Sean Modesto: Paleontological Success


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.”

CBU Biology Team Finds New rare Yellow Lampmussel Population in Cape Breton

Kelly White (center) holds a Yellow Lampmussel. Accompanied by Lauren Douglas (left) Alicia Penney (right).

Kelly White (center) holds a Yellow Lampmussel. Accompanied by Lauren Douglas (left) Alicia Penney (right).

Kellie White, a senior lab instructor in the Department of Biology at Cape Breton University, along with her research team, recently made an exciting discovery in Forrester’s Lake, Cape Breton.  What they found was a pile of bright yellow shells from the rare Yellow Lampmussel, a freshwater mussel that is listed as a species of “special concern” by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada.

Until recently, only two Canadian populations had ever been discovered, one in New Brunswick’s Saint John River and a second in Cape Breton’s Blackett’s Lake. In 2012, a third population was discovered in Pottle Lake, North Sydney.

“We knew what we were hoping to find, but we didn’t know we’d stumble upon it so quickly and in one of the first lakes we checked,” says White. “These two newly found populations are important for this rare species, not just because they represent additional Canadian populations but also because of the protections afforded to Pottle Lake, as a potable water source, to protect the Yellow Lampmussel and its habitat.”

For the past two years, Kellie and her team have been carrying out this research, funded by the CBRM Water Utility and the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, within Pottle Lake and Forrester’s Lake. They have been gathering vital information that will aide in conservation of the Yellow Lampmussel in Cape Breton. Their research also examines how freshwater mussels contribute to the high water quality of Pottle Lake (the water supply for North Sydney).

“Freshwater mussels filter both the water column and sediment, feeding on bacteria, algae, and plankton,” explains White. “We estimate that there are currently 5.5 million mussels in Pottle Lake. Each mussel can filter between 0.5 – 1 litre of water per hour, so the mussels in Pottle are filtering between 66 and 132 million liters of water per day.  At this rate, the entire volume of Pottle Lake would be filtered by the mussel population every 74 – 148 days.”

This summer, White’s team will continue to examine the filtering capacity of freshwater mussels in Pottle Lake. White’s team will also be investigating the important role that fish play in the life cycle of the Yellow Lampmussel, as lampmussel larvae must attach to the gills of a fish and travel with it for a few weeks before being released to begin their adult life on the lake bottom. The mussels don’t harm the fish and it’s thought that this “piggy backing” aides in the distribution of the mussels throughout the lake (as they have very little mobility themselves).

In other locations the only fish species found to serve as a suitable host for Yellow Lampmussel is White Perch. White’s team will be sampling fish in Forrester’s and Pottle Lake to determine if White Perch serves as a host for these populations as well. White and her team are also interested to see if the invasive fish species, the Chain Pickerel, is found in Pottle or Forrester’s lake. Chain Pickerel has recently been discovered in Blackett’s Lake and potentially threatens the survival of the Yellow Lampmussel there.

To support this effort White is also launching a “Bring us your Fish Heads” campaign, encouraging anglers who catch fish in Blackett’s Lake, Meadows Brook, or the upper Sydney River to donate their fish heads to the CBU fish host study.  The team will examine the gills for the presence of Yellow Lampmussel larvae.

Kellie White’s work not only helps in the conservation of the Yellow Lampmussel but also helps teach CBU students about ecology. In addition to employing students to assist with this research, White also incorporates her research into her Ecology and Animal Behavior labs at CBU. White adds, “These types of projects allow students to learn how to conduct scientific research by participating in important local projects.” This year Kellie hopes to have students from her second and third-year labs co-author and publish research papers on Cape Breton Yellow Lampmussel populations.

CBU Profs awarded more than $140K in NSERC Funding

ClAQlM3VAAAj7URThe Government of Canada recently announced the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada’s (NSERC) 2016 competition award winners for their discovery research programs and three Cape Breton University researchers were among the recipients. The programs, which include funds for scholarships, fellowships, research supplements and equipment grants, support researchers and students who are furthering our understanding of the world and how it works.

Dr. Xu Zhang was awarded $20,270.00 over 5 years for a total of $101,350.00 in the form of a grant for his work inEngineering Graphene Oxide based Nanocomposite Paints against Marine Biofouling.

Dr. Stephanie MacQuarrie was awarded $10,000.00 over a 2-year period for a total of $20,000.00 in the form of a Discovery Development Grant for her work on Non-Covalent Immobilization Methods for Homogeneous Organic Catalysts.

Dr. Sean Modesto was awarded $10,000.00 over a 2-year period for a total of $20,000.00 in the form of a Development Discovery Grant for his work on the Anatomy and evolution of reptiles and other tetrapods from the Permo-Carboniferous of Prince Edward Island.

“We’re thrilled that CBU’s researchers have yet again been recognised with these prestigious NSERC grants,” says Dr. Tanya Brann-Barrett, Dean of Research, Teaching & Graduate Studies. “This kind of recognition truly speaks to the calibre and quality of research that’s happening right here at CBU.”

The announcement was made on June 23 as part of a $465M National announcement made by The Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science.


Tim Rawlings
Associate Professor, Biology / Dept. Chair

Office: TC117

Phone: 902.563.1138

Michael Tanchak
Professor, Biology & Dept. Vice-Chair

Office: TC124

Phone: 902.563.1104

Rod Beresford
Assistant Professor, Integrative Science

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Thomas Bouman
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Office: A115A

Phone: 902.563.1294

Chantelle Cormier
Senior Laboratory Instructor

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Denise Forgeron
Senior Laboratory Instructor

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Barb Glassey
Associate Professor, Biology

Office: TC-108

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Cyndie Glogowski
Senior Laboratory Instructor, Biology Department

Office: A-115-B

Phone: 902.563.1362

Bruce Hatcher
University Chair in Marine Ecosystem Research, Director of the Bras d'Or Institute, Associate Professor of Biology

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Katherine Jones
Associate Professor, Biology

Office: TC113

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Kathy MacIntosh
Senior Laboratory Instructor, Biology

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David McCorquodale
Professor of Biology and Dean of Science & Technology

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Sean Modesto
Associate Professor, Biology

Office: TC111

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Ken Oakes
Associate Professor, Biology

Office: CS207

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Vielka Salazar
Associate Professor, Biology

Office: A115D

Phone: 902.563.1288

Kellie White
Senior Laboratory Instructor, Biology

Office: A218A

Phone: 902.563.1816

Cheryl Bartlett
Professor Emeritus

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