Q & A with Dr. Michael Caldwell

Meet Dr. Michael Caldwell, a vertebrate paleontologist who focuses on snakes, lizards, and their kin. Find out more about him and his research in this Q & A.

Michael Caldwell holding a plesiosaur skull

Why is paleontology so important today?

Paleontology provides a "time" reference for the position, importance, relevance and relationship of individual human beings, and ultimately of all humans, to the physical and biological world around us.That the planet is ancient, that we can find the remains of ancient animals from ancient and unsuspected worlds is more than just a pull on the imagination, it is the touchstone for us of what is real. People love this awareness of their existence, even if it is not articulated beyond, the "Wow!"

What made you want to become a paleontologist?

Long story...I was fascinated by fossils and dinosaurs when I was seven, in grade two. I still remember my first paleontology book from the library-that never went away. I dawdled around in several undergrad programs before starting my final undergrad degree in 1987 in paleontology. Never looked back.

Who has influenced you most in the world of paleontology?

My old postdoctoral supervisor, Olivier Rieppel. He challenged me intellectually and personally, and though little of it, in the long run, was positive, the challenges improved me beyond expectation. The runner-up in this category is Robert Carroll, my Ph.D. supervisor; he stood by, somewhat patiently, and taught me to write and allowed me to think about things in my own way.

What is the question you get asked the most by students?

"What made you want to become a paleontologist?"

How would you describe your area of expertise in a short paragraph?

I am a vertebrate paleontologist and evolutionary biologist with a discipline-specific focus on the evolutionary history and interrelationships of snakes, lizards, and their kin. This means that my data set first appears in rocks that are about 260 million years old and continues to the present. I am fascinated by the patterns and processes that drive major evolutionary transformations over deep time, leading to such highly modified animals as snakes, turtles, pterosaurs, marine reptiles, whales, and so on. Because I cannot be an expert on everything, my research work is focused on the data I can collect on snakes and lizards. The theoretical questions I like to play with specifically draw from the data I have collected on fossil and living snakes and lizards, even though the implications of the patterns and processes I uncover apply to everything.

What are some of the research projects you are working on right now?

The oldest known snakes (70 million years older than previously known materials); the origins of snakes, lizards, and their kin from within the radiation of reptiles known as sauropsids; redefining our understanding of two groups of giant marine lizards known as mosasaurs, the genus Mosasaurus and the genus Tylosaurus; and the evolution of aquatic adaptations in pythonomorph lizards.

What is the most exciting and/or interesting thing that has happened to you during your career in paleontology?

Discovering and reporting on the first known fossils of snakes with complete hind limbs.

What is a typical day for you in the field?

The field comes in two forms: actual fieldwork and prospecting for fossils, or collaborative museum-based research working on specimens tucked away in the cabinets and drawers of the world's museums. If the field is the "prospecting" version, then coffee is number one, followed by driving or hiking out to the localities for another day of prospecting or collecting specimens. I recall three weeks of fieldwork in the Eastern Sahara-cold, really cold actually, which meant the coffee needed to be thick and dark, followed by a long drive out to Wadi El Hitan (Whale Valley), where we were working on the paleoenvironment of the world's most spectacular fauna of 50 million year old whales. There are also giant snakes in the same rocks, though they are rare. Long dusty days, great geology, spectacular fossils, and exotic foods and cultures.

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a paleontologist?

There are many ways to become a professional paleontologist. My version is to be a university academic and scholar, surrounded by students of all kinds (undergrads, grad students, colleagues) who are hungry for knowledge. I believe it is the best job in the world.