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Bottjer Earns Top Paleontology Award

USC Dornsife paleontologist David Bottjer is awarded the 2014 Moore Medal for Excellence in Paleontology by the Society for Sedimentary Geology (SEPM).

By Laura Paisley
April 15, 2014

USC Dornsife’s David Bottjer (right) receives the 2014 Moore Medal for Excellence in Paleontology from Evan Franseen, president of the Society for Sedimentary Geology, during a ceremony in Houston, Texas, April 8. Photo by Gary Barchfeld.

USC Dornsife’s David Bottjer (right) receives the 2014 Moore Medal for Excellence in Paleontology from Evan Franseen, president of the Society for Sedimentary Geology, during a ceremony in Houston, Texas, April 8. Photo by Gary Barchfeld.

Recognized for his outstanding contributions to the fields of paleobiology and paleoecology, USC Dornsife’s David Bottjer has earned a prestigious award from the Society for Sedimentary Geology (SEPM), an international, nonprofit society based in Tulsa, Okla.

Bottjer, professor of Earth sciences, biological sciences and environmental studies, received his medal at a ceremony in Houston, Texas, on April 8.

At the society’s annual meeting, SEPM awards five medals of scientific excellence for long-term, outstanding contributors in areas related to sedimentary geology.

Nominees for the Raymond C. Moore Medal, named after the legendary early paleontologist who helped establish the society, are chosen based on a significant body of work that supports a major objective of SEPM — the promotion of the science of stratigraphy through research in paleontology and evolution, and the use of fossils for interpretations of paleoecology.

“The SEPM Raymond C. Moore Medal for excellence in paleontology has been awarded since 1980 and the past winners are really a ‘who’s who’ of paleontologists,” said Howard Harper, Jr., executive director of SEPM. “The awardees are chosen by a committee of peers, with nominations made by geologists from around the globe. Dr. Bottjer was selected by the committee from a pool of over a dozen well-qualified nominees for the 2014 award.”

“Few have ever tackled the range of topics in paleobiology and sedimentology as David Bottjer and made such timely contributions,” said Mary Droser, Bottjer’s former student, who earned her Ph.D. in paleontology in 1987. “He continues to push the boundaries of paleobiology and sedimentary geology. He is known among his students — present and past — as a generous, insightful, successful and abundantly enthusiastic mentor and for those students who have gone on in academics, he serves as a life-long role model.”

Paleontology, the scientific study of prehistoric life, analyzes fossils to determine how organisms evolved and how they interacted with each other and their environments — the latter known more specifically as paleoecology. Paleontology utilizes techniques from a wide range of sciences, such as molecular biology, mathematics and engineering, to delineate the evolutionary history of life on Earth, which dates back to about 3,500 million years ago.

“This is arguably the top award in my field, so I was very gratified when I got the news,” said Bottjer. “I got a call from the president of the society completely out of the blue, so it was a very warm, glowing feeling.”

Bottjer’s career has focused on two primary questions. One, he is trying to understand how early animals evolved on Earth and how Earth’s ecology changed as these evolving animals came to occupy many different types of habitats.

Second, he and his students are looking at the “less positive side” of evolution and life on Earth by examining some of the fossil record’s major mass extinctions, which occurred at moments in Earth history when environments on Earth became very harsh, causing animals to die out at an accelerated rate.

“The instances of mass extinction we’ve been looking at, interestingly, seem to be times when there was rapid global warming, so we think this research has some relevance to society as we try to understand what’s going on in today’s Earth and today’s geologically rapid global warming. Since these mass extinctions have occurred in a natural way in the past, our research is useful because we can examine what may be some of the outcomes of current global warming.”

Bottjer has worked broadly on organism-sediment interactions and the ecological history of life. His research has taken a multidisciplinary approach to understanding the paleobiology and paleoecology of early metazoan life, and to this end, he has conducted field work in eastern California and China.

More specifically, he and his colleagues are seeking a detailed understanding of the paleoecology of the “recovery period” following the end-Permian and end-Triassic mass extinctions, encompassing extensive work on Triassic strata throughout the western United States, Europe, South America, Japan and China. The latter research has led to his involvement in helping to develop the Paleobiology Database, a large Web database which is being utilized to solve major outstanding paleobiological and evolutionary problems.

Through its network of international members, SEPM is dedicated to the dissemination of scientific information on sedimentology, stratigraphy, paleontology, environmental sciences, marine geology, hydrogeology and many related specialties. The society supports its members in their professional objectives by publishing two major scientific journals, the Journal of Sedimentary Research (JSR) and PALAIOS, in addition to planning research conferences, educational courses and special publications.