If you think early mammals only really got interesting after the extinction of the dinosaurs, think again – the work of palaeontologist Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska (b. 1925, d. 2015) has long shown otherwise. For 120 million years, from the Jurassic to around 35 million years ago, a group of mammals known as multituberculates burrowed, scampered and climbed trees all over the northern hemisphere. It’s thanks to the pioneering discoveries of Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska and colleagues that we know so much about this long-extinct branch of our mammalian family tree.
Zofia’s studies began in war-ravaged Warsaw. The Nazis had tried to raze the city to the ground in WW2 and, as the Department of Geology had been lost in 1939, Zofia attended lectures given by Polish palaeontologist Roman Kozlowski in his own flat. It was here that she first dreamed of going to Mongolia. Fifteen years later, having begun her career studying trilobites and polychaete jaws, she organised the first Polish-Mongolian palaeontological expedition to the Gobi desert – and followed that by seven more.
The area was remote, relatively unexplored, and access was difficult–both physically and politically: the Mongolian People’s Republic was closed to Western scientists for much of the 20th century. But as members of the Eastern Bloc were allowed entry, access was the least of Zofia’s worries. The inability to speak Mongolian, organising logistics for thirty other people, the dangers of sandstorms, and the lack of water were constant troubles. It was worth it though: the expeditions were huge successes.
Although the public wanted to see dinosaurs (and they were rewarded with beautiful specimens of Homalocephale, Gallimimus and Nemegtosaurus along with the terrible hands of Deinocheirus and the Velociraptor/Protoceratops death embrace), the emphasis of the expeditions was always on discovering the “Lilliputians of the Mesozoic world”, and transporting 12-tonne sauropod specimens 1000km to Ulaanbaatar was trickier than moving the minute remains of the earliest mammals. It was a period of moving around on hands and knees, using magnifying glasses rather than mattocks. In 1970, they found an El Dorado of Cretaceous mammals – in ten days her team discovered 22 skulls and over the course of the subsequent expeditions, she and her colleagues collected what was at the time the largest collection of Mesozoic mammal skulls in any museum in the world – some 180 in all. This helped to overturn the idea that mammals in the time of dinosaurs were rare and relatively undiverse.
Zofia is now professor emerita at the Institute of Paleobiology, Polish Academy of Sciences but at the start of her career palaeontology – and science in general – wasn’t as internationally fluid as it is now. Mongolia may have been closed to Western scientists, but Zofia made sure her research crossed borders. During the 1960s to 1980s she fostered camaraderie among her fellow researchers despite the iron curtain that divided Europe, and was the first woman to serve on the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences.
Zofia Kielan-Jawaorowska’s contributions to palaeontology have been described by co-author Zhe-Xi Luo as un-matched by any living experts, and that “in the whole of Mesozoic mammalian studies for the last 100 years, only the late American paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson would be her equal.” Her encyclopaedic tome Mammals from the Age of the Dinosaurs sits on the shelf of every palaeontologist who nepotistically studies the origins of our particular branch of the tree of life. Zofia’s career hasn’t been short of achievements and adventure, leaving the kind of legacy that is best summed up by those who have known and worked with her:
“She is the rarest among the rare – she has been a leader in making important scientific contributions, and also a gregarious and charismatic figure, both of which have made paleontology a better science, and paleontologists worldwide a better community.” — Zhe-Xi Luo, 2014
Dr Kielan-Jaworowska passed away in early 2015, but her legacy of inspiration lives on.
Written by Nick Crumpton (@LSmonster)
Edited and additional content by Tori
Images kindly provided by Prof. Jerzy Dzik, Director of the Instytut Paleobiologii, Poland.
Kielan-Jaworowska, Z (1969) Hunting for Dinosaurs. MIT Press.
Kielan-Jaworowska, Z (2013) In Pursuit of Early Mammals. Indiana University Press.