Featured Paleontologist: Dena M. Smith

Editor’s note: This issue, Eleanor Gardner posed questions to Dr. Dena Smith. Dena is Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology and Associate Professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She is also Executive Director of STEPPE and the Principal Investigator of the Fossil Insect Collaborative, two NSF-funded projects.

Dena Smith at work in the lab
Dena Smith at work in the lab

Your research focuses on the evolution and ecology of ancient insects. Were you a huge fan of insects as a child? Were they your entry point into the field?

I actually didn’t really learn about insects until college and I came to them after I had an interest in paleontology. I had a real interest in paleoecology after a summer field internship with the Smithsonian. I wasn’t sure what organism I wanted to focus on, but I knew I didn’t want to study vertebrates and I wasn’t as excited about plants. I took an entomology class and decided to learn about fossil insects as my course project. That’s when I found out that there was this amazing fossil record, but hardly anyone was working on it. Insects were just so amazing and here was this totally open area. I was hooked.

What is a typical work day like for you? Or what are some of your favorite parts of your job? Your least favorite?

I actually don’t have a typical work day and that’s what I like about it. I get bored doing the same old thing. As a curator and faculty member at CU and working with the STEPPE coordinating office, I get to wear many different hats and work with many different people. Some days I am working with my lab and focused on research and collections projects, looking at fossils and talking about big ideas. Other days, I’m teaching classes, giving seminars or talks at meetings, or attending workshops. I spend a good amount of time writing grants to support students and projects. There are times when I’m in back to back meetings and sometimes that is frustrating. I often feel like my time could be better spent with students or working on projects. I don’t do as much fieldwork as I used to, but that is because we have built this amazing collection that needs working on. We still try to get out and collect when we can. Even just revisiting a site can trigger new ideas and inspiration.

Given that the goal of FOSSIL is to link amateur groups with professionals, what are your thoughts about the role of amateurs in the science?

I think that we would have never accomplished what we have in the discipline without the partnership of amateurs. I think this is true across paleontology and it is certainly true of my own work. I have been lucky to work with an amateur paleontologist who has focused his efforts on Eocene insects of Colorado for many years. He lives near our collecting sites, knows all the landowners and has spent many of his summers collecting insects for our museum. There is no way I could dedicate that amount of time to collecting. Not only has he found new collecting localities and many new species, he has served as the center of our community, contacting and connecting paleoentomologists from around the globe. His passion for our field and his incredible efforts have resulted in a collection of major importance for understanding insect evolution, ecology and taphonomy. (Read about David Kohls, Strimple Award Winner, in a previous issue of our newsletter).

I understand that you are the Principal Investigator for the National Science Foundation-funded ‘Fossil Insect Collaborative.’ What are the research goals of this digitization project? Do you foresee citizen science paleontologists, like those involved in the FOSSIL Project, being able to participate in the Fossil Insect Collaborative in the future? If so, in what ways?

The Fossil insect Collaborative is focused on digitizing over half a million fossil insect specimens from the major collections in the US. We are doing this to make these specimens and their associated image available for researchers, educators and the general public. Our research goals are focused on how insects respond to environmental changes and using the fossil record is a great approach to use. In addition, we are interested in studying the evolution of insects, which is the most species rich group today. There are not many fossil insect workers, so we are hoping that this project will engage insect experts (amateurs and professionals alike) to work with us and with these fossils. Through the iDigPaleo Hub that our group is developing, we are able to provide a platform for interested users to view fossil insects, make virtual collections, develop educational materials (informal and formal) and interact with this community of fossil insect enthusiasts.

In the field at Florissant Fossil Beds
In the field at Florissant Fossil Beds

What is actualistic insect taphonomy? What types of laboratory and/or field experiments do you conduct, and what types of research questions do these experiments address?

Actualistic taphonomy really focuses on using modern specimens and/or modern settings to understand processes of fossilization. In the field, we have compared recently accumulated insect death assemblages to living assemblages to understand ecological and morphological preservation biases. In the lab, we have conducted experiments on disarticulation and sinking and tested how the hardness of insect cuticle, body size and other variables might influence preservation potential. We also have run decay experiments to understand the importance of water chemistry, substrate type and the presence of microbes to preserving insects.

Which locales are the most famous for exceptional preservation of fossil insects, and why?

There are actually many famous insect localities, but those of greatest significance really fit into one of two types. Insects that are preserved in amber and those that are preserved in fine-grained, lacustrine environments are known for their high diversity and abundance of insects, as well as for high quality preservation. Amber specimens have 3D preservation and this makes it easy to see important characters on specimens. Insects preserved in lake environments are usually 2D, but often have great detail preserved as well.

Many of our fossil clubs and societies are very committed to education and work hard to engage youth. Do you have any advice to share about effective ways to get children and teens interested in paleontology and collections?

I think that hands-on activities are most effective. I also think good one-on-one interactions and conversation about concepts and processes are key. Students tend to thrive in these settings and it’s a lot more fun to teach this way. The traditional lecture –or passive presentation of information to students just doesn’t seem as effective.

What research question currently excites you the most?

There are tons of research questions that excite me. Overall, I am really interested in integrating modern and fossil systems. I’m interested in the scalability of processes – for example, do the models we see in ecological systems apply to fossil systems (ecological and evolutionary). I am interested in climate change and how insects respond, both in the past and potentially into the future. I am very interested in the evolution of interacting lineages, especially insects that have highly specialized feeding preferences on plants. And finally, I am interested in learning more about why insects are so diverse and studying their macroevolutionary history. This is why I am excited to have so many great students working on so many different projects. I get to study so many different things by working with them.

Do you see on the horizon any new directions or opportunities in paleontology emerging as the result of technological advances or new discoveries?

Absolutely. I think efforts in the biological community to digitize specimens (including fossils) and similar efforts in the geological community to digitize data related to samples in time, geological setting and geochemistry are going to change the ways we do science. I think as we work to make these data accessible and discoverable, people will be able to ask new types of research questions and study them in new, more sophisticated and multidisciplinary ways. I think we are just at the beginning of a really exiting time.

A parasitoid wasp (family Ichneumonidae) found at Florissant
A parasitoid wasp (family Ichneumonidae) found at Florissant

Do you have a favorite fossil discovery (can be your own, or a famous historical discovery)?

I can’t show favoritism!!! I love them all!!! To be honest, every time I look in our collection or go visit another museum’s collection I find my new favorite. It could be because it’s a rare taxon. It could be because the preservation detail is so amazing. It could be because I just find it beautiful or comical or it just speaks to me in some way. I guess that’s part of why it’s so enjoyable to do what I do.

To learn more:

You can read about Dena’s work on insect auditory organs in this Scientific American article.

Smith DM, Marcot JD. 2015The fossil record and macroevolutionary history of the beetles. Proc. R. Soc. B 282: 20150060. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.0060

You can learn more about STEPPE on their website.

Here is the Fossil Insect Collaborative website.

You can also follow the Fossil Insect Collaborative on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/FossilInsectCollaborativeDigitizationProject and Twitter: @FossilInsectTCN

You can listen to presentations on STEPPE, (8/25/15)  the iDigPaleo porta (9/22/15), and find other presentations and resources on digitization and paleontology on the Paleo Digitization Working Group wiki page on the iDigBio website.