The Rocky Mountains’ diverse cast of carnivores

By Susumu Tomiya

I was hooked on the paleontology of mammals in my junior year of college when I took a seminar taught by Dr. Ken Rose at Johns Hopkins. I was mesmerized by the dark shiny teeth of mammals that he had brought back from his field sites in Wyoming, and became fascinated by the history of mammalian diversity. I then went on to pursue graduate study in biology at UC Berkeley. For my dissertation, I studied the evolution of Eocene carnivores (about 46 to 40 million years old) recovered from urban development sites in southern California. 

A male researcher holds a fossil with a computer in the background
Susumu Tomiya holding a fossil of an extinct wolf-like carnivore, Mesonyx obtusidens. Photo by Burke Museum

I am broadly interested in the ecological processes and environmental histories that have shaped – and continue to influence – the diversity of mammals such as competition, climate change, and habitat modification by humans. A lot of my effort to date has gone into documenting the past diversity of land mammals – especially those that lived in North America from 50-37 million years ago and the last ~20,000 years – through taxonomic research, which includes describing new species and figuring out where they fit on the tree of mammals. I have also investigated patterns of extinction in the fossil record, ultimately to better understand the long-term consequences of today’s biodiversity crisis.

Related to my research, I am passionate about taking care of natural history collections. When I work in museums, I often find myself making foam liners for specimens (which protect them from breakage), correcting misidentifications of animals, or obsessively restoring the proper order of specimens in drawers. Research collections are in some ways like community gardens–when everyone (including researchers) takes good care of them, there will be more knowledge to harvest for everyone.  I spent a lot of time during my week at the Burke re-identifying Eocene fossils from the Bridger and Washakie Basins of Wyoming.

Article Source: Burke Museum