were too weak to support them without the buoyancy of water, this fossil of a shoulder girdle indicates that its owner, a 3-foot-long tetrapod, had enough musculature to allow it to walk on land. "This animal could have done push-ups," Ted likes to say. Found near Hyner in north-central Pennsylvania, at a site Ted calls Red Hill, the species was dubbed Hynerpeton bassetti (the species name was inspired by Teds great-grandfather Edward Bassett, who encouraged his familys interest in science). It was the first Devonian tetrapod found in the United States and at 365 million years, the third-oldest specimen of its kind in the world. A couple of years later, at the same site, Ted found yet another fossil of a Devonian tetrapod, the strong lower-left jaw of Densignathus (meaning "thick jaw") rowei (after Doug Rowe, Teds field man).
And just last year, a different site farther east, Powys Curve on Route 15, produced yet another breakthrough find, a specimen Neil and Ted fondly refer to as "Fish Fingers," and that is the fossil that landed them a date with Ted Koppel (after being preempted a couple of times by the Monica Lewinsky scandal). The specimen is of a fin that shows eight fingerlike structures, which the 6-foot-long fish may have used to push along the muddy bottom of a primeval swamp. A similar creature, Sauripterus taylorii, had been found in 1840 also in northern Pennsylvania, but Teds specimen is much better preserved. Before this discovery it was believed that fingers did not evolve until tetrapods had fully developed limbs. This specimen is clearly still a fish yet also clearly has fingers. Neil and Ted have co-authored papers on Sauripterus in Nature and on Hynerpeton in Science.
Not only have the Pennsylvania sites produced these three specimens, but they have also given insight into the whole Devonian ecosystem, including primitive sharks, armored fish, ray-finned fishes, early arthropods and plant life, making it one of the most productive sites for Devonian material in the world. "It took a lot of persistence, some luck, and thankfully some recent road work," Ted says of his amazing finds. The fruitfulness of both of his sites owes a lot to PennDOT road cuts; Sauripterus was actually in a rock that PennDOT had blasted and was being used as roadfill.
During his career, Ted has dabbled in fossils from many different ages, from a billion years old to 10,000 years old, but following his felicitous finds he now specializes in the Devonian period. And hes in a fairly empty field. In fact, Neil and Ted are pretty much the only specialists in Devonian tetrapods in the United States ("Dinosaurs get a lot of the publicity so a lot of people go in to study dinosaurs," Neil says). But an empty field also means that its wide open for making pioneering discoveries and advances. Compared to the fossil record of dinosaurs, very little is known of early tetrapods. Ted calls the study of the transition from fish to amphibians "one of the sexiest research questions" in paleontology today.
After their career-making finds in Pennsylvania, the dynamic duo decided on a new focus for their research. Though many paleontologists would have counted themselves lucky to find even one site for new Devonian material, the two wanted to conquer a new frontier. It was while looking at geological survey maps that Neil and Ted came across a great unexplored (paleontologically speaking) territory in the frozen north, an area they believe is rich with promise.
But First, an Expedition to Fresh Fields
Ted is very focused on food. "We went to Fresh Fields, and were bringing granola, Cliff Bars, ghee [clarified butter], vacuum-sealed salmon, Starbucks coffee, 30 pounds of bread, 20 pounds of crackers," Ted is saying. On their Arctic expedition, much of their fare will be made from dehydrated ingredients but only the best dehydrated ingredients. Also on the menu is pasta, muffins, cheese, pastrami, sausages, beef and turkey jerky, risotto, gumbo and shrimp etouffe. Not to mention mixed nuts and cocktails. "Its going to be quite a yuppie expedition."
Newly formed on April 1 of this year as a result of a land-claims settlement with the Inuit people, the Canadian territory of Nunavut (formerly part of the Northwest Territories, just west of Greenland) is thrilling to Neil and Ted because it is so barren and untouched. Vast expanses of rock stretch to the horizon. There may be some dangers running into polar bears is a vague possibility but Neil and Ted downplay these in favor of enthusing about their trips enormous potential (yet the pair refused to be photographed with a stuffed polar bear for this paper because they didnt want to scare their wives).
"Pennsylvania is covered in soils and forest," Ted explains. "The only chance to see bedrock is at road cuts. The Arctic has a much higher percent exposed." For these reasons the Arctic might seem an obvious choice for a paleontologist, but Ted says, "Nobody has ever had the balls to plan an expedition to go up there."
To Part Two