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Exploring the Cambrian Period with David Rudkin

U of T's Science Engagement returns to Toronto Public Library

Assistant Professor David Rudkin conducting fieldwork in the Churchill, Manitoba area (photo courtesy Professor Rudkin)

Lecturer David Rudkin of the Department of Earth Sciences is assistant curator of paleobiology at the Royal Ontario Museum - and an expert on the ancient ancestors of today's butterflies and scorpions.

Rudkin will deliver a free lecture for the public at the Brentwood Library April 24, as part of the University of Toronto's science engagement program organized by Professor Ray Jayawardhana, Canada Research Chair in Observational Astrophysics and the U of T president’s senior advisor on Science Engagement.

“I feel strongly about the value of scientists reaching out and engaging with the wider community, not only to report on our discoveries but also to share the excitement and challenges of the scientific process, to inspire kids and to encourage innovation,” Jayawardhana says.

U of T News asked Rudkin for a glimpse into his work and his upcoming talk at the Toronto Public Library.

Tell us a bit about your work
I'm a palaeontologist... but not the Hollywood-perpetuated mammoth- and dinosaur-hunting versions typified by broad-brimmed hats, sprawling encampments of pristine white tents and museum galleries full of hulking skeletal assemblies. I work on fossils of animals that are much, much older than those behemoths with backbones. My subjects are ancient sea-dwelling invertebrate organisms whose living relatives today include lobsters, woodlice, butterflies, scorpions and centipedes. These are the arthropods - arguably the most successful group of animals on this planet - and their evolutionary origins can be traced back in the fossil record well over half-a-billion years.

My own interests lie in exploring the ecology and early diversification of certain arthropod lineages, including the long-extinct trilobites and the long-surviving horseshoe crabs and sea spiders. The most exciting aspect of this work is the discovery of new fossils that improve our knowledge base, or that challenge old assumptions. That is where fieldwork comes into play. To find new things you have to look in new places, or look with fresh eyes where others have looked before.

Fortunately, I don’t have to travel the globe to find fossiliferous rocks of just the kind and age. For the past two decades, my colleagues and I have concentrated our efforts in Manitoba and Ontario, especially more remote regions including promising sites in the Hudson Bay lowlands. It’s down-and-dirty kind of work - hands and knees, hammers and chisels on the outcrop, mosquitoes and black flies up the nose and the occasional polar bear for good measure.

Hardly the glamourous stuff of blockbuster movies, but the fossils are there and the science is worth it!  

What drew you to this area - and to this particular focus?
It began, as it did for so many of my colleagues, as a childhood fascination with all of nature. A subsequent inability to choose between biology and geology as an academic pursuit left palaeontology, combining both, as the only viable option!

The fascination with ancient arthropods arose after I obtained my first position inwhat was then the Department of Invertebrate Palaeontology at the Royal Ontario Museum. Just a few months in, and I was captivated by trilobites.

Forty years later, I’m still hooked.

Can you give us a glimpse of what your Toronto Public Library audience can expect?
My talk for the “Our Planet in Focus” series will take the audience back over 500 million years to one of the most significant intervals in the history of Earth’s biosphere. This marks the point at which the fossil record begins to yield abundant and conspicuous remains of an enormous diversity of recognizable animal groups, many of which had the ability to build mineralized shells or other supporting and protective structures.

Although still restricted to aquatic environments, life on the planet had finally moved beyond the microscopic, microbial, or biologically puzzling “soft-bodied” forms that had dominated for billions of years prior to the so-called “Cambrian Explosion.” Although we are still exploring the timing and causes of this seminal event, its legacy is clear – all the major animal groups that still inhabit the planet today had appeared by the close of the Cambrian Period, about 485 million years ago.

Your talk is part of the university's Science Engagement campaign - why isit important to engage the public in science?
Gaining a sense our deep evolutionary heritage and the intricately interwoven connections we share with all life on this planet is critical to how we perceive and manage our future. It’s as simple - and as complex - as that.