Talking with… Steven Zhang

Interview by: J. D. Dixon

This week we managed to speak with Doctor Steven Zhang, a vertebrate palaeontologist and Honorary Research Associate at the University of Bristol who specialises in ancient mammalian giants. We found out about where his fascination with these prehistoric titans came from, his thoughts on peer-review at conferences and in journals, and the tall tales in palaeontology which can influence us to this day.

Steven holding the lower molar of an aged Palaeoloxodon dredged from the Penghu Channel, off the west coast of Taiwan. These prodigious prehistoric straight-tusked elephants reached shoulder heights above 3.8 m and weighed 11-15 tonnes. Photographed in the collections of the Natural History Museum, London.

Hi Steven, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. To start with, can we discuss when you decided you wanted to be a palaeontologist? Was it always a goal of yours?

“The way I would put it is that I don’t recall any point in my life when I didn’t want to become a palaeontologist; to call it a goal would be too aggrandising. I simply claim no clear recollection of a point in my life where I thought seriously enough about pursuing another career path. This is an utterly dreadful cliché, but like many others it stemmed from a young age, where I’ve been interested in ancient animals and didn’t grow out of it.”

Ever since your MSci, and continuing through your PhD, you’ve worked on ancient mammalian fauna, particularly elephants and their kin. What inspired this fascination with prehistoric giants?

“So, obviously we all grew up being fascinated with dinosaurs, but what really informed me about deep time evolution and how to think about life on Earth differently was the fossil history of proboscideans from a very young age. We only have three elephant species alive on Earth today, which is not really the case for much of the past twenty million years, when ecosystems with four or five sympatric proboscidean species weren’t exactly uncommon. One aspect of interest is their recent fall in diversity, but also how there were all sorts of different ways of going about being a proboscidean if you look into their deeper evolutionary history, such as Platybelodon (otherwise known as Scööp if you’ve been following the palaeomeme community); Deinotherium (very distantly related to elephants and mastodons); and the more cold adapted elephants that aren’t around today like the woolly mammoth and quite possibly Palaeoloxodon, which were found at much higher latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere than modern elephants are.”

With regards to your PhD, what would you say that it was like completing this huge chapter of your life?

“The last two years were particularly stressful, as you might’ve heard from other people who have been on the same boat as me. That said, I wouldn’t have swapped it for anything else.”

What are some of the things you found out through your research?

“Long story short, the fossil history of elephantids (the family of proboscideans that includes the living elephants and their immediately extinct relatives, like the mammoth and Palaeoloxodon) is in serious need of revision, and what I did in my PhD is a start. I’m really pleased that my thesis was accepted as a monograph to be published in Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir (supplement to the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology) so quickly after its completion, so hopefully by the end of this year my findings will be properly disseminated in the published literature. I’m talking serious revision needed at the basic level of abstraction, in terms of who’s who in extinct elephants, for which the predominant understanding is stuck in a gradistic scheme — evolutionary levels as opposed to cladistics, the business of identifying individuated evolutionary lineages.”

So this publication will be out in 2021, and as you say, it’s an amazing accomplishment for selection so soon after you finished working on it. What were you doing when you found out, were you prepared, or was it more out of the blue?

“I was very chuffed. It was something that I thought about applying for. To start with I thought I had missed the train because there was a prior circular notifying when the deadline would be, while I was still very busy finishing up my PhD thesis. Then after I had submitted the work there was another circular saying that the deadline had been extended because of COVID, so luckily for me it worked out. It was late evening on July 7th (UK time) when Pat O’Connor (the memoir editor for the journal) emailed me to say that my work had been accepted. I didn’t check my email until the following afternoon, so that’s when I knew.”

Superb skull of a steppe mammoth from the Volga valley in southern Russia, mounted and displayed at the Orlov Museum of Paleontology in Moscow, affiliated to the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

During your PhD you worked as a fact-finder for the Sky One wildlife series Big Beasts. How did you manage to balance this five-month stretch with your other studies, and what did you learn while doing this?

“Actually, compared to my PhD requirements that was quite a minor amount of work. I’d encourage other people doing masters or PhD courses to take up such opportunities if they come along. Obviously, it depends on your working style as well, so for me in the long run it didn’t clash very much with my PhD, but it’s different from case-to-case.
It was a colleague at Bristol who had already started doing consultancy work for them that told me about what they were looking for, and it sounded like somebody who knew about extinct mammals could help, so I got introduced onto the project. The role was general reconnaissance where they’d send me what information they wanted for the show and I’d give the best account possible in terms of what had been said in the literature.”

Your public speaking skills became apparent in 2018, when you spoke at the 66th Symposium of the SVPCA. How did you get involved with this experience?

“For these scientific conferences you see a circular and you decide (A) ‘do you want to be there?’ and (B) ‘do you have some sort of funding allowance to cover the travel?’. Then you decide if there’s something you want to present. For UK-based PhD students the funding would normally cover conference travel costs. When I was studying for a PhD I didn’t have a designated go-to funding source. For those of you in a similar situation, the chances are that you’ll be able to get some sort of competition-based travel grant from societies like the Palaeontological Association or the Geologists Association. Once you tick those boxes, you submit your conference abstract. I think most conferences that I’ve attended peer-review their abstracts and decide which ones they’ll take, but there are some bigger conferences which don’t. The risk of that is we end up with some presentations getting media coverage when the scientific basis is pretty dubious, like the 2011 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting talk about a super-intelligent, gigantic Triassic cephalopod that used ichthyosaur vertebrae to create images of their own tentacles. There’s a really good talk by Tom Holtz on fringe and pseudoscience ideas in palaeontology which covers it.”

As you say, peer-review is essential, and you’ve been a reviewer for a few palaeo journals. So, what’s it like on the other side of this curtain, and what advice would you give newer authors sending off publications for the first time?

“I know this might sound lenient, but I don’t think it’s a reviewer’s place to advise to reject unless the manuscript has clear, if not basic scientific flaws. As a reviewer, I stand by that my collegial responsibility is to help my colleagues publish and not to prevent their works from being published. So even in manuscripts where I’ve seen pretty major inadequacies, where other reviewers might’ve advised rejection, what I’ve done is recommend major revision. But on top of that, I’d highlight exactly where I think improvements need to be made and the journal’s Editor can make their mind up. Some journals ask reviewers to grade the manuscript in several criteria, and I wouldn’t hesitate to give a low score where I find problems, though a low score can be tacitly taken as recommendation to reject.
It varies from journal-to-journal how long they take to get back to you, so the Chinese Science Bulletin which I reviewed for last summer kept sending revised manuscripts back. For most journals I’ve reviewed for and published in what happens is that the Editor sees the revisions and the replies to peer-review comments and finds them to be of an adequately rigorous nature then the paper gets pushed forward into publication phase. Obviously, the editor should reject if they find the author’s have not done a good job of addressing the queries put forward by reviewers.
I had a little manuscript rejected twice, but its nothing of particularly palaeontological significance, even from my own honest consideration, so I’m happy to let it lie on the backburner for a while.”

And how would an edited document look when it’s sent for review again?

“Unless the change is wholesale, which has happened to a couple of papers I have authored, then you should highlight your edits to the manuscript with tracked changes or with a different colour. You should also send a point-by-point response to the queries made by the reviewers.
Rejection rate, in my experience and understanding, increases exponentially with journal profile. I was lucky enough to have had a co-authored paper sent to review in Science, which I considered to be a fairly good achievement. For many of these so-called high profile journals the Editor decides first if the results are befitting of the journal’s profile and that the science is sound, before sending submissions out for review, the editorial rejection rate (before the manuscript even reaches reviewers) is quite high.”

Speaking of your research, what has your experience been like with fieldwork, whether it’s from your undergraduate through to your current position?

“I wish I’d done fieldwork! With my research so far its been museum collections work the whole way, with a bit of analytical work when I did the proboscidean dental microwear as my MSci thesis.”

With the museum collections, how are you going about doing this? Do you write to them and ask, do they send it to you, do you go to them?

“Well, good luck getting a museum to send you a mammoth skull. It’s much easier to get things loaned to you if you work on conodonts or Mesozoic mammals, but not proboscideans because of the… let’s call it a logistical difficulty.
You have to write to the curators in advance to say ‘this is what I do, it would be really important for me to study such-and-such materials in your museum, would you be happy for me to come by and if so what would be a good time for you to receive my visit?’. Often you also have to check if there are technicians around to help you manoeuvre the specimens, that’s the trouble with working with large vertebrates like proboscideans, or indricotheres, or sauropods.
Luckily with some specimens the curators have already gone through the thankless task of manoeuvring the unwieldy fossil to create 3D scan data. This was the case with a very nicely preserved Palaeoloxodon skull found in Chiba near Tokyo, Japan. I failed three attempts at applying for a travel grant to study the specimen first-hand at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo. But the curator there, Dr. Kimura Yuri, kindly sent me the virtual 3D scan of the skull for my own research purpose. Heartfelt thanks to her!”

The gallery of mammoths and elephants at the Zoological Museum in St Petersburg, affiliated to the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Do you have any helpful tips or wise words for people who want to become palaeontologists?

“Stay loyal to your passion and see what comes along. People should explore what options are available, but there is sadly sometimes need for a reality check. Palaeontology has frankly dire employment prospects at the moment, partly because of COVID impacting on an already austere funding pool to the basic sciences. Again, stay loyal to your passion but see what options are available. I know quite a few people who only began to seriously pursue palaeontology when they were already a couple of years older than I am now, so ‘late bloomers’ in our field are not uncommon. Sometimes it can even be an advantage because you’ve had a wider range of both work and societal experience.”

Finally, we close our talks by asking what’s one weird palaeo fact you think people should know?

“The UK was once home to three species elephants that roamed alongside hippos, about 800,000 years ago. So in East Anglia around this time we find two species of mammoths, Mammuthus trogontherii and Mammuthus meridionalis, and the giant straight-tusked elephants that I’m fortunate enough to have published on last year, Palaeoloxodon antiquus. It was a Serengeti in Norwich if you like.
However, a slight tangent, I think that, particularly with these giant mammals of the Cenozoic, we fall back on these age-old stories too easily, because the large mammals were among the very first fossils to be dealt with and informed our early understanding of the phenomena of extinction and evolution, dating back to the days of Georges Cuvier, Étienne Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, and Richard Owen, to name a few pioneering students of vertebrate palaeontology. So, part of the important groundwork was laid out before palaeontology became a ‘fully’ scientific discipline that applies the hypothesis-testing approach. There are a lot of these prevailing just-so stories going around about these fascinating creatures, but I don’t think there’s enough recent work on them simply because of their dismissal as something that’s already settled.  It’s not just groups that have virtually no coverage beyond a small club of specialists, there are also groups for which serious research potential has been widely dismissed, ironically because of how long they’ve been around in popular discourse. For instance, overhunting by the early diaspora of our species as the predominant cause of megafauna extinctions in the Late Pleistocene is almost taken as a given sometimes beyond the specialist literature, but there are still very lively debates going on whether early humans were primarily culpable. So, be careful of unfounded, prevailing stories in palaeontology. You might’ve seen Mark Witton’s blog last year about the claims that the American mastodon has reddish hair, which is a fascinating, longstanding story. Mastodon is one of the iconic Ice Age animals of North America, so you assume they had cold adaptations like reddish hair. While we might be able to reasonably assume that they had some sort of hair cover, there are no mastodon hair remains that are credible.”

I’d like to say a huge thank you to Steven for giving us his time and for an in depth look into the lesser understood world of fossil proboscideans. For more information about Steven, or to find out how to contact him directly, check out his Instagram, LinkedIn, and academic profile.