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Thomas Clements

I can't believe I won. Thank you all so much. I tried to answer all the questions but if you have more then follow me on twitter and ask!!! @Thomas_Clements

Favourite Thing: My favorite thing in science is the feeling you get when you discover something no one has ever seen or thought of before. This can happen quite a lot when you work with fossils!

My CV

Education:

My undergraduate degree was at the University of Brighton and my Masters was at Bristol University.

Qualifications:

I have a BSc (Hons) in Geology and an MSc in Palaeobiology. I’m doing my PhD now.

Work History:

I have worked for the NHS and a drilling company.

Current Job:

I am a PhD student and my project title is: Decay, preservation and environmental controls on non-biomineralised fossil anatomy: the taphonomy of the Carboniferous Mazon Creek, USA

Employer:

I now work for the University of Leicester and NERC studying fossils.

Me and my work

I try to understand why squishy things with no hard parts, like worms, octopuses and jellyfish, turn into fossils.

 

 

  • What is palaeontology?

Palaeontology is the study of ancient life – normally older than recorded human history  (anything older than 6000 – 10,000 years ago).

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  • What is a fossil?

A fossil is the preserved physical evidence of prehistoric animals or plants that have turned into mineral or stone.

Evidence of prehistoric organisms can mean bones or teeth but it can also mean burrows, footprints or even poo (known as coprolites)! The record of all fossils, from the oldest known fossils (a type of bacteria roughly 3.5 billion years old) to dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, is known as the fossil record. 

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  • How does a fossil form?

Normally when an animal dies, it’s remains are eaten by scavengers or bacteria rots them away and the body is completely broken down.

In rare circumstances the hard parts (such as shells, teeth or bones) may be buried by sediment and this slows the decay process by starving the bacteria of oxygen. After thousands or even millions of years, the material that makes up bones and teeth are replaced by minerals and they become petrified – they turn to stone. Eventually, these fossils are brought to the surface by erosion and we can find them.

There are a few things to remember though:

  1. Not all fossils are stone! Some fossils can be preserved by weird minerals like jade or even metals such as lead or pyrite. Another type of non-stone fossil that is commonly known is fossilised tree sap, called Amber.
  2. The process of become a fossil is very difficult. Not only can the hard bits of an organism rot away, but the sediment they become buried in can be unfavorable to fossilisation (i.e. too acidic) or is too weak, and erodes to quickly for petrification to occur. On the other hand it could be buried too much and the bones get squashed or cooked by pressure. Even if the bone is slowly turning into a fossil geological events, search as earthquakes or the formation of mountains, can smash the bones to pieces. There are many other factors but you can see it requires very specific conditions to become a fossil. If you want to know how to increase your chances of become a fossil then read this.

If you are interested in more information on how fossils are formed read this page from the BBC.

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  • Why is palaeontology important?

Palaeontology is important for lots of reasons.  Let’s pretend we are looking at a fossil, what would we like to know? Palaeontologists try to answer all sorts of questions but they come in several main veins:

  1. Animal specific: How fast could this animal move? What did it eat? What hunted it? What did it look like?
  2. What was the world like when this animal was alive? What can the rock tell us about environmental conditions?
  3. How did this animal evolve? is it related to anything alive today?

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  • Do all palaeontologists work on dinosaurs?

Nope! A fossil record of 3.5 billion years of life has allowed us to discover all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures. I have friends who study tiny crustaceans called ostracods and others who study weird sharks like the Helicoprion! I even have a friend who studies plants (known as palaeobotany).

Palaeontology is a great science because you don’t have to work on one animal group. If you can think of an animal or plant, chances are it has a fossil record and you can study it.

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  • What do you do in Palaeontology?

I look at extremely rare fossils where its not just the hard bits that have been preserved. Sometimes, if the animal is buried quickly enough in really special environments then soft tissues such as; skin, muscle, gills, internal organs and even eyeballs can be turned into minerals. This is very special because it means that animals without any skeleton, like worms or an octopus, can be preserved. This gives us much more information about what animals were alive in the distant past and allows to understand ancient ecosystems better.

We can also reconstruct what the animal looked like much more accurately, sometimes we can even see what it’s last meal was! Amazingly, in some fossils we can now identify traces of chemicals and determine what colour they were when they were alive.

In order to understand how this fossilisation of squishy bits occurs, I create experiments to look at what special conditions are needed. For example, I am currently studying 300 million year old fossil fish which have preserved internal organs, gills and eyeballs . We buy fish from fish mongers and then allow them to rot in lots of different ways (in different temperatures of water for example) and see if this creates a carcass like the one we see in the fossil. We also time how long it takes for each organs to rot away, which can tell us how long it took our fossil to turn into stone. This process is know as Taphonomy  and I am a Taphonomist.

It sounds disgusting and it is! My experiments can generate some of the most disgusting smells that a human has ever smelt (if you can think of a bad smell multiply it by 4 and you’ve got it!) and is seriously slimey. You have to have a strong stomach and be brave to dissect a fish that has been rotting for weeks. I once accidentally left the lid off one of my experiments and came back a few days later to find the entire floor of the building had evacuated!

If you are interested in fossils or my work I often tweet about it, why not follow me? @Thomas_Clements.

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  • What is the difference between palaeontology and paleontology?

Absolutely nothing! It’s just two different spellings for the same word. The first is used in Britain and many of it’s over sea territories whereas the second is used in America and Europe. Aren’t we a weird bunch?

My Typical Day

Every day at work is different. Some days I’m in the lab doing crazy experiments, other days I’m travelling around the world to find fossils or look in a museum. I also do a lot of teaching.

The popular conception of palaeontology is stuffy old men with big beards sitting in a museum looking at dusty rocks. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

I spend most of my day in the lab, creating disgusting experiments or looking at exciting new fossils. myimage4 I have lots of meetings with my colleagues where we chat about what’s going on in palaeontology or how to proceed with our work. We eat lots of cake and biscuits. Another important part of my job is talking to people like you! I often visit schools to talk about palaeontology and how to become a scientist. [myimage5 centre]

Occasionally, I have to go abroad to look at fossils in collections or museums. Last year I went to Toronto and this year I am going to Chicago to visit a large museum and look at their fossil fish.

I also do a lot of teaching undergraduate students geology and taking them on field work to places like Arran, Scotland or southern Spain.

Lastly, I am very keen on sports and I like to play badminton, hockey and football. Combined with my Xbox, there isn’t really much time in the day to do anything else.

What I'd do with the money

I would like to create a travelling lab so I could show the science of decay experiments in schools!

I love to go out to schools and talk about what I do and how I got into it. I love my job so much, but when I was growing up I didn’t know you could do the science with fossils, let alone of rotting things. For those schools too far away, I would love to start a virtual lab webpage and create videos blogs to answer any questions about what palaeontologists do.

I want to show students everywhere that anything is possible if you keep your mind open and keep asking ‘why?’ all the time.

My Interview

How would you describe yourself in 3 words?

Walking disaster zone

Who is your favourite singer or band?

Freddie Mercury and Queen.

What's your favourite food?

Mash! It goes with everything!

What is the most fun thing you've done?

Jumped out of a helicopter and into the sea – at the time it wasn’t fun, but looking back it’s pretty awesome.

What did you want to be after you left school?

A palaeontologist in Jurassic Park or an F1 driver

Were you ever in trouble at school?

Yes, I was quite naughty – I do regret it now, especially when I bump into my old teachers.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Biology and natural geography. I loved doing dissections.

What's the best thing you've done as a scientist?

I’ve got to work on very very very rare fossil cephalopods (octopus and squid) that were around 60 million years old. They are my favorite animals so swimming with alive ones was mind blowing.

What or who inspired you to become a scientist?

My mum inspires me, she is the best scientist I know – she worked on mushrooms! As a kid I just loved to ask ‘why?’ all the time and it bothered me that we don’t have all the answers. So now I try to find them out myself!

If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?

I’d love to be an F1 driver. I like to drive fast and I love the science and engineering aspect of it.

If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!

1. Own my own castle 2. Buy an 1961 Jaguar E-Type. 3. Have enough money to start a charity to help young people to get PhDs

Tell us a joke.

(*Said in your best pirate voice*) What is a pirates favorite letter? You’d think it would be rrrrrrrr but it actually be the c!

Other stuff

Work photos: