Climate change effects on life over time

I study the fossil record to understand how climate change has affected life in the past and how it will affect life in the future.

Climate is changing rapidly, and it’s already having negative effects on wildlife. But in order to understand how those effects will impact biodiversity in the future, we need a frame of reference that spans a very long time interval. I therefore study the fossil record to see how climate change affected animals in the past over millions of years. In my dissertation research at the University of California, Berkeley, I focus on reptiles because they are especially sensitive to changes in climate. Reptiles primarily get heat from their surroundings: thus, climate affects their ability to engage in any kind of activity. In order to interpret these effects on past reptiles, I also study living reptiles to understand how they are responding to climate change today.

My dissertation research, advised by Kevin Padian and based at the University of California Museum of Paleontology, investigates climate change impacts on body size and ecology in past communities of reptiles. I focus on lizards, crocodylians, and turtles that lived in the Western Interior of what is now the United States from about 66 to 23 million years ago, an interval of time called the Paleogene. The Paleogene encompassed dramatic episodes of climate change, including a rapid warming event around 55 million years ago that compares to the warming we are experiencing now.

I have sampled every major natural history museum collection across the U.S. and compiled an extensive dataset of measurements of reptile fossils from the Western Interior through the Paleogene. I am also examining archived field notes for additional context in order to assess the integrity of the fossil record collectively represented in these collections.

In addition to my dissertation research, I study the use of storytelling in science communication and education (more details here).

Selected Publications:

ElShafie, S.J. and J.J. Head. Paleogene temperature estimates for the North American interior based on body size changes in anguid lizards. In prep.

ElShafie, S.J. Earliest evidence of caudal autotomy in a derived fossil squamate. In prep.

Sereno, P.C. and S.J. ElShafie. 2012. A New Long-Necked Turtle, Laganemystenerensis (Pleurodira: Araripemydidae) from the Elrhaz Formation (Aptian-Albian) of Niger. Morphology and Evolution of Turtles. D. B. Brinkman et al. (eds.). Springer, Netherlands: 215-250.