Peabody Museum Honors Student Research

Prestigious Simpson and Yamanaka Prizes Awarded

By Steve Scarpa, Associate Director of Marketing and Communications

Research identifying a recently discovered fossil as a previously unknown gecko from 150 million years ago has been honored with the Yale Peabody Museum’s prestigious George Gaylord Simpson Prize.

The Simpson Prize was the first award given in the museum’s annual spate of student recognition. Two Yale College seniors were also awarded the Greg Yamanaka Senior Essay Prize, given to the best thesis or essay that makes use of the Peabody’s archives or collections.

Dalton Meyer’s November 2023 paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B received the Simpson Prize, given each year for a paper first-authored by a student concerning evolution and the fossil record. Meyer was advised by Jacques Gauthier, professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences and curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, Vertebrate Zoology, and Herpetology.

“This kind of work that merges traditional field work and collections-based fossil analysis with high-tech digital imaging represents the future of paleontology,” said David Heiser, the Peabody’s director of student programs.

The new species, called Helioscopos dickersonae, which was found in Utah, shows many of the characteristics of early gecko relatives while also retaining a few features lost in modern geckos, including an opening for a “third eye” on the top of its skull that could sense sunlight. The paper also noted that the similarities between Helioscopos and fossil lizards from the same time found in Germany indicate a biogeographic pattern in small dinosaurs in Europe and North America.

Meyer’s work also suggested another migratory path for the gecko: “It is one of the earliest known gecko relatives in the fossil record. This means that the gecko line made it to North America nearly 100 million years before the prior known earliest record,”Meyer said in a statement.

Yale College seniors John Nash and Adriana Ballinger were recognized with the Greg Yamanaka Senior Essay Prize for their outstanding work.

Nash’s paper “Species Status and Phylogenetic Relationships of the Enigmatic Negros Fruit Dove Ptilinopus arcanus (Aves: Columbidae)” attained first place. The Negros Fruit Dove was known only from a single specimen collected in the Philippines in 1953. By analyzing historic toe pad samples from the Fruit Dove and 27 other closely-related species, Nash established that P. arcanus represents its own species and  diverged from its most recent common ancestor several million years before Negros Island emerged from the seafloor.

Ballinger’s second place essay “Museums Making Meaning: What Can Specimen Preparation Tell Us about the Values of Natural History Museums?” questions the context through which specimens collected from the field transform into preserved artifacts. By researching the museum’s ornithology and botany collections, Ballinger was able to investigate how museum preparation often removes or hides auxiliary information that specimens may carry with them from their original environments.

“I believe these findings have the potential to inform how we engage with the narratives natural history museums present to us. Do they burnish certain qualities of their specimens, while obscuring others? What stories are being told, and whose are being left out?” Ballinger wrote.

Last updated on May 16, 2024

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