Daniel Peppe is an Associate Professor and the Graduate Program Director of the Department of Geosciences at Baylor University. His research on understanding how plant and animal communities respond to changes in climate through Earth history. Specifically, his research is concentrated on assessing sedimentary systems, climates, and ecosystems over the last seventy million years in North America and eastern Africa and on developing methods for reconstructing paleoclimate and paleoecology. Results from his current and future research address a broad spectrum of questions aimed at understanding the relationship between environmental, biotic, and climatic change that are recorded in terrestrial sedimentary systems.
Through Peppe’s research, he aims to answer questions about how ancient terrestrial ecosystems have been influenced by environmental perturbations, such as long and short term climate change events and mass extinctions. Peppe has three major current and future research initiatives focused on answering questions about the evolutionary history and paleoecology of terrestrial ecosystems and the paleoclimatic record of the last 70 million years of Earth history:
1) Studying Paleocene (66 to 55 million years ago) plant communities across North America to understand how terrestrial ecosystems respond to mass extinction and long term climate change.
2) Reconstructing paleoenvironments from the last 25 million years in East Africa to identify the influence of changing environments on the evolution of apes, humans, and their ancestors.
3) Using relationships between the size and shapes of leaves and climate found in modern plants to develop methods for reconstructing ancient climates and environments.
He has received several research grants to fund his research and published numerous articles on paleoclimatology, paleobotany, geochronology, ecology, and other related topics. He has been a scientific consultant for paleontology and earth science-focused television programming, movies, and documentaries. He is a regular commentator for radio and online and print media about scientific breakthroughs in paleontology, paleobotany, paleoclimatology, and geology.
Areas of Expertise (13)
Yale University: Ph.D., Geology and Geophysics 2009
Yale University: M.Phil., Geology and Geophysics 2005
St. Lawrence University: B.S., Geology 2003
- American Geophysical Union
- Geological Society of America
- International Organization of Paleobotany
- Paleontological Society
- Society of Vertebrate Paleontology
- American Association of Physical Anthropologists
Media Appearances (10)
Meteorite or Volcano? New Clues to the Dinosaurs’ Demise
The New York Times online
This story centers on new research by a team of scientists including Baylor’s Daniel Peppe, Ph.D., associate professor of geosciences. He is an expert on understanding how plant and animal communities responded to climate change throughout Earth’s history.
From the Field: Lauren Michel, Rusinga Island, Kenya
The Leakey Foundation online
Tennessee Tech University professor Lauren Michel writes about the collaborative work being done on Kenya’s Rusinga Island, which is well known for its fossil primates – in particular, the medium-sized ape Ekembo. Dan Peppe, Ph.D., associate professor and graduate program director in geosciences in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, is among Michel’s collaborators, who are helping reconstruct the paleoenvironments in which Ekembo and its contemporaries lived and evolved between 20 to 17 million years ago.
Massive database of 182,000 leaves is helping predict plants' family trees
The story of a plant is etched in its leaves. A tree growing in a cold environment with plenty of water is more likely to have large leaves with many serrated teeth around the edges. But if the same species lives in a warm, dry region, its leaves are likely to be smaller and smoother. Now, an atlas that traces the shapes of 182,000 leaves from 141 plant families and 75 locations around the world shows promise for refining scientists’ ability to read that story.
Was South America a refuge during the dino-killing mass extinction?
The Christian Science Monitor
"A lot of times when we think about mass extinctions or we think about these very abrupt events, we think about a global response," Daniel Peppe, a paleontologist at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who was not part of the research, says in a phone interview with the Monitor. "I think it gets oversimplified in that you think the response is the same everywhere. And this is really showing that it's not."
It's important to understand the nuances of how ecosystems have recovered from mass extinctions in the past, Dr. Peppe says, especially because scientists think we're in the midst of the Earth's sixth mass extinction right now...
Scientists: Asteroid Caught Dinosaurs At A Bad Time
Here’s Dr. Dan Peppe from Baylor University. He’s one of the authors of the new study, which focused on the diversity of dinosaur species at this time.
"And so what we is in the meat-eating dinosaurs, there’s no effect in terms of how many species there are their diversity and that stuff," Peppe said. "But what we do see is the really big herbivores, the classic triceratops, the duckbill dinosaur, those are sort of declining in diversity sort of."...
Dr. Dan Peppe, Baylor University - Proconsul Fossils
Of all fossils, the Proconsul is amongst the earliest ever discovered.
Dan Peppe, assistant professor of geology at Baylor University, is studying these fossils to help understand the evolution of all primates...
Turning over an old leaf: Baylor geologist finds climate cues in fossilized plants
Research Tracks - A publication of the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at Baylor University print
Research by Dr. Daniel Peppe, an assistant professor of geology in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, has revealed a new set of tools for reconstructing ancient ecosystems using fossilized fern leaves. The study, published this month in the American Journal of Botany, suggests that fern fossils can reveal environmental data from earlier periods compared to existing methods, which rely on plant groups with a shorter fossil record ...
A nose for science - Professor uncovers new species of ancient wildebeest
Baylor Magazine print
Dr. Daniel Peppe, associate professor in Baylor's Department of Geosciences, co-directed the research team that uncovered nearly intact skeletons of Rusingoryx atopocranian, a wildebeest-like creature that has been extinct for more than 40,000 years. While scanning the skulls, they found something unexpected--a long, curved nasal tract that resembled nasal passages found only in dinosaurs ...
Habitat of Early Apes
Expedition Rusinga: Uncovering Our Adaptive Origins
American Museum of Natural History
More than 18 million years ago, Rusinga Island in Kenya’s Lake Victoria was home to primitive apes of the genus Proconsul, an ancient primate relative of modern humans. Today, evidence from this fossil-rich area is helping an international team of scientists to re-create our ancestor’s ancient habitat, yielding surprising insights into this primitive animal’s ability to adapt to environmental change.
Research Grants (3)
Collaborative Research: testing the link between climate and mammalian faunal dynamics in the early Paleocene record of the San Juan Basin, New Mexico
National Science Foundation, Division of Earth Sciences $167,419.00
The Nacimiento Formation of northwestern New Mexico contains the most complete, diverse, and longest record of early Paleocene mammal evolution known anywhere in the world, spanning from about 65.8 to 62.2 million years ago. The early Paleocene is of particular importance for understanding the evolution of modern ecosystems because it includes the first mammal-dominated ecosystems that appeared immediately following the end-Cretaceous extinction of non-avian dinosaurs. This was a time when the world was warmer than now and the climate appears to have been unstable. This study will test for a relationship between climate and mammalian faunal change in the early Paleocene, and will provide a better understanding of the role climate change played in the establishment of the earliest mammal-dominated ecosystems. This project will test if mammals responded to climate change during this critical interval of time by generating a detailed climate record, including estimates of mean annual temperature and precipitation from leaf-margin and leaf-area analyses of fossil leaves, and from the study of ancient soils. This study will also reconstruct the ancient biomes present at this time and the habitats within those biomes using stable carbon isotopes from mammal teeth, and the types of depositional environments present using sedimentology. These various proxy records will be compared to test for correlations between the mammalian faunal record and changing climate or changing biomes in the early Paleocene. Results from this study should be useful for developing more accurate models for predicting the consequences of climate change.
This project will provide educational and research opportunities for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, including Native American students from New Mexico, which are greatly underrepresented in the sciences, and "at risk" 6-8th grade students from Nebraska. The results of this research will also be incorporated into a permanent museum exhibit at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.
IPG: Collaborative Research: Research on East African Catarrhine and Hominoid Evolution
National Science Foundation, Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences $152,870.00
New evidence from early fossil humans suggests that, in some respects, these hominins more closely resembled the earliest fossil apes than any modern ape. While such findings substantially impact our understanding of early hominin adaptive morphology, their precise implications remain unclear because the original ecological conditions in which these features evolved is poorly documented. To address this problem, this project will answer the following three research questions: What are the regional patterns of environmental change and the site-specific habitats associated with the earliest fossil apes? How does the morphology of early apes relate to the environmental contexts in which they lived? How do early ape adaptations inform our understanding of later ape and human evolution? These questions will be answered by establishing a multi-disciplinary, multi-national collaboration to initiate new paleontological field research at all of the early fossil ape localities in East Africa. For the first time, new fossil and data collection will be coordinated across nearly a dozen Kenyan sites near Kisingiri, Tinderet, West Turkana, and Buluk, and a similar number of Ugandan sites at Napak, Moroto, and Bukwa. In addition to surveys and excavation, a series of geological, ecological, and taphonomic analyses will be used to understand the age, environment, and setting of each locality. New fossils will be subjected to rigorous morphological analyses to determine their evolutionary and adaptive significance. Unlike previous studies, which have focused on individual localities, this regional approach to understanding ancient ecosystems will track environmental variations over the time and space of early ape evolution, making it possible to relate specific habitat types with primate adaptive morphology.
Climate, Tectonics and the Ecosystem Impact
American Chemical Society, Petroleum Research Foundation
Our team has made excellent progress towards developing a sequence stratigraphic model of deposition and a detailed paleoclimate and paleoenvironmental record for the early Paleocene Nacimiento Formation in the San Juan Basin, New Mexico, USA. Our efforts during project year 2 have included:
Late Pleistocene sedimentary, biogeochemical, and fossil data from the Lake Victoria basin (the largest lake in Africa) suggest that its reduction or desiccation during periods of increased aridity repeatedly facilitated the dispersal of C4 grassland ecosystems across the basin. Archaeological evidence from Middle Stone Age and Later Stone Age sites suggest that human groups diffused into the basin during intervals of declining lake levels, likely tracking the movement of the dense and predictable resources of shoreline environments, as well as the dense but less predictable C4 grass grazing herbivores. Repeated cycles of lake expansion and contraction provide a push–pull mechanism for the isolation and combination of populations in Equatorial Africa that may contribute to the Late Pleistocene human biological variability suggested by the fossil and genetic records. Latitudinal differences in the timing of environmental change between the Lake Victoria basin and surrounding regions may have promoted movements across, within, and possibly out of Africa.
Non-avian dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago, geologically coincident with the impact of a large bolide (comet or asteroid) during an interval of massive volcanic eruptions and changes in temperature and sea level. There has long been fervent debate about how these events affected dinosaurs. We review a wealth of new data accumulated over the past two decades, provide updated and novel analyses of long-term dinosaur diversity trends during the latest Cretaceous, and discuss an emerging consensus on the extinction's tempo and causes. Little support exists for a global, long-term decline across non-avian dinosaur diversity prior to their extinction at the end of the Cretaceous. However, restructuring of latest Cretaceous dinosaur faunas in North America led to reduced diversity of large-bodied herbivores, perhaps making communities more susceptible to cascading extinctions. The abruptness of the dinosaur extinction suggests a key role for the bolide impact, although the coarseness of the fossil record makes testing the effects of Deccan volcanism difficult.
The lineage of apes and humans (Hominoidea) evolved and radiated across Afro-Arabia in the early Neogene during a time of global climatic changes and ongoing tectonic processes that formed the East African Rift. These changes probably created highly variable environments and introduced selective pressures influencing the diversification of early apes. However, interpreting the connection between environmental dynamics and adaptive evolution is hampered by difficulties in locating taxa within specific ecological contexts: time-averaged or reworked deposits may not faithfully represent individual palaeohabitats. Here we present multiproxy evidence from Early Miocene deposits on Rusinga Island, Kenya, which directly ties the early ape Proconsul to a widespread, dense, multistoried, closed-canopy tropical seasonal forest set in a warm and relatively wet, local climate. These results underscore the importance of forested environments in the evolution of early apes.
•Paleobotanists have long used models based on leaf size and shape to reconstruct paleoclimate. However, most models incorporate a single variable or use traits that are not physiologically or functionally linked to climate, limiting their predictive power. Further, they often underestimate paleotemperature relative to other proxies.
•Here we quantify leaf–climate correlations from 92 globally distributed, climatically diverse sites, and explore potential confounding factors. Multiple linear regression models for mean annual temperature (MAT) and mean annual precipitation (MAP) are developed and applied to nine well-studied fossil floras.
•We find that leaves in cold climates typically have larger, more numerous teeth, and are more highly dissected. Leaf habit (deciduous vs evergreen), local water availability, and phylogenetic history all affect these relationships. Leaves in wet climates are larger and have fewer, smaller teeth. Our multivariate MAT and MAP models offer moderate improvements in precision over univariate approaches (± 4.0 vs 4.8°C for MAT) and strong improvements in accuracy. For example, our provisional MAT estimates for most North American fossil floras are considerably warmer and in better agreement with independent paleoclimate evidence.
•Our study demonstrates that the inclusion of additional leaf traits that are functionally linked to climate improves paleoclimate reconstructions. This work also illustrates the need for better understanding of the impact of phylogeny and leaf habit on leaf–climate relationships.
This paper presents a quantitative analysis of megafloral changes in composition and diversity using collections of early and middle Paleocene floras (65.51 to ~ 58 Ma) in the Williston Basin of North Dakota, USA. Based on the floral composition and stratigraphic ranges of taxa, the Williston Basin floral record can be subdivided into three megafloral zones (WBI, WBII, and WBIII), each representing ≥ 1 myr. The floral record of the basin implies that local and regional paleoenvironmental and climatic changes contributed to transitions in the early and middle Paleocene plant communities. The Williston Basin floral record documents a decrease in species richness that mirrors a decrease in mean annual temperatures from the latest Cretaceous to middle Paleocene. These results, combined with previous work from the Hanna and Bighorn Basins, suggest that climate may have played an important role in patterns of floral diversity and plant community composition. Further, these data indicate that it took Paleocene plant communities in the Northern Great Plains millions of years to reach diversity levels common in the Cretaceous.