I’m a #reallifescientist

It’s been a while since my last blog post, and I’m about to deviate even further from my normal routine by sharing a rather personal post. OK, a very personal post.  But as someone who values science advocacy and outreach, I feel this post is nonetheless important to share with both the general public, and young aspiring scientists.

I think one of the triggers that has caused me to write this post has been this hashtag going around Twitter, #reallifescientist (and other derivations, such as #overlyhonestmethods#reallivescientist, #realcdnsci, etc.). The general sentiment is that if we as scientists show ourselves doing normal, everyday science, perhaps we will seem less like cold, calculating figures in white lab coats, and more like real people just doing real jobs. Scientists are usually perceived as “apart” from the average person, and have generally done a lousy job at communicating what it is we do, or, more importantly, why we do it. The hashtag #reallifescientist is an attempt to reclaim the title of “scientist” in a way that humanizes us. We’ve realized that we have screwed up colossally. In a world of “alternative facts” and outright, dangerous denial of human induced climate change, it is the scientists who are admitting we were wrong.


Let me be clear: we are not wrong about climate change (and a debate on the topic is beyond the scope of this post). Rather, we as scientists, who are used to failure and trying new approaches, have pin-pointed our lack of communication skills as a major problem. We’ve started to realize that we have isolated ourselves so much that the general public doesn’t understand us or the work we do. We have realized our mistakes and have been pushing for better science communication. We are trying to get out of our ivory towers and have conversations with the average person about how science can benefit them. We’re listening to the concerns of the oil workers whose livelihoods are affected by our push against fossil fuels. We’re honing our elevator pitches, crowd sourcing our questions with citizen science, making YouTube videos, marching on Washington, and taking to Twitter with hashtags like #reallifescientist.

Scientists, like myself, are trained to be logical, critical, and “publish, or perish”.  In asking for advice as to whether writing this post was a good idea, a friend and fellow scientist told me that our unwillingness to speak out about personal issues makes us seem “superhuman” to one another.  So what does that make the non-scientist think?

On Fire” by Gunshow

I’m about to share some very personal information.  I’m taking a professional “risk” in telling such a personal story, but I feel it is important to share.  With hashtags like #reallifescientist emerging on Twitter, and the debate about whether or not science should become involved in politics, I see an underlying need for us to speak out as people, not just scientists.  I also want young, aspiring scientists who may be struggling to keep up with midterms, relationships, mental health, and an uncertain future that yes, science is hard, but don’t you dare give up.  So here is my story:

I’m a #reallifescientist who works on both fossil and modern ocean ecosystems. I am part of a growing field called conservation palaeobiology, which seeks to use the fossil record as a way of understanding modern ecological crises. My PhD looks at the ecological implications of ocean acidification (caused by increased absorption of carbon dioxide into the oceans) through time. Given the drastic increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide due to humans and greenhouse gases, ocean acidification is an absolutely exploding topic of research. And yes, I’m riding the wave because I’m a #reallifescientist who will also be looking for a job in the near future.

I’m a #reallifescientist in the midst of a massive, 8 – 9 month long project at Bodega Marine Laboratory in California (I know, lucky me, I’ve missed the Canadian winter – just kidding, I really miss it). I’m investigating how ocean acidification, as well as the fear of predation, affects shell growth in two different species of snails. The idea is that if snails can’t grow their shells as well in acidic oceans, they may be more susceptible to predation by shell-crushing crabs. If the crabs are able to just wipe out all of the snails, then the crabs have nothing to eat and crab fisheries may be devastated. Or there may be an explosion of the foods that the snails used to eat, which could displace other organisms. Generally, if you mess with the snails, the whole food web may unravel.

The project is incredibly time consuming, consisting of daily water changes which take about 3 hours, photography and measurements of 320 snails, thousands of water and chemical samples and analyses, field work to get food for the snails, plus data entry and analysis. I work at the lab all day, then come home and do data entry all night. I’m lucky if I go to bed by 1, then I get up early to bike 8 kilometres to the lab, rain or shine. I knew what I was getting into, but it’s difficult all the same.  I also know that many grad students struggle with similar work loads.

Helping with water samples at Bodega Marine Laboratory.  Photo credit: Priya Shukla (please check out her amazing diversity in STEM blog, the Prosaic Mosaic)

I’m a #reallifescientist, but this is the most I’ve written since arriving to California. I’ve only read about 5 papers too. I’m trying not to feel too bad about that because my biggest goal when I started my PhD was to recognize and fight impostor syndrome (the general feeling that you are not good or smart enough, and sooner or later, you’ll be outed as an “impostor”). As I said, I basically live and breathe this project, so everything else will just have to wait. I have learned a lot about modern ecology, and met so many amazing minds, which was the goal in coming to BML.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I am bad at statistics. Again, I recognize impostor syndrome, but I also recognize that there are skills which I need to improve upon. It’s important that everyone understands that scientists can’t be good at everything, and there are lots of different kinds of “smarts”. I’m really good at intuitively understanding organisms and recognizing patterns in nature, and I really like looking at how organisms interact. But put a formula in front of me, or ask me which test I should use to confirm the pattern I think I’m seeing, and my mind is usually blank. I’m usually right about the pattern, but just not good at knowing how to put a number to it.

I’m a #reallifescientist and a Vanier Scholar, which basically means that the Canadian government gave me a lot of money to do science. This is not meant to be a brag, but more to show that:

  1. Despite being rather horrible at statistics, I am still a good scientist. I have several lead authored papers in good journals, and I know I crushed my master’s degree.
  2. Invertebrate palaeontology and conservation palaeobiology are important and valid fields of study. Vanier scholarships are the biggest awards Canadian grad students can get. Snails and brachiopods may not be as flashy as the dinosaurs I thought I was going to study when I applied for university as a teen, but I find the real world impacts of palaeoecology much more satisfying.
  3. Yes, Canadian taxpayers, you are paying me to change snail water, but don’t worry, I am working hard for the money, and should have at least a couple of papers to show for it.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also tired. I started my PhD in September of 2015. I felt confident. I’d survived my Master’s well, and was a contender for several major scholarships. I had a really cool project lined up, and felt a PhD would give me lots of time to learn all of the statistics I needed to know. And then my world began to fall apart.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a niece. My aunt was sick with terminal cancer of the throat when I started my PhD, and even after suffering a stroke, it took her three weeks to die. It was agony to watch her, my mom, my aunts, and the rest of the family go through the pain of such a slow death. I got into a routine of calling my mom, the youngest in a family of six kids, every day after school to see if my aunt was still alive, hoping, every time, that she was gone. That it would be over. It was the first time my mom had lost a sibling, and it was horrible to watch her go through that pain, knowing that as the youngest in the family, it is likely going to happen again and again.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a spouse. I started my PhD two weeks after getting married (I was writing my Vanier scholarship application two days before the wedding), but had to move out of my house and to a different city to do so. My husband has been so amazingly supportive, but I constantly struggle with the guilt of my decision to put our life on hold to pursue my career. I know I’m doing what I need to, but it is hard because I know I’m hurting him by making him lonely. It’s hard because I miss him too.

Just an engineer and a scientist, studying light reflection at the Montreal Science Centre

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a grandchild. My grandmother, and last remaining grandparent, died very unexpectedly this fall.  I have been struggling with her death much more than I expected. I think it’s because we were so close. She and I were such kindred spirits, and while I lived far away, I called her regularly. We talked about anything and everything, for hours at a time. I feel like she understood me better than anyone, even my husband. She was up to date on all of my science pursuits, and had even attempted to read my latest publications. She was a writer too. In fact, they found her at the kitchen table, pen in hand, having just completed her first novel.  We just had this connection. But she had been busy. I had been busy. And I forgot to call her. And then it was too late.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a friend. My best friend from high school lost her dad when she was 10. Now, she’s pregnant with a second child that her mom might not get to see. Her mom is gravely ill with cancer, so much so that my friend and her long time fiancé decided to get married this past weekend, just to make sure that her mom was there for the wedding. I’m sad for my friend, and sad that I can’t be there for her. I’ve watched two other close friends lose parents to cancer, and never figured out how to help. I mean, how can you?

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m also a sister. When I started my PhD, I moved in with her. Shortly after my aunt died, my sister found out that she had a brain tumor. This has been a horrible, recurring nightmare in my life because my husband, then boyfriend, almost died of a brain tumor when we were 20. My husband, it turns out, was the lucky one. He had surgery, and has been perfectly fine ever since. My sister has not been so lucky. She had her first surgery in January of 2016, and while the surgery itself went fine, the surgeons were not able to get all of the tumor. My sister went on various drugs to see if they could control the tumor, but nothing worked. So on Halloween, she went in for a second surgery. I had booked plane tickets to come down to California, and had to reschedule them because the surgery was so last minute. We expected the surgery to go as well as the first one, and it did, but because it was a repeat surgery, they had to put a lumbar stint in her back for a few days. I left for California the day before she was released from the hospital, feeling satisfied that she was on the mend.

I plunged right into my work when I arrived to California, and then joined most of the lab in attending a professional conference in Monterey at the end of the week. Then I got a call that my sister was back in the hospital having contracted a resilient form of bacterial meningitis from the lumbar stint. She was to be in isolation for three weeks, but we merely viewed this as an inconvenience for her.

On one night of the conference, we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and I spent the evening ogling all of the beautiful ocean displays. Meanwhile, my sister had lost the ability to walk over the course of a few hours, and her throat had inexplicably closed up. They called a code blue on her, and had to force a breathing tube down her throat and drill a hole in her head to relieve pressure on her brain from the meningitis. I found out the next morning in the middle of the conference, and sort of forgot where I was.

The BML crew at Monterey Bay Aquarium.  I didn’t know that a code blue had just been called on my sister. Photo credit: Gabriel Ng

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I broke down in the middle of a professional conference. A professor I had never met before came up to me, gave me a big hug, and held my hands as I tried to breathe.  I don’t even know her name. I wanted to come home, but my parents told me that my sister was going to be fine. That I should just wait because it looked like she was recovering. But by the Monday after we had returned from the conference, my mom told me to come home. My sister’s cerebellum had been pushed down into her spinal column, preventing circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid, and causing paralysis. They had to do an emergency surgery to remove part of the back of her skull and a small piece of the lowest brain to make room for her cerebellum. I booked the next available flight, but it wasn’t until Tuesday evening. That Monday night, laying in bed in a different country with no way to get home, was the worst night of my life. And I had already experienced my boyfriend going through emergency brain surgery.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I abandoned my project because who cares about science, or funding, or US Visas, when your sister might be dying? I got home the night after her surgery, and my husband, who had driven up to take care of my parents, picked me up from the airport and took me to the hospital in the middle of the night to see my sister. She had so many tubes, screens, and sensors hooked up to her.

She spent the next two and a half weeks in ICU. It was really touch and go for the first two weeks, and we really didn’t know if she was going to be OK, let alone ever be able to walk again. But after almost two weeks, she was finally able to breathe on her own.  Regaining mobility took a little longer.

I stayed for just over three weeks before I returned to California, and when I left, she had just taken her first few steps with a walking machine. She was in the hospital for two months, but is thankfully now on the mend. She is still working on her balance and regaining strength in her muscles, but hopefully my mom will be able to go home in a few weeks, and my sister will be able to live on her own again.  After everything she’s been through, part of the tumor is still there, but they will not operate on her again. She’s been started on some drugs to control the tumor, so wish us luck that the drugs work this time.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but coming back to California, just for a project, has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It’s both the reason I am “stuck” here, and the thing keeping me sane (or busy). I expected some homesickness with this trip, but I miss my sister terribly. I’ve met so many amazing, kind people here, and if it weren’t for them, I’m sure I would be very unwell right now. But, I panic every time I don’t hear from my family in a few days. I know it is unnecessary, but having been through this once before with my husband, I know it takes a while for the paranoia and fear to go away. Not to mention the guilt of not being there for my sister, let alone my husband, and my friend.

My sister is the superhuman.

Thankfully, I might be starting to see some results with my experiments.

After all, I’m a #reallifescientist, and none of my personal problems are stopping me from doing a damn good job.  Sure, I chose sleep over collecting shell measurements in February, but the loss of a few data points is not going to kill my project.  My mind may be focused on my sister rather than writing my methods section, but at least I’m writing something.  My goal is to submit the results of this project to a journal by the end of the year. Even if I don’t make that deadline, I know I will get it done, and will do it well. I also have to complete my candidacy exam soon after I return to Canada. But I plan to take a long holiday first.

Science takes time, and sometimes our personal lives make it hard to stay motivated.  We may be burdened with family tragedies, relationship issues, personal obligations, or poor mental and physical health. But even if we struggle, or fall behind on the endless proposals, deadlines, and mountains of data, we will continue to work, and do it well.  So be kind to yourself.

I’m a #reallifescientist, but I’m a human being first.  And I know I’m not alone.


Looking for some more information?  Check out these and many other resources:
Science Advocacy:
What early-career researchers can do to advocate for science, Science Magazine
The Science of Science Advocacy, The Scientist
The so-so state of science communication in Canada, University Affairs
Social media:
“A Facebook-Style Shift in How Science is Shared”, The New York Times
Sh*t Academics Say (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Blog)
#overlyhonestmethods#reallifescientist#realcdnsci#reallivescientist, #academic
Impostor Syndrome:
“Your Project is Good Enough for a Talk” by fellow Canadian palaeontologist, Pseudoplocephalus
Sakulku, J. and Alexander, J. 2011. The Impostor Phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioural Science. 6:73-92.
“No, you’re not an Impostor”, Science Magazine
“Feel like a fraud?”, American Psychological Association
Work/Life Balance in Academia:
The Professor is In blog
“Can scientists really have work/life balance?”, Nature Jobs
Mental Health in Academia:
“Dark thoughts: why mental illness is on the rise in academia”, The Guardian
For parents:
“The Superwoman fallacy: what it really takes to be an academic and parent”, The Guardian
Science advocacy and communication:
“What scientists should talk about: their personal stories”, The Guardian (this is from 2013!)
What early-career researchers can do to advocate for science, Science Magazine
The Science of Science Advocacy, The Scientist
The so-so state of science communication in Canada, University Affairs
The Prosaic Mosaic, Medium
The Bearded Lady Project

Fossil Friday #11 – Crinoids: the Ocean’s Feather Dusters!

The modern ocean is full of scary, disgusting, bizarre, awesome, and adorable organisms (multiply that by several thousand times, and you can cover prehistoric oceans too). While crinoids might not strike terror into your heart, they are pretty strange animals, which are often mistaken for plants at first glance (the name crinoid means “sea lily”).  I personally find them somewhat adorable (living, swimming feather dusters?  I mean, come on).

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Fossil and modern crinoids.  Image credit: http://kuow.org/post/living-gears-help-bug-jump

Crinoids are a class of echinoderms, the group which includes creatures like sea stars, urchins, sand dollars, and sea cucumbers.  Echinoderms are characterized by having some form of five-sided symmetry, and a system of thousands of tiny appendages called tube feet, which allow the organisms to move and feed.  Many echinoderms have five or more arms which are lined with tube feet, often improving their ability to catch food.  Another characteristic of echinoderms is that they have a skeleton formed in the middle layer of the skin, just like vertebrates, which actually makes echinoderms our closest invertebrate relatives.  Most other invertebrates have a skeleton which forms in the outer layer of skin, like the exoskeleton of an insect.

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Echinoderms!  Top left is a crinoid.  Image credit: http://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-phylum-annelida-and-vs-echinodermata/

Crinoids are composed of three or four main sections: the holdfast, stalk (sometimes), calyx, and arms.  At the base of the animal is a kind of root system, which is used for attachment onto a surface or substrate.  This is called the holdfast (get it? It holds the crinoid fast/tight to something.  I love it when terminology makes sense).  Some crinoids then have a stalk, which leads to the head, including the mouth and anus, which is called a calyx.

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Anatomy of a crinoid.  Image credit: http://dcfossils.org/index.php/gallery9/

Why the feather duster analogy for crinoids?  Coming from the calyx, crinoids have a lot of very thin, long arms, with secondary arms (called pinnules) that look like the main barb and secondary filaments on a feather.  The pinnules on a crinoid’s arm are covered in long tube feet, which act like a net to catch food particles out of the water.  The tube feet then move food down the arm to the mouth, which is located on the calyx.  The overall effect is that crinoid arms look like a bunch of feathers.  Hence: feather duster of the sea.

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A beautiful modern crinoid.  Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/30229322@N04/4950833073/

As I mentioned, modern crinoids can, indeed, swim, flicking their arms to paddle through the water.  They do get tired fairly easily, so swimming isn’t usually sustained for more than a minute or so.  Some crinoids can also walk or drag themselves along the ocean floor.  This is especially advantageous if they get knocked over, covered in sediment, or perhaps need to flee a predator.  Check out this YouTube video of a swimming crinoid in action:

While most modern crinoids just have the holdfast, calyx, and arms, the majority of fossil crinoids also had a stalk.  The stalk gives them the appearance more of a pinwheel than a feather duster.  The stalk is comprised of a series of disks (called columnals) which are stacked on top of one another, and elevate the calyx high above the ocean floor, much like the trunk of a tree.  Imagine a series of poker chips (the cheap plastic ones with the ridges along the edge) stacked on top of one another, with a hole in the middle and a string (liagment) passing through and holding them together.  That is basically the stalk of a fossil crinoid.  However, not that long ago, modern, stalked deep sea crinoids were discovered, leading to the group being termed “living fossils”.

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A close up of crinoid columnals.  Image credit: http://www.thefossilforum.com/index.php?/topic/11894-mystery-crinoid/



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Modern, stalked, deep-sea crinoids.  Image credit: http://cnso.nova.edu/messing/crinoids/1%20Web%20page%20intro.html

Given the nature of a crinoid’s skeleton, which is composed of many tiny pieces, just like the bones of vertebrates, we usually don’t see intact crinoids in the fossil record.  Instead, we more commonly find crinoid columnals, and other disarticulated pieces, scattered among our other fossils.  Sometimes, you can find the calyx still intact, but they are often still very fragile.  There are some beautiful examples of completely intact crinoids, but these are somewhat rare, and require exceptional preservation, just like the conditions needed to find intact vertebrate skeletons.

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Dense crinoid columnals in rock.  Image credit: http://drydredgers.org/fieldtrips/trip201210p1.htm


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Beautiful intact crinoids.  Image credit: http://www.fallsoftheohio.org/Echinoderms_Crinoids.html

Crinoids may seem like an obscure group now, but they were one of the dominant ocean invertebrate groups until they were badly decimated by the end-Permian mass extinction, which wiped out about 85 – 95% of all living things, and is the worst mass extinction event ever recorded on Earth.  Luckily, crinoids did manage to recover a bit, and you can now enjoy pictures and videos of the ocean’s very own feather dusters and pinwheels.

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The feather dusters of the sea.  Image credit: https://pinegreenwoods.blogspot.ca/2015/04/montessori-geology-fossil-crinoid.html

As always, if you have questions, comments, or requests for blog topics, please let me know!

For more information on crinoids, check out these resources:



Fossil Friday #10 – Bryozoans!

Bryozoans are the coolest little animals you’ve never heard of.  And when I say little, I mean really little.  As I tell my students, if you aren’t using a microscope, you’re missing the point.  You can’t really see anything without a scope.

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Each of these contains hundreds to thousands of individuals.  Image credit: http://www.kgs.ku.edu/Extension/fossils/bryozoan.html
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There, that’s better.  Notice the scale bar.  Image credit: https:/ectoprocta.wordpress.com/

Otherwise know as “moss animals”, these tiny little critters are mostly colonial, and most commonly found in marine environments.  They are generally thought to be related to brachiopods and another group called phoronids, all of which have a specialized feeding organ called a lophophore.  The lophophore is a cilliated (tentacled) structure which actively pumps water/food to the mouth (located at the base of the lophophore).

Most bryozoans secrete a hard skeleton in which they live, much like a coral.  Individuals within the colony are called zooids.  Some types of bryozoans have specialized zooids that only perform one function for the colony, such as providing food, defense, or reproduction.  Because they are colonial, bryozoans are capable of both sexual and asexual (budding) reproduction.  To reproduce sexually, sperm, and sometimes ova, are released into the water column (some colonies with specialized reproductive zooids will keep ova in brooding chambers).

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Fossil bryozoan zooids. Image credit: http://pleistocenekokemushi.myspecies.info/gallery?page=8
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Reproductive zooids (ovicells).  Image credit: http://www.bryzoa.net/cheilostomata/petraliellidae/sinucon.html

I won’t get into the systematics (grouping) of bryozoans, because it is complicated, and generally unhelpful to the non-specialist (if any specialists are reading this, I apologize.  Just know that I love bryozoans!).  However, there are two basic ways that bryozoan colonies can grow: erect, or encrusting.

Erect colonies grow upright into all sorts of beautiful shapes.  Some grow into simple branching structures that look like trees , and some, like the fenestrates, grow to look like screen doors (but pretty).  Others, like the fossil Archimedes, grow into corkscrew spirals.  A lot of modern erect bryozoans look leafy, like a head of lettuce, or bushy.

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Fossil branching bryozoans.  Image credit: http://www/blackriverfossils.org/KentonCounty/tabid/53/TripReports/3277/Default.aspx
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Archimedes close up.  Image credit: 
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Fenestrate bryozoan colony.  Image credit: http://www/fallsoftheohio.org/Bryozoans.html

Encrusting forms are usually flattened, but may grow into large bulbous structures.  They can grow into sheets that encrust other organisms, or form large, dense colonies.  Interestingly, during much of the fossil record, the majority of bryozoans grow into erect forms, but in the modern, most bryozoans are flat and encrusting.  These modern encrusting forms are sometimes called “foulers” because they clog up pipes and foul up the sides of ships.

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Encrusting bryozoans. Image credit: http://pleistocenekokemushi.myspecies.info/

Bryozoans can form colonies of millions of individuals, but still never come close to reaching the size of other colonial animals, like coral reefs.  The result is that bryozoans just never reach the same biomass as other marine fossils, which might make them seem like a somewhat unimportant group, despite being common marine organisms since the Cambrian/Ordovician.  Bryozoans are, however, an important group, and totally rad (in my humble opinion).

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Modern encrusting bryozoans are sometimes really red!  Image credit: http://flickriver.com/photos/mcduck/tags/bryozoan

For example, bryozoans are often used to examine how sessile (non-moving) animals interact with one another, or compete for space.  Imagine you are a little larvae that has settled on a susbtrate that is now going to be your home for the rest of your life, and some other larvae settles too close to you, or perhaps on top of you.  If you can’t move, how do you deal with this crowding or lack of space?  As bryozoans are colonial, they are able to respond and grow the colony in all sorts of interesting ways.  Some even have claw-like zooids that can pinch  predators or anyone that gets to close.  Many bryozoans will compete for “superiority” by trying to overgrow the other colony, allowing us to directly examine competitive relationships, something that is usually not possible in the fossil record (e.g. McKinney 1995).

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Overgrowth and competition in bryozoans.  Image credit: https://woostergeologists.scotblogs.wooster.edu/2010/08/05/a-bryozoan-paradise-in-nothern-japan/

Bryozoans also commonly encrust other organisms, such as brachiopods, allowing us to examine these relationships “in place”, which again, is a rare occurrence in the fossil record  For example, are bryozoans beneficial to their hosts?  Do they provide protection/camouflage from the host’s predators?  Or are they parasitic, and prevent the host from feeding or moving properly?  This is the area of study that I specialized in for my undergrad and M.Sc (check out my publications).

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Brachiopod with encrusters (sheet in the middle is a bryozoan – zoom in!).  Image credit: https://paleontology.voices.wooster.edu/phylum-brachiopoda-the-lamp-shells-continued-phylum-bryozoa-fuzzy-little-moss-animals-september-29-october-1/

I think bryozoans are fascinating, simply because they operate on a fundamentally different size scale compared to most other animals.  They are also very aesthecially pleasing.

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Look at them smiling for you.  What’s not to like?  Image credit: http://www/thefossilforum.com/index.php?/topic/48908-s-texas-cretaceous-bryozoa/

Fun tidbit for those of you that read this far: apparently the bryozoan Bugula neritina creates a chemical (bryostatin) which is being tested for use in the treatment of cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.  Can bryozoans get any more awesome?

Want to learn more about bryozoans?  Check out these resources:

McKinney, F. K. 1995. Taphonomic effects and preserved overgrowth relationships among encrusting marine organisms. Palaios. 10:279-282.





Coming soon: Bryozoan Paleobiology by Paul D. Taylor

Fossil Friday #9 – Stromatoporoids vs. Stromatolites

One of the hardest sets of terminology and fossils/structures for students to remember is stromatoporoids and stromatolites.  Not only are the names painfully similar, but they also look very similar, until you get your nose next to them.  Both can be massive (tens to hundreds of metres), both appear finely laminated, and both can be round or bulbous in shape.  The short version is that stromatoporoids (left image below) are body fossils, and stromatolites are more sedimentary structures (right image below).  Hard to tell apart, right?

The longer version:


Stromatoporoids are considered to be an extinct group of sponges that were particularly common during the Silurian and Devonian.  In Alberta, stromatoporoids formed giant reefs during the Devonian.  A large reef formation (biostrome) can be observed in the Moberly Member of the Waterways Formation, which outcrops around Fort McMurray, right underneath the oil sands (McMurray Formation).

Sponges, including stromatoporoids, are the basal group for our own kingdom (Animalia).  Stromatoporoids are usually classified within the sclerosponges, a group which secretes a calcareous skeleton (most other sponges do not have a solid skeleton, but instead make their skeletons from distinct hard pieces called spicules).  The skeletons of stromatoporoids are put down in layers called laminae, and separated into distinct chambers (galleries) by upright pillars.  Water would have flowed through the galleries, where ciliated cells would have drawn nutrients from the water.

Image result for cross section of stromatolite vs stromatoporoid
Image credit: https://www.geol.umd.edu/~tholtz/G331/lectures/331porifera.html


A stromatoporoid showing laminae (horizontal lines), pillars (vertical lines), and galleries (chambers formed from intersections of laminae and pillars).

Often times, a microscope or hand lens is required to see the laminae, pillars, and galleries of stromatoporoids, but occasionally you get really nice preservation, as in the image above (a specimen from the Waterways Fm.), or this specimen below (from the Potter Farm Fm. of Michigan – Devonian).  Another, sometimes more easily observed feature of stromatoporoids, at least when present, are the small bumps that would have been on the outer wall or surface of the animal.  These structures are called mamelons, and would have probably assisted with drawing water into the galleries.


Stromatolites are sedimentary structures which are created when a layer of sticky cyanobacteria traps sediment layer by layer, sometimes creating huge mounds or sheets.  Stromatolites are one of the earliest organically formed structures, dating back to the Precambrian. A new paper by Nutman et al. (2016) found stromatolites in Greenland which they determined to be 3.7 billion years old!


Because stromatolites are formed by algae/cyanobacteria, they are still technically considered fossils, but what is preserved is layers and layers of sediment.  When you look closely at a stromatolite, you will see laminae, but they are not well defined or regular as in stromatoporoids, and they do not have any kind of vertical structure such as pillars or galleries.

Image result for cross section of stromatolite
Image credit: http://weeklysciencequiz.blogspot.ca/2012/06/stromatolites.html

One other cool thing about stromatolites is that they still exist today.  There are some in Shark’s Bay, Australia that are about 2,000 – 3,000 years old!  Check out their website for some more pictures and videos of stromatolites.

Image result for modern stromatolites
Modern stromatolites of Shark’s Bay.  Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stromatolite




Nutman, A., P., Bennett, V., C., Friend, C. L. R., Van Kranendonk, M., J., and Chivas, A., R. 2016. Rapid emergence of life shown by discovery of 3,700-million-year-old microbial structures. Nature. 537:535–538.

Fossil Friday #8 – Science Literacy Week

It’s Science Literacy Week here in Canada, so in celebration, this week’s Fossil Friday post is a short compilation of some great books and reading resources for anyone interested in palaeontology, ecology, evolution, and even the Canadian Rockies.

Here’s a list of some of my favourite natural science related books:

(1) A Natural History of Shells.
Vermeij, G. J. 1993. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

This one is probably my favourite textbooks of all time.  If you like evolution, palaeontology, or ecology, go read everything by Geerat Vermeij.  He is a genius and arguably one of the top scientists in the world right now.

Image result for A Natural History of Shells book


(2) Fossil Invertebrates
Richard S. Boardman, R. S., Cheetham, A. H., and Rowell, A. J. 1987. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.

There is another book by the same title published by Taylor and Lewis in 2007.

(3) Fossil Invertebrates
Taylor, P. D., and Lewis, D. N. 2007. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Paul Taylor is another leader in the field, and has done a lot of work on encrustation/biotic interactions.  I recommend many of the papers he and Mark Wilson have written.

Image result for fossil invertebrates taylor and lewis


(4) Invertebrate Palaeontology and Evolution.
Clarkson, E. N. K. 4th edition. 2008. Blackwell Scientific Publications, Oxford.

Image result for invertebrate palaeontology and evolution clarkson 4th edition


(5) Geographical Ecology: Patterns in the Distribution of Species.
MacArthur, R. H. 1984. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.

This one is pretty math-heavy, but it is considered a classic, and one of the last things MacArthur wrote (he died quite young). MacArthur was another genius and is generally regarded as the top ecologist of all time (he, along with E. O. Wilson, came up with major ecological theories, such as island biogeography).

Image result for macArthur books ecology

(6)Predator-Prey Interactions in the Fossil Record.
Eds. Kelley, P. H., Kowalewski, M., Hansen, T. A. 2003. Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers, New York, New York.

Full of really interesting chapters on a large variety of animals from a lot of different authors.

Image result for predator prey book kelley

(7) Handbook of the Canadian Rockies
Gadd, B. reprint 2016. Corax Press, Canmore, Alberta.

I’ve included this one because it covers everything from plants, to birds, to geology, and even humans!  Great for a general audience, and a super fun, informative, and entertaining read!


(7) Living and Fossil Brachiopods.
M. J. S. Rudwick. 1970. Hutchinson University Library, London

A must-read for anyone studying brachiopods.  It might be a bit outdated, but it is very comprehensive and easy to read.

Image result for Living and fossil brachiopods rudwick

There are lots of other classics out there, such as anything by S. J. Gould, M. Rosenzwig, etc., etc., etc.

What are you reading right now?  Anything to add to my list?  Leave me a comment, and happy reading!

Fossil Friday #7 – Predation and Repair Scars

Last week, I introduced the topic of studying predation in the fossil record, and some of the kinds of traces, such as drill holes, we can look at to give us clues as to how predators and prey interacted in the past.

Another kind of predation trace that we use in invertebrate palaeontology is called a repair scar.  Repair scars are generated when a durophagous (shell-crushing) predator, such as a crab or fish, attack a shelled animal, but for some reason, fail to kill the prey.  If the shelled animal is able to avoid being eaten, it will start to repair the damage to its shell, resulting in a visible scar where its shell was damaged.  It is essentially the same as the callus that develops on a broken bone after it heals.  Here is a picture of a snail with a large repair scar caused by a crab inserting the tip of its claw into the shell and peeling it back (like how you would peel an orange).  I’ve outlined the scar on the right image.

Predator – Red Rock Crab (Cancer productus)

Wait a second.  Why would you study failed predation in the fossil record?  Why wouldn’t you study successful predation?  If you think about the nature of crushing predation, a successful attack is likely going to destroy most or all of the shell.  It is much less likely for shell fragments to be preserved, and good luck trying to find or fit all of the shell bits back together.  That kind of preservation just doesn’t happen (Stafford and Leighton, 2011).  Although, check out a recent paper by members of our lab on a creative way to deal with all of the fragments, at least in the modern (Leighton et al. 2016).

A rare example of an intact, successfully peeled snail (Nucella lamellosa).  A shell like this is usually destroyed by the predator, and unlikely to preserve in the fossil record, even in this state.

So how can we know that repair scars, or failed attacks, are actually an accurate proxy for how much predation actually occurred?  This is where studies of modern ecosystems come in very handy, and one of the reasons that our lab spends half of its time studying live ecosystems, even though we are palaeontologists.

When I was a Master’s student, I took a research class out at Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre where we looked at the rate of repair scars on populations of a common snail (Tegula funebralis – we called it Chlorostoma funebrale in the paper, but the name has since changed) (Molinaro et al. 2014).  We collected the Tegula from eight different sites that we knew had different levels of predation based on previous studies, which had shown that the rate of crab predation strongly correlates with the environmental energy (quiet water settings have high levels of crab predation, whereas wave-dominated water settings have very low rates of crab predation) (Robels 1987; Robels et al. 1989).  We found that there was a strong inverse relationship between repair scar frequency and the energy in the system.  In other words, we found the highest rates of predation in quite water settings, where there were more crabs, which corroborated our hypothesis that repair scars accurately reflect the rate of predation in a system.

A giant repair scar on a modern snail (Tegula funebralis).


Knowing that repair scars are an accurate proxy for the rate of predation allows us to ask all sorts of interesting questions, both in the modern, and in the fossil record.  We can answer simple, but important questions about how many predators there were in a system (Stafford et al. 2014), or how and why the rates of predation differ between places or time (Leighton, 2002). We can also look at more specific problems, such as whether reaching a certain size can prevent a predator from being able to crush you (Richards and Leighton 2012), or how the development of spines can make it impossible for crushing predators to grab prey (Linge-Johnsen et al. 2013), and what it all might mean for the evolution of both predator and prey (Vermeij 1987).

Repair scars on brachiopods.  Figure 3 (Richards and Leighton 2012).

I am actually going to be looking at predation and repair scars on a couple of different snails and their ancestors for much of my dissertation, and will be using things like repair frequency to help me determine predation pressure along the modern and recent coast of the Pacific Northwest, and throughout the Plio-Pleistocene.  My goal is to see how ocean acidification affects interactions between predators and prey through time, so tracking changes in repair scars will be helpful might indicate if there are changes in predation rates, or at least failed predation.


Leighton, L. R. 2002. Inferring predation intensity in the marine the fossil record. Paleobiology. 28:328-342.

Leighton, L. R., Chojnacki, N. C., Stafford, E. S., Tyler, C. L., and Schneider, C. L. 2016. Categorization of shell fragments provides a proxy for environmental energy and predation intensity. Journal of the Geological Society. 173:711715.

Linge-Johnsen, S. A. Ahmed, M., and Leighton, L., R. 2013. The effect of spines of a Devonian productide brachiopod on durophagous predation. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 375:30–37.

Molinaro, D. J., Stafford, E. S., Collins, B. M. J., Barclay, K. M., Tyler, C. L., Leighton, L. R., 2014. Peeling out predation intensity in the fossil record: A test of repair scar frequency as a suitable proxy for predation pressure along a modern predation gradient. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 412:141-147.

Richards, E. J., and Leighton, L. R. 2012. Size refugia from predation through time: a case-study of two Middle Devonian brachiopod genera. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 363 – 364:163-171.

Robels, C. 1987. Predator Foraging Characteristics and Prey Population Structure on a Sheltered Shore. Ecology. 68:1502 – 1514.

Robels, C. Sweetnam, D. A., Dittman, D. 1989. Diel variation of intertidal foraging by Cancer productus L. in British Columbia. Journal of Natural History. 23:1041 – 1049.

Stafford, E. S., and Leighton, L. R. 2011. Vermeij Crushing Analysis: A new old technique for estimating crushing predation in gastropod assemblages. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 305:123 – 137.

Stafford, E. S., Tyler, C. L., and Leighton, L. R. 2014. Gastropod shell repair tracks predator abundance. Marine Ecology. 36:1176 – 1184.

Vermeij, G. J. 1987. Evolution and Escalation. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.


Fossil Friday #6 – Predation and Drill Holes

Predation is a pretty big topic in palaeontology, but not as straight forward as you might expect.  We all have this image in our head of the T. rex from Jurassic Park feasting on another dinosaur (or perhaps the lawyer on the toilet), but where does that information come from?  Unlike in Jurassic Park, humans were never alive to actually witness a T. rex eating a Triceratops, so how can we be certain those interactions ever occurred?

Anti-predatory adaptations, such as armour, spikes, frills, are a good first clue that something is trying not to be eaten.  Even better, though, is the actual evidence of an interaction preserved on the hard parts of either predator, or (more often) prey.  For example, there is a really nice specimen of a Triceratops at the T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, SK, where you can see tooth marks from a predator.

Tooth marks in bone (T. rex Discovery Centre, Royal Saskatchewan Museum, Eastend, SK)

Unfortunately for vertebrate palaeontologists, bigger animals are not as abundant, so the occurrence of such fossils is really special and rare.  With invertebrate palaeontology, we have a bit of an easier time.  One type of predation trace preserved on invertebrate prey is called a drill hole, which is a hole in the shell of a prey animal created by predatory gastropods (snails).

Fossil bivalve shell with drill hole from a predatory snail (Pinecrest Fm., Late Pliocene)
Drilled fossil gastropods from the Pinecrest Fm. (Late Pliocene, Florida)

If you remember my post about cone snails, I mentioned that gastropods have a special feeding organ called a radula, which is usually rough like a cat’s tongue and used for scraping food.  In the case of drilling gastropods, they have another organ called an accessory boring organ (ABO), which secretes material to soften the shell of their prey as they scrape with their radula.  One of the more common predatory snails is called a naticid (moon snail).  They can get to be very large (bigger than a softball), and have a giant foot that they use for both moving, and grappling their prey.

A fossil naticid (moon snail) from the Pinecrest Fm. (Late Pliocene)


Image result for live naticid
A live naticid with its giant foot of nightmares. Image credit: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/9c/Neverita_didyma.jpg

Drill holes can be used to study many aspects of predation and predator-prey dynamics.  For example, we can look at how often prey are being attacked and see if there are predator preferences (Yanes and Tyler 2009).  Or perhaps there is evidence of anti-predatory adaptations, such as spines (Leighton 2001), or a lack of edible parts (Tyler et al 2013).  Drill holes can even be used for taphonomic studies (everything that happens from the moment an animal dies to the time the fossil is discovered), such as how drill holes affect the transportation and deposition of shells (Molinaro et al. 2013).  drill-hole-2

Predators are not always successful, and will sometimes get interrupted, perhaps even by a predator of their own.  Such interruptions produce incomplete drill holes, which can also be used to determine the success rates of predators, or the intensity of predation upon the drillers themselves (Chattopadhyay and Baumiller 2010).

Incomplete drill hole on a modern naticid.

Some predators will even recognize different prey types and attack each in a particular manner, producing sterotypic drill holes that are in a consistent location unique to that prey (Leighton 2001).  Not only that, but they can be highly cannibalistic, and will often eat smaller members of their own species (Chattopadhyay et al. 2014).  Basically, if they are able to grapple you with that huge foot, you are in trouble.

Stereotypy of drill holes in smaller, modern naticids (cannibalized)

TL,DR: Drill holes have an extensive fossil history, and are very useful for studying predator-prey dynamics and how predation has evolved.  Stay tuned for a future blog post on another type of predation trace: repair scars…


Chattopadhyay, D., and Baumiller, T. K. 2010. Effect of durophagy on drilling predation: a case study of Cenozoic molluscs from North America. Historical Biology. 22:367-379.

Chattopadhyay, D. Sarkar, D., Dutta, S., Prasanjit, S. R. 2014. What controls cannibalism in drilling gastropods? A case study on Natica tigrinaPalaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 410:126-133.

Leighton, L. R. 2001. New example of Devonian predatory boreholes and the influence of brachiopod spines on predator success. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 165:54-69.

Molinaro, D.J., Collins, B.M.J., Burns, M.E., Stafford, E.S., Leighton, L.R. 2013. Do
predatory drill holes influence the transport and deposition of gastropod shells?
Lethaia. 46:508–517.

Tyler, C. L., Leighton, L. R., Carlson, S. J., Huntley, J. W., Kowalewski, M. 2013. Predation on modern and fossil brachiopods: assessing chemical defenses and palatability. Palaios 28:724-735.

Yanes, Y., and Tyler, C. L. 2009. Drilling predation intensity and feeding preferences by Nucella (Muricidae) on limpets inferred from a dead-shell assemblage. Palaios 24:280-289.