Meet the Paleontologists: Jin Meng
Jin Meng studies the morphology, systematics, and evolution of mammals, particularly early mammals. Unlike some paleontologists who focus primarily upon teeth and dentition as their evidence, Dr. Meng examines the cranium, ear region, and enamel microstructure of teeth as sources of data to address evolutionary issues concerning mammals.
An Interview with Paleontologist Dr. Jin Meng, Contributor to Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries
Why do you like paleontology? What is your particular interest or concentration in this subject?
Well paleontology as you know, is a science to study the organisms that lived in prehistory, in the geological history. And for me, I think it's always an amazing thing when you look into the fossil record and see so many things that you don't see today. And you want to know why and how those creatures existed and why they existed and why they looked like that…you know, different from what you see today, and what's their relationship with the living creatures that we see today. And so its basically something where you want to look into history to understand about the history of the organisms and the history of Earth, and that's why personally, I feel it's a fantastic subject—to look back into the history.
And what is of particular interest—I have many interests in paleontology, but in terms of the professional interest, I have been working on fossil mammals for many, many years. And mammals actually is a larger group as well, so my focus is on the early mammals, in particular the Mesozoic mammals and the early Tertiary mammals. So if I have to give you an age—something like, older than 40 million years ago—any of those mammals would be my subject to work on, I am interested in all of those. But, that said, I also want to mention that anything younger than that, sometimes I also work on those. Because life is a continuous sequence, so you can't really cut off, so you want to look at the entire sequence. And that's one of the things—even when we look at the Mesozoic mammals that lived 120 million years ago, we still want to compare them with living mammals and see what the differences are. So mammals are my subject but—with a focus in the early ones—but also my study covers a much longer time sequence.
What exhibits have you worked on here at the museum? Do you have plans to contribute to any in the future?
I contributed something to this new dinosaur exhibition, and a small display, this Mesozoic mammal that ate dinosaurs, but I haven't really done anything major in doing any of this exhibition. But as a curator at this museum I think it's natural that I will do something in the future. For what I have been working on, mammals, I think I would like to see some exhibitions on mammals. It could be the diversity of extinct mammals and the relationship between extinct mammals and the changing environment. Or a particular group of mammals like horses or dogs—all those mammals that have a broad interest to the public.
What do you enjoy most about being a scientist here at the Museum? What do you enjoy most about the Museum itself?
Well this museum here—it's a great museum—anyone would love to be here as a scientist. I think that for any institution the most important part—for any institution or research institution—is the people, the scientists. So you come over because there's a bunch of great scientists, who are active intellectually. And, so you come here so you have this exchange with them, and you learn from them; you feel that you are in an environment that makes you feel energetic in terms of doing science, and also you can get ideas, get knowledge from them. And of course this museum provides some other things like all kinds of resources, like the collections, the library, connections with many other institutions who have visitors, who have students. All those make this museum great for a paleontologist, for a scientist, to be here. And another, of course another issue, I think is that for our department in particular, who have some sort of financial resources—which is kind of unique and it helps us a lot. We do our research—our field work, so we have this kind of advantage that enables us to do something more than other people can do in other institutions without those kind of resources. So that's what I think about this museum that's great—the people and the environment.
And for the Museum itself, I think to me in particular, as probably the first Asian—you know, curator with Asian origin—I feel that when I walked into the Museum when I was a student—I was a student at Columbia University, and my advisor was Malcolm McKenna, who was a curator here for decades—and walked into the building and I feel "in the history" and that made me feels so different. So to become a curator here, it's even more drastic in that kind of feeling—because you are part of this great history at this museum, you have all these people who went out to many other places in the whole world, collecting specimens and doing great leading-edge research, and now suddenly you find that you are among them, so that kind of feeling is great. And for the exhibitions of course, the fourth floor, all those fossil exhibitions, that's my work—that is, related to my work—and I try to relate it to my work. All my friends come here, my children, my friends from other countries, when they come to visit the Museum, I will definitely bring them to see all these fossils. That's the part of it I like most.
Tell us a bit about the research you do here. What projects are you working on now and why are they important to you?
Well, as a curator in this museum, it's probably very different from many others in a way, because of the resources we have and the connections that we have and the history that we have. We usually have these very broad international programs in many areas, paleontology included. So the research projects that we have are kind of not just with one focus, and for what I have been doing, I have been working on several things actually during the same period of time. Right now, maybe I should say, in the last few years, I can easily list three or four things that I have been doing simultaneously. One is a group of the Mesozoic mammals that we call the Triconodonta, and this creature has something to do with this new dinosaur exhibition. It's the largest Mesozoic mammal and the mammal that ate a dinosaur, and that's one of those. So that's one part of the research that I've been doing. Those are important mammals—those fossils gave us the information, the evidence and the morphological data—and now we can examine this data and try to figure out the relationships between those extinct groups with living mammals, and also we can understand the early evolution, the early biology and geography—all those things—from these fossils, and understand the early evolution of those mammals.
And the second group also, is an important one that I've been working on, is the Glires. The Glires is a group, and it includes rodents and the Lagomorpha, and those are placental mammals—small mammals usually—but, particular rodents, which is the most diverse mammalian group—so if you looking at the living species, almost half of the living species are rodents. So to study their early history, their origin, their early evolution, is an important and interesting subject. And it also has something to do with the early divergence of placental mammals as a whole. So I have been collecting fossils of this group, mainly in Asia from the early Tertiary: it's about 55 million to 45 million years ago, and I've been collecting many of these fossils myself, and of course, written quite a few papers on this, which I think are quite influential in this kind of research. And this group also, it's interesting and important that in the last one or two decades, many molecular biologists came up with different methods using the molecular sequence to identify the relationships of these things and also the divergence time. So rodents, or the Glires, are one of the groups whose study created a lot of controversies. For example, people—molecular people—argue to the divergence time of rodents. Could it predate the K/T boundary? And so, the extent of the divergence time of rodents' way into the Cretaceous, the Age of the Dinosaurs. If you look at the fossil records, there's not any direct evidence, there's no fossil record. So all those are interesting aspects: why there is such difference between molecular data and morphological data, so it's something that we've been working on. And actually earlier this year we had a paper published in Science, with my coauthors, and that paper also deals...it's a paper that describes wonderful specimens of early Lagomorpha probably the earliest Lagomorpha skeleton, and in that paper we also discussed the divergence time of Glires in particular, and placental mammals in general.
Other things that I've been working on—the other two groups I gave you, are organisms, but I'm also interested in working on the rock sequences and it contends with those fossils, particulary this early Tertiary sequence, because the rocks also record much of this information, like the climatic changes—some of it is locked into the rocks. So if you know the history of the eras, you know then from what we call the later Paleozoic, all the way to recently, the earth is basically in a trend and the annual temperature is cooling off, in kind of a step-like way. Sometimes it goes high, sometimes it goes down. So [how] that kind of global-scale climate change affects the evolution of mammals, or affects the terrestrial, particularly the terrestrial faunas is also an interesting aspect. So, one of the projects that then I've been working on with my co-authors, and with my co-collaborators as well, is to figure out whether we can figure out a pattern then to the fauna's evolution corresponding to this changing environment and changing climates, not just in North America but in Asia and in Europe as well. So those are the areas that I have been working on in the last few years, and there are some other small projects that I think I don't need to mention.
If people could take away just one important point about the Dinosaurs exhibition, what would you want that to be?
Well, honestly, I haven't seen this exhibition; I know the process and some of the subjects that it's talking about. But I can give a general impression, and that is, [that] there are many new things in this exhibition. New things what I know...there are new dinosaur specimens found, you know, small-sized, sleeping dinosaurs, dinosaurs covered with feathers or feather-like structures, and also this mammal, eating dinosaurs, you know, there is a model in there as well. So the message is, I think, if I had to summarize it then is: size is an endless process. We've known dinosaurs for decades, kids and adults. We love dinosaurs, and maybe people probably say, "There is no more than what I know about dinosaurs," but that's not the end of our knowledge. And when we go out there digging in the Gobi Desert or the Badlands, we find new things, and these new things bring in knowledge, new data to expand our knowledge about those old guys, our old friends. And now we have all these new stories about dinosaurs, so I think that the important message is that in science, scientists are always making new progress, and you can always expect to see something new in a museum like this, which has an ever active research program. We always have something new then, so we always want to bring new things to the public, to the people, so that when they come back they will always see new things. So science is always making progress and you'll always find new things in the Museum.
What's your favorite fact about dinosaurs and why? Do you have a favorite dinosaur or extinct mammal?
Well I think my favorite part, and you can imagine that in history, many million years ago, tens of million years ago, there's a group called dinosaurs, so diverse and dominated the surface of Earth, ruled the earth. And it was so diverse, that from very small to very huge monsters. They ranged from herbivores to carnivores all those kinds of things are amazing to me. I think that the diversity of the dinosaurs itself is probably what strikes me any time when I think of dinosaurs. It's like you look into the fauna that we are looking at today, you see, of course, it's a different group of animals, you see the elephants, you see the horses, you see the rhinos, you see the mouse, you see the monkeys…you see that kind of diversity. But just the diversity in the past, extinct—that gives me a sort of…makes me feel great things, that it's extinct but that kind of diversity existed in the past.
And I guess there's many actually. There's many dinosaurs that I like, but if you really give me one choice, I have to point out this extinct mammal. It's the one in this new exhibition; its called the Repenomamus, and it's two species, actually, so far named: it's the Repenomamus robustus, and the other one is what my colleagues and myself have named the Repenomamus giganticus. Those are the largest Mesozoic mammals that we know so far that lived in the Age of Dinosaurs, and more interestingly, we have the evidence of this mammal that they are carnivores—they fed on vertebrates including young dinosaurs. So those are the major, sort of new breakthrough discoveries of early mammals. And it gives us the idea that mammals are not as we believed before [from what] we knew before—that they are small like a mouse or shoe-sized, living in the darkness of the day or in the evening hours because they are nocturnal and only eat insects. They could be large and very nasty carnivores, they could eat meat and actually chase dinosaurs around. So that's something that is amazing to me—it's a new thing but it's important, and right now I'm working on this and I'm still describing the detailed morphology which has not been done yet because this material is so good and so many specimens have been found. So I think that when the substantial research on those creatures is done, I think it will provide people with a lot of data—morphological data—that will tell us a lot about these creatures' biology and other things. So this is what I like most.
Have you ever been on an expedition? Where? Were you successful, what did you find there?
Well I've been on expeditions in many places, like in South America, in Chile with my colleagues, but most of my expeditions—in my understanding I can include all this fieldwork—all my, or most of my fieldwork that I have been doing in recent years has been in Asia—the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia, and the Gobi—sort of similar situation, similar desert in the northwest of China, Xinjiang, and in some other places. I went to Tibet, I went to South China, and I went to Mongolia. But mainly my work is in the Gobi Desert of Inner Mongolia and some areas in Xinjiang. And those are vast lands; it's a large area, you have to drive in a field vehicle and roam for hundreds of miles without seeing any people. So those are the expeditions I have been on for many years. Actually, that's sort of a regular field program each of our curators attend. I know that Mike Novacek and Mark Norell, they have been working on the Gobi Desert of Outer Mongolia, and similarly, I have been working in some other areas doing pretty much the same thing in different areas, so that's...I've been on those expeditions.
Is it dangerous being that far out from people?
It is. You have to be really prepared to be out there, and also it depends on where you go. Sometimes if you really go to these remote areas without people for miles, you need to, for example, you need to have two vehicles. Sometimes if you get stuck, your vehicle, and you can't get it out, that can be very dangerous. But today, I think with more reliable technology, good vehicles, and you have food and water, and you know the area better than if you went to a new place and you don't know where to find the road, you don't know where to find the water, it could be very dangerous. But I think that today's field expedition is not as dangerous as it was before, but still it could be very dangerous. Because one of the reasons [is] usually we're out there in the very hot summer. The temperature could be very high, you could just have heatstroke right in the middle of the day and that could happen—in many cases I feel a headache and I have to find a place where there is a piece of shadow—in many places you don't, but what you do is you have to prepare for that. When you walk on the Badlands, if you feel that kind of feeling, you know what you should do. In many cases, I have to put some water on my hair and my body to cool myself down, things like that. So if you know what you're doing it could be fine but if you don't it could be very dangerous.
What were your early scientific influences? Were you interested in science as a child? Did you admire any scientists while you were growing up?
That's many questions. I have to say that I was influenced in my early times by my father, he was a geologist. So that was quite a different experience, because my background—I came from China originally. When I look at what the American students are doing these days I feel that my background, my experience, was really, really different. So when I was a third or fourth grade elementary student, all summer I went out there with my father, going into the field. So I was always amazed when I saw the fossils, like trilobites, clams, snails, fossils in the rocks, in the limestone rocks. I was always asking myself, asking my father and his colleagues, "Why do these things that are supposed to live in the water end up in a rock in the mountains?" So that kind of question was always with me growing up. And also the place that we lived in the city, our home—across the street was a museum, which is quite a small one compared to our Museum. It's a very small one, but they do have some fossils on display, and after school I could go to other places and so usually I went to that museum. And there is a mounted dinosaur skeleton as well. So I think that all these experiences gave me the influence in my early days, so I know paleontology [from] early on when I was a teenager. So after, at the time when I applied for college, which was actually right after the contra-revolution, we had a chance to go to college. After I spent a few years in the countryside as part of the—they call it the educated youth—you are basically a farmer growing food for yourself...so after a few years in the countryside, I had the chance to go to Beijing University after I took the examinations. So at the university I applied for paleontology as a major. So I had several choices, and for each college I applied with paleontology as my only choice. So I think that has to be—the reason for that is, I believe, is that I grew up in a family that has a connection with geology, with paleontology I think.
So, well, what drew my inner scientists [out] when growing up, I think, in the early stage, I believe…at that time in China, it was still kind of a really closed country, we didn't really have much exposure to the real science the way we have today, so... But we did know Darwin, Charles Darwin. I think if I had to name one person, I think Charles Darwin probably is the one I knew when I was young and of course when growing up, and his work and he as a person and his expeditions—all those things still remain to me the one who is most outstanding. And also now I feel I know a little more than I knew before and that Darwin, really, when he proposed this theory of evolution in his writing, it was really a breakthrough. I mean it's easy for all those scientists or for everyone to follow some idea, but it's very, very difficult to come up with some novel idea like evolution. So think about that: he had this theory in that age when maybe religion or creationism was kind of dominant, and his idea was really a real breakthrough.
What advice would you give to kids who might want to pursue paleontology as a future career?
Paleontology is basically a small area; if you have to talk about realistically, the job market-it's an area [where] you will get very strong competition; it's not easy to get a good job. Also, if you want to be a paleontologist, like in other sciences, you do it because you love it. It will never get you rich; you love it and you do it. And I think, [as with] anything, you want to be good, to be better, to be the best. So you have to prepare yourself from early on, and I think… Advice, if I would have to give children, is to be patient, be persistent, and never give up. And so if you try your best to be a paleontologist, you always have a chance to see your day.