Prominent Female Paleontologist Named Royal Society Fellow

Jennifer Clack, a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology since 1980 and a world expert in the evolution of early land-dwelling animals, has been named a Fellow in the Royal Society of London. This is the highest academic award in the United Kingdom, equivalent to becoming a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the U.S.

Clack was elected to membership based on her outstanding contributions to the field of vertebrate paleontology, the study of the fossil record of animals with backbones. Her research focuses on the transition from fish to land-dwelling animals like amphibians and reptiles that began about 370 million years ago.

Clack isn’t sure how she first got interested in fossils, but she began collecting “interesting stones and things” at an early age. “I made little ‘museums’ on the staircase of our house for visitors to see,” said Clack. Her interests eventually drew her toward research and an appointment at the University of Cambridge (UK).

“Jenny’s big breakthrough came with the discovery of a new body of material of the then poorly known Devonian tetrapod Acanthostega in the mid 1980s. The extensive new Acanthostega material she collected added immeasurably to our understanding of the earliest tetrapods,” said Per Ahlberg, a fossil tetrapod expert from Uppsala University, Sweden.

In the more than 20 years since her initial work on Acanthostega, Clack has studied a wide variety of early tetrapods from across the globe.

“From all this, I’ve tried to produce an integrated picture of changes that occurred to sensory systems, breathing, feeding and locomotion across the fish-tetrapod transition,” said Clack.

Clack’s election to the Royal Society is particularly noteworthy given the scarcity of women and paleontologists in this prestigious group. Clack is one of only five women elected in 2009 out of a total of 44 new Fellows. The Royal Society currently has 1,346 Fellows, only about 5% of whom (72) are women. Only a handful of vertebrate paleontologists have ever been elected to the Royal Society, the most recent in 1993.

“The election of Jenny Clack to the Royal Society is terrific news and will be an inspiration to the many women paleontologists, both students and professionals, within our membership,” said Blaire Van Valkenburgh, a paleontologist and president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

“Overall, Jenny Clack has done more than any other living researcher to bring the origin of tetrapods onto the center stage of palaeontology and evolutionary biology,” said Ahlberg. “Thanks in very large measure to Jenny’s research publications and highly visible popular output, the origin of tetrapods has taken its place alongside the origin of birds and the origin of mammals as one of the most intensively studied evolutionary transitions among animals.”

About the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
Founded in 1940 by thirty-four paleontologists, the Society now has more than 2,300 members representing professionals, students, artists, preparators, and others interested in VP. It is organized exclusively for educational and scientific purposes, with the object of advancing the science of vertebrate paleontology. For more information, go to www.vertpaleo.org

About the Royal Society of London
Visit www.royalsociety/org

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