Everything we see when we look around at the natural world has an incredibly long and intriguing history. Ashley Poust, a third year graduate student at UC Berkeley in the paleontology department, studies this history and the records provided in the earth to learn about what lived here in the past. His focus has been on dinosaurs and, more recently, early mammals. This research helps create an understanding of what the world was like in the past, which he argues is crucially important to understanding the future of the natural world.
Excerpt From Monson’s Interview with Poust:
The full interview originally aired on KALX 90.7 FM on April 8th, 2014.
Poust talked to Tesla Monson of The Graduates radio show on KALX about his interest in paleontology and his research. Growing up, Poust went through the same dinosaur phase as many young children, and he too outgrew it “along with love of construction equipment.” He did not return to his interest in dinosaurs until he was an undergraduate at Augustana College trying to get out of a science credit. He ended up taking a geology course in the Rockies and became fascinated with geological sciences after he “encountered a totally new way of looking at the world” through geology. “Every landscape that you look at, every rock that you pick up on the beach has not only a current form but an existence that stretches back into immeasurable depths of time,” Poust explains. After that trip, he majored in geological sciences, focusing also on biological sciences because of his interest in life in the past.
One of Poust’s major focuses has been studying fossilized eggs as a way of understanding more about dinosaurs. When people first found dinosaur eggs in France they assumed that they were from giant ancient birds. Later the connection was made between dinosaur fossils and the eggs, which allowed researchers to form a more complete image of what life was like for dinosaurs. These eggs also help connect dinosaurs to their modern bird relatives. The first eggs and embryos found in the US were in Montana, one of the best regions for finding fossils and where Poust has done a significant amount of his fieldwork. China also has an extensive fossil record, including many eggs, which leads to collaborations between researchers in Montana and China. One program Poust was involved in brings students from Montana to see research projects in China. This type of trip uses science to bring people with vastly different experiences together and promotes understanding between countries.
More recently Poust has also been researching early mammals living after the extinction of the dinosaurs,focusing on the Early Cenozoic (about 35-65 million years ago), just as mammals were starting to gain dominance. The oldest known mammal fossils date back 170 million years to the Jurassic period He describes these first mammals as mostly small and possibly nocturnal, living “furtively” and “under the footfalls of the dinosaurs.” In researching these mammals Poust hopes to understand how the descendants of these small creatures grew and rose up through the food chain.
On campus Poust works extensively with the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) where he works in the prep lab, helping prepare specimens for research. The Paleontology community at Berkeley is mostly centered around UCMP and associated professors in the Integrative Biology program. This group includes “more than 65 faculty, staff and graduate students” not including volunteers and undergraduates and Poust describes it as “one of the most vibrant and exciting” Paleontology communities he knows of. Poust also teaches classes including paleontology and human anatomy in addition to his research. The UCMP is not generally open to the public though fossils can be seen in the Valley Life Sciences Building (VLSB) where the museum is located. UCMP also hosts an annual open house on Cal Day with a variety of activities and exhibits.