The Life of a Palaeontologist!

This term’s talks@ was hosted by Dean Close parent Dr Treatman-Clark. Years 6, 7 and 8, staff and parents enjoyed a fascinating presentation about palaeontology.Although many children are attracted to palaeontology because they love dinosaurs, in fact palaeontologists study all kinds of ancient life, from fossil bacteria to fossil humans. Dr Treatman-Clark shared her own journey from a dinosaur loving 4-year-old to a professional palaeoprimatologist who has studied living and fossil lemurs in Madagascar.

For those considering careers in palaeontology, Dr Treatman-Clark explained that it is an interdisciplinary field, requiring a strong foundation in geology, anatomy, biology and chemistry. Judging by her photos of fossil lemur excavations in Madagascar, a knowledge of rock climbing, caving, and scuba diving can also come in handy! The pupils were not intimidated by this long list of requirements and happily rose to the challenge of trying to identify some fossils. They were given the chance to examine a variety of fossil skulls and apply their own knowledge of biology to pose hypotheses about what the fossil animals ate, how they moved, or how they behaved. The children did an excellent job of guessing each animal’s diet based on the morphology of the teeth, and were intrigued by other cranio-
facial modifications, such as sagittal crests and prognathic jaws.

Dr Treatman-Clark explained that in addition to clues that fossil bones provide about an
animal’s behaviour, palaeontologists also rely on living relatives or descendent species to
help ‘put flesh on the bones’. In order to better understand the enigmatic fossils of the
extinct giant lemurs of Madagascar, Dr Treatman-Clark headed into the rainforest to
observe living lemurs. She entertainedpupils with a description of a typical day in the life of
a primatologist: leaving her tent at 4.30 am and chasing lemurs over rivers and up and down
mountains, all the while trying to collect behavioural data, fruit, and urine samples. The
students learnt that urine samples tell a scientist a great deal about the health of a lemur,
including its parasite load, nutritional status, levels of stress hormones and reproductive condition – very important in an area where many species have gone extinct and others are critically endangered.

Lemurs once inhabited Europe, Africa and North America but for the past 20 million years have lived only on the isolated island of Madagascar. In fact, Madagascar is a hotbed for endemic species – species that live nowhere else in the world. 97% of the reptiles and 92% of the mammals of Madagascar are endemic and most are highly endangered. In the last 2000 years 17 species of
lemur have died out due to human activities, mainly hunting and habitat loss. Dr Treatman-Clark emphasized the importance of collaboration between scientists and local people in order to preserve and protect fossil sites and living species and discussed two organizations that are working to support both research and local communities, Centre ValBio and Sadabe.