February 1, 2011

The Scientist: Warren Allmon

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Paleontology, or the study of prehistoric life, often conjures up images of dinosaurs.  Unfortunately, “for most people, all of our dinosaur knowledge goes to hell once we turn about seven,” Prof. Warren Allmon, earth and atmospheric sciences, said.

He explained, people’s childhood fascination with the prehistoric creatures — learning their names, collecting toy models and memorizing trivial facts — rarely develops beyond a short-lived passion. Prof. Allmon puts it, to many people, paleontology is little more than an “unpronounceable, narrow, esoteric-sounding branch of human endeavor.”

Though many people view dinosaurs, and by extension paleontology, as something that kids eventually grow out of rather than a field of serious scientific pursuit, the University’s first Hunter R. Rawlings III Professor of Paleontology, Allmon plans to correct that misconception and restore that childhood excitement for all things prehistoric through his courses and lectures on paleobiology.

“Paleobiology,” he explained, “is the study of paleontology as the relationship of biological and geological processes.” His course, EAS 4790: Paleobiology, examines the evolutionary histories of major organism groups through an analysis of their fossil records.  The ideas and concepts of the class provide a biological background of earth and atmospheric sciences that can be used to inform students in very concrete ways about the present and future.

To expand upon the paleobiological principles taught in lecture, the course takes a hands-on approach to learning with weekly lab visits to the Museum of the Earth, where Allmon holds a second job as the director of the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI). Allmon utilizes the museum’s collection of two to three million fossil specimens to provide students with an informal approach to earth science education.

“W­­e study one group of organisms in lab every week and then go to the museum to supplement the lessons taught in class with tangible examples you can see,” Allmon said. He notes that the museum is an essential tool for helping students understand questions posed in lecture, like “How do you use fossils to study climate change?” and “How do fossils tell us about species evolution?”

In addition to his duties as a professor and PRI Director, Allmon also conducts prehistoric research. He refers to himself as “an evolutionary biologist who just happens to work on fossils.” His interests include the systematics, ecology and evolution of fossilized gastropods, especially the Turritellidae, which are the high spiraled, screw-shaped marine snails most often seen in shell shops.

“The goal of my research in ancient snails is to try to understand the ecological context of macro-evolutionary change,” Allmon explained. “I’m interested in the origins of diversity from an ecological point of view and how you go about studying those concepts in the fossil record because everything of interest to my research is dead, and there are no genes, behavior or soft parts to analyze.”

Despite his focus on prehistoric snails, Allmon admits that dinosaurs are of particular interest to him, but not for the reason that most people would think.

For the past 15 years, Allmon has been constructing a book analyzing dinosaur art, or at least the ways in which dinosaurs have been portrayed by people and in popular media over the past several decades. ­

“Dinosaur art reflects a lot more than what scientists believed dinosaurs looked like.” Allmon noted. When asked to draw a picture of Tyrannosaurus rex, “many people today simply do not produce an accurate image.”

People tend to draw T. rex standing straight up, as if it had a vertebral column similar to humans because most people make a subconscious attempt to make the dinosaur more relatable to them. Paleontologists, however, have not believed T. rex to have stood in an upright position since the 1970s.

“People have drawn the dinosaurs that they have wanted to see, not the ones that science has been telling them,” Allmon said. “Dinosaur art is important because it is a window into the philosophy and history of how we think about science.”

Original Author: Nicholas St. Fleur