“I’m interested in pushing out the frontiers of science, not sailing my boat through tranquil seas.”

Elisabeth Vrba is a world-renowned palaeontologist and one of the most brilliant minds among living scientists. Her contributions to mammalian palaeontology and to the theory of macroevolutionary processes are milestones that have enriched our knowledge of the field since the early 1970s.

Vrba (born 17 May 1942) earned her Ph.D. in Zoology and Palaeontology at the University of Cape Town in 1974. As a young trowelblazer she began working for the Transvaal Museum and coordinated excavations at the famous australopithecine site of Sterkfontein. In the late 80s, she moved to the US with her husband and daughter, where she joined the faculty of Yale University. She is currently a professor in the Department of Geology and Geophysics and curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at Yale’s Peabody Museum.

We can suppose that almost two decades (from the late ‘60s till the late ‘80s) of field work in South Africa and intensive study of museum collections have inspired and nurtured ESV’s brilliant ideas. The development of the Turnover Pulse Hypothesis is undoubtedly one of her most significant contributions in macroevolutionary theory (together with the coining of the word exaptation with S. J. Gould).

Using SJG’s words, “Vrba emphasizes the role of environmental disruption in prompting the [faunal] transition and, especially, the coordinated effects of both extinction and speciation as consequences of disruption-extinction by rapid change and removal of habitats favored by species of the foregoing fauna, and origination by fragmentation of habitats and resulting opportunities for speciation by geographic isolation of allopatric populations”. In particular, ESV’s application of the Turnover Pulse Hypothesis to hominin evolution has generated substantial interest and debate (see her recent review “Paleoenvironments and Hominin Evolution”; Vrba, 2013).

Elisabeth Vrba (right) and her then-student Faysal Bibi at the National Museum of Ethiopia in 2008, examining finds from the Middle Awash field study area. Photo (c) and courtesy of Tim White.

Elisabeth Vrba (right) and her then-student Faysal Bibi at the National Museum of Ethiopia in 2008, examining finds from the Middle Awash field study area. Photo (c) and courtesy of Tim White.


Vrba is also well known for her classic works on bovid taxonomy, palaeobiogeography, phylogeny and palaeoecology. It is not a coincidence that the most represented taxa in her vast publication record are members of this family, which she has intensively studied since the beginning of her career. As a bovid specialist, I have always been inspired by her mind-opening papers and I like to think that her big ideas in macroevolution are rooted in her early works on “Antelopes, deer and relatives”.

I had the pleasure and honor to meet ESV one time when I was still a student and I experienced not only her charisma and clear talking but also her humanity and openness (she patiently answered questions coming from hundreds of students, professors and children…sitting on a stairway).

There is no doubt that this extraordinary woman will continue to be celebrated by future generations of palaeontologists and scientists.

“For Niles Eldredge and Elisabeth Vrba

May we always be the Three Musketeers

Prevailing with panache

From our manic and scrappy inception at Dijon

To our nonsatanic and happy reception at Doomsday

All For One and One for All” S. J. Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory


Written by Roberto Rozzi (@rozzi_roberto)

Edited by Becky & posted by Suzie


Further Reading 

Bibi Faysal & Vrba, Elisabeth S. Unraveling bovin phylogeny: accomplishments and challenges. BMC biology 8 (2010), 50.

Yount, Lisa. “A to Z of Women in Science and Math”. 2008. pp.305-306.

Shell, Ellen Ruppel. “Waves of Creation.” Discover, May 1993, pp. 55-61.

Vrba, Elisabeth S. “The pulse that produced us.” Natural History, May 1993, pp. 47-51.

Vrba, Elisabeth S. “Chronological and ecological implications of the fossil Bovidae at the Sterkfontein australopithecine site.” Nature 250 (1974): 19-23.

Vrba, Elisabeth S. “Paleoenvironments and Hominin Evolution”. In: Henke W. & Tattersall I. Handbook of Paleoanthropology, pp. 1-45.

Vrba, Elisabeth S., Schaller, George B. “Antelopes, deer, and relatives: fossil record, behavioral ecology, systematics, and conservation”. Yale University Press, 2000.




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