Series: Meet A Paleontologist

David K. Elliott, Northern Arizona University

Dr. David Elliott in the field collecting fossils
Dr. David Elliott in the field collecting vertebrates from the Pennnsylvanian of Arizona.

Professor, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona

NFD Kid's Page Interview...

What is your job and what do you study?
I am a professor in the Geology Program at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff (near the Grand Canyon!). I teach the paleontology part of the program, including a dinosaurs course, as well as other geology courses. I work mostly on the ecology and evolution of early vertebrates from the Silurian and Devonian time periods, about 440 to 360 million years ago. Recently I have been working on fossil sharks from the Mississippian to Permian time periods. I’m lucky that my job allows me to work in a beautiful place and study interesting fossils.

What are you working on now?
Collecting fossils can be relatively easy but preparing and describing them and then publishing papers can take a lot of time. I’m currently in the writing phase with a project that is taking information from my past expeditions to the Canadian Arctic and using it to reconstruct the environments in which early vertebrates were living during the Devonian. This is important because there are different views about whether they lived in fresh or marine conditions.
Dr. David Elliott in his lab
Dr. David Elliott in his lab with a slab showing early vertebrate armor from the Early Devonian of Utah.

Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?

I took my undergraduate degree in Geology from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in England and then a doctorate in Paleontology at Bristol University, also in England. As an undergraduate I remember being excited about all the courses I took in Geology—I couldn’t believe I was actually being taught about something that interested me so much! I particularly enjoyed the paleontology part of the degree of course and was really hooked by a course on early vertebrates taught by the Department Chair, Stanley Westoll. That was what started me on the research I’m doing today.

Was there an experience you had that made you realize that you wanted to be a paleontologist?
I was always interested in natural history and the outdoors but became interested in geology when one of my teachers brought some rocks and minerals into the class when I was about ten. At that time my family would go to the coast for a summer vacation and I started looking at the chalk cliffs and finding fossils. Somehow my interest was sparked and I decided that studying fossils was what I wanted to do.

What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
I think my most memorable experience was working with a specimen of Astraspis, an Ordovician vertebrate and the oldest from North America. I had borrowed a specimen from a museum and because the bone was missing and only a mold remained I decided to clean it and make a latex peel of it. When I removed the peel I saw that it showed details of the anatomy that were unknown before and that were important to understanding of early vertebrate relationships. I remember skipping round my lab with excitement!

Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
Paleontology is a field where you will be helped by being as broad in your knowledge base as possible. Don’t specialize too early, take a basic degree in geology or biology and add as many additional courses in sciences as you can. Don’t neglect writing, photography, and drawing courses either. They will be useful to you as you move into writing and illustrating publications. In the early stages try to get involved in paleontology in your area by volunteering with your local museum or paleontological society. You will get useful background that way and make useful contacts. But most of all enjoy yourself!