Catching Up with Peter Wilf

How did you first become interested in geosciences?

Though always interested in the natural world, I discovered geology as my discipline rather late, at almost 30 years old. Deciding to go back to school as a graduate student, I wanted to study the evolution of life through time. It quickly became apparent that I really wanted to study fossils, and fossils are in rocks. I jumped in all the way and have never looked back.

What is the most exciting or fascinating aspect of your research?

I love discovering things that no one knew before, from fossils to natural patterns and processes, and traveling our beautiful planet as I do it. Being a paleobotanist and studying plants inside rocks means everything you see is fascinating: I tell my students that almost everywhere you go there are rocks, or plants, or both, so I ALWAYS have a lot to look at and think about!

If you could solve a single mystery in your field, what would it be?

The greatest prize in paleobotany is to discover the origins of angiosperms, the flowering plants that dominate the planet today. This problem has baffled naturalists since before Darwin. The ancestors of flowering plants and thus the evolutionary steps that led to the first flowers are still unknown. My vertebrate paleontologist colleagues have discovered fossil whales with feet that beautifully illustrate whale evolution from terrestrial ancestors. This inspires me to think we will eventually find the transitional proto-flowers as fossils.

From your research, what kind of climate changes and ecological changes should we expect in the future?

We're in trouble. The fossil record repeatedly shows that rapid climate changes cause huge shifts in natural ecosystems, extinctions, evolutionary responses, ecological changes such as increases in insect feeding on plants with rising temperature, and major alterations in organisms' ranges. This has never happened before under the human footprint. For example, the Earth transitioned from a greenhouse to an icehouse state starting about 34 million years ago as the Antarctic ice sheet first developed, and much later the Arctic was glaciated. The greenhouse-icehouse shift was associated with profound changes in both terrestrial and marine life. Rising temperatures predicted for the near future due to human-caused climate change are, in some scenarios, on a scale that could shift the Earth's climate back into the greenhouse state. Our species evolved in the icehouse world, and it is not at all clear we can adapt fast enough to a fundamentally different climate state with much higher sea level, massive redistribution of climate zones and food sources, and loss of biodiversity resources including food, medicine, water purification, etcetera.

Although life on the planet has evolved to respond to climate change, this natural ability will be severely impaired due to the human footprint, including depletion of natural abundance, degradation of migration corridors, and human occupation and degradation of the sites for new potential wildlife habitats that will be needed for the establishment of stable, well-functioning new ecosystems as was accomplished in the deep past. We also know from the fossil record that life survives massive depletions and extinctions and eventually recovers, but it takes millions of years for balanced and diverse ecosystems to return, and there is huge turnover. So in the long run, Nature will be fine, but we will not, we won't be here to see it unless we really wake up. The joke's on us.

When you're not working, how do you spend your free time?

Mostly with my wonderful wife and wonderful 4-year old daughter. I love all kinds of music from all over the world, though I am a much better scientist than musician. Top activities are music, reading, getting outside and seeing nature, and traveling.

Where is your favorite place you've traveled to?

The New Jersey Pine Barrens is about the loveliest place on Earth, and very close to home. The fantastic plants there are what first interested me in botany. Further away, I love rainforests of all kinds, which is where "real biodiversity" is found—I have worked and traveled in rainforests in Panama, Brazil, Australia, Argentina, Chile, and Puerto Rico. This gives me crucial insights into fossil rainforests, which I usually collect from modern deserts. Everyone should see and be awed by rainforests and coral reefs, the most diverse places on land and in the ocean, respectively. Otherwise, "biodiversity" is just a word and no one knows what it is they keep hearing they should save.

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man in green shirt and hat stands in front of mountains

Last Updated April 13, 2010