UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In graduate school Peter Wilf published his first paper in the journal Paleobiology. So, the geosciences professor said being named a Fellow of the Paleontological Society, which publishes the journal, was an extra special honor.
“The society is very welcoming,” Wilf said. “They’ve always been an asset to my work and to all my students, who continue to receive grants from them. They’re like my home team, so it’s wonderful to be recognized by them.”
Fellows are members of the Paleontological Society who have made significant contributions to paleontology through research, teaching or service to the profession.
Wilf has checked off all three boxes.
For his research, he’s studying what the past, through fossils, can tell us about our future. Wilf uses plant fossils — from the last days of the dinosaurs and the mass extinction period that followed — to gauge how life responded during periods of environmental change. Recently, he led a team that discovered a fossil tomatillo, the only known fossil fruit of the nightshade plant family, dating back some 52 million years.
“That tomatillo was found at Laguna del Hunco, our flagship site in Argentina,” Wilf said. “It’s really one of the greatest places in the world to collect fossils. It was a crater lake 52 million years ago that filled in with very fine grains of ash and mud after massive volcanic eruptions. You can see incredible details, preserved by the fine grains burying the fossils in the hot and acidic water.”
Wilf said fossils from Argentina could “help save the world” by lending more insight into the southern connection story of ancient rainforests that once spread across southern South America, Antarctica and Australia, and their survival in places like southeast Asia. Those areas, which are experiencing heavy population gains amid light environmental protection, are experiencing rapid losses in plant species, rainforests and coral reefs.
Wilf said projects he’s led in Argentina alone offer an “embarrassment of riches” among the more than 20,000 collected fossils. It’s a volume of work for several people over several lifetimes.
Which fuels another passion of his: teaching the next generation of paleobotanists.
“I want to keep being a good teacher and train the next generation of experts,” Wilf said. “Paleobotany is a pretty small field, and every student really matters. I want to stay focused on teaching and leave a legacy of fantastic people and amazing fossils. All of my prior research projects are far from played out, and others are just getting started — fossil insect damage, using machine learning to identify fossils, studying the effects of climate and environmental change on fossil plants — among others. We have great fossil sites and huge collections to work with that are filled with amazing stories that haven’t been told.”
Wilf received the Atherton Award for teaching excellence from Penn State in 2013.
Wilf said he’s committed to helping the society because it’s committed to advancing research and education. For the society, he has served as distinguished lecturer and councilor and on several committees.
Paleobotany wasn’t always a passion of his, however. He taught high school science and played guitar professionally before returning to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania to build on the lone geosciences course he took there almost a decade prior as an undergraduate.
He did his graduate research and postdoctoral studies in residence at the Smithsonian Institution, then became a Michigan Fellow at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, before joining Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences as an assistant professor in 2002.
“I just got a good vibe here at Penn State and in EMS. It felt like they understood what I was about, that I wasn’t going to be some kind of exotic creature stuck in a box. And that’s proven true,” Wilf said. “You feel like you can do anything here. People give you the space to do it. They try to help you do it. They value everything. And it’s not just research. It’s important that you teach well here. And that’s really important to me.”