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Peter Crane

University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA
— Interview conducted February, 2008

Sir Peter Crane FRS is a paleobotanist and the John and Marion Sullivan University Professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. His appointment at the University in 2006 marked his return to Chicago following seven years as the Director of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England (1999-2006). Crane's first sojourn in Chicago began as Assistant Curator in the Department of Geology at the Field Museum in 1982 and ultimately he served as Director of the Museum from 1992 until 1999. Crane was elected to the United Kingdom Academy of Sciences in 1998 and to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2001. He is also a Foreign Member of The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the German Academy Leopoldina. Crane was awarded a knighthood in 2004 by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to conservation and horticulture.

Barking up the wrong tree in primary rainforest in Borneo.
Q: Why is the study of fossils important in today's world? Is paleontology really relevant?
A: Paleontology has had its ups and downs over the past two hundred years, but in my view it has never been more relevant than it is today. I think that there is widespread concern about what will happen to our planet — and to us — in the future. Current worries about climate change also raise fundamental questions about the future functioning of ecological systems and the likely fate of plant and animal diversity. Studying how the Earth system has responded to past environmental changes is one of the most important guides we have to what we might expect in the future. Paleontology helps to calibrate and test our models of the future, and also places the nature of current and future changes in the appropriate broader context — not just of decades, but of thousands and millions of years.

Q: How did you become a paleontologist? Did you always want to be scientist?
A: I came into paleontology through the backdoor, through archaeology. I had an inspirational Head Master at high school who was passionate about archaeology, and who transferred that passion to me. I also learned how studies of pollen and other plant remains from archaeological sites could be helpful in reconstructing past environments. This connected neatly with what I was learning about botany in high school and it got me intrigued about fossil plants. In particular, I had a feeling that fossil plants, compared to fossil vertebrates and invertebrates, were getting short shrift in basic biology teaching. So when I was looking at colleges I looked for somewhere with strong organismal botany, including paleobotany. I went eventually to the University of Reading in the UK to study botany, and then focused on the study of fossil plants in deep time, paleobotany. My doctorate research focused on a new site in the Reading Beds of southern England that contained a Paleocene flora, full of fascinating extinct plants from about 60 million years before present.

Peter Crane in the laboratory at the University of Chicago.

Q: What is your area of expertise or of greatest interest in paleontology? What most fascinates you about this particular area of paleontology?
A: I study the origin and evolution of flowering plants — angiosperms — the dominant group of plants on the planet today. I am especially interested in the earliest records of angiosperms and also those plants that seem to be close to angiosperms but perhaps do not show all of the characteristic angiosperm features. A key current challenge for our field is to find or identify those plants that stand in relation to angiosperms in the same way that Archaeopteryx stands in relation to birds. It is also important to broaden the base of information on which our interpretations of angiosperm evolution are based. We now have good information from middle paleolatitudes but an important area for the future is to understand Early Cretaceous plants from lower paleolatitudes. As part of my ongoing research I will be doing more fieldwork in these areas, for example in Africa, but I'll also be continuing my fieldwork in other parts of the world and around the United States.

Q: Will you be taking students along with you?
A: I think it is crucial that students get field experience, and whenever possible they come with me for fieldwork. Graduate students, and probably some undergrads, also work on the collections that come back.

Q: What do you do during a "typical" day as a paleontologist?
A: In addition to teaching, which I enjoy, I am usually working on multiple projects at any given time. Most of these have to do with paleontology, others with modern plants. Some of my work with modern plants deals with issues that came up when I was Director of Kew Gardens, including issues related to plant conservation. I also serve on several national and international boards that deal with biological diversity in some way, including for example, the Board of the National Museum of Natural History in the Smithsonian, and the Board of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

Plant identification in Borneo.

Q: What is the most exciting thing that has happened to you as a paleontologist?
A: Finding new fossil localities and new fossil plants that no one has seen before is one exciting aspect of my work. I also like being able to contribute to the bigger picture of plant evolution and there is huge satisfaction in seeing all the different pieces of evidence slowly start to make sense. Plant paleontology is still an exciting field. There is still so much to be discovered. We're only just starting to flesh-out a more complete understanding of plant evolution.

Q: You have a Ph.D. Is a doctoral degree necessary for a person to become a paleontologist?
A: Not absolutely necessary — a number of well-known paleontologists do great work without a Ph.D., but it is more normal to complete a substantial piece of original paleontological research in an established graduate program, and to get the Ph.D. And, of course, you really do need the doctorate if you want to teach at most colleges and universities today. It is also increasingly the case that well-trained scientists have to have multiple sets of skills. For example, if you want to be a paleobotanist, you need to understand living plants as well as fossils, and you also need a good background in all aspects of evolutionary biology, as well as a "toolkit" of analytical techniques.

In the field in Borneo with living ferns in the family Gleicheniaceae — a family of ferns with an extensive fossil record from the Cretaceous.

Q: What advice can you offer students interested in becoming paleontologists?
A: From my perspective as a plant paleontologist I would say that you need a thorough knowledge of modern evolutionary biology and you also need a good understanding of living plants. It is also worth choosing an undergraduate institution where paleobotany is represented on the faculty. You may have to look carefully because paleobotany is housed in different departments in different universities. It may be in the Biology, Botany, Geology or even Environmental Science departments. Also, at the Ph.D. level, finding a major professor with whom you want to work is absolutely key to a good experience as a graduate student. Finally, I would say do what you love. If you are really passionate about paleontology then, as they say, you'll never do a day's work in your life. Paleobotany is a great field in which students can still reasonably expect to make new breakthrough discoveries that contribute significantly to our understanding of plant evolution.


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