Jablonski honored with Paleontological Society’s highest award

David Jablonski, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Distinguished Service Professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago, has been awarded the Paleontological Society Medal. The most prestigious honor bestowed by the society, it is given to one person every year based on their “advancement of knowledge in paleontology.”

Jablonski’s work focuses broadly on large-scale evolutionary processes, using his specialty in marine invertebrates to explore the mechanisms behind how lineages rise, spread, and disappear over time. These include seminal papers on the evolutionary role of mass extinctions and recoveries, the processes that underlie the huge contrast in biodiversity between the tropics and the poles, and the effects of geographic range size in shaping the dynamics of lineages at multiple levels.

He coined several popular terms in paleontology, including the “Lazarus taxon”—a species that appears to disappear in the fossil record, but turns up again later—and “dead clade walking,” or a lineage that limps along after a mass extinction event for a time before succumbing. (The last one tickled writers of the Sherlock adaptation TV show “Elementary” so much that they wrote an entire episode about it.)

Other recent work includes findings how mass extinctions reset evolutionary rates at a global scale, how lineages expand out of the tropics towards the poles, the relationship between spatial patterns in species numbers and the variety of ways they make a living, and earlier this year, a tool to predict total number of species in a region as future discoveries are made.

Michael Foote, professor of Geophysical Sciences and Deputy Dean for Academic Affairs with the Division of the Physical Sciences, presented the award to Jablonski at the society’s annual meeting. He praised Jablonski’s scientific body of work, his work advising students, his work serving as an ambassador for the field of paleontology, both in print and at conferences, and his editorial work for journals such as the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, as well as his command of rhetoric.

"Dave's enormous influence on the field of paleobiology rests in part on his astonishing command of the scientific literature and the history of ideas,” Foote said. “He delves broadly and deeply, and everything he reads is digested, analyzed, internalized, and synthesized into a coherent and persuasive world view of macroevolution. I am delighted to see him receive this recognition."

It was an exciting October for Jablonski, who also learned he was to have a fossil named after him along with his wife Susan Kidwell, the William Rainey Harper Professor in Geophysical Sciences: Jablonskipora kidwellae.

In his acceptance speech, Jablonski highlighted the value of close interactions with colleagues and students. “I am embedded not only in a great geology department with a phenomenal set of paleontologists, but also in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, an extraordinary consortium of faculty and grad students from multiple institutions,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine a richer and more interactive environment.”

In sum, “it’s been an amazing year,” he said.