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Anthony Fiorillo is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at Southern Methodist University (Dallas, USA). His research interests are in vertebrate taphonomy and particularly its role in understanding dinosaur paleoecology, the evolution of Mesozoic terrestrial ecosystems, and the distribution of Mesozoic vertebrates in western North America. Dr Fiorillo recently joined our Section Editorial board. PLOS ONE Section Editors are advisors to the journal staff, working on special issues including policy development and reporting guidelines. In this blog post, we talk with Dr Fiorillo about his enthusiasm for paleontology and his motivations coming to this new role.
Why did you want to become a palaeontologist? What do you like the most about your job?
My parents credit my grandmother for my career path because as a very young child she would take me to the local natural history museum. So, while almost all small children are introduced to dinosaurs, I tend to think the question for me is, why didn’t I outgrow the fascination? And to that question, I don’t have an answer because the work remains fun and rewarding even now as a senior scientist. Paleontology remains a field-based science, so as a paleontologist I think I should be dirty. The ability of get outside and explore is of primary importance to me, especially if it is an opportunity to get somewhere new. But the exploration is not complete until the study has been published, so there is tremendous satisfaction that comes from publishing peer-reviewed papers. Each paper is a statement of success in problem solving, representing if you will, a milestone in moving a project forward.
Everyone is a fan of dinosaurs, but what other exciting palaeontology topics do you think should be more popular?
Dinosaurs are a gateway for most children to be introduced to science. Many kids are given a bag of plastic dinosaurs early on, and at some point, they begin to wonder where are these animals now? That question begins the process of understanding the evolution and extinction of life on Earth. As such, dinosaurs can be a powerful tool, but they are not the only significant component of paleontology. New technologies are finding new ways to address the record of life in new and exciting ways. For example, who would have imagined even a few years ago that whole groups of colleagues would be discussing color variation in long-dead animals? Rather than begin a process of listing other innovative aspects of paleontology, my own perspective is that one of the most compelling contributions the science makes is when our work crosses discipline boundaries and thus is relevant to others. For example, paleontology provides important perspectives on biodiversity through time, as well as the interplay between biota and climate. These are pressing issues in understanding how our modern world is changing, and paleontology provides vital insights.
You have recently become our new Section Editor for Palaeontology. Why did you decide to join our Editorial Board and what motivates you about your new role?
I greatly appreciated being approached to become Section Editor for Paleontology because I have come to see the tremendous importance of open-access journals like PLOS ONE. As Section Editor for Paleontology, I hope to contribute to the ongoing evolution of one of the most important journals in my discipline, PLOS ONE. As my engagement has increased, I have come to appreciate that the management and editorial team is a community of dedicated individuals that want to help improve not only the scientific process, but science literacy in general. Their commitment makes me extremely excited about joining the team.
What are, in your opinion, the most important challenges for the palaeontology community?
Considering increased funding pressures, I think perhaps the most important challenge ahead for paleontology is to improve the case for the relevance of the study of life through time to the global audience beyond the biggest, the smallest, the oldest, the youngest whatever. Many times, the lay public can get caught up in the commercialism of the field such as the major movies or toys that become available. And while all of this can be fun, there is the risk of losing sight of the real science behind the stories being told. We are competing at times with the entertainment industry, which has a quite different set of goals than science, so we need to work harder at making it clear to the public why our science matters. An open access format, which is one platform for the public, provides a mechanism for the public to understand how we tell the stories we tell.
How important is Open Science for the palaeontology community? What role can PLOS ONE play to contribute to palaeontology research?
As a gateway for building the bridge of trust for the public to understand the scientific process and what science can do for them, paleontology can play a leading role in demonstrating the value of Open Science. PLOS ONE is one of the global leaders for open access publishing and they should continue the work hard at making the professional community understand the journal, as well as perhaps other Open Science options. There are likely many case studies demonstrating the societal value of Open Science, but the one that I hold as perhaps most significant personally stems from my own research program. Our field sites are in very rural parts of Alaska, and open access publishing allows me a way to get the science back into the communities that often support the logistics of my program.
If you are interested in Paleontology research, please check our Paleoecology and Paleobiology of Extinct Species curated collection. This collection showcases recent PLOS ONE publications that aim to reconstruct extinct species’ interactions with both the abiotic and biotic environment, including unraveling past faunal communities from fossil assemblages and fossil trackways to analyzing interactions between species from tooth wear patterns and paleopathology.
Featured image: ‘Dinosaurs of Denali’ by Karen Carr.