Big Picture, Small Details

Through one drawing at a time, Dolf Seilacher has altered the way paleontology research is conducted.

While paleontologists have traditionally examined fossils directly to study life in different geological periods, Seilacher has been utilizing the camera lucida, a device that superimposes an image of the object on the drawing board, as the foundation of his research philosophy. “You do not see what you have not drawn,” he states. As the lines come together, details and characteristics that are unique to the creature appear, which can connect with countless others to provide evidence for underlying principles of paleontology.

For example, Seilacher’s idea of constructional morphology which explains a relationship between tiny, shelled creatures known as ostracods and airplanes, was elucidated with the assistance of the camera lucida.

Constructional morphology explains that each creature owes its shape to three different influences: the evolutionary heritage that it’s born with, the pressures of its particular function in any given environment, and the simple restrictions that come from working with the materials that living creatures can use to build their bodies. The same constraints of the physical world that engineers deal with each day also apply to every living creature. Accordingly, when paleontologists discovered ostracod shells with wing-like ridges that look surprisingly like the wings of jet planes, Dr. Seilacher’s idea explains the find should not be surprising at all. Both jet planes and ostracod shells were designed to conquer the same problems of moving with maximum speed. It is reasonable that both structures converge on the same solution.

Some of Dr. Seilacher’s other discoveries are less broad, but no less surprising. His careful eye has revealed that patterns like chicken wire pressed into the surface of the modern, deep ocean floor are exactly the same as fifty million year old fossils from Austria. This observation allowed him to conclude that the creatures that leave these patterns in the mud are far from extinct. “Paleontology is a very strange science,” he says, smiling. “[It] is a biological science on the territory of geology, but it does not mean necessarily that we are unhappy about this liaison.”

Since he started his adjunct professorship at Yale in 1987, his trace fossil and invertebrate paleontology courses have both inspired students and equipped them with a new way to look at the world and the fossils in it. Between teaching and sixty-six years of work so far in the field, his range has grown to encompass several different topics, including some of the oldest life forms and some of the best preserved.

Since his first paper, published in 1943, Dr. Seilacher has written over 200. In addition, he has received several prestigious awards, including Crafoord Prize in 1994, an equivalent to the Nobel Prize for research in the fields of geology, astronomy, mathematics, and biology.

Dr. Seilacher retired from Yale following the Spring 2009 term. However, he remarks, “I leave a suitcase in New Haven. It is impossible to leave the appetite for new discoveries and curiosity.”