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Meet a Paleontologist
Dr. Samuels looking for fossils that may have become exposed by weathering and erosion at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon.
Dr. Samuels carefully digging a fossil for the research collection at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon.
Dr. Joshua X. Samuels
Museum Curator / Chief of Paleontology
John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What are you working on now?
My passion is studying how the anatomy (body structure) of animals relates to their ecology (how they live). It is amazing what the bones and teeth of animals can tell you about what they eat and how they move. My focus lately has been on rodents (like beavers, squirrels, and mice) and carnivores (like dogs, cats, and otters). I have been studying how the skeletons of living animals are adapted to swim, dig, climb, and run. With that, I can infer what extinct species were like, and study how their evolution relates to past climate and habitat changes.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I first studied at the College of Idaho for a bachelor's degree in biology, and then I went to the University of California - Los Angeles, where I received my PhD. I have always wanted to know how extinct animals lived and evolved, so I studied functional morphology and biomechanics. My dissertation looked at the evolution of beavers, examining how rodents have adapted to swim, dig, and eat tough plants (like trees). My favorite classes were Mammalogy, where we got to study living animals like kangaroo rats, and Comparative Anatomy, which allowed me to study the bones, muscles, and organs of a wide range of animals, from fish and frogs to alligators and lions.
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
When I was 3 years old I loved dinosaurs, went around picking up rocks everywhere, and told people I was going to be a paleontologist. Unlike most kids, I never grew out of it. Every visit to a museum or to the wilderness as a child confirmed that was what I wanted to do with my life.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
While prospecting during my first summer here at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, I saw the jaw and part of a leg from an oreodont (a hoofed mammal related to pigs and camels) eroding out of a hill side. When I crawled up to it, I was amazed that to find part of a tiny squirrel skull sitting on the surface next to the leg. Then when I started to excavate the oreodont leg, I found a pair of sabertooth jaws in the rock next to it. I was shocked and amazed to find so many great fossils just stacked on one another.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
As I mentioned before, when I was child I loved dinosaurs. However, once I got into college, I learned more about the thousands of other animals that are known from the fossil record. Many, like the beavers, squirrels, and mice that I have worked on, are important, but often overlooked. Find something that you like and learn all that you can about it. If you work hard, you can have a career that you love.