Sarah Gabbott

  • Tuesday 28 November 2017
  • 6.00pm-7.00pm
  • George Davies Centre, Lecture Theatre 1

The weird and the wonderful: interpreting the evolution of life through fossils

Without fossils we would know little about the amazing journey that life on our planet has taken, evolving from oceans full of green slime through to the myriad of animals and plants we share our existence with today. Fossils are mainly familiar to us as bones, teeth and shells - the durable mineralised parts of animals. But happily for palaeontologists, and for our understanding of evolution, rare and remarkable fossils preserve the parts of animals that usually decay away after death. Guts, eyes, livers, brains, skin and other decay-prone anatomy all occur in the fossil record making up 'soft-bodied' fossils.

But there’s a problem – when they are preserved in rock such fossils often look nothing like they did when the animal was alive. This makes it difficult to interpret these fossils in terms of their anatomy and crucially where they should sit on the evolutionary tree. Getting this right is important so such fossils can play their part in revealing the story of evolution on Earth.

Soft-bodied fossils appear different to the once-living animals because the process of fossilisation, and in particular decay, results in loss and modification of anatomical features. How do we see through this filter to read fossils correctly? In this lecture I will explain why rotting animals in the laboratory is one very useful way forwards, helping us to interpret the anatomy of animals from their fossil counterparts.

Some fossils are just so weird and wonderful that they have defied interpretation for many years. Until now. I will illustrate the tale of one fossil so strange in appearance that it has evaded interpretation for over 50 years. But, as we discovered last year the answer was staring straight at us – quite literally – the fossil’s eyes were the solution to its affinity. Another fossil, and my favourite, has over 40 segments and lots of imbricating flaps and is incredibly complex. She is affectionately called 'Sue' after my mum – she remains something of a mystery (the fossil not my mum!). However, recently after studying it for more than 20 years I (at last) have a theory as to what she actually is, which I will share for the first time at this inaugural lecture.

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Professor Sarah Gabbott

Sarah went to the University of Southampton to study biology, but soon changed course to become a geology graduate. She did her PhD at the University of Leicester on exceptionally preserved fossils from the Ordovician Soom Shale in South Africa. This involved long field seasons splitting shales and hunting for fossils. It was here, inspired by Professor Dick Aldridge, that she became fond of bird watching (and gin and tonic).

She did a twi-year post-doctorate at Leicester, before being offered a lectureship at the University of Birmingham. She accepted this before, one day later, accepting the same position at Leicester.

Sarah is an enthusiastic teacher enjoying all aspects of interacting with students, but especially fieldwork. She is a Senior Fellow of the HEA. Meanwhile Sarah’s research is also a significant component of her job. She has been funded by NERC continuously since 2007, and received funding from the Royal Society and National Geographic. She has published three Nature papers as first or corresponding author, alongside many other significant contributions. Her project on the decay of vertebrates was shortlisted as the Times Research Project of the Year, and she led exhibitions on this to the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, the Big Bang Science Festival and the Cheltenham Science Fair among others.

Sarah is a keen communicator of science. She was an expert presenter on a Channel 4 TV series showcasing palaeontology, and was a British Association Media Fellow, where she worked at the BBC as a science correspondent writing articles on science and appearing on radio.

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