The story of a mass extinction

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PLoS Biology just published my paper on how the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs affected plants. You can read the paper here (Plant Ecological Strategies Shift Across the Cretaceous–Paleogene Boundary), or read an excellent popular summary here (A Plant’s Guide to Surviving the Chicxulub Impact). There’s also media coverage in Newsweek, The Daily Mail, and several other outlets.

Instead of repeating these stories about the science, I want to share a little about how this project came together. It has been a long road. The project was first conceived some time in late 2009, when I was in a first-year graduate school class on ecology, and had the good fortunate to hear a paleobiology lecture from Karl Flessa while also reading on my own about fossilized leaves. I was already interested in learning about plant functioning from leaves, so it wasn’t much of a jump to start thinking about analyzing fossil leaves.

Over the next year or two I was able to refine some ideas, with good support from Brian Enquist and my dissertation committee, and started calling around to different museums asking about their fossil collections. Peter Wilf pointed me to Kirk Johnson at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where there existed an exquisite collection of fossils spanning the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. Perfect.

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I flew up there for the first time in early 2012, and spent several hours examining the collection. I still remember waiting for two hours for a bus in east Denver on a cold snowy night. It looked good, so I wrote a grant to the Geological Society of America and got some funding to come back a second time. That summer I spent a week at the museum, passing long days in the museum basement, examining every single fossil in the collection, then photographing many of the better-preserved one.

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Analyzing the images took the better part of the summer, and then the first manuscript appeared later in the year. It went through dozens of revisions, was joined to another project, then split up again. A bloodbath of Track-Changes in Microsoft Word.

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Then Dana Royer got in touch in 2013. He was interested in the same topic and had already measured some complementary things on the same fossils. We joined our datasets, re-wrote the paper, did a dozen more revisions. We submitted it to Science and made it through one round of review, but were rejected after some pushback on the dataset. We tried again at Nature, where we were rejected without review.

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Some more revision followed, and the paper was next submitted to PLoS Biology. We went through a few rounds of peer-review to address some questions of bias in the dataset, and finally got the paper accepted over the summer. The last few weeks have been filled with correcting proofs, final figures, coordinating popular press articles, and getting in touch with the media.

It’s wonderful to see this project finally finished. The final project is nothing like I had first imagined it, but I have learned so much about paleobiology and met some wonderful scientists along the way. And I’m glad to be done with the endless manuscript revisions!

6 Comments Add yours

  1. terrybg says:

    I have a friend who went through similar hoops to get her scientific paper published a month ago (behavioral science) A lesson in persistence and flexibility. Quite the accomplishment, Ben!

    1. bblonder says:

      Thanks! It’s amazing how long it takes to get something out in science…

  2. Dante says:

    Can you give some details about the pushback on the data set that you received?

    1. bblonder says:

      Sure. Our fossils come from a range of different facies types (floodplain, channel, etc.). Some types of fossils are better preserved in each, so our data could be biased depending on the likelihood that different types of fossils were collected at different stratigraphic depths. The reviewers were concerned that we didn’t adequately test for these biases or control for any resulting effects, quite rightly. We did a better job in the revised version.

  3. Congrats on the publication! I just published a piece about Kirk Johnson so it was cool to see his name pop up here.

    1. bblonder says:

      Thanks – will you pass on your piece?

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