UMass Amherst Paleontologist Pulls Molecules From Fossils; Learns What Animals Ate and How They Lived

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts paleontologist Emily CoBabe looks at molecules pulled from fossils in order to learn about ancient animals and climates. "When people hear about my work, they tend to think of the movie ‘Jurassic Park,’" said CoBabe, a member of the geosciences faculty, and director of a state-of-the-art paleobiology laboratory set to come on line in the spring. "We’re not building organisms from the past, but we are looking into what they ate and how they lived."

CoBabe was recently named a Distinguished Lecturer for 1998-2000 by the Paleontological Society. She is one of just five scientists from throughout the nation to receive the honor, which will take her on speaking engagements across the country over the next two years. Lecturers are chosen for their national and international stature in paleontology, their extensive publications, and their effectiveness as speakers, according to the society.

Like traditional paleontologists, CoBabe studies fossils such as mollusk shells and mammal bones and teeth, but her primary research involves extracting fat molecules, called lipids, from fossils. These molecules offer clues about the animals’ diet, and the climate in which they lived. She cleans the fossils both chemically and mechanically, using an instrument that resembles a dentist’s drill. Then the fossils are ground to a powder and painstakingly tested in the lab. CoBabe also analyzes lake sediments, looking for fat molecules from organisms such as bacteria and algae, which don’t fossilize but do leave very specific biochemical traces behind.

"If you combine this data with information from larger fossils, you can look at an entire ecosystem and see how it has changed over time," said CoBabe, whose research takes her to places such as Montana, Alaska, and Bolivia. "This is useful in looking at the response of plants and animals to climate change, or asking how important environments are in shaping evolutionary paths for organisms. Using organic geochemistry, we can answer questions about the ecology and climate of the past, and the conditions under which a species does or doesn’t survive."

CoBabe earned her Ph.D. from Harvard University, and did postdoctoral work at the University of Bristol (England) and Indiana University before joining the UMass faculty in 1994. At UMass, she teaches historical geology, paleontology, and organic/biogeochemistry courses.