Nov. 30, 2000
Vol. 20 No. 6

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    Paleontological Society honors Foote with 2000 Charles Schuchert Award

    Steve Koppes
    News Office

    University paleontologist Michael Foote has managed to unearth a significant body of information from the fossil record without collecting a single specimen for his own research. He now has collected the Paleontological Society’s 2000 Charles Schuchert Award, which was presented to him earlier this month.

    The Schuchert Award is presented to a person under 40 whose work reflects excellence and promise in paleontology. Foote, Professor in Geophysical Sciences, will become the eighth member of the University’s faculty or alumni community to receive the award since it was established in 1973. Every paleontologist on the Geophysical Sciences faculty, who has been eligible for the Schuchert Award, has received it.

    “He may be the most gifted analytical paleobiologist of our generation,” said Arnold Miller, professor in geology at the University of Cincinnati. “The bottom line is, his approach is always novel quantitatively, but also with respect to the kinds of data that he acquires in some instances, for tackling questions about the history of biodiversity.”

    Foote occasionally does fieldwork, but not for his own research. This summer, for example, he spent a week helping two University graduate students collect fossils for their research in the Marshall Wilderness of northwest Montana.

    Foote’s main focus has been developing new mathematical methods to better understand the rates and patterns of evolution in the fossil record. His specialty is the bane of any paleontologist trying to understand evolutionary trends–the selectivity of the fossil record.

    Some organisms are more likely to become preserved as fossils at certain times and in certain environments than others. Foote has developed methods to account for this often-misleading bias.

    “One of the things I’m interested in getting at is whether there’s a systematic tendency for changes in diversity to be caused by changes in origination rate or changes in extinction rate,” Foote said.

    In other words, is the population of different types of organisms rising because of a rising birthrate–the origin of new species–or because of a declining death rate–the extinction of species?

    Foote has found that, generally speaking, changes in species diversity during the Paleozoic Era, before the age of dinosaurs, was more strongly linked to changes in the extinction rate.

    “When diversity goes up, it’s because the extinction rate went down, and when diversity went down, it’s because extinction went up,” he said.

    But after the Paleozoic Era, the opposite trend occurs. Changes in the origination rate have seemed to be more important to diversity. “It’s a strange thing that I don’t understand yet,” Foote said.

    Although Foote has been looking for evolutionary patterns in organisms that have been dead for millions of years, his work could contribute to a better understanding of modern species diversity. Today, life on Earth faces threats such as global warming and the introduction of non-native species into new geographic regions.

    “There’s information potentially available in the fossil record for understanding how species diversity in the past has been affected by those kinds of things,” Miller said.

    After completing his doctorate in evolutionary biology at Chicago in 1989, Foote taught at Wake Forest University and then at the University of Michigan.

    A Chicago faculty member since 1994, he extends a longstanding paleontological tradition of Schuchert Award recipients in the Geophysical Sciences Department.

    Recipients of the award have been Peter Crane, formerly a professor in Geophysical Sciences and now director of the Royal Botanical Garden in Kew, England; David Jablonski, Professor in Geophysical Sciences; Susan Kidwell, Professor in Geophysical Sciences; David Raup, the Sewell L. Avery Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus; the late Thomas Schopf; and the late J. John Sepkoski.

    University alumnus Charles Marshall (Ph.D., ’89), now a professor of earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University, received the award last year.

    “My colleagues here are passionate about what they do. That’s what really ties us together,” Foote said.

    “Not just my colleagues in paleontology, but everywhere. It’s just incredible how much people love their scholarship here, and that the University allows that to be what’s important. We’re pretty lucky.”