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Ask-A-Scientist Podcast E1: Dr. Russell Bicknell, paleontologist

Listen to our podcast episode or read the transcript below featuring Dr. Russell Bicknell, paleontologist, as we talk about discovering paleontological treasures through horseshoe crabs.

Tanya: Hello, everyone. Welcome to Ask-a-Scientist, a Science Journal for Kids podcast, where we explore what it’s like to be a scientific researcher by, you guessed it, talking with researchers. Today, we have Dr. Russell Bicknell with us to chat about his research and how he ended up as a paleontological expert on horseshoe crabs.

Before we dive into our interview, here are just a few basics about Russell. He did his bachelor’s and master’s degree at the University of Wellington in New Zealand. From there, he went on to complete his PhD from the University of New England in Australia in 2019, where he still works as a researcher.

Russell is a paleontologist. He’s especially interested in fossil morphology — that’s the body shape of fossils — and how it can provide insights into the evolution of animals. He’s especially interested in arthropods, a group of invertebrate animals, and especially horseshoe crabs, often called living fossils. In addition to that, he’s got a great accent and doesn’t take himself too seriously. So let’s dive in.

Hi, Russell.

Russell: Hey, how’s it going?

T: Welcome to Ask-a-Scientist. I’m here with Miranda. Hi, Miranda.

Miranda: Hello.

T: And we’re actually going to start with a question from a five-year-old.

Aili: Hi, I’m Aili and I’m five years old. And I have some questions here for you. What is evolution?

R: Oh, that’s cute. Wow. Okay. That is, that is a question. My goodness.

M: No pressure, no pressure.

R: Yeah. So evolution is in its, I suppose, most simple form change through time.

M: So, you are a paleontologist, so if you could just describe what that actually means.

R: Oh, that’s a big question. It almost does depend on what I’m doing on the day. But generally speaking, what I do as a paleontologist is I will look at fossils, I’ll look at animals that are no longer alive today with the goal of understanding parts of natural history, with the goal of understanding how animals that are no longer alive functioned and how they, for lack of a better description, sort of fitted into their own little ecosystems.

M: And are these mainly animals that are not just dead but also extinct, like don’t exist at all, or are they ones that we could still find living today?

R: So there are definitely groups that I study that are no longer, are completely extinct. So things called trilobites are no longer there. They are completely extinct. And there are things called sea scorpions, which are related to modern day scorpions that are also completely extinct. But I also look at animals like horseshoe crabs. And while there aren’t that many species or groups of horseshoe crabs alive today, they have a very, very long fossil record. And across this fossil record, they have done quite a variety of different things in terms of where they have lived and what they have done.

Horseshoe crab nervous systems
(Credit: GeoScience World)

M: That’s awesome. So which of these animals do you spend the most time studying?

R: Oh, that’s another loaded question. Once again, this kind of comes down to what I’m doing, and whatever the flavor of the week for me is. Recently, I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at sea scorpions because we are really interested in understanding how animals — and these animals get up to like two and a half meters long, and I don’t know what that is in feet, but quite long, taller than a very tall human — and we wanted to understand more about the biology of these sorts of animals.

But I would say across the majority of my career as a paleontologist, I would say I focus quite a lot on horseshoe crabs and I’ve also looked at trilobites quite a lot because they’re a completely extinct group of animals, which means that we can’t look at modern day things to understand, modern day species to understand how these sorts of these groups of animals sort of functioned. And so by examining their fossil record, I’m able to present insights into how a completely extinct group of animals did function.

T: So I have a question about that. So you’re studying the fossils of horseshoe crabs that lived how long ago? Millions of years?

R: Yeah, yeah, many millions.

T: But we also have horseshoe crabs living today. And you’re not studying them? Are you ignoring them on purpose? What is the difference between today’s horseshoe crabs and those from millions of years ago that makes you prefer the old ones?

R: I live in Australia and ‘we can’t import live horseshoe crabs to Australia’ is the honest answer to your question. I have worked with modern forms and, so, actually, some of the very earliest work that I did that’s kind of led to my research was looking at modern horseshoe crabs to understand the internal structures, the musculature of these animals. But yeah, realistically, the reason why I’ve focused on fossil forms is it’s a lot easier for me to go to museums — well, it was easy pre-pandemic — than it is for me to import specimens. Because while we can import them as frozen, there’s not so much you can do with a frozen animal if you want to understand how the frozen animal has, it’s the biology of the frozen animal.

T: Right. So you do like horseshoe crabs then, then, I mean, modern ones. Well, one thing that kind of came out in our research was that, um, horseshoe crabs today, or many of them are suffering a very unpleasant fate of being harvested for their blood. Can you tell us more about that?

R: Yeah. So horseshoe crab blood is weird. It doesn’t function the same way that our [human] blood does. Partly because, as opposed to iron, they have copper, which is strange from starters, but also their blood kind of does what our white blood cells and our red blood cells do, but in one package. It’s because of the way that their biology, uh, effectively needed to adapt for their kind of their circulatory system or their their blood system…

M: So…

R: Yes?

M: Does does that mean that they don’t have an immune system like ours and instead have their blood do that job only? Or is this kind of an extra bit?

R: Yeah, um that’s kind of it. So that they have what we call an open circulatory system. So, for us we have uh our our circulatory system is fairly well packaged up, otherwise we’d be kind of poopy as animals. But because horseshoe crabs are a marine animal, they live in the ocean, they have a lot more flexibility in terms of how their body can work. And so one of these adaptations has been to, or evolve, rather, a blood that is effectively determining and identifying toxins and then dealing with those toxins. So modern day horseshoe crabs, because their blood is so unique, their blood is used by the medical industry to effectively determine whether or not vaccines are completely pure. Because what you don’t want is for a vaccine to be green-lit, to be sent off, but for there to be some kind of toxin.

T: Contamination.

R: Exactly. And so the blood of horseshoe crabs, specifically the American horseshoe crab, is used to determine that these solutions, so for example the COVID-19 vaccines, were completely without any problems and then were sent off to the public. The problem with that is there is pretty much no ruling around how much and how many horseshoe crab individuals can be collected and then have their blood removed.

T: Wait, when you say they’re blood removed, do you mean they get killed and their blood gets drained or it’s like a cow milking situation?

R: I would compare it to if you’ve ever donated blood, willingly, you’ll have a needle put in you and then, yeah, you don’t have any blood. So it’s kind of like that, except it’s not so willing. They get put in, I suppose, sort of holders and then their blood gets drained.

Harvesting horseshoe crab blood
(Credit: Ariane Müller for NPR Radio IQ)

T: And then they give them chocolate and let them go home to relax?

R: I wish. So they have between a third and half of their blood removed. Um which is, if you think about it, like if that happened to you that wouldn’t be a fun time, right? Um and so, but once again this comes down there’s not many rules around how these animals are treated. And so yeah quite a substantial component is removed and then i think they’re held for I want to say 40, 48 hours, which really isn’t that long. And then they get put back into, into the wild. And, um, there’s quite a lot of,…

T: So these are wild animals? They’re not like, um, they’re not cared for in like farms.

R: No, they, um, they just go down to, uh, the, the shores along sort of New York area up to, I suppose, um, Delaware, and they’ll be collected during their, when they come up onto the beach to spawn. And then they will be bled, and then put back into their original environment. And a lot of them don’t, there’s a fairly high mortality rate because, you know, having a third to half of your blood removed means that immediately you are very compromised. I think we can all agree as humans that it wouldn’t be a fun time.

M: No.

T: And their blood is blue, right?

R: Yeah, blue. Yep.

M: So are scientists trying to synthesize whatever is in the horseshoe crab blood so that maybe they don’t need to be draining these animals?

R: So this is the really sad part, is that has already been done. I want to say in the 90s, a synthetic alternative to the chemical that is derived from what’s called blue blood was produced. The problem is nature tends to produce things a lot better than humans can. And so I think, I think it was, or it is, and I assume it’s still being refined, 75% successful? So 25%, or at least at the initial construction. So 25% of the batches that were tested actually had some problem with them. And so this is this unfortunate conundrum of yes, we have produced something because humans are resourceful. But what we have produced based off the biology of an animal that we know does this naturally is still, I suppose, inferior when compared to the product that this animal naturally produces. So yeah.

T: Okay. Yes. I do feel bad about sure. I mean, I never felt like a big fan of horseshoe crab, but now I really feel bad about them. And you almost have me become a horseshoe crab fan. But what about dinosaurs? I mean, I thought most paleontologists were in it for the dinosaur fossils, and you seem to be a really big fan of horseshoe crabs. Why are they better? We feel for them, they have blue blood, they’ve survived, they’re a living fossil, but dinosaurs.

R: Well, what originally got me into paleontology, I was five years old and my father showed me a trilobite, so one of these extinct groups of animals what we call arthropods. So arthropods are things with exoskeletons. And I was really fascinated by the reality that this group of animals was completely extinct. And I suppose the reason why I personally am not a a huge, uh, I don’t research dinosaurs on a regular basis is because I’m… The origin story of my passion in paleontology was not in dinosaurs. And so a lot of my interest really lies in understanding groups that are a lot smaller than most dinosaurs, and understanding animals that I think have maybe less public appeal in that regard.

M: You’re going for the underdog, huh?

R: Yeah! There’s a lot more horseshoe crab fossils than there are dinosaur bones. I will put it that way. The conditions to have or to identify and collect dinosaur fossils, because they’re so large, generally speaking, mean that you’re often left with, you don’t get the entire animal, I suppose. You sort of, you have bits and pieces, and if you’re very lucky, you’ll get the complete thing. But most of the time you won’t. Whereas if we look at arthropods, once again, those things with exoskeletons, so like insects and that, and horseshoe crabs, usually you have the entire animal preserved in the fossil record. And so there’s a lot more biology that we can glean from the arthropod fossil record.

M: So when did you know that you wanted to study fossils? Did you find fossils when you were a kid, or what prompted you to carry down this research path?

R: Yes, so as I said, my father showed me a trilobite when I was five, and that was kind of it. So yeah, I get to do a job that I wanted to do since I was five years old and I’m almost 31 now, so you know, I get to live the dream in that regard.

T: That’s really cool. So what did you study for your undergraduate? Just to recap, you did your bachelor’s and your master’s in New Zealand, in Victoria University of Wellington. And then you went for your PhD and postdoc in Australia, across the Tasmanian Sea, to the University of New England in South Wales. So what did you study first in your undergrad? Did you start off with paleontology?

R: So paleontology was not offered as a degree, per se, at Vic Uni. So I did geology, but I also did German as a second major because I really liked the language and it was fun. And then I did my master’s also, as you mentioned, at Victoria University and that, my my project during my master’s looked at the the evolution of a group of animals that we call forams or foraminifera. They’re kind of like plankton and yeah, they’re kind of like

T: But they are fossils or modern animals?

R: The group of animals that are alive today and the particular fossil group that I looked at were preserved in a sequence of rock that was I think 5, about 5 million years old, which in terms of like the age of earth and the age of, I suppose, you know, or the time period in which animals have been around 5 million years is basically nothing. So the rock is pretty much yesterday. It was deposited pretty much yesterday.

I was looking at more or less looking at modern animals and indeed one of the fossil species that we were looking at is alive today. So I was sort of really straddling this boundary of paleontology and biology in a lot of ways as a means of understanding evolution. And then, yeah, I moved over to Australia.

T: So you only, you only were able to study exactly paleontology during your master’s? During your bachelor’s you were, you were doing, you said geology, German. So does that mean that, um, students from any undergrad disciplines could go into paleontology for their masters?

R: Right. Good question. So a lot of, the way that the university system in, for example, New Zealand and Australia works is I think a little bit different from how it works in the U.S. Um, if you were interested in pursuing a career in paleontology in New Zealand, there are very few avenues that one can really go down. You ultimately end up being a geologist almost by default. So if you’re interested in doing paleontology, a lot of what sort of how it ends up working is you’ll have a project, a research project that will have quite a paleo influence, but still be packaged within a geology context. That’s different to Australia where there are actually paleontology and paleobiology degrees that one can do. And that’s what I did my PhD in.

M: So during your undergrad, did you ever get really frustrated that you just, you wanted to do paleontology stuff, but you were stuck taking geology classes and that kind of thing? And studying German.

R: Oh, the German was fun. I, um, that was, that was, that was a choice. Um, I did actually, yeah. I just distinctly remember, so there were certain prescribed courses that we had to take and I remember one of them very distinctly. One of them was structural geology, so sort of understanding faults and folds and plate boundaries and those sorts of things. And this is in my second year of undergraduate. And I remember getting so, so confused with what was being communicated to us, um, that I I actually walked out of that particular lab almost in tears because I was like I just don’t understand what on earth he’s trying to convey here and none of it was sticking. So yes, I definitely did have periods of time where I was like this is the worst why am I doing this to myself?

T: So let me just confirm what I just heard. So you are a working professional scientist today, yet when you were an undergrad student, you were so frustrated that you didn’t understand what was happening in one of your science classes that you walked out.

R: In tears. Yes.

T: Excellent. That’s encouraging. So can you go ahead and describe what a day of the life of a working scientist is like, a typical day?

R: Okay, I should preface the following by saying I’m definitely not typical. So yeah, I am in a different position than I would say 90% of scientists in that I’m, uh, I’m what we call a post-doctoral researcher. So I’m in a stage of my career where all I do is research.

T: No teaching, you mean?

R: No teaching, exactly. So a lot of people who are in university systems as professors of varying degrees will have a teaching component and they will have a research component. So my perspective is fairly different to, I suppose, what one would generally consider to be a professor’s day in the life. But for me, it is really a case of waking up, having a coffee, almost immediately, and then really, I suppose, assessing what I’m doing. It sounds really weird, but, um, what do I feel like working on today? Has someone sent me an email with photos of an interesting fossil that they want to collaborate on? Or do I have some long overdue research that I’ve avoided because I’m not particularly interested in the topic but I need to do it? Um, or did a paper just get rejected and do I need to reformat it and send it to another journal? Um, so yeah, it really does depend on what I, what’s been put on the plate.

Um, a lot of this year has been working sort of on research, but also putting forward, uh, grant applications. So as scientists we put forward fairly lengthy documents to various governmental bodies to request funding to support our research. And…

M: So how how much of your kind of, like, if you took a month-long period of time, how much of your time is spent looking for money to do your research versus actually doing the research?

R: Um, yep. So this year it’s definitely been, I’d say, a solid half of the year, so a solid two weeks of a month, I’ve been working on grant applications and those sorts of things. During various lockdowns that Australia had that was less of a problem for me, because I am on a contract that has so many years associated with it, and during this time I’m being supported through the university to support my research. And of course I couldn’t travel anyway. So, but yeah, this year in particular has been quite heavy in that, building those very, very lengthy applications.

M: Got it, got it. So thinking about like getting money to do research and the type of research that you do, are there ever things that you do that you don’t particularly want to do but you have to do because that’s the money that you got? Or because you’re working with another group that that’s what they want to do? How does that kind of work in your day to day?

R: Uh…

T: Remember you said you’re working the dream job.

R: Yeah Honestly, very seldom is there a project that I don’t particularly want to do. I, I mean I am currently working on a very large project that involves a scorpion, a native scorpion species. And we’re looking at all of the internal aspects of this animal, and doing a bunch of cool biology to understand aspects around how this animal functions. Now this particular project has been going on since the very beginning of 2020. And so I’m disinclined to work on it because it’s been hanging around for so long. But this week in particular, I’ve gotten back into it and sunk my teeth into it again, I’m rejuvenated in terms of how interesting it is. So I, very seldom do I have to, am I put in situations where I don’t feel particularly motivated to, to do research.

M: That does sound like a dream job.

R: I would say the stuff I don’t like is the applying for money. I would say that is, it’s a very thankless position to be in, ultimately, because those sorts of applications, if they aren’t successful, then, okay, you just wasted however many months.

T: Right.

M: Okay, so let’s say that you didn’t have to go look for money. Let’s say that someone just, they really like you, they like what you’ve done in the past, and they gave you a million dollars for your research. What would your dream project be?

R: Ah! All right. That is a fantastic question. I have a couple of like really, really big-picture projects that I’m hoping to sort of expand on. If I had, you know, limitless income then one of them would be I’m really I’m looking to develop a — oh, how do I describe this? — a theoretical two-dimensional space, a plot, basically it’s a figure, it’s a plot, that has, all the data that are presented on this scatterplot would cover really the length of and the breadth of modern and fossil arthropods. And so this sort of work is fundamentally very, very, very data intensive. But the, the kind of evolution questions we can address with having data like that and having understanding those sorts of aspects, um, is where we can really tackle a lot of how, how and why, uh, for example, insects today, are so diverse? How are they so effective? Um, so yeah, I suppose that would be one of the projects. That’d be really cool.

T: Yeah, a supercomputer to do all the calculations probably would.

R: Yeah, that would help.

T: Would be a big part of the budget. Or artificial intelligence. Well, that’s awesome. I hope that one of the listeners of our podcast is a millionaire/paleontology enthusiast who will get back to us, please do. We’re waiting for you with a blank check for this kind of research.

Well, Russell, thank you so much for the fun stories and the interesting insights today. I think we all became a little closer and a little bit more enthusiastic about horseshoe crabs, both living and fossilized.

R: Yeah, no, thank you. This was so much fun.

T: Did you know that you could directly read one of Russell’s scientific papers, stripped from its complex scientific jargon and made understandable to readers as young as 5th grade in school? The link is in the show notes. But also you could Google its title, “What can fossils tell us about the nervous system’s evolution?” Or directly go to www.sciencejournalforkids.org and search for fossil. You could also check out our entire paleosciences collection. That’s all for today. Thank you for listening.

Subscribe to this podcast to receive notifications about the next episode of Science Journal for Kids, Ask a Scientist. I am Tanya. Till next time.

Title image from University of New England

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