Position: Formerly Principal Scientist, GNS Science. Currently Professor, School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences, Victoria University of Wellington.
Professor James Crampton is fascinated by fossils and how they help tell the story of New Zealand’s geological past. When asked what excites him most about being a paleontologist, he says “the discovery”.
‘Discovery’ is a word that has more than one meaning in science. Someone might suddenly ‘discover’ something they weren’t expecting, such as a new species of plant or animal when exploring a new area of forest, or you might see a headline saying that a scientist has ‘discovered’ a new medicine. This type of discovery is not normally the result of an accident – it often comes after years of planned research. Sometimes there is a bit of both – while looking for one thing, you may discover something else that you weren’t expecting.
What does ‘discovery’ mean to James Crampton? There are parts of New Zealand that geologists and paleontologists have not explored. There are fossils no-one has ever seen before, just waiting to be discovered. James can visit a new area that has the right rocks for finding fossils in, but he has no idea exactly what he is going to find.
I got into paleontology because I’m fascinated by the natural world and the chance for discovery – that’s what excites me.
Not all fossils are spectacular or rare, but some are both. Amongst his many fossil discoveries, James has found 2m long clam shells and the fossil skeleton of an ichthyosaur – a marine reptile that looked like a dolphin. Both these creatures lived at the same time as dinosaurs.
James recognises the important role that amateur paleontologists play in New Zealand. Amateurs still carry out scientific investigations. A good example was Joan Wiffen who, with colleagues, found and studied important dinosaur and other fossils in Hawke’s Bay. There are many unexplored places where a keen fossil hunter can make discoveries. Whilst at GNS, James and Marianna Terezow wrote The Kiwi fossil hunter’s handbook to help young paleontologists. This book was short-listed in the non-fiction section of the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards in 2011.
In 2017 James left GNS to take up a role with the School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences at Victoria University of Wellington.
Nature of science
As a paleontologist, James does not rely on chance discoveries, even if they are exciting. His main work involves collecting data in carefully planned investigations. He uses the results to explain the past and to add to models that help predict the future.
In 2014 James Crampton and John Sims discovered one of the largest ammonites ever found in New Zealand. Find out more about this exciting find in this Radio New Zealand feature which includes links to interviews with James.
Watch to James's inaugural lecture at Vicotria University: Biodiversity: snakes and ladders through geological time.
This article is based on information current in 2011 and 2018.