11 September 2007

The Big Picture

I like the big picture. After all, being able to piece together scattered bits of information to discern some sort of higher-order pattern (whether that pattern is actually there or not) is what makes us human. I especially like looking at the big picture in science. In paleontology, one could make a distinguished career of describing new species of dinosaur or of debating exactly how many species comprise a certain genus of plant. While I don't want to imply that such research is unimportant (far from it, in fact), it's not for me. To my mind, the most interesting issues to address are ones that are almost impossible to resolve. The classic "big picture" questions in paleontology are those relating to the nature and rate of evolutionary change and to mass extinctions, though several other topics have received a good deal of attention as well (the effects of climate change have been an area of increasing interest lately, for obvious reasons). Because of both the staggering complexity of the systems being studied and the extremely fragmentary nature of the fossil record, many of these questions will never be fully answered. A certain degree of speculation will always be inherent in such research, and as such many paleontologists avoid it like the plague (and understandably so). However, even if the conclusions drawn from such studies must be taken with a grain of salt, their implications are potentially very important (again, the utility of climate change research should be readily apparent). On top of that, at least to my mind, studying great, overarching problems is just more fun than focusing on the minutiae.
This is all a long, rambling preamble to me saying that, to that end, I've decided to radically increase the scope of my PhD project. If there's anyone out there that reads this regularly, you may recall that I'd decided to focus on the effects of the Columbia River Basalts on Oregon mammal communities. However, there were several other events going on at the same time that were just too significant to ignore. In the Middle Miocene, from about 20-13 million years ago, there was a significant shift in climate (to almost exactly the conditions predicted by most models of modern day global warming, interestingly enough), a major migration of mammals from Asia to North America, large-scale volcanism in the form of the Columbia River Basalts, regional volcanism in Oregon and Washington, and a major shift from forest to grassland habitats. Because I like setting myself impossible goals, I want to tease apart the effects these factors had on mammal ecology. Rather than trying to do so across the globe (I like impossible goals, but not that impossible), my plan is to focus on the far west of North America, effectively Washington, Oregon, California, Mexico. I'm still piecing together the methods I'll use (and I wouldn't want to bore you all any more than I already have even if I had a clearer plan); suffice it to say it'll require trips to museums in Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Mexico City (as well as - time and funding allowing - further afield to compare sites in the Great Plains, Europe, Africa, and South America). I may very well have bitten off a great deal more than I can chew, especially as projects tend to balloon in complexity the further they progress. Still, I'm thrilled with the prospect, and I know that, as hectic as it may get, I'll be having a blast each step of the way.

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