Sean Modesto: Paleontological Success

Dr. Sean Modesto conducting research in the field in South Africa,  standing next to a burrow cast.

Dr. Sean Modesto conducting research in the field in South Africa, standing next to a burrow cast.

Sean Modesto first discovered his passion for paleontology as an undergraduate student while taking a course in vertebrate paleontology and evolution at the University of Toronto in the 1980s. He found the lecture material fascinating, and after participating in the practical component of the course – the mechanical preparation of a 55 million-year old fish – he was hooked.

Sean has been working in the field of paleontology for twenty-nine years, the past thirteen of which as Associate Professor of Biology at CBU. When he is not teaching students, Sean spends his days at the university studying fossil specimens, writing papers, conducting computer analysis, and supervising summer research students. Involved in the paleontology community even outside of office hours, he is also a Managing Editor for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology for which he prepares accepted scientific manuscripts for the publisher.

Sean says one of the most exciting aspects of his career is finding fossils of particularly rare animals. “On two separate occasions during field work in South Africa I’ve found skulls that became the type specimens of their respective, new species. In both cases my field identification of the fossil turned out to be wrong, and I only became aware I had a new species once I started looking at the fossil under a microscope,” says Sean.

Currently, Sean is working on several projects involved in studying the anatomy and evolutionary relationships of reptiles that lived at the end of the Paleozoic Era. One of these projects is the naming of a new species of faunivorous reptile from a 289-million-year-old cave deposit in Oklahoma. He is also involved in collaborative research of vertebrate survivorship of the end-Permian extinction event of 252 million years ago, which involves ongoing field work in South Africa.

Sean notes the importance of paleontology to scientists, and says, “Palaeontology is the study of the organisms that lived in the past – their remnants (bones, teeth, shells, footprints, etc.) are now preserved in rocks. Many extinct invertebrates are relatively common and widespread enough to help geologists sort out layers of rock, and so were critical to the formulation of Geologic Time.”