Blaire Van Valkenburgh, the Donald R. Dickey Professor of Vertebrate Biology at UCLA, has received the 2021 Romer-Simpson Medal from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology for “sustained and outstanding scholarly excellence.” The Romer-Simpson Medal is the society’s highest award, and has been given out annually since 1987, when UCLA biology professor Everett Olson received the inaugural honor.
Van Valkenburgh is the curator of the Donald R. Dickey Bird and Mammal Collection. The focus of her more than 110 publications is the biology and paleontology of carnivorous mammals, such as hyenas, wolves and lions. Van Valkenburgh has appeared in various television documentaries on prehistoric predators ranging from terror birds to sabertooth cats and is a leading expert on the evolutionary biology of large carnivores, past and present.
She and other ecologists are concerned with large predatory mammals because as top-down regulators, they play a pivotal role that affects both plant and animal distributions and abundance. Modern species evolved within much more diverse and complex guilds of large predators that included species such as short-faced bears, sabertooth cats and dire wolves. To better understand both the dynamics of extant predator communities and the adaptations of individual species, she has explored the fossil record of carnivores from both ecological and evolutionary perspectives, sometimes focusing on guilds of species in distinct time horizons, and other times focusing on the evolutionary trajectories of species over millions of years.
The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is an organization of scientists, students, artists, preparators, advocates, writers and scholars across the globe. The purpose of the society is to support and encourage the discovery, conservation, and protection of vertebrate fossils and fossil sites, as well as to foster the scientific, educational, and personal appreciation and understanding of vertebrate fossils and fossil sites by avocational, student and professional paleontologists and the general public.