The Department of Geosciences offers a diverse program in paleobiology.
Faculty and students address a wide range of questions that center on the evolution and extinction of life on Earth and the interactions of organisms with their environments over geologic time.
Areas of particular strength include biotic response to extinction and climate change, stratigraphic paleobiology, evolutionary paleoecology, Quaternary paleoecology, quantitative paleobiology, macroevolution, biogeography, biological indicators of paleoclimates, and systematics. We use state-of-the-art equipment in the Department (including the Sediment Core Scanning Facility and Earth History Labs) as well as in the Materials Characterization Laboratory at Penn State.
Faculty and students conduct field programs worldwide, especially in North America, South America, Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They also participate in the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program and International Continental Scientific Drilling Program expeditions. Faculty and students collaborate with colleagues in diverse fields, both inside and outside the department. Major disciplinary strengths within the department that support paleobiology research include astrobiology, biogeochemistry, sedimentary systems, and paleoclimate.
WHO WE ARE
Learn more about our faculty and research groups:
Dr. Brian Kelley investigates the co-evolution of Earth environment and life through the integration of sedimentology, paleobiology, geochronology, and geochemistry. He specifically focuses on ancient intervals of rapid climate warming to better understand fundamental Earth system processes and the consequences of anthropogenic climate change.
Dr. Kimberly Lau’s group uses the geochemistry of sedimentary rocks to understand biogeochemical and Earth system change, including in association with major evolutionary and extinction events. Integrating field, analytical, and modeling approaches across spatial scales, this work aims to improve interpretation of geochemical (including isotopic) proxies in carbonate and siliciclastic rocks.
Dr. Mark Patzkowsky focuses on the ecological, evolutionary, and geological processes that control the diversity, distribution, and abundance of fossil taxa in time and space. We work at local (outcrop), regional (depositional basin), and continental scales. Understanding how processes interact across these scales is the key to understanding global diversity through time, simply because global diversity is built from local, regional, and continental diversity.
Dr. Peter Wilf and the Paleobotany group use fossil plants to investigate ancient ecosystems, past environmental change, biogeography, and the evolution and extinction of plants and plant-insect associations. They emphasize questions with relevance for modern climate change, biodiversity, biogeography, conservation, and ecology. Significant field areas include Patagonian Argentina, Western Interior USA, several SE Asian countries, and southeastern Pennsylvania.
MICROBIAL GEOBIOLOGY AND BIOGEOCHEMISTRY
The Department of Geosciences has excellence in isotopic biogeochemistry, organic geochemistry, and geomicrobiology. Current biogeochemistry research (Freeman, Ingalls, Lloyd, Lau) includes isotopic and geochemical signatures of photosynthesis, past climate, and microbial processes. Our geomicrobiology laboratories (House and Macalady) have on-going research that includes marine and terrestrial microbiology, microbial life in subsurface environments, and microbial life in extreme environments.
Biogeochemistry analyzes the interactions between life and the chemical cycles in the Earth system. This is an inherently multidisciplinary endeavor, as it integrates the biological, chemical, geological, and physical sciences. Biogeochemists at Penn State (Brantley, Fantle, Freeman, House, Ingalls, Kelley, Kump, Lau, Lloyd, & Macalady) address fundamental questions spanning from the millisecond to millennia and from the molecular to the planetary scales. Example questions include:
- How do microbes affect mineral weathering and precipitation?
- How can we decipher the information contained in marine sediments or ice cores?
- How have the biogeochemical cycles interacted with climatic change in the geological past and during the current anthropogenic perturbation?
- How can life survive in extreme environments that may be found on other planets?
We approach these questions in expeditions from the tropical oceans to the polar ice caps and by using techniques such as isotope mass spectroscopy, culture experiments, molecular methods, and computer modeling.
Learn more about Biogeochemistry at Penn State and the dual-title program for Ph.D. students.
WHO WE ARE
Learn more about our faculty and research groups:
Dr. Matthew Fantle's research group utilizes novel metal isotopes, in conjunction with traditional isotopic systems, aqueous geochemistry, and various modeling techniques to develop new proxies, understand diagenesis at a process level, and interpret geochemical records of the past. Over the years, the Fantle group has contributed to characterizing the isotopic composition of fluxes in the geochemical cycles of a range of elements, including Ca, Fe, Mg, Li, and Sr, constraining the rates and impacts of carbonate diagenesis using isotopic tools, quantifying the impact of microbes on mineral isotopic composition, and investigating hyperthermal events in the rock record.
Dr. Kate Freeman employs fossil molecules (biomarkers) and their stable isotopes to study past changes in the carbon cycle, past climates, vegetation and soils, lakes and oceans. Her work has focused on proxies for past atmospheric CO2 levels, rainfall, temperatures, and fire. Her team has used these proxies to investigate dramatic moments in Earth’s history, such as the K-Pg bolide impact, hyperthermal events in the Eocene, the interplay of climate, fire, and landscape changes associated with global grassland expansion in the Neogene, and the ecosystem and climate context for the rise of human ancestors and early farmers.
Dr. Christopher H. House and his research group study the geochemistry produced by microorganisms and the evolution of microorganisms over the long history of the Earth. The work helps inform the search for life in the Solar System through the development of possible biosignatures. Dr. House also studies the geochemistry of Mars and other Solar System bodies, including the large variation of isotopic values found on other worlds with an aim of establishing how life might be detected. Similarly, research into the chemical origins of life aims to both advance our understanding of life’s beginnings here on Earth, but also inform how to detect life when it is potentially different than found on the modern Earth.
Dr. Miquela Ingalls and her research team use field geology in modern and ancient environments, petrography, and stable isotope geochemistry to reconstruct the conditions (temperature, nutrient availability, hydroclimate) under which life evolved throughout Earth history, and how microbes influence the carbonate rock record. Ingalls currently serves on the Executive Committee for the Biogeochemistry program.
Dr. Max Lloyd’s group uses isotope geochemistry analyses to constrain interactions between life and Earth. We focus on the development and application of new isotopic measurements in organic molecules, especially isotopologue analyses (position-specific and clumped isotopes). Our geoscience questions are broad in scope, but we’re actively working on: i) plant-climate interactions, ii) deep biosphere microbial activity, and iii) the formation and alteration of organic molecules in space.