A $100,000 grant from the David B. Jones Foundation will help to develop a new generation of paleontologists at the University of Kansas, enabling students to pursue fieldwork in locations such as Wyoming and Turkey aimed at solving some of evolution’s deepest mysteries.
“This money can be used flexibly and broadly to support research training and educational outreach relating mainly to graduate and some undergraduate students at KU in vertebrate paleontology,” said K. Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and senior curator at the KU Biodiversity Institute, who is heading up work under the new grant.
Beard’s research focuses on the early evolution of mammals, including primates. He said the first three David B. Jones Fellows in Vertebrate Paleontology — Matt Jones, Spencer Mattingly and Ryan Ridder — would begin training this spring.
“It’s often hard to get federal funding to support participation by graduate and undergraduate researchers, especially in my kind of research, which is field-based,” Beard said. “Costs can escalate, especially with international fieldwork, airfare and procurements beyond lodging and food — it really can skyrocket. But in paleontology, one of the most important components is to get students access to work in the field.”
The researcher said that student work and training would center on two locations: Wyoming and the nation of Turkey.
In Turkey, Beard’s students will have the opportunity to piece together the ancient migration of mammals in the geographically unique Pontide region, which researchers believe 45 million years ago was an island treasure house of biodiversity, something like today’s Madagascar.
“We’re trying to determine if the Pontide terrain played a role in how animals were able to move back and forth between Asia and Africa, close to the appearance of anthropoid primates,” Beard said. “The more fossils we collected there, the weirder they got. This Pontide island had a unique fauna never found anywhere else but a couple of animals that clearly came from Africa. The most common mammals we’ve found there are primitive hoofed mammals, clearly related to animals common in western Europe, but millions of years earlier — and we’ve got a bat that seems related to Asia.”
In terms of migration of these animals, Beard sees the ancient Pontide region less as a stepping stone between Asia and Africa and more of a “cul-de-sac.”
“Animals were getting to the islands, but not leaving so much — they seemed to get stuck there,” he said.
Before undertaking fieldwork in Turkey, the David B. Jones Fellows will travel to Wyoming to conduct research to establish how mammals during the late Paleocene responded to a warming climate.
“We’re using Wyoming fieldwork as a proving ground to give students experience in somewhat exotic but not crazy-exotic setting before we take them internationally,” Beard said. “In the southwestern part of the state, we’re establishing a record of how mammals evolved in response to climatic change in the Paleocene, right after the dinosaurs have died and mammals are beginning to evolve rapidly, and comparing that to other findings from the Bighorn Basin.”
Beard said his students would be surveying for fossils, excavating sites and screen-washing sediment for minuscule fossils, as well as partnering with geologists to learn to read the landscape.
“They’ll pick up how to interpret sedimentary rocks, to understand what the ancient environment would have been,” he said. “Are you looking at ancient marsh, lake, seashore or river floodplain? Those are basic skills associated with areas like sedimentology and stratigraphy.”
In addition to work in the field domestically and internationally, the David B. Jones Fellows studying with Beard will be trained in the full “assembly line” of paleontological research, including restoration of fossils, and learning how to mold and cast fossil specimens. The training will be carried out under guidance from David Burnham, preparator at KU’s Natural History Museum. Further, with KU’s Oscar Sanisidro, the fellows will learn techniques of scientific illustration.
A key goal of the grant is facilitation of student publishing of findings in peer-reviewed journals.
“We want to stimulate scholarly research on part of the graduate students,” Beard said. “KU paleontology already has a great reputation, but we want to push it to the top of the mountain nationally, and one way is to have graduate students publishing scholarly work and giving presentations at conferences. In this grant, there’s funding to support that as well.”
Additionally, the grant provides funds for KU paleontology students to receive training in pedagogy.
“It’s something I faced as a graduate student,” Beard said. “I wound up learning a lot about research, but nobody taught me anything about how to teach. Skills in basic pedagogy are too often lacking in an overall graduate curriculum.”
Finally, the students will develop and lead outreach programs and events at KU’s Natural History Museum to engage the public and young people. Public outreach is a key goal of the David B. Jones Foundation, with its mission to further “educational, research and charitable activities working in the science of paleontology who primarily promote those activities within the United States of America.”
“David B. Jones was an amateur paleontologist who was involved in using fossils to get kids interested in science in general,” Beard said. “For instance, he was active in the Boy Scouts. I think this lines up so well with the agenda of the foundation.”
- Brendan Lynch, KU News
Photos: K. Christopher Beard, KU Foundation Distinguished Professor, and a student work at a field site in Turkey. Eocene rock outcrops yield fossils at these sites. Photos by Gregoire Metais.
You can tell when you talk to KU paleontologist David Burnham that he is anxious to return to the dig site of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
Rains have made parts of the two-track road that leads to the site impossible to pass for two days. And the clock is running: the KU paleontology expedition in Montana will stop at the end of July.
Still, calling in from the small hotel in Jordan, Montana, where he is waiting out the weather, Burnham beams about what has been found so far: 37 fossil fragments including teeth and part of a lower jaw.
“It’s a matter of following the debris field, bit by bit,” he said.
Burnham is leading an ever-changing roster of volunteers, students and staff for the nearly four-week expedition. The team’s goal is to add to the fossils already previously recovered at the site and displayed at the KU Natural History Museum. To date, 15 percent of the fossil has been found at the Hell Creek Formation site since excavations began there in 2006.
A crowdfunding campaign – the museum’s first for an expedition – and a family with a passion for paleontology made the expedition possible.
The campaign, “Bring the KU T. rex Home,” began in May with a goal of raising $16,700 to fund the expedition. More than 80 donors have pushed the total raised to $24,730. Funds raised in excess of this particular expedition’s needs will support more T. rex research at KU, the exhibition of fossils, and the involvement of students in the project.
A plastic Tyrannosaurus rex has been a mascot for the campaign and the museum has featured it through events and social media such as the museum’s Facebook page. As the fundraising effort draws to a close this week, the tiny T. rex will be packed up and head north to Montana with museum staff, where it will be featured at the excavation it has helped inspire.
Leonard Krishtalka, director of the KU Biodiversity Institute, said the campaign would not have been a success without KU student Kyle Atkins-Weltman and his parents, John Weltman and Cliff Atkins of Boston, Mass. They were the first and lead supporters of the project.
Kyle, a biology student who works in the herpetology department at the Biodiversity Institute, said he has been passionate about dinosaurs all of his life. He is a leading contributor for Dinosaur Battlegrounds.
“Paleontology is the ideal kind of work for me,” Kyle said. “I am comfortable working on the same thing for hours; you get into a zone. So slowly seeing something jutting out of the rock, and seeing it slowly reveal itself, is exciting to me.”
Cliff and John said Kyle fueled their enthusiasm for the project.
“When you have children, you want to invest in the things that excite them,” John said. “We also believe strongly in supporting education. And whatever knowledge one gains from the excavation – we wanted to help that on a broader scale.”
The family plans to volunteer at the dig site in July, he added.
“Kyle has gotten us so interested in dinosaurs,” John said. “I love Jurassic Park. I feel like an 8 year old – I’m excited to volunteer at the site.”
In Montana, Burnham is hoping a forecast for sunny weather next week will hold true.
“I wake up full of excitement every day knowing that a discovery isn't too far away,” he said. “All the pieces we find are clues leading us closer. The only obstacle is the hard stubborn rock, but I know we must move slowly and carefully, as the next bone could be anywhere.”
LAWRENCE — In a study to be published this week in the journal Science, researchers describe unearthing a “mother lode” of a half-dozen fossil primate species in southern China.
These primates eked out an existence just after the Eocene-Oligocene transition, some 34 million years ago. It was a time when drastic cooling made much of Asia inhospitable to primates, slashing their populations and rendering discoveries of such fossils especially rare.
“At the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, because of the rearrangement of Earth’s major tectonic plates, you had a rapid drop in temperature and humidity,” said K. Christopher Beard, senior curator at the University of Kansas’ Biodiversity Institute and co-author of the report. “Primates like it warm and wet, so they faced hard times around the world — to the extent that they went extinct in North America and Europe. Of course, primates somehow survived in Africa and Southern Asia, because we’re still around to talk about it.”
Because anthropoid primates — the forerunners of living monkeys, apes and humans— first appeared in Asia, understanding their fate on that continent is key to grasping the arc of early primate and human evolution.
“This has always been an enigma,” Beard said. “We had a lot of evidence previously that the earliest anthropoids originated in Asia. At some point, later in the Eocene, these Asian anthropoids got to Africa and started to diversify there. At some point, the geographic focal point of anthropoid evolution — monkeys, apes and humans — shifted from Asia to Africa. But we never understood when and why. Now, we know. The Eocene-Oligocene climate crisis virtually wiped out Asian anthropoids, so the only place they could evolve to become later monkeys, apes and humans was Africa.”
The paper is the product of a decade’s worth of fieldwork at a site in southern China, where the primates likely sought warmer temperatures. Beard and his colleagues Xijun Ni, Qiang Li and Lüzhou Li of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology describe the six new species from jaw and tooth fragments, which survived the ages due to their tough enamel surfaces and serve as “fingerprints” to identify ancient animals.
“The fossil record usually gives you a snapshot here or there of what ancient life was like. You typically don’t get a movie,” Beard said. “We have so many primates from the Oligocene at this particular site because it was located far enough to the south that it remained warm enough during that cold, dry time that primates could still survive there. They crowded in to the limited space that remained available to them.”
Like most of today’s primates, the KU researcher said the ancient Chinese primates were tropical tree-dwellers. One of the species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, was “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands.
“If you look back at the fossil record, we know that tarsiers once lived on mainland Asia, as far north as central China,” Beard said. “The fossil teeth described in this paper are nearly identical to those of modern tarsiers. Research shows that modern tarsiers are pretty much living fossils — those things have been doing what they do ever since time immemorial, as far as we can tell.”
Beard said that if not for the intense global cooling of the Eocene-Oligocene transition, the main stage of primate evolution may have continued to be in Asia, rather than transitioning to Africa where Homo sapiens eventually emerged.
Indeed, the team’s findings underscore a vulnerability to climate change shared by all primates.
“This is the flip side of what people are worried about now,” he said. “The Eocene-Oligocene transition was the opposite of global warming — the whole world was already warm, then it cooled off. It’s kind of a mirror image. The point is that primates then, just like primates today, are more sensitive to a changing climate than other mammals.”
Top Image: One of the fossil species, which the research team has named Oligotarsius rarus, is “incredibly similar” to the modern tarsier found today only in the Philippine and Indonesian islands. (Courtesy Andrew Cunningham)
Left: Researchers identified the six fossil species from fragments of jaws and teeth.” (Courtesy IVPP, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
LAWRENCE — During upheaval in Libya in 2013, a window of opportunity opened for scientists from the University of Kansas to perform research at the Zallah Oasis, a promising site for unearthing fossils from the Oligocene period, roughly 30 million years ago.
From that work, the KU-led team last week published a description of a previously unknown anthropoid primate — a forerunner of today’s monkeys, apes and humans — in the Journal of Human Evolution. They’ve dubbed their new find Apidium zuetina.
Significantly, it’s the first example of Apidium to be found outside of Egypt.
“Apidium is interesting because it was the first early anthropoid primate ever to be found and described, in 1908,” said K. Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and senior curator with KU’s Biodiversity Institute, who headed the research. “The oldest known Apidium fossils are about 31 million years old, while the youngest are 29 million. Before our discovery in Libya, only three species of Apidium were ever recovered in Egypt. People had come up with the idea that these primates had evolved locally in Egypt.”
Beard said evidence that Apidium had dispersed across North Africa was the key facet of the find. He believes shifting climatic and environmental conditions shaped the distribution of species of Apidium, which affected their evolution.
“We’ve found evidence that climate change — not warming, but cooling and drying — across the Eocene-Oligocene boundary probably is the root cause in kicking anthropoid evolution into overdrive,” he said. “All of these anthropoids, which were our distant relatives, were living up in the trees — none of them were coming down. When the world became cooler and dryer in this period, what was previously a continuous belt of forest became more fragmented. This created barriers to gene flow and movement of animals from one part of forest to what used to be adjacent forest.”
With a forest broken up, there was an inhibition of gene flow that through time resulted in speciation, or the creation of new species, according to the KU researcher.
“Animals that are sequestered become different species over millions of years,” Beard said. “As the climate oscillates again, you’ve got different species of Apidium. As forests expand and contract, now you’ve got competition between species of Apidium that have never seen each other before. One species outcompetes the other, the other goes extinct, and we think that’s what we’re picking up with this Libyan Apidium, which is related to the youngest and largest species of Apidium known from Egypt.”
Beard said that Apidium zuetina would have been physically similar to modern-day squirrel monkeys from South America, but with smaller brains, and would have dined on fruits, nuts and seeds.
“We know that Apidium was a very active arboreal monkey, a really good leaper,” he said. “We know they actually had fused lower-leg bones just above the ankle joint. That’s really unusual for anthropoid primates, and the only reason for it to happen is because you like to jump a lot, as it stabilized the join between those bones and the ankle.”
The team identified Apidium zuetina through detailed analysis of its teeth.
“All of the fossils we have so far are just teeth, not even jaw bones — but fortunately, the teeth of these anthropoids are so distinct and diagnostic that they function like fingerprints at a crime scene,” Beard said. “Studying details of cusps and crests on teeth, we can determine evolutionary relationships. It might sound like thin evidence, but I suspect even with whole skeletons we’d still be focused on teeth to determine relationships. This is because teeth evolve rapidly in response to shifting diets, while an animal’s skull and skeleton typically evolves more slowly. Fortunately for paleontologists, teeth are well-documented in the fossil record because tooth enamel is the hardest part of a mammal body, durable and easy to fossilize.”
Yet, the researchers chose to name Apidium zuetina not after any of its physical characteristics, but after the Zuetina Oil Company that made the dangerous Libyan fieldwork possible.
“Without their logistical support, we couldn’t have done this work at all,” Beard said. “We did this just after end of the Libyan civil war that led to the overthrow of Gadhafi.”
Beard said the discovery took place during a brief lull in violence in Libya. But the trip to the Zallah Oasis was precarious nonetheless.
“We knew it was risky, but we thought we could go because of our local collaborator, Mustafa Salem, a geology professor at Tripoli University,” he said. “He’s revered as a father figure among Libyan geologists. An oil facility was close to some interesting sites, and after Mustafa contacted a former student who was working there, they provided our team with charter flights to an airstrip near the oil facility. Without that alone, we couldn’t have done our fieldwork — the roads are too dangerous with bandits and the like. They also gave us lodging, food, water and security.”
Beard said armed guards accompanied the team everywhere, manning trucks mounted with antiaircraft guns.
“They never asked for a nickel from us in return,” said the KU researcher. “There was an Islamist attack on a gas facility at the same time near the Algerian-Libyan border, and they killed 30-40 workers. So the security protected us and potentially saved our lives.”
Beard’s research collaborators were Pauline M.C. Coster of KU; Yaowalak Chaimanee and Jean-Jacques Jaeger of the Université de Poitiers in France; and Mustafa Salem of Tripoli University in Libya.
The National Science Foundation supported this work.
Photos: Above, armed guards accompanied researchers during their dangerous Libyan fieldwork. Below: Researchers analyzed fossil teeth to identify Apidium zuetina as a species new to science. Map: (A) location of Zallah Oasis in Libya’s Sirt Basin and (B) closeup of Zallah Oasis and surrounding area.
Written by Brendan M. Lynch
A research team led by a KU alumnus has identified a new giant raptor, the largest specimen ever found with wing feathers.
Named Dakotaraptor, the fossil from the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota is thought to be about 17 feet long, making it among the largest raptors in the world.
“This new predatory dinosaur also fills the body size gap between smaller theropods and large tyrannosaurs that lived at this time,” KU Paleontologist and co-author David Burnham said.
KU alumnus Robert DePalma, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History and lead author of the research, led the expedition to South Dakota where the specimen was found. At the time, he was a graduate student studying with former KU paleontology professor and curator Larry Martin, who died in 2014.
“This Cretaceous period raptor would have been lightly built, and probably just as agile as the vicious smaller theropods, such as the Velociraptor,” DePalma said. He added that the both fossils showed evidence of “quill knobs” where feathers would have been attached to the forearm of the dinosaur.
The specimen also demonstrates that flightlessness evolved several times in this lineage leading to modern birds, he said.
The peer-reviewed research was published Oct. 30 in Paleontological Contributions. In addition to DePalma, Martin and Burnham, co-authors include Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, and Robert Bakker of the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The specimen is being researched and curated by DePalma’s research team in Florida, associated with the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History.
Graduate students Matt Jones and Joshua Schmerge both attended the Kansas Academy of Science annual meeting recently and were recognized for their presentations. Matt won the 3rd place award for a poster presentation (co-author Steve Hasiotis) by a Master's degree student, and Joshua won the 1st place award for an oral presentation (co-authors David Burnham and Don Rasmussen) given by a PhD student.
Christopher Beard and colleagues have published their first scientific paper based on field work in Libya that he and colleagues undertook just after the Libyan revolution that overthrew Qaddafi in early 2013. The paper, "A new early Oligocene mammal fauna from the Sirt Basin, central Libya: Biostratigraphic and paleobiogeographic implications,” was published in the Journal of African Earth Sciences:
We report the discovery of a new early Oligocene vertebrate fauna from the vicinity of Zallah Oasis in the Sirt Basin of central Libya. The Zallah Incision local fauna has been recovered from the base of a fluvial channel within a rock unit that has been mapped as ‘‘Continental and Transitional Marine Deposits.’’ This rock unit has produced fossil vertebrates sporadically since the 1960s, but the Zallah Incision local fauna is the most diverse assemblage of fossil mammals currently known from this unit. In addition to lower vertebrates, the fauna includes an indeterminate sirenian, the anthracothere Bothriogenys, a new species of the hyracoid genus Thyrohyrax, new species of the hystricognathous rodent genera Metaphiomys and Neophiomys, Metaphiomys schaubi, and a new species of the parapithecid primate genus Apidium. The Zallah Incision local fauna from Libya appears to be close in age to Fayum quarries V and G in the Jebel Qatrani Formation of Egypt and the Taqah locality in the Ashawq Formation of Oman. Considered together, these early Oligocene faunas support a modest level of faunal provincialism across the northern part of Afro-Arabia during the early Oligocene.
Libya hasn’t been terribly hospitable for scientific research lately.
Since the 2011 toppling of Muammar Gaddafi, fighters tied to various tribes, regions and religious factions have sewn chaos across that nation. Most recently, ISIS militants in Libya committed mass beheadings that triggered retaliatory bombings by neighboring Egypt.
“Currently, it is obviously very dangerous to be a Western scientist in Libya,” said Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. “Even Libyan citizens are not immune to random violence.”
In spite of this turmoil, Beard and a team including fellow scientists from KU’s Biodiversity Institute have just published a discovery of mammal fossils uncovered in the Zallah Oasis in the Sirt Basin of central Libya. The fossils date back to the early Oligocene, between about 30 and 31 million years ago.
According to Beard, their paper in the Journal of African Earth Sciences sheds light on a poorly documented interval of our own evolutionary history, and shows climate and environmental change can utterly alter a local ecosystem — from a wet, subtropical forest in the Eocene to a dry desert today.
This valuable knowledge makes taking calculated risks in a war-torn land worth the risk.
“The most important factor is to have local collaborators who are experienced and who have a good feeling for what is impossible or dangerous,” Beard said. “Our Libyan collaborator is an experienced and highly accomplished professor of geology at Tripoli University. He has excellent ties to the Libyan petroleum industry, and he knows the Sahara Desert of Libya as well as anyone. We consulted closely with him prior to our 2013 expedition, and when he gave us the green light that it was safe to return to the country — thanks largely to his logistical arrangements with a local oil company — we felt safe about going back, despite State Department warnings against travel to Libya.”
Beard, who participated in both the Libyan fieldwork and subsequent analysis of the fossil finds, said taking care of logistics was the hardest part of the work.
“The arrangements were hard to put in place, because we had to coordinate among a team of four different nationalities, and we required the consent and active participation of our colleagues working at Zuetina Oil Company in Zallah,” he said.
Working in the Zallah Oasis in Libya’s Sirt Basin — an area that has “sporadically” produced fossil vertebrates since the 1960s — the team discovered a highly diverse and unique group of fossil mammals dating to the Oligocene, the final epoch of the Paleogene period, a time marked by a broad diversity of animals that would seem strange to us today, but also development of species critical to human evolution.
Beard said that the fossil species his team discovered in Libya were surprisingly different from previous fossils tied to the Oligocene discovered in next-door Egypt.
“The fact that we are finding different species in Libya suggests that ancient environments in northern Africa were becoming very patchy at this time, probably because of global cooling and drying which began a short time earlier,” he said. “That environmental patchiness seems to have promoted what we call ‘allopatric speciation.’ That is, when populations of the same species become isolated because of habitat fragmentation or some other barrier to free gene flow, given enough time, different species will emerge. We are still exploring how this new evolutionary dynamic may have impacted the evolution of primates and other mammals in Africa at this time.”
Because Beard’s work focuses on the origin and evolution of primates and anthropoids — the precursors to humans — he found the Libyan discovery of a new species of the primate Apidium to be the most exciting of the fossils uncovered by the team.
“These are the first anthropoid primate fossils known from the Oligocene of Libya and the only anthropoid fossils of this age known from Africa outside of Egypt,” said the researcher. “Earlier hypotheses suggested that anthropoids as a group may have evolved in response to the global cooling and drying that occurred at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. Our new research indicates this was certainly not the case, because anthropoids had already been around for several million years in Africa prior to that boundary. But the climate change still had a deep impact on anthropoid evolution, because habitat fragmentation and an increased level of allopatric speciation took place as a result. Anthropoids, being forest dwellers, would have been particularly impacted by forest fragmentation during the Oligocene.”
Unfortunately, ongoing strife in Libya makes a return visit to the Sirt Basin site impossible at the moment. Indeed, armed conflict in that nation prohibits outside scientist from visiting to safely conduct any kind of field research.
“The window has now passed,” Beard said. “Field research like that which our team conducts cannot begin again until the country is stabilized and the personal security of scientific researchers in the field can be assured.”
The Biological Anthropology Program at the National Science Foundation funded the research. Beard collaborated with Pauline M.C. Coster at KU and colleagues from Tripoli University (Mustafa Salem) and the University of Poitiers in France (Jean-Jacques Jaeger and Yaowalak Chaimanee). Co-author Michel Brunet at Poitiers instigated paleoanthropological fieldwork in Libya during the mid-2000s and laid the groundwork for the most recent research. - Brendan Lynch, KU News
Desui Miao, collection manager for vertebrate paleontology, has been keeping busy with translations of Darwin’s works and been honored for his contributions.
His Chinese translation based on the 2nd edition of the Origin was selected by the Darwin scholars and readers in China as one of 108 "all-time must-read books.” Also, "The illustrated edition of the Origin for young readers", a book he adopted from Darwin's original and illustrated by a well-known Chinese artist and published in early 2014, has been selected by 8 major Chinese newspapers at the turn of the year as one of the "best books of 2014 in China."
The Chinese government just announced the 30 best books of 2014, and "The illustrated edition of the Origin for young readers" is ranked #3 in the Children book category out of 6 total books. Additionally, he is finishing the manuscript on "An abridged bilingual edition of the Origin of Species," based on the first edition and catered toward undergraduate and grad students in earth and life sciences who want to read the Origin and study English.
More information (in Chinese media reports) can be found here and here.
A new Mandarin translation of Charles Darwin’s "On the Origin of Species" is flying off bookstore shelves in China. The book previously was unavailable in that country except as translated from its sixth edition, which specialists today view as flawed.
"There have been at least half a dozen of versions available since the early 1950s, all based on the sixth — and the last — edition," said Desui Miao, collection manager with the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas, who authored the new translation. "But the sixth edition represents Darwin’s back-paddling from his original views, concessions to some unfounded criticisms, and retreats from its earlier editions, and thus is now considered less favorably by Darwin scholars and evolutionary biologists."
Published last October to critical and academic acclaim, Miao’s Chinese translation already has sold about 10,000 copies — "phenomenal" sales for a book considered to be the foundation of evolutionary biology. Miao said that the concept for the translation began with a publishing house looking for the right person to bring Darwin’s ideas to a modern Chinese readership.
"The Darwin 200 Beijing International Conference was held at Peking University in fall of 2009 to commemorate Darwin’s 200-year birthday and the publication of the 'Origin of Species' for 150 years," he said. "A renowned publisher specialized in translation of foreign language books — mainly literature and humanity — into Chinese, Yilin Press, came to the conference to solicit a translator to translate the ‘Origin’ for their ‘Essential Ideas’ series. Although I was not present at the conference, my name was recommended to the publisher by several distinguished Chinese colleagues."
The KU researcher said that initially he felt reluctant to take on the work of translating the father of modern biology.
"I was approached by the publisher, and I first turned them down out of the fear it of being too time-consuming, which turns out to be correct," said Miao. "I later changed my mind after the publisher had convinced me of its importance to the Chinese audience."
Indeed, the effort took Miao about two years. He drew upon his expertise as a biologist as well as his skills with both the Chinese and English languages.
"Mandarin Chinese is my mother tongue; however, English has been my everyday working language for more than 30 years," he said. But even with Miao’s bilingual ability and scientific expertise, he found translating some of Darwin’s passages to be demanding. "Of course, it’s difficult to find the right words, mot juste, in Chinese to convey the exact meaning of their English counterparts," said Miao. "For example, ‘descent with modification’ was very difficult to translate, and I’m not entirely happy with what I’ve come up with. There are convoluted sentences in places throughout the book, but overall Darwin wrote clearly — because his thinking was crystal clear."
Unlike in the U.S., where Darwin’s theories have touched off controversies since their publication in the 19th century, Miao said China has never seen dissent over evolution "because the lack of religious zeal." But, he said there have been misunderstandings of the book. Perhaps the researcher’s new translation could help to clear up Darwin’s ideas and further boost China’s growing status in the field of evolutionary biology.
"They have strengths in several areas, such as paleobiology, vertebrate zoology and conservation biology," said Miao. "The 'Origin' is not an easy read, even in its English original, and thus is widely talked about but seldom read from cover to cover. This translation is more faithful to the original, easier to read and hopefully will encourage people to finish reading the book."