Position: Scientist
Field: Paleontology
Organisation: GNS Science

Dr Alan Beu has spent most of his life working with fossils. He has collected shell fossils throughout New Zealand and in many other countries. Collecting trips are just a part of the job though. Alan also painstakingly identifies his finds, using reference collections including the one at GNS Science. He has studied some shell species in great detail, sorting out their evolution through geological time. This contributes towards being able to use fossils to date rocks.

For Alan, a boyhood hobby of collecting shells turned into an adult obsession. He studied zoology and geology at Victoria University of Wellington and did his PhD on fossils. Alan was then fortunate to spend the next 20 years working at the Geological Survey (an ancestor organisation of the current GNS Science) with Charles Fleming. In 1953, Fleming had published a report on the Pleistocene rocks near Whanganui. This important report is still used by geologists today.

At the time, geologists around the world thought that there had been just four glacial periods in the Pleistocene. Fleming realised that the rocks and fossils at Whanganui recorded sea level changes, so he interpreted his data using the accepted model of four ice ages. However, Alan Beu and others carried on studying the fossils at Whanganui in even greater detail, sorting out the record of sea level changes. Evidence started pointing towards there being many more than four glacial periods.

Alan was able to link this work with the results of oxygen isotope measurements in deep-sea cores around the world. The result was a change in the accepted thinking, as there was now evidence for over 50 glacial cycles in the Pleistocene, so Alan’s work and findings have contributed to changing scientists’ ways of thinking.

Alan’s work doesn’t take him to Whanganui often nowadays, but he is involved in many other projects. He is also planning to semi-retire in 2012, but unsurprisingly will not be giving up all his work with fossils.

Nature of science

Geologist Charles Fleming fitted his data from Whanganui rocks into a model of ice age cycles that was globally accepted at the time. Later scientists used the same data and more collected from the same place to completely change the accepted model.

This article is based on information current in 2011.

Published 18 May 2011