...how the fossilized past uncovers the dynamic present of Ecosystems? (with Lucy Chang)

Ever Wonder? / February 14, 2024
Curator of Life Science, Lucy Chang
Image attribution
Courtesy of Lucy Chang
Curator of Life Science, Lucy Chang
Image attribution
Courtesy of Lucy Chang


On this first Ever Wonder? episode of the year, we would like to introduce you to California Science Center’s Curator of Life Science and Paleobiologist Lucy Chang.

In today’s episode, Lucy takes us on an exploration into the fascinating world of paleobiology, explaining to use how the fossilized remnants of ancient life hold the keys to understanding the vibrant ecosystems today.

Do you ever wonder how the fossilized past uncovers the dynamic present of Ecosystems?

Join us as we unravel the mysteries of Earth’s dynamic ecosystems, past and present, with Lucy!

Have a question you’ve been wondering about? Email the Ever Wonder? team to tell us what you’d like to hear in future episodes.

Subscribe to our show on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or Google Podcast. To see a full list of episodes, visit our show’s webpage.


D Hunter White (00:05):

Hello, this is Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center. I'm D Hunter White. Let's talk about ecosystems, all of the living and non-living parts of an environment and the complex relationships between them. Today, I have the honor of speaking with Paleobiologist and Life Sciences Curator of our Ecosystems Gallery here at the California Science Center, Dr. Lucy Chang. Lucy talks about the Ecosystems Gallery, and she explains that scientists can use the study of fossils to help us understand modern day ecosystems. Ever Wonder? ...how the fossilized past helps us uncover the dynamic present of ecosystems? We'll talk about that and how Lucy's passion for fossils intertwines with the living collections in the Ecosystems Gallery. Speaking of fossils, one time I thought I found an ancient dinosaur leg, but I was so wrong. It was just a fossil arm. I know, I know, some of you're gonna have a bone to pick with me on that pun, but in the meantime, sit back and relax and join me in my conversation with Lucy.

D Hunter White (01:09):

Dr. Lucy Chang. You are the curator of Life Sciences, Ecology at the California Science Center. Welcome to the podcast.

Lucy Chang (01:18):

Thank you so much for having me.

D Hunter White (01:20):

I've been really wanting to speak to you, have you on the podcast, and now you're here. So I'm very ecstatic about it. You're the curator of Ecosystems here at the California Science Center. Was becoming a museum curator a specific goal of yours or was it an offshoot of other passions?

Lucy Chang (01:38):

I've always been a fan of museums. I've always loved going to museums, went to museums growing up, and they've had a huge influence on my life. And on top of that too, I've always been interested in all the sciences. And so after history museums, science museums are always really appealing. I think over the course of the years, there's something about museums and being involved with museums, that was always a draw for me. And also in my scientific career, having the opportunities to communicate science, the people who don't necessarily have access to it, has always been a huge driver of the work that I do. And so it kind of feels very natural to have ended up in a museum. And I think a lot of the steps that I took in my career have led me to this point. So I would say, you know, it wasn't something that was entirely planned, but it wasn't something that was surprising either.

D Hunter White (02:28):

So it sounds like the opportunity presented itself and you were just open and available to take full advantage of it.

Lucy Chang (02:36):

Yeah, I've been working in a couple museums up until this point, and when I saw this opportunity at the California Science Center, it was, it was kind of the perfect opportunity for me personally, just given my interest, given my background, and I couldn't resist coming here.

D Hunter White (02:53):

So Lucy, what does a museum curator do?

Lucy Chang (02:56):

It kind of depends on the museum. The job of curator varies from place to place, so in some places, a curator is really involved with maintaining the collections and deciding what goes into collections, making sure research collections like specimens and artifacts are well taken care of and they're very much involved with that sort of behind the scenes aspect of it. Here at the Science Center, curator is much more involved with exhibit development. And so, you know, we'd be the ones sort of thinking about what messages are important to communicate to our guests and trying to come up with the best ways to be able to do that.

D Hunter White (03:31):

Did you face any challenges that you had to overcome in becoming a museum curator?

Lucy Chang (03:36):

In terms of challenges? I think that there is something challenging about, in general, pursuing a more academic career, specifically for museum curator. There are not a lot of opportunities out there to do this kind of work. And so being able to find experiences that let you learn about how museums run, learn about how exhibits are developed. If you think of any museum that you walk into, maybe there's a new exhibition every couple of years, and the people who are involved in that get that experience when that those are being developed. But it's not happening all the time to the extent where maybe everybody who has an interest in this field can actually go out there and learn more about it. You know, just finding those opportunities can be quite challenging sometimes.

D Hunter White (04:24):

As the curator of Ecosystems, what is the message that you hope guests will get from Ecosystems?

Lucy Chang (04:30):

That's quite a big question. For me, Ecosystems really encompasses our planet and how our planet is interconnected. And so in Ecosystems, specifically at the Science Center, we touch on a lot of what lives in different biomes, how they interact, but I think there's also a grander message about how all of these biomes are connected to one another and how, you know, every living thing and non-living thing is part of some system or another that feeds back into others. And so for me, Ecosystems sort of on a bigger scale encompassing the whole suite of galleries that we have is really about that connectedness. The fact that we all live on the same planet and this planet is turning away one way or another.

D Hunter White (05:15):

It sounds like that is the essence of what ecosystems really means, the definition of ecosystems.

Lucy Chang (05:22):

Yeah. I think ecosystems touches a lot on how organisms interact and how with each other and how they interact with the environments, how those environments interact. And so there's something about ecosystems, about just how we all live together, how we manage to do that, and what sort of every individual organism or species or community of species really function in the time and place that they are.

D Hunter White (05:48):

So you're a paleobiologist. What does a paleobiologist do? Is that like the people that we see on Jurassic Park, looking for fossils?

Lucy Chang (05:58):

That actually is pretty much the closest representation of paleontology in popular media. Yeah, so paleobiologists are people who study fossils, fossils being, you know, the remnants of ancient life on earth. It could be anything from track ways to bones to shells, but paleobiologists use these kinds of specimens to learn about what life was like on earth, in the past.

D Hunter White (06:27):

Your background and your study is paleobiology, but here you are, the museum curator with living collections. Like how do you bridge the gap and how is that beneficial?

Lucy Chang (06:38):

This is actually a dream come true, I think to be able to work with living organisms and to be able to tell their story. For somebody, like myself who was really involved with paleobiology for a long time, that's what my PhD research was in. That's what I've been studying for a while. Really, paleobiology is just a different way of studying the same kinds of questions that maybe modern biologists are interested in. So I would also be looking at ecology and evolution. I'd be looking at where organisms lived, you know, how they grew, who they interacted with, what they ate, what ate them. And so a lot of the processes that you see today really are represented as fossils in the past as well.

D Hunter White (07:18):

So what made you decide to study paleobiology?

Lucy Chang (07:22):

So it's kind of funny. When I was heading to college, I really couldn't decide what science I was interested in. I was interested in all the sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, and I really actually didn't wanna choose. And so when I was looking at my options in college of what to major in, I was actually really drawn to geophysical sciences. So things like geology, volcanology, astrophysics, this kind of thing, because I really didn't have to choose which science I wanted to pursue. It really touched on all of them. And as I was going through that coursework, I was actually really drawn to the animals that we were studying. So the fossil animals, but also eventually looking at mammal ecology today and looking at marine ecology and evolution. By the end of my time in college, I recognized that paleontology, again, a mix of all these different sciences was the most appealing field that I had been involved in. So that's what I decided to do, graduate school for paleontology.

D Hunter White (08:20):

So within Ecosystems, there are several individual galleries. Which one would you say is your favorite?

Lucy Chang (08:27):

I think I would have to go with Kelp Forest. There's something about that large window, but the view of the whole kelp form is looming above you. That is just something very special and it's very calming and serene and quite beautiful. So I think because of that, you know, you have a very unique experience in that gallery that you can't necessarily get from the other ones. I think because of that, yeah, my answer would have to be kelp forests.

D Hunter White (08:55):

And that's also one of the areas where we have living collections animals. How do animals play a role in communicating the message of Ecosystems?

Lucy Chang (09:04):

So because the message of Ecosystems, in my opinion, deals with the interactions between things, that interconnectivity. It really is essential to be able to see, to be able to observe what that looks like in real life. You know, there's something about looking at living collections, looking at live organisms that you don't quite get from a photo or you don't get from a video. You actually get to see these things behaving in certain ways and you get to understand like what it means to interact with the world when you have that opportunity to stand there and like watch something that oftentimes maybe it's not doing very much, but that's just sort of how life is. Other times it's, you know, very exciting movement and behavior. I think living collections for that reason, offers a very unique way of telling the story of ecosystems of those interactions and what happens in these biomes.

D Hunter White (09:58):

Okay. So that takes me to Desert Zone. What do you find about Desert Zone that is amazing?

Lucy Chang (10:05):

One of the amazing things about Desert Zone is that for a lot of people, it's not gonna be an environment that's very familiar, even though we're located like a stone's throw away from a beautiful, amazing desert here in Southern California. And so seeing people in there when the flash flood goes, experiencing it, learning about it, I would say it's not necessarily a surprising content thing, but I, you know, just from an experiential level, I find that very amazing about Desert Zone, that people actually get to go in there even though they might not have had the chance to go to desert, and maybe it encourages them to go to the desert and care about the desert as a collective resource, as something to be proud of, as something that is full of life. I think for a lot of the zones in Ecosystems, that's something that we're able to do. We're able to make people care in addition to learning something about these different biomes. When I see people in Desert Zone, they seem to care. They seem to enjoy, they seem to have fun. And it hits the mark in that way just to get people looking and understanding that this is something that is a real environment out there, even if they've never seen it.

D Hunter White (11:24):

What is your perspective on LA Zone and how that impacts our guests?

Lucy Chang (11:29):

I love the idea that the Ecosystems experience, you pretty much have to walk through it in order to exit back to the rest of the Science Center. And the thought that the environment that many of our guests live in is an ecosystem, has these different processes, earth processes, organisms interacting. It's something that probably is surprising to people who've never really looked at their neighborhood, let's say, as an ecosystem. Even framing it in that way is eye-opening and asking people to treat it like an ecosystem, to consider their actions as if it's an ecosystem is a really valuable and poignant way to end and the ecosystem's experience.

D Hunter White (12:16):

So, I had the joy of watching one of your interviews that's on YouTube and you talk about Ammonites. Tell me a little bit more about that.

Lucy Chang (12:26):

Sure. So Ammonites are an ancient group, now extinct of shelled Cephalopods. So Cephalopods is a group that includes Octopus and Squid and Cuttlefish and Nautilus. So these are things that look a little bit like Nautilus, again, with a shell on the outside, but are closely related to squid. So I got involved with Ammonites basically because before they went extinct about 66 million years ago, they were all over the place. You could find them across the globe in large numbers. And so for a lot of people who work on sort of marine shelled organisms, just the sheer number of specimens that are out there is, is hugely appealing. It's a lot of data, basically. So for the questions that I was interested in about how things interacted and where things lived, having a lot of data helps. And so that's how I ended up working on Ammonites. And in the end, you know, they're, I recognize them to be very, very beautiful as well.

D Hunter White (13:32):

Learning about animals that have lived in the past kind of brings us back full circle to things that are living. Is that correct?

Lucy Chang (13:42):

Yeah, so I think one of the really important things about studying the past is that it can tell us a lot about the way things live today. You know, today when you go out there and try to study the organisms that are swimming in our ocean or on land, a lot of times it, we already see the impacts of humans, let's say, we already see what habitat fragmentation and climate change have already done. And so by studying fossils, you really get a baseline, that original sort of prehistoric view into how organisms lived on planet Earth without us on it, let's say. And so we can compare against that baseline how things are functioning today with human impact, for example.

D Hunter White (14:32):

So how has human impact affected our modern ecosystem compared to ancient ones?

Lucy Chang (14:38):

So we know that today, human driven, global warming has been happening and we're able to measure where animals have moved because of that. We also know that habitat fragmentation has been happening. We know what animals are at risk because of that, plants as well. In the past, we have other examples of, you know, times when the earth has warmed quite dramatically. And so we can actually go to the fossil record and see how things were impacted and what happened afterwards. And by understanding events like that in the past, we can look to today and have a better understanding of what we can expect to happen even as we're experiencing it right now.

D Hunter White (15:20):

So Lucy, how do you study Ammonites or fossils?

Lucy Chang (15:24):

So oftentimes, paleontologists will go out into the field and dig up fossils. You look for exposed rock without these pesky things known as plants, covering them up. So oftentimes, it ends up being deserts and mountains, and that's where you find the initial fossils that you would be studying. And then from there, there's a whole number of things that you can do with specimens. Once they're prepared, once they're restored and cleaned up, some paleontologists, you know, look at the microstructure of bone or a shell to look at how something grew. Some paleontologists look at the location something was found and see whether or not that means that they, you know, might have interacted with other stuff found in the area. So fossils serve basically as just a source of data in the same way that field biologists might be trapping, you know, rodents out into the field and studying various aspects of rodent biology. Paleontologists just happened to do with things that have been long, long dead.

D Hunter White (16:28):

How did they become extinct?

Lucy Chang (16:30):

So the Ammonites went extinct around the same event that killed off all of the non-bird dinosaurs. So that was when a very large rock came crashing into the earth. Catastrophic, really changed everything. The ammonites went extinct during that same event. Some of them are known to have survived just a little bit past that impact, but pretty much the entire group was gone.

D Hunter White (16:57):

How does learning about ancient extinctions help us understand modern extinctions?

Lucy Chang (17:04):

So the really nice thing about fossils is that they are our primary record of extinction. There are some things alive today where we know that they've recently gone extinct. Either we have records of them and they haven't been seen in decades or centuries. Actually, that usually is it for like the modern day, our modern day record of extinction. Or we know of some species that are on the decline, so probably predictably will go extinct sometime in the near future. Those are the kinds of examples that we have when you look at modern day organisms. And so when you look at the fossil record, we can really examine why certain species go extinct and others don't. We can look at the drivers of that. Was it climate? Was it competition? Was it something else entirely? We have hundreds of millions of years of a record of extinctions happening, not, and we're not just talking about mass extinction, so the ammonites and the dinosaurs, the non-bird dinosaurs went extinct in one big extinction event. We've had a number of those over the course of earth history, but things are going extinct all the time. And so why things go extinct, how likely it is things are going extinct, is something that the fossil record can really help us learn about and be able to understand better the causes and the speed at which things are going extinct today.

D Hunter White (18:28):

With a lot of the research that you've done with fossils and that taking us back to the past, is that gonna give us all the answers that we need to go forward?

Lucy Chang (18:38):

I think there's a lot of things that we can learn from studying the past. Again, it's hundreds and millions of years of the history of life on earth. I think for a lot of people though, especially in pop culture and pop and the media, there's a fascination with the past because I think it stokes people's imaginations. You know, there is ancient monsters, these creatures that aren't alive today and they're super weird with like long necks and crazy tentacles and things like that. I do think though, it's worth remembering that the world we live in is amazing. One of the questions that I often ask, particularly younger people, students that I might be taking on tours, you know, classes that are visiting, is whether they know the largest animal that has ever lived on earth? And oftentimes they guess wild things, they guess T-Rex.

Lucy Chang (19:32):

And I say, no! It's not T-Rex. And you say one of the Sauropods, the big, long, long necked dinosaurs. No! It's not that. They guess Megalodon, it's not Megalodon either. Eventually, oftentimes they've gone through this whole list of extinct creatures and I tell them that the largest animal that has ever lived on earth is the Blue Whale. It's alive today. They can go out to the ocean and see it with their own eyes. So what I would encourage a lot of people to do is yes, absolutely think about the past, think about what we can learn from the past, but also don't underestimate just how wondrous and weird life on earth today is. Giraffes are strange. Elephants are super strange. These things are alive today and we can actually go and observe them, learn something from them and really appreciate them. So I would say fossils have many of the answers, but today is basically another slice of the history of life on earth that should not go underappreciated.

D Hunter White (20:35):

I think you kind of summarized everything that you bring to the California Science Center and Ecosystems. You wrap up the past, the future, and what we have currently very concisely and very appreciatively and it's very infectious and I'm glad that you joined me on the podcast. Is there anything else that you'd like to share with our listeners?

Lucy Chang (20:59):

I think I would just encourage everybody to go outside and have fun and explore a little bit, see what out there is surprising to you. Go out there, explore, be surprised by things, and hopefully start caring about the world that we live in or continue to care about the world that we live in.

D Hunter White (21:17):

Dr. Lucy Chang, it's been such a joy and an honor to speak with you. Everything that you said today was brilliant and you gave me a lot to think about. Thank you for being on Ever Wonder? at the California Science Center.

Lucy Chang (21:31):

Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure speaking with you.

D Hunter White (21:35):

And that's our show. Thanks for listening and until next time, keep wondering.

D Hunter White (21:42):

Ever Wonder? from the California Science Center is produced by me, D Hunter White, along with Jennifer Aguirre, Perry Roth-Johnson and Karen Arroyo. Liz Roth-Johnson is our editor. Theme music provided by Michael Nickolas and Pond5. We'll drop a new episode every other Wednesday. Hey, if you're a fan of the show, be sure to subscribe and leave us a rating or review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps other people discover our show. Have a question you've been wondering about? Send us an email or voice recording to [email protected] to tell us what you'd like to hear in future episodes.