WVU ‘fossil detective’ links past to future in discovering what drives the evolution of new animals

Fossil records that reveal how new animals evolve is key not only to understanding the history of life on Earth, but could play a role in guiding modern conservation efforts in predicting responses to future climate change, according to West Virginia University geologist James Lamsdell. The results of his research will end up in the hands of public school students in age-appropriate science curricula. 

Lamsdell will use fossil records to study how arthropods, such as crustaceans and horseshoe crabs, as well as extinct species like sea scorpions and trilobites, have adapted to new environments by changing the speed or timing of their development to reshape their adult forms. He will also examine whether these changes in their development alter the speed at which their evolution occurs.

“We can potentially use the past to help predict responses to future climate change as species are faced with rising sea levels and changing temperatures across the globe,” Lamsdell said. 

A National Science Foundation CAREER award of $500,000 will allow Lamsdell and his research assistants to travel to museums in the U. S. and Canada to study fossil collections and present their findings at scientific conferences, and also to build new curricula for public school and college students.

Paleontology enthralls all ages, he said, noting the project will directly support the teaching of science in K-12 classrooms through lessons and activities that will allow students the opportunity to learn how past environmental changes have affected life on Earth. At the college level, the research will provide detailed case studies of evolutionary transition. Students will use these specific examples and date to explore how evolution operates. 

Lamsdell is partnering with WVU’s Center for Excellence in STEM Education to share recorded video lessons with K-12 teachers.   

Gay Stewart, director of the Center for Excellence in STEM Education said working with scientists like Lamsdell is key to improving economic outcomes for West Virginia. 

“Our K-12 students need to seem themselves in STEM careers—the highest-paying and fastest-growing career options—and they need to develop college and career success skills,” Stewart said. “Pulling together exciting science with master, mentor and pre-service science teachers who can create lessons to provide students these skills and get them excited about the opportunities is a great way to accomplish these goals.” 

Lamsdell said the work ahead will allow him to continue to develop the research that he hopes will change the way evolution in the fossil record is studied. 

“Teaching future generations is at the heart of WVU’s mission as a land-grant university,” Lamsdell said. “It is critical that students of all ages learn about science, the natural world and exactly how and why we make information-based decisions in everyday life.”

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