Hill scientist behind 350-million-year-old fossil exhibit

by Len Lear
Posted 11/23/23

Whoever first used the term “old school” might have been thinking about Edward “Ted” Daeschler of the Academy of Natural Sciences.

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Hill scientist behind 350-million-year-old fossil exhibit


Whoever first used the term “old school” might have been thinking about longtime Chestnut Hill resident Edward “Ted” Daeschler, the curator and chair of vertebrate zoology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. Daeschler is retiring this year from the Academy after more than 30 years of explorations and studies into Devonian-age fossil vertebrates that have taken him numerous times from Pennsylvania to Arctic Canada and Antarctica.

Daeschler is largely responsible for a new exhibition titled “Life Onto Land: The Devonian,” which focuses on a crucial period of Earth’s evolution, the Devonian Period, more than 350 million years ago. Opened on Nov. 11 and continuing through Jan. 21, 2024, the exhibition presents animation, giant murals and models, CT scans, rare fossils, specimens and maps sharing key elements and discoveries of the Devonian, all to illuminate the catalytic period that transformed Earth into what people understand as the world today. 

A star of the exhibition will be Tiktaalik roseae (“Tiktaalik”), also known as the “fishapod,” one of the most important paleontological discoveries of recent decades and one made by the Academy’s research team in collaboration with colleagues from The University of Chicago and Harvard University. Tiktaalik has returned to Philadelphia for the exhibition. The team that discovered Tiktaalik on Ellesmere Island in the Nunavut Territory of Canada was co-led by Daeschler. 

Additional highlights of the Life Onto Land exhibit will further explain the scientific process of paleontologists who explore the globe to piece together the history of life on Earth.

Spanning more than 50 million years (from approximately 420 to 365 million years ago) the Devonian Period witnessed dramatic changes to the earth's ecosystems and biodiversity, creating new ecosystems, especially freshwater and land-based environments, that were the crucible for the evolution of many new species including the earliest limbed vertebrates. 

“I was always interested in natural history as a kid, and geosciences became my career path when I attended Franklin & Marshall College,” Daeschler told us last week. “I became fascinated with the history of the earth and how we can 'read the rocks' to find clues and reconstruct that history. Part of geology is also the study of the diversity of life through the immensity of geological time. That is the realm of paleontology, and my focus became the history of vertebrate life during the past 500 million years, especially the chapter in that history called the Devonian Period.”

The exhibit presents the environmental context for changes in marine, freshwater swamp and terrestrial ecosystems during this period, including the world’s first forests that were developed in the Devonian. The exhibition includes plant and animal fossils collected in Devonian rock worldwide, especially in Pennsylvania, and illustrations by Spanish artist Aina Bestard, whose works have depicted the evolution of the planet, complete with dinosaurs, amoebas, fossils and lost landscape drawings.

Deaschler, 64, received a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1998 and has been awarded recent research grants from the National Science Foundation, National Geographic Society and others. He is known for his work on the preservation of natural history collections and is the discoverer of the transitional fossil tetrapod Hynerpeton bassetti and a Devonian fish-like specimen of Sauripterus taylori with fingerlike appendages in addition to “Tiktaalik,” which is critical in piecing together a picture of the transition from fins to limbs. He has also been a professor in the Department of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science at Drexel.

“This exhibition will inspire fascination for how our own arms, fingers and toes evolved from fish fins and how today’s forests emerged from ecosystems that first came into being hundreds of millions of years ago during the Devonian Period,”  Marina McDougall, the academy’s vice president of experience and engagement, said in a press release.

Daeschler is originally from North Jersey, but he spent summers in the Poconos. He and his wife, Emily, moved to Wyndmoor in 1993 and then to Chestnut Hill in 2011, where they raised three daughters. Emily is involved with the community, especially heading up the Chestnut Hill Garden District Fund, which adorns Germantown Avenue with flowers every summer.

Daeschler told us, “The highlight of my career has been the opportunity to explore for fossils in some really amazing locations. To camp in remote sites in Antarctica for a month at a time is not something that many people get to do, and I feel very privileged, although I realize it is not everybody's cup of tea. Ellesmere Island in the Nunavut Territory of Arctic Canada is also a rarely-visited, untouched part of the earth. The excitement of exploring where no paleontologist had ever visited before makes these sorts of opportunities very special for me, despite the hardships of the work.”

The Academy is open Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m to 5 p.m. For admission, visit ansp.org/visit/admission or call 215-299-1000 for more information. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com.