This issue, we spotlight Jorge Velez-Juarbe, Curator of Marine Mammals at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History http://www.nhm.org/site/research-collections. He is also a postdoctoral researcher at the Cooper Center at Cal State University Fullerton http://www.jdcoopercenter.org/. Born in Puerto Rico, Jorge was included on a 2014 list compiled by Qué Pasa magazine and LatinAmericanScience.org of 30 promising scientists under 40. Jorge was part of the international team that discovered a graveyard of whales off the coast of Chile in the Atacama Desert. His research focuses on the evolution and diversification of sirenians (otherwise known as the group that includes seacows, manatees and dugongs). You can read one of Jorge’s articles at PLoS ONE.
I read that you decided to become a paleontologist at age 8. Can you describe how that happened?
When I was about 8 I received a Panini sticker book titled “Dinosaurs.” However, it wasn’t only about dinosaurs, but also had stickers of extinct organisms throughout all geologic time. It also had some stickers about the people who collect and study the fossils. But most of the ones portraying paleontologists looked boring to me; they were all old white-haired Caucasian males, with white lab coats. The lack of diversity and lab coats was a turnoff. The one stamp that grabbed my attention was one of a geologist finding dinosaurs eggs in the Gobi Desert; it was then that I knew I wanted to be like that guy. I guess what motivated me was the sense of adventure and discovery, and I do a lot of fieldwork which involves those two things, and it may be a way of getting younger generations interested in paleontology as well.
By the way, many years later I realized that the illustration in the sticker book was based on a real photo of Roy Chapman Andrews who in the early 1900’s led scientific expeditions to Mongolia. Interestingly, he was also interested and published several scientific papers about marine mammals, which happens to be my area of expertise.
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?
Amateurs can and are known to have made important, long lasting contributions to paleontology; hence they play an important role in what we do. For example, they can be our eyes in the field, since they sometimes get to spend more time out looking for fossils than us scientists.
I recently discovered your blog. Can you tell me a little about your motivations for writing a blog?
I started my blog (Caribbean Paleobiology: http://caribbeanpaleobiology.blogspot.com) in 2008 mainly because I wanted people to learn about paleontology in Puerto Rico and about fossil seacows. Over time, I’ve broadened the scope a little bit and it has become a very important learning tool for me. I feel now, six years later, that I can explain and write about discoveries and what I do as a scientist more clearly than I did when I started it.
Of the fossils you have discovered, do you have a favorite?
Oh yes, I have many fossils that are my favorites. As I write this, my two, most favorite, are a fossil dugong skull that I found In Puerto Rico in 2005, and fossil pygmy sperm whale that I found in 2013 in Panama. A detailed description of the fossil dugong from PR will be published at the beginning of 2015; to me that specimen is the most beautiful fossil seacow skull I’ve ever laid eyes upon (and I’ve seen a lot). As for the Panamanian pygmy sperm whale, I am currently working on a detailed description of the specimen. An important point to make is that, even though I found the specimens, these are now part of museum collections—the seacow at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History; the other at the Florida Museum of Natural History. That way they are properly taken care of and other researchers can eventually go and study them.
What research question currently excites you the most?
Right now it will be the one related to my current NSF postdoctoral fellowship. The Eastern Pacific region was once home to a variety of large herbivorous marine mammal communities that sometimes included up to three or more different species, whereas today there are none (Steller’s seacow was a relict of this ancient diversity, but was driven to extinction in the 1700’s). These ancient faunas included seacows, desmostylians (which were large hippo-like elephant relatives), and aquatic sloths. Because there is no modern analog to these communities, the main question I have, is what was their ecology like? So, over the next several years, I’ll be looking at fossils of these different groups in order to try to answer that and other questions.