Our next curator is Dr Dana Ehret (@drdanaehret), former Curator of Paleontology at Alabama Museum of Natural History and soon to be Assistant Curator of Natural History (beginning January) at the New Jersey State Museum. Here’s Dana’s story.
I have always loved the outdoors. I literally grew up on the beach in Manasquan, New Jersey. I attribute my love of science to some of the amazing teachers that I had at Spring Lake Heights Elementary School in New Jersey as well as college. My second grade teacher, Ms. Ardythe Wright, and my 7-8th grade science teacher, Mr. Rich Muhlenbruck, really fostered my love of science. Rich would draw me maps of where I could ride my bike to find fossils and Ms. Wright would give me avocado trees that she grew herself. I still stay in touch with Rich and have lunch with him whenever I visit home. I think it is very important to foster the wonders of science and nature in children and I try to follow my teachers’ examples.
Like all 5 year olds I loved dinosaurs and wanted to be a paleontologist. As I grew older I had the mindset, ‘you can’t do that, that’s only what those people on tv can do’. When I entered undergrad the first class I took was entitled ‘Dinosaurs’ and the professor, Dr. Roger Wood, was also paired with me as my advisor. Roger is a turtle paleontologist himself and his father, Dr. Albert E. Wood, and his uncle, Dr. Horace E. Wood, were also paleontologists. During my first advising meeting with Roger Wood he asked me what I wanted to do career-wise. I told him that I would love to be a paleontologist but I knew that I couldn’t do that. His reply was simply, ‘If you want to do it, then do it.’ My path has been a circuitous one. My undergraduate degree is in Marine Biology where I worked on the conservation of the Diamondback Terrapin as well as Cretaceous turtle fossils with Roger Wood. I went to graduate school at the University of Florida and received my Masters degree in Geology with a minor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. I mainly worked on aging and growth of Eocene and Oligocene tortoises from the Badlands of Nebraska. During this time I also started working on the growth of the Gopher tortoise in Florida. In fact, my Masters research was cited in the legislation to uplist Gopher tortoises to threatened in Florida. For my PhD I changed my area of focus to fossil sharks. I investigated the growth of the largest shark that ever lived, Carcharocles megalodon, as well as described a new white shark from the Miocene of Peru, Carcharodon hubbelli.
My primary areas of research are in fossil sharks and turtles. Studying their evolution, ecology, and taxonomy. However, I am also interested in turtle conservation and have been fortunate enough to have worked with Diamondback terrapins, Gopher tortoises, and sea turtles. As a paleontologist, I am most interested in the evolution of the Lamniform and Otodontid sharks. Lamniforms include white and mako sharks which are my main area of interest. Otodontids include Megalodon and its ancestors like Otodus obliquus. As for turtles, I am interested in the evolution of the modern groups of North American freshwater turtles and tortoises. There is very little known about the fossil record for some of these groups like the map turtles, Graptemys, and terrapins, Malaclemys. For the past 5 years I have been Curator of Paleontology at the Alabama Museum of Natural History. My day to day work varies tremendously. I have been in charge of collecting, preparing, identifying, and curating fossils collected mostly from Alabama. I have also managed a 140-acre late Cretaceous fossil site outside of Selma, Alabama which has amazing marine fossils. I was also teaching at the University of Alabama, mentoring students, and doing a lot of outreach through our museum. Next week is my last week with the Alabama Museum of Natural History. I have accepted the position of Assistant Curator of Natural History at the New Jersey State Museum.
Paleontology is about a lot more than just cool new dinosaurs. Paleontology is the record of life on Earth. It teaches us how our planet has changed and how organisms respond to that change, either by adapting or going extinct. It teaches us about changing environments, ecosystems and climate. We need to look to the past to prepare for our future. I have been asked, ‘Why should we care about fossil sharks?’ Well by understanding the early evolution of the white and mako sharks we can better understand how their living relatives came to be. We can understand how these species react to environmental change i.e. a cooling climate in the past 12 million years, changing diets (marine mammals), changing competition (the extinction of Megalodon). And all of these factors can be useful to model what we might expect of marine ecosystems in the centuries to come.
Aside from my research and curatorial work, I am also the co-chair of the Communications Committee for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. One of my main duties in that capacity is to write press releases related to research being published through the Journal of Paleontology or being presented at the annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conferences. So I work a lot with the authors as well as science journalists to share breaking paleontological research.
I am a collector, like most museum curators are! I love listening, seeing and collecting music. I have over 1500 vinyl records at home that I’ve mostly found at thrift stores and flea markets all over the country. I am a HUGE thrifter of all things, vintage clothing, furniture, dishes, records. I also have two motorcycles and a vintage car that I work on when I can.
Honestly I have spent almost every weekend over the past 5 years doing what I love best, in the field collecting fossils! But on days when I’m not in the field, I love to go hunting for treasures in thrift stores and flea markets. I also like taking my dog Duke out for a walk, hike or the dog park.