October 12, 2016

Fossils and painted nails on a Sloth?: Q & A with Ryan Haupt on National Fossil Day

Posted by smaguffin

As part of Earth Science Week, we’ll be highlighting different leaders in the geosciences – from research to education and community outreach. We are posting Q&A’s on The Bridge asking geoscientists about the work they do.

Today’s theme is National Fossil Day and one of our featured AGU members is Ryan Haupt. Ryan is a PhD Candidate at the University of Wyoming.

Could you summarize your research in a sentence or two?
Broadly, my research focuses on using paleontological techniques to connect ecosystems of today with the past. Specifically, I am using stable isotopes to refine the dietary ecology of living sloths, to see how tiny tree sloths compare to their gigantic extinct cousins, the ground sloths. I am also looking at patterns of bone consumption in carnivores like wolves and pumas to see how living carnivores compare to extinct ones, and how social behavior may or may not influence bone consumption. So seemingly very different projects, but centered around this idea of using paleo techniques within modern systems to then rethink how we view the past and potentially predict the future.

What is a common misconception people have about fossils/paleontology?

Where to start?! The first and maybe biggest to me is the notion that “all fossils are dinosaurs” when really fossils span the entire history of life on the planet, from 3.7-billion-year-old stromatolites to mammoths that were still living on remote islands AFTER the pyramids in Egypt were built. Dinosaurs are cool, no doubt there, but they’re also just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to amazing biodiversity held within the fossil record. There are a host of others like birds being living dinosaurs, the misconception of “living fossils,” and more, but I think the first step towards a better understanding of paleontology is understanding the myriad types of fossils that go beyond giant Mesozoic reptiles.

Why is studying paleontology important for science and society today?

We face an unprecedented number of ecological crises from climate change, ocean acidification, deforestation, and more. Biology focused only the modern world, while essential to the overall big picture, is working with a skewed data-set that has already been altered by human activity. Only by taking a deep-time perspective and including the fossil record in our view of biodiversity over time can we approach to problems of tomorrow with as much relevant information as possible to ensure successful conservation of, as Darwin put it, Earth’s “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.”

How do you see the role of science and earth science in society?

I’ve always loved the quote from historian Will Durant, “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” Most Americans live somewhere where geology, knowingly or not, is an integral part of their economy and/or a persistent threat to the life and well-being. Improvements in our understanding of earth help us harness the energy that earth provides as well as forecasting the next volcanic eruption or earthquake which literally saves lives.

In addition to practical advantages to society, earth science has this incredibly ability to inspire. When I hike with friends in the Appalachian Mountains, I point to the metamorphosed rocks and remind them that these mountains were once the Himalayas of an ancient earth that would be unrecognizable today. As a society we’ve also used a combination of astronomy, engineering, and physics to land automobile sized rovers on other worlds to take picture of rocks. That’s earth science! Right now a machine launched from earth and powered by sunlight is shooting lasers at Martian rocks to tell us what they’re made of. Anyone not awed by that isn’t paying enough attention!


Brady (left) and Ryan posing for a selfie.

How, if at all, is your working supported/affected by federal/state funding?

Federal funding is the most consistent source of money for most scientists. The grants are incredibly competitive funding only the most thought-out, plausible, and innovative research around the country. I’ve never been successfully funded by NSF for any of my projects, but I’ve benefited by being parts of projects that were. Having federal funds for your research is an automatic indicator that your work is on the right track towards an exciting conclusion. And as a societal investment, science is pretty cheap, but pays off regularly as long as we maintain our commitment to supporting those doing the best work in their fields.

Do you have a favorite photograph from your career? If so, would you share it with us and tell us why it is important to you?

If I’m being honest, I’m not great at taking photos while I’m working because I’m so caught up in the work. That said, I have had the chance to take a few fairly epic selfies. One of my favorites is when I went to Central America to sample some wild three-toed sloths (Bradypus variegatus). After taking some measurements and plucking some hair, we’d paint their nails so when they were back up in the trees we could spot that we’d already bothered them and leave them alone. That’s why Brady here has orange nails, it’s not actually the blood of his enemies like I would jokingly tell the tourists in the area (they exclusively eat leaves). Anyways, right before putting Brady back on a branch I snapped this selfie of him testing my head to see if it would make a suitable support for him to climb. It did not.

Are there any social media or website links you would like us to promote?

I am active publicly on Twitter (@haupt), Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/ryanhaupt/),  and Tumblr (http://livingthescilife.tumblr.com/) promoting science, good food and drink, and teasing my wife. In addition to my personal website (http://ryanhaupt.com/), I also host the podcast Science… sort of, available on our website (http://sciencesortof.com/) and on iTunes. The show features scientists talking about their work in their own words over a beer, like eavesdropping on a lab happy hour full of excitable science nerds.

***Last year Ryan participated in Congressional Visits Day – an annual event hosted by AGU as well as other science organizations here in Washington, DC. He wrote about it for The Bridge; the article can be found here.