Research Contributes to Evolutionary Big Bang Theory

In July 2012, Pomona College geology professor Robert Gaines, along with a team of other scientists, discovered a fossil at Kootenay National Park and another at Yoho National Park, both located in British Columbia. Gaines, the chair of Pomona's geology department, said that the fossil provides evidence of an evolutionary "big bang" that occurred half a billion years ago. 

Gaines said that the fossilization occurred close to the time of the origin of all living animal groups. The fossils demonstrate that the evolution of animals happened “explosively” in a burst called the Cambrian Explosion—not in the way Darwin predicted, he said.

In the modern biological community, according to Gaines, there is debate on the fundamental relationships among arthropods, defined as invertebrate animals with legs; fossils are considered to be the missing links to our understanding of animal ancestry.

Gaines said that he works on the biology of the organisms and the shapes of the fossils themselves.

“I’m interested in their preservation in the environments they were inhabiting, and the nature of the local environments and how they change,” he said.

Gaines called the fossils the team discovered “exquisite,” noting that the results of the analysis of these particular artifacts were not up to interpretation because they were so well preserved. 

“It took a little while for us to realize exactly the weight of [the fossils we found]," he said. "By the end of the second day, it was certainly apparent we had found something very special."

Gaines said that about 100 news outlets around the world have covered his research. He spoke on Canadian public radio last week.

Despite the publicity, Gaines said that he tries to keep his research separate from his classes unless the themes are related.

“It’s a lot of fun to get students involved in working on aspects in my project, to share with them my enthusiasm on the stuff that I’m doing,” Gaines said.

Biology major Peter Pellitier PO ’14 said that Gaines' passion for geology makes his classes interesting to students, regardless of their majors. 

“I think his research and his teaching are something that I aspire to do also, in a slightly different area of research,” Pellitier said.

Gaines said that Pomona has been very supportive of his research by helping him seek research funds and providing lab space for analysis.

“What I love about being in Pomona is that research and teaching is kind of blended together,” Gaines said.

Although Gaines has been working on this project for six years with collaborators from Canada and Sweden, the findings from summer 2012 allowed him to qualify for federal funding. The group estimates a budget of about $90,000 for the two-month research session, of which $6,000 will be provided by Pomona, and approximately $40,000 by the Royal Ontario Museum and Uppsala University combined.

Gaines will be returning to British Colombia this summer for further research. 

“We have a lot of things figured out, but a lot left to learn," he said. "I can’t wait to get on the ground." 

The title of this article has been revised from "Research Contributes to Big Bang Theory" in order to clarify that the research does not relate to the origin of the universe, but rather the evolution of species.