A career preserved in time: Fossil species named for Pomona Dean Robert Gaines

Bob Gaines poses with a model of the fossil.
Pomona College Dean and Professor of Geology Robert Gaines now has a fossil named after him, one that he helped discover in 2018. (Courtesy: Robert Gaines)

Pomona College geology professor and Dean of the College Robert Gaines knew that he had found something special as soon as he unearthed a particular fossil in summer 2018. Among other 500-million-year-old animals preserved in the quarry, this fossilized predator was much larger and was shaped unlike any other known species in its group.

This September, Gaines’ collaborators published a paper officially naming the species Titanokorys gainesi, setting Gaines’ contributions to fossil research in stone.

The first seeds of Gaines’ career came when his mom gave him a fossil of a trilobite as a vacation souvenir. The fossil blew 5-year-old Gaines away: “It’s a whole animal that you can hold in the palm of your hand, it had eyes, but it was twice as old as the dinosaurs. It’s half a billion years old,” he remembered.

After completing a master’s and PhD in geology, studying fossil records in Utah for his thesis, Gaines joined Pomona as a geology professor in 2003.

The story of Titanokorys gainesi picks up five years later, when Gaines joined the expedition of Canadian paleontologist Jean-Bernard Caron to a site known as the Burgess Shale in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia.

First discovered in 1909, the Burgess Shale is one of the most important for paleontologists for two reasons. For one, it preserves the soft tissue of animals, like eyes, muscles, and gills, while most sites only have fossils preserving shells and bones. For another, Burgess Shale fossils are from the Cambrian period about 540 million years ago, when multicellular life exploded and the divisions of the animal kingdom today first happened. Studying the animals that lived in the Cambrian period is a way of tracing the evolutionary history of animals at one of their earliest defining moments.

In one hundred years after its discovery, over 200,000 fossils were extracted from the original Burgess Shale quarry, which was about the size of Gaines’ office room. But over time, it became harder and harder to find new fossils and species there.

A 3D image of creature is shown on a white backdrop.
(Courtesy: Royal Ontario Museum in Canada)

Gaines and Caron’s 2008 expedition sought out new discoveries by looking for unexplored sites near the original quarry. They found some new fossils, but no major breakthroughs. A 2010 expedition had similar outcomes.

The team returned in 2012 with modest expectations. They came to an 18-by-5-kilometer area called Marble Canyon, which previous maps made by the Geological Survey of Canada indicated wouldn’t be particularly special.

But the maps were missing a system of faults that Gaines and his colleagues ran into, which lifted a package of rocks — and fossils — up towards the surface. “We started finding fossils hand over fist,” he said.

The discovery was even more significant than it seemed at first.

“Once we started to get into it, we were finding so much stuff that was brand new to science,” Gaines said. 25-30 percent of the fossils found in Marble Canyon have been identified as new species, according to Gaines.

Gaines’ geological analysis also helped point to new potential excavation sites, based on insights about the depth and shape of the original sea terrain. In successive expeditions throughout the decade, five more quarries were opened up around the original Marble Canyon quarry, thanks in part to Gaines’ insights.

Sifting through the deposit is hard work. Jackhammers are needed to get through rough terrain, so they — along with generators to power them — are flown in in nets carried by helicopters. Electric fences have to be set up to protect researchers from bears. Expeditions last between four and ten weeks, depending on when it stops and starts snowing; team members take breaks every 16 days or so, going into town to do laundry, take showers and resupply, before resuming work.

A man stands with a hand on his hip in a geology lab.
(Samson Zhang • The Student Life)

Because the Burgess Shale is on the land of the Yoho and Kootenay national parks, researchers have to meticulously document their work for the Canadian Park Service. 

“We have to account for every chip of rock that we take off the mountain. We send them photos, we send them reports about what we’re doing,” Gaines said.

In 2018, though, the hard work paid off big for Gaines. In two quarry sites a hundred yards apart, specimens of a new, remarkable fossil were found. 

While most fossils were only “the size of your little finger,” and even “really big ones” only 6-8 inches, just the head of this new fossil was almost a foot long, “and it was clear that that was just a part of the animal,” Gaines said.

The fossil was a member of a group of arthropods called radiodonts, typically predatory animals with two claw-like appendages and circular mouths. The group was already known to contain some of the largest Cambrian period animals, like the apex predator Anomalocaris, but the new fossil was even larger, measuring in at half a meter long.

Furthermore, the fossilized animal wasn’t simply a larger predator: Complicating previous understandings of the Cambrian sea ecosystem, the new animal’s net-like claws suggested that it fed on smaller organisms filtered from the mud of the sea floor, similar to how whales feed on small fish and krill strained from the water.

It was a finding that was sure to attract attention. Details about the new species would be published and formalized in a paper published by Gaines’ biology-focused colleagues, Dr. Jean-Bernard Caron and his doctoral student Joe Moysiuk.

To honor Gaines’ contributions to the fossil’s discovery, the paper’s authors asked for Gaines’ permission to name the new species after him. In August, as the paper was being prepared, he agreed.

In September, the paper was published, and the fossil was officially named Titanokorys gainesi.

In the time from the fossil’s discovery to the publication of the paper that assigned it his name, Gaines had his hands full as dean of the college

The position reflects his attachment to Pomona as a school and community.

“By far, the best parts of my job here are the students,” Gaines said.

“By far, the best parts of my job here are the students” — Robert Gaines

As a geology professor, Gaines taught classes on the evolution of the earth’s biosphere, sedimentary rocks, climate change and other elective topics. Three 5C students were among the members of Gaines’ 2018 expedition.

“A lot of my colleagues at state schools look at me and think that I’ve made a lot of sacrifices in terms of research in order to be in a place like this,” Gaines said. But he said Pomona prescribes a healthy balance of teaching and research in ways that larger schools often can’t — through small grants and access to equipment.

As dean of the college, Gaines made his priorities increasing sustainability on campus, improving student equity by providing resources to support students of all backgrounds and streamlining faculty hiring processes, among other things.

After guiding Pomona’s faculty through a tumultuous two years impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Gaines said, he appreciates the community even more. 

“I was so moved by all the things that faculty did to support students online. The way they threw themselves into it and developed creative solutions and shared them with one another,” he said. “It’s a really powerful reminder of how connected we feel to this place, that we want to continue to make it better and better.”

About the paper set to officially name a fossil after him, “I didn’t think about it too much before it came out,” Gaines said. A year passed as the paper was peer-reviewed and funneled through the publication process.

When the paper was finally published, it received significant attention from the scientific community and general public, including coverage in a cover story in the magazine Science and a New York Times article. Only then did the feeling of recognition hit Gaines.

“It was super humbling … understanding that, no matter what I do for the rest of my career, that name is always going to be there. It’s forever that. That feels pretty cool,” Gaines said.

Gaines’ time as dean of the college ends in 2022, after which he plans to take a sabbatical to visit his colleagues abroad and return to the Burgess Shale site, since his plans for the past two summers were disrupted by COVID-19. 

But he’s most looking forward to getting back to his favorite job: teaching students. 

“Consistently, even after nearly 20 years, when I step into a classroom, I know that I’m going to get a question that I’ve never heard before, that will actually cause me to pull back and think about aspects of my whole field quite differently,” he said. “That’s the balance in my life that feels like it’s really missing.”

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