Featured Paleontologist: Thomas J. DeVries

Tom DeVries, 2015, Puerto Caballas, Eocene outcrop
Tom DeVries, 2015, Puerto Caballas, Eocene outcrop

Our featured paleontologist is Dr. Thomas DeVries. An invertebrate paleontologist, Tom received his Ph.D. from The Ohio State University. Recently retired, he spent his entire career as a high-school science teacher in Washington (Vashon Island), while at the same time developing an active research career as a well-respected paleontologist, publishing numerous article in scientific journals. Tom is an expert in geology and extinct molluscs, with his particular field area being the rich Neogene sequences of coastal Peru where he has worked for decades. He has been a research affiliate of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, WA.

How did you discover your passion for paleontology?

Collecting seashells at Cape Cod became a true hobby at age nine with a birthday gift of Ed-U-Kit shells with proper Latin names. At Amherst College, Richard Foose persuaded me to add geology as a major; Ed Belt introduced me to paleontology; and Peter Isaacson’s enthusiasm led to fieldwork in West Virginia for a senior thesis on Devonian brachiopods.

 I understand that you have been conducting field work in Peru for 30 years. How did you come to work in Peru and what keeps you going back?

Bill Pearcy at Oregon State University offered me an RA for an oceanography MS to study the record of fish scales in Quaternary sediments off the coast of Peru. In 1979, I shifted back to geology and, looking for a Peru focus with mollusks, was taken on by Bill Zinsmeister at Ohio State University to do a doctoral study of the rich Plio-Pleistocene molluscan fauna of the tablazos of northern Peru. In 1983, Christian de Muizon pointed out the great potential for molluscan research in the Pisco Basin of southern Peru, which is where I’ve worked ever since, addressing issues of alpha taxonomy, evolution within genera, paleoecology, paleobiogeography, and, necessarily in a barely studied region, stratigraphy and sedimentology.

You are both a professional, published paleontologist and a high school teacher. Over the years, have you found ways to incorporate paleontology into your classroom?

There are endless opportunities to incorporate anecdotes from paleontology into any science, especially at such interdisciplinary intersections as plate tectonics, radiometric dating, climate science, and evolution. Stories and photos from the field and from far afield lend an ‘Indiana Jones’ kind of discrepant credibility that appeals to teens.

I twice taught an elective course in molecular evolution using cetaceans as the target taxa, taking advantage of recently posted mtDNA sequences on Genbank and free sequence alignment and phylogenetic software. The DNA phylogenies were compared with those proposed by paleontologists, which were often in the headlines after each new discovery from Pakistan. Readily offered advice from paleontologists Mark Uhen, Ewan Fordyce, and Hans Thewissen was very welcome. Coincidentally, the discovery of an archeocete astragulus, which pinned down the ancestry of whales (ironically, in the direction molecular biologists had proposed), occurred during the teaching of my course.

My familiarity with molecular biology had been made possible by an enlightened teacher education program at Oregon State University, which required science MAT students to take a number of graduate-level science courses, and teacher enrichment programs offered through the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the Research Corporation of Tucson.

One choice I’ve made is not to take high school students into the field in Peru. Supervising two graduate students one summer was trouble enough in the face of limited time and resources and the distractions of city night life.

Since you have years of experience as an educator,  do you have any advice to share with other professionals and amateurs about effective ways to get children and teens interested in paleontology and collections–or science more generally?

Late Miocene aprons of bioclastic debris (white) around paleo-pinnacles of basement rock. Among the molluscan species present is Herminespina saskiae DeVries and Vermeij, 1997, a toothed gastropod named after the daughters of the two authors.
Late Miocene aprons of bioclastic debris (white) around paleo-pinnacles of basement rock. Among the molluscan species present is Herminespina saskiae DeVries and Vermeij, 1997, a toothed gastropod named after the daughters of the two authors.

Nearly every kid is interested in paleontology and I suppose most stay favorably disposed towards paleontology as adults. Giving students an authentic field experience (discovering) and collections experience (classifying) could be the means for investing the childhood experience with an understanding of paleontology as science.

 Of the fossils you have discovered, do you have a favorite? or two?

Devonian carpoids, unexpectedly encountered during my college field season in 1976; and middle Miocene ancestors of the abalone-like muricid, Concholepas, known as the ‘loco’ in Chile. And it’s nice to have an Eocene penguin named after me. Thanks, Julia Clarke.

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 doubt there is any scientific field other than ornithology in which amateurs play a more prominent role in the advancement of their science. The term ‘amateur’ hardly conveys the contributions to paleontology made by some who draw no salary for their efforts. The development of an amateur corps, however, can be haphazard, opportunistic, and reliant on retirees. A concerted effort to enlist younger aficionados, which would require an accommodation of their work and family schedules, produce a greater variety and depth of contributions.

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

Classical paleontological research and modern efforts that intend to jump on the ‘big data set’ bandwagon suffer from the opacity of museum collections. Current efforts to make museum holdings more visible – literally, as well as figuratively – could spur research into biodiversity changes at biome and biosphere scales, research that has often been unsatisfying in its earliest iterations.

 Further Reading:

You can access one of Dr. DeVries papers that describes the development of a stratigraphic framework for the Pisco Basin in Peru at origins.swau.edu/who/chadwick/Pisco.pdf

Julia Clark and colleagues’ paper on the Eocene penguin Perudyptes devriesi in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Daniel Ksepka’s describes the importance of the penguin find on his March of the Fossil Penguins blog