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THE FOSSIL DETECTIVE

WVU geologist James Lamsdell wins NSF CAREER Award

Uncovering what drives the evolution of new animals is key for understanding the history of life on Earth.

West Virginia University geologist James Lamsdell is embarking on this exploration as a recipient of the National Science Foundation’s CAREER award.

James Lamsdell
James Lamsdell

One of those evolutionary drivers is how animals adapt to unfamiliar environments. In his new project, Lamsdell will use fossil records to study how arthropods, such as crustaceans and horseshoe crabs as well as extinct species like sea scorpions and trilobites, have adapted to new environments by changing the speed or timing of their development to reshape their adult forms. He will also examine whether these changes in their development alter the speed at which their evolution occurs.

“Although I’m focusing on fossil records, this work could help guide modern conservation efforts as we learn how animals adapt to changing environments,” Lamsdell said. “We can potentially use the past to help predict responses to future climate change as species are faced with rising sea levels and changing temperatures across the globe.”   

The award, valued at more than $500,000 over five years, will support Lamsdell and his graduate research assistants as they travel to museums in the U.S. and Canada to study fossil collections and present their findings at scientific conferences.

James Lamsdell with fossil
Lamsdell with fossil

Lamsdell also plans to adapt what his team learns from the study in new curricula for both school-age and college students.

“Teaching future generations is at the heart of WVU’s mission as a land-grant university,” Lamsdell said. “It is critical that students of all ages learn about science, the natural world and exactly how and why we make information-based decisions in everyday life.”  

Lamsdell is partnering with WVU’s Center for Excellence in STEM Education to share recorded video lessons with K-12 teachers.  

“Paleontology enthralls all ages,” Lamsdell said. “This project will directly support the teaching of science in K-12 classrooms through lessons and classroom activities to give students the opportunity to learn about how past environmental changes have impacted life on Earth.”

James Lamsdell doing fieldwork
Lamsdell in field

At the college level, this research will provide detailed case studies of evolutionary transitions. Students will use these specific examples and data to explore how evolution operates.  

New WVU geology classes will be created focusing on the role of development in the evolution of new species.

“Being selected to receive a CAREER award is a true privilege and is one of the greatest achievements that an early career researcher can have,” Lamsdell said. “For me, this is the culmination of a decade of work that began with my Ph.D. It will allow me to continue developing this research to hopefully change the way we study evolution in the fossil record.”