Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Honors Margery Coombs

Margery Coombs, at center holding citation, with former students, from left, Taormina Lepore, Eric Dewar, Tim Koneval, Karen Samonds, Luke Holbrook and Don Deblieux.
Margery Coombs, at center holding citation, with former students, from left, Taormina Lepore, Eric Dewar, Tim Koneval, Karen Samonds, Luke Holbrook and Don Deblieux.

At the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s (SVP) 75th annual meeting in October in Dallas, professor emeritus Margery Coombs, biology, was awarded honorary membership, one of the three major academic career awards given by the society, to recognize her long career of “distinguished contribution to vertebrate paleontology.” The society is the premier international body for the interdisciplinary field of vertebrate paleontology.

Coombs is internationally known for her research on fossil perissodactyls, that is, odd-toed ungulates such as rhinos, tapirs and horses, and in particular on chalicotheres, a group with claws rather than hooves that roamed the Earth from about 55 million years ago until they became extinct about 1 million years ago.

After majoring in biology at Oberlin College, she received her Ph.D. in biological sciences from Columbia University, completing her thesis research at the American Museum of Natural History, home of one of the world’s richest fossil collections. Coombs taught vertebrate paleontology, comparative vertebrate anatomy and evolution at UMass Amherst from 1973 to her retirement in 2012, and mentored many graduate and undergraduate students who are now active in the field.

She recalls, “My first SVP meeting was in New York City in 1969. I was one of only two women presenting a talk that year. We were both placed at the beginning of the program, and by some quirk of fortune I was first. Thus I gave my first SVP talk without ever seeing a previous presentation. My first words at SVP were ‘I hope you can see me over the top of the podium.’”

Coombs went on to faithfully serve the society in many different capacities, for example on the executive committee, as associate editor of the journal, on honorary membership and ethics committees and on two different student prize committees over the next 46 years, rarely missing a meeting.

Born on a dairy farm in southern New Hampshire, she says cows were her first introduction to ungulates, but studying them and their extinct relatives has since taken her from early field work in fossil-rich Nebraska, then on to Europe, China and Africa and some of the most interesting museums and field locations on the planet, while she built “informative collaborations with scientists around the world.”  

“Although my publications have included other ungulates, such as Eocene artiodactyls, the bulk of my research program has concentrated on the chalicotheres, an unusual clawed perissodactyl group,” Coombs adds. This chalicothere focus took her in a variety of directions beyond skeletal anatomy, including paleogeography, taphonomy (reconstructing the environment the animal lived in when it died), paleoecology, biostratigraphy, phalangeal fusion, dental microwear and comparative morphology of large mammalian, clawed herbivores living and extinct.

Coombs received the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics Outstanding Teacher Award in 2004. Her work also involved a close association with the vertebrate fossil collection at Amherst College. In addition to using the collections and exhibits for teaching, she had a continuing role in collection management and curation. Her Amherst College collaboration culminated in the development of vertebrate paleontology exhibits in the Beneski Museum of Natural History there, which opened in 2006.