Anna K. Behrensmeyer

Smithsonian Institution


Primary Section: 51, Anthropology
Secondary Section: 15, Geology
Membership Type: Member (elected 2020)

Biosketch

Anna K. Behrensmeyer is a paleontologist and geologist who is recognized as a pioneer in the field of taphonomy and the study of land ecosystems through geological time, with a particular focus on the paleoecology of human evolution in Africa. Behrensmeyer was born and grew up in Quincy, Illinois. She earned her undergraduate degree in geology from Washington University, St. Louis, and her doctorate in vertebrate paleontology and sedimentology from the Department of Geological Sciences, Harvard University. After post-doctoral positions at UC Berkeley and Yale University and an interval of teaching at UC,Santa Cruz, she became a Research Curator in Paleobiology at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, in 1981. She has served as Acting Associate Director for Science at NMNH (1993-96), co-Director of the Evolution of Terrestrial Ecosystems (ETE) Program since 1988, and Deep Time Initiative Lead Scientist at NMNH since 2014. She was one of Discover Magazine's 50 most important women scientists in 2002. Recent awards include the 2016 R.C Moore Medal (SEPM), the 2018 Romer-Simpson Medal (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology), the 2018 Paleontological Society Medal, and the 2019 G.K. Warren Prize (National Academy of Sciences). She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciencesand the National Academy of Sciences.

Research Interests

Anna K. (“Kay”) Behrensmeyer’s research uses geological, paleontological, and ecological approaches to interpret information about evolution and ecology that is preserved in the geological and fossil record. Through experiments and observations in both modern and ancient environments, she has been a leader in taphonomy, the study of processes that affect organic remains and lead either to recycling or fossilization. Kay’s research in East African human evolution influenced the growth of taphonomy in anthropology, vertebrate paleontology, and forensic science. She uses sedimentary geology and isotope geochemistry to reconstruct the physical environments of fossil-bearing deposits, and her field research in Permian to Pleistocene age rock sequences has revealed patterns of animal and plant fossil preservation that are predictable rather than random. Developing standardized paleontological sampling methods and advocating for the importance of spatial and temporal scale have figured prominently in her research agenda. A 40+ year study of modern taphonomy in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, documents the interaction of environmental change, vertebrate populations, and ecological recycling processes, with implications for what we can and cannot know from the fossil record. Much of Kay’s work has been collaborative and focused on synergizing team efforts to build new understanding of ecosystem-scale changes in land environments through geological time.

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