Where in the World is Peter Wilf?
September 29, 2009 9:08 AM
by Jen Golding
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Every day is different for Peter Wilf.

Some days he wakes up in Panama, drives to a tropical forest, takes a crane 200 feet up into the trees, finds insects eating leaves, puts them in bags, and then kills them.

Other days he wakes up in a tent in Argentina, downs a cup of coffee, goes for a walk, grabs a pick axe, and starts digging.

But most days he wakes up in Pennsylvania and heads to Penn State’s campus, where he is the associate professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

A self-described “unapologetic nerd,” Wilf spends much of his time on campus teaching his Earth 150 class titled “Dinosaur Extinction and other Controversies,” and alternates teaching paleobotany and geobiology every spring semester. When he’s not teaching, he’s usually researching ancient plant fossil specimens.

For most people, the mere thought of examining insect -feeding patterns on plant fossils has a soporific effect, but Wilf has rejuvenated the entire field of paleobotany by showing how the feeding patterns of ancient beetles show climate change over millions of years.

In 1999, after observing a feeding pattern on a fossilized ginger leaf, he discovered one of only 11 known samples of a now-extinct beetle known as a rolled-leaf hispine, evidence of a creature that lived 53 million years ago. This discovery provided further evidence for warm climates in the Western Interior of North America during the late Cretaceous and early Eocene.

“Even though it’s one of the most obvious things that insects eat leaves, there’s just so much more information we can learn from it,” says Wilf.

Wilf wasn’t always interested in the relationship between fossil-insects and climate change. In fact, it wasn’t until he turned 30 years old that he decided to become a paleontologist. He put his dreams of becoming a jazz guitarist behind him and attended the University of Pennsylvania where he received a Ph.D in geology.

Wilf is also a research assistant at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian holds the biggest collection of plant fossils and “cleared leaves,” which are leaves where the tissue has been removed chemically and then stained to make the veins of the leaves more easily discernable.

“Figuring out what the veins of leaves can tell us about history is a big part of my life’s work,” says Wilf. “Everything in a leaf reflects environment and heredity, and we need to get better at seeing what they’re telling us, especially about the climate.”

Wilf used to make more appearances at the Smithsonian before the birth of his now 3-year-old daughter Eva, who has already grown to appreciate the natural world as much as her father. “She knows that a big rock came from space and now there are no more dinosaurs,” says Wilf, smiling. “She’s just glad they’re not around to bite us.”

Since having a child has made him less available, he now tends to borrow the specimens from the Smithsonian that he wants to work on. He usually keeps them for around a year before returning them.

Wilf also used to spend more time in Argentina, where he is a principal investigator at a large paleobotanical dig site. The work at the site is his “number one project.” There are many goals of the project because it is still discovery driven, but Wilf and his team of 17 investigators would like to get a better understanding of the time interval of dinosaur extinction there because currently there is no record of that.

Last year, Wilf took a year sabbatical to concentrate on his research in Argentina. He received an award from the National Geographic Society to begin work there in 2002.

“At the end of April, it was nice to be in the field instead of grading exams,” he jokes. “Look at me! I’m collecting fossils and eating lamb in Patagonia. Don’t tell anyone!”

Wilf also used that time to co-write and self-publish the Manuel of Leaf Architecture, which comprehensively explains how to describe a leaf.

However, Wilf seems at home in the classroom. In his Earth 150 lecture, he explained a common misconception. “It’s not our bones or teeth that are the last thing to remain of us when we die; it’s actually our cholesterol.” After looking around the room to see any surprised faces, he laughed. “So have another burger!”

This fall, the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute of Penn State invited Wilf to run a semester long “Earth Talk” seminar series. He has invited noted professionals from varying fields to discuss the topics of landscape change, climate change, and organisms: ancient to the future. All talks are open to the public and scheduled for 4 p.m. in 112 Walker Building on varying Mondays throughout the semester.

Wilf himself will be speaking on Oct. 12 about early Cenozoic and modern landscapes, climates, biodiversity, and biogeography of Southern South America. He will also be speaking on Oct. 26 about how insect-damaged fossil leaves show food-web response to ancient climate change and extinction.

Wilf plans to go back to Argentina over Thanksgiving break this year. He smiles as he recalls previous Thanksgivings in Patagonia barbequing lamb with his colleagues. “There’s nothing better than sitting around a fire eating lamb and talking about fossils,” he says.

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