Meet The Council: Caroline Buttler

Meet the Council

Name: Dr Caroline Buttler

What is your role on Council and what does it involve?

I am honoured to be the first woman President of the Palaeontographical Society in the society’s 147-year history, and I’m looking forward to it. As President I represent the Society when required and will guide its direction over the next five years. Running the Society is very much a collaborative effort with our enthusiastic Council and especially the hard-working editors. 

What are the biggest challenges to the Society?

The challenges ahead include diminishing opportunities for purely taxonomic work in today’s academic world, and adapting to a rapidly changing publishing industry. We also need to ensure the Society is relevant today and encourage people who may not have considered being on Council to do so.

What is your day job and what does it involve?

I work at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales in the Department of Natural Sciences where I am Head of Palaeontology, responsible for the management and development of thePalaeontology Section including collections, research and public engagement. I also line-manage the biologists in the Mollusca Section which gives me an insight into another specialist area. At present I am co-acting Head of Department which means a lot more involvement with higher level administration and planning.

My research is focused on Palaeozoic bryozoans, especially the order Trepostomata, particularly interested in the ecology, systematics and taxonomy of this group of colonial animals. I am undertaking the revision of the trepostome section for the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, which is proving to be a very long-term project.

Did you always want to be a palaeontologist?

Actually no. In the sixth form I had no plans to go to university. Instead I had a place at a London hospital to train as a radiographer. When I was choosing my A levels I couldn’t decide what to do and geology was suggested. I enjoyed it and when I got my exam results and I realised I wanted to go to university and continue with the subject. My headmaster rang around universities to see who would take me at short notice and Liverpool agreed. Six weeks later in the pouring rain I first saw the city where I had a great three years. 

How did your career develop?

After my degree in Liverpool, I got a scholarship to study abroad and went to the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada to do a MSc in palaeontology and ecology, with a thesis on solitary rugose corals from the Rocky Mountains. I then came back to Britain to undertake a PhD on Ordovician bryozoans from Wales and the Welsh Borderlands at Swansea University, jointly with the NHM. I travelled to London every couple of months to visit my supervisor there, Paul Taylor, and study the collections. When I was writing up, Paul was in New Zealand so I had to send him thesis chapters by post, which he annotated and sent back by return. Possibly faster than some supervisors reply with email!

After my PhD I spent a post doc year at Trinity College, Dublin in the lively Geology Department, continuing to research bryozoans. I began at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales as a geological conservator caring for the fossil, mineral and rock collections. I worked with a huge range of specimens including meteorites, dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs, all kinds of invertebrates, palaeobotanical material, and my least favourite – those with pyrite decay. I then moved to my current role as Head of Palaeontology at the museum but keep an interest in the conservation of natural history collections.

What is your favourite monograph and why?

The hand drawn illustrations in the old monographs are stunning and I’m tempted to pick the 1859 Fossil Polyzoa of the Crag by George Busk. However, I’m going for one published this century – Joanne Snell’s 2004 monograph Bryozoa from the Much Wenlock Limestone (Silurian) Formation of the West Midlands and Welsh Borderland. Wenlock fossils are wonderfully preserved, material I have worked on is illustrated in the volume and I have used it for my own research.

Do you have a favourite fossil?

The first fossil I remember seeing – when I was six – was Dippy at the NHM. However, I am going to fly the flag for invertebrates and for bryozoans, choosing the Upper Palaeozoic fenestrate bryozoan Archimedes.

Left: Archimedes wortheni Hall; Warsaw Formation, Visean, Mississippian; Warsaw, Illinois
Right: Archimedes intermedius Ulrich; Bangor Limestone, Chesterian, Mississippian; Fox Trap, Alabama.

Often only the screw shaped centre (after which it is named) is preserved but in life a delicate calcite spiral mesh projected out from it.

Random fact about myself

Midges are the reason I work on Palaeozoic rocks!