Vertebrate paleontology just won’t be the same

Science has lost two great ones: Jenny Clack and Robert L. Carroll. Clack was an expert on the evolution of tetrapods, as was Carroll, who also studied reptile evolution. Normally, I’d be sitting my office right now and would be able to lift my eyes to my bookshelf and see Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods and Patterns and Processes of Vertebrate Evolution, and re-reading them would be the best way to honor these influential scientists, but I’m stuck at home like many of us, so I’ll have to wait until I can fetch them.


  1. cartomancer says

    We lost Professor Richard Sharpe, reader in Diplomatic (Medieval formal documents) and one of my old postgraduate tutors last week. Medieval history won’t be quite the same either (somebody else is going to have to finish his work on the acta of Henry IV and the Catalogue of Medieval Latin from English Sources for a start). He was only in his mid 60s too.

    We were not close, but it is the closest this virus has yet come to me. Worrying times.

  2. says

    When my kids were little, I used to tell them make-up stories. Many of them had a particular theme with recurring characters. While some of those themes were largely the invention of the kids themselves (i.e. “name 5 things you want in your story” then some of those things were re-used frequently), a number were actually invented by the parents. One of the additions to our story-world was a pair of paleontologists who would have amazing adventures: Jenny Clack who rode the most powerful motorcycle in the world to her digs (the “vroom vroom motorcycle” in the stories) and her sidekick, Per Ahlberg, who rode what was essentially Vespa (but was named a “putt-putt scooter” in the stories) attached to a trailer full of expedition equipment who struggled to keep up on the hills.

    After a couple years of these stories, they had forgotten that I’d told them that Drs. Clack and Ahlberg were real people (or maybe they just never believed it, simply taking my “real people” insistence as a storytelling flourish), so they were quite surprised when I showed them a documentary that they’d aged into which featured Jenny Clack and added a soupçon of Ahlberg. They were amazed that these characters existed in real life and wanted to talk to them. I told them that they were in the UK and Sweden respectfully, but that they could write an e-mail. They sat down with my computer, the 5yo dictating and the 9 yo hunting for and pecking at the keys. The message seemed to assume a familiarity with the two of them that they couldn’t possibly understand, so by way of explanation I added a parent’s note at the bottom about how I used them in make-up stories and provided definitions of some of the in-family idioms which Clack and Ahlberg couldn’t otherwise understand.

    Off the e-mail went, into the ether, addressed only to Clack (I couldn’t easily find a public e-mail for Ahlberg). It was a couple weeks before we got any reply, but a reply we did get. She’d been on a dig IN CANADA when we wrote, although of course it was in the Maritimes, across the country, and she was already heading back by the time she got the girls’ e-mail. She said something very sweet to the kids, and passed the note on to Ahlberg who added another kind note a couple days later. What was even better was reading what Clack had said to Ahlberg when passing the original message along – it was not business like and wasn’t added as a PS to some professional communique. Nor was it sent from one of Clack’s grad students or assistants. It merited its own message, including only a few sentences. But they were direct from Clack to Ahlberg, words that she couldn’t know would ever make their way back to me or the kids, and they spoke in the most genuine way about how delightful the message was and how it had made her happy.

    To this day, when the girls are asked to name a scientist, Jenny Clack, rider of giant motorcycles, discoverer of rare fossils, and reconstructrix of entire paleo-ecosystems is first to their lips.

    In my afterlife, Dr. Jenny Clack rides her Vroom Vroom Motorcycle from dig to dig forever.

  3. brightmoon says

    Oh nooooo! I loved her book the first edition of Gaining Ground. I was so curious about how fish became tetrapods. I learned basic fish anatomy just to read the book

  4. Mark says

    I remember first seeing Jenny Clack on a PBS documentary on tetrapods. It showed her riding a motorcycle to work. I bought her book Gaining Ground and was amazed at the scientific detail. It was a big step up (challenge) from more general books. I’m sad to hear of her death. I hope she’s sleeping with the fishes… in a good way.

  5. Snidely W says

    I am now quite bummed.
    I took Bob Carroll’s Intro to Vert Paleo as an undergrad. Followed by Advanced Vert Paleo, where I was the only student. Phil Currie was my TA for that course (for mammology too). Truly an all-star duo.
    It changed my direction for grad school.
    Bob Carroll was brilliant and had a dry wit: you had to be paying attention to fully appreciate it.
    And he looked like the guys in ZZ Top before they were ZZ Top. (More recently his beard has been more shortly trimmed).
    Missed he is.

  6. Anton Mates says

    Aw man, Jenny Clack was such a badass. Carroll too, I’m sure. Stupid perishable humans.