Donald Prothero

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Donald Prothero
Donald Prothero, in the Troublesome Formation near Kremmling, central Colorado, 2008
Born (1954-02-21) February 21, 1954 (age 62)
Glendale, California
Residence United States
Citizenship American
Alma mater University of California, Riverside,
Columbia University
Thesis Medial Oligocene magnetostratigraphy and mammalian biostratigraphy: testing the isochroneity of mammalian biostratigraphic events
Known for Mammalian paleontology
Influences Malcolm McKenna

Donald Ross Prothero (February 21, 1954) is an American paleontologist, geologist, and author who specializes in mammalian paleontology. His research has been in the field of magnetostratigraphy, a technique to date rock layers of the Cenozoic era and its use to date the climate changes which occurred 30-40 million years ago. He is currently the author or editor of more than 30 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five geology textbooks.

Stephen Jay Gould cited Prothero's research on the lack of response to climate change in mammals from the Eocene, Oligocene and Pleistocene epochs to support the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. He called Prothero “the best punctuated equilibrium researcher on the West Coast”.[1]


Prothero grew up in the Glendale, California area, the son of Clifford R. Prothero (1920-2004), a technical illustrator for Lockheed, and Shirley M. (McDonald) Prothero (born 1924), an artist and homemaker. He attended the University of California, Riverside where he studied paleontology under Dr. Michael O. Woodburne and Dr. Michael Murphy and earned Phi Beta Kappa during his junior year. He received his Ph.D. in geological sciences in 1982 from Columbia University, New York.

In 1991 he appeared on the television game show Jeopardy!, and defeated Ben Stein on the show Win Ben Stein's Money in 1999.[2] He was also featured in the Mr. Deity and the Flood episode of the video series Mr. Deity.[3] Further, he debated the Young Earth creationist Duane Gish early in his career.[4]

For 27 years he was a member of the faculty at Occidental College, and he previously taught at California Institute of Technology, Knox College, Vassar College and Columbia University where he led many undergraduate paleontological and geological field trips. He is currently a research associate in vertebrate paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.[5]

Prothero at TAM 9



Prothero was one of the earliest paleontologists to use the concept of palaeomagnetism in the study of Continental rocks. Palaeomagnetism uses the microscopic iron within sedimentary rock to read the alignment of the magnetic field and correlate that with the known history of the polarity reversals of the earth's magnetic field. The magnetic reversals are precisely dated and consistent worldwide which allows these rocks to be studied in climate science and evolution.[6]

In addition to his research in magnetostratigraphy, another area of Prothero's research is the evolution of hoofed mammals,[7] especially rhinos,[8] camels, peccaries, and horses.[9]

Prothero’s work on documenting evolutionary history of fossil vertebrates was cited by Richard Dawkins in his book The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence of Evolution.[10] Skeptic Society founder Michael Shermer called Prothero's 2007 book, Evolution: What the Fossils Say And Why It Matters, "the best book ever produced on the subject."[11][12]

He has also been featured as a scientific consultant and was interviewed on several television documentaries, including the Are Rhinos Dinos? episode of TLC's Paleoworld,[13] the History Channel's Prehistoric Monsters Revealed,[14] the episodes of National Geographic's Prehistoric Predators covering the entelodon[15] and hyaenodon,[16] the series Walking with Prehistoric Beasts on BBC,[17] and the amphicyon or Bear Dog episode of Monsters Resurrected.[18]

In October 2012, Prothero appeared in his capacity as a paleontologist on Conspiracy Road Trip, a BBC television documentary in which five individuals who self-identified as Creationists participated in a road trip along the western coast of the United States, meeting with various experts on the topic, exchanging views and questions with people holding differing views.[19]

Prothero and Michael Shermer at TAM 2013


Prothero's research into the legendary creature called Mokele-mbembe was featured in an episode of the History Channel's MonsterQuest - The Last Dinosaur in 2009. The show visits Cameroon near the border with the Republic of Congo in search of the legendary cryptozoological creature. When shown a footprint and asked to comment on the likelihood that it is an example of tracks from the Mokele-mbembe, Prothero refers to the scientific dating of the tracks which indicate that the animal was a sauropod which became extinct 66 million years ago.[20]

His 2013 book with Daniel Loxton, Abominable Science: The Origin of Yeti, Nessie, and Other Cryptids, analyzes the psychology behind paranormal belief including Chupacabra, lake monsters, and similar cryptids in other cultures. In a review by Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University she describes it as "An entertaining, educational, passionate, and valuable handbook for readers interested getting a scientific perspective on the field of cryptozoology. With marvelous artwork and deeply researched histories of the various creatures, this is an impressive and authoritative book."[21]


Prothero grew up in a religious household, but states that "I probably could have been called a skeptic [...] late in my high school years." He became involved in the skeptical movement in the mid-90's, when Michael Shermer invited him to join the editorial board of The Skeptics Society. His first appearance as a panelist at The Amazing Meeting was in 2010.[4]

As a result of Prothero's books about evolution in 2007 and climate change in 2009, he recognized that "those same people who were denying evolution are often the exact same people who deny climate [change]."[22] This realization led him to research and author "Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future" in 2013 as he explained during an interview on the podcast Skepticality:

In 2015, Prothero was elected a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.[23]

Selected publications[edit]

  • Rhinoceros Giants: The Paleobiology of Indricotheres, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2013, ISBN 978-0253008190
  • Abominable Science: The Origin of Yeti, Nessie, and Other Cryptids, with Daniel Loxton, Columbia Univ. Press, New York, 2013, ISBN 978-0231153201
  • Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2013, ISBN 978-0253010292
  • Catastrophes!: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and Other Earth-Shattering Disasters, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011 ISBN 978-0801896927
  • Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs: Evolution, Extinction, and the Future of Our Planet, Columbia University Press, New York, 2009 ISBN 978-0231146609
  • Evolution: What the Fossils Say And Why It Matters, Columbia University Press, New York, 2007, ISBN 978-0231139625
  • After the Dinosaurs: The Age of Mammals, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 2006, ISBN 978-0253347336
  • The Eocene-Oligocene Transition: Paradise Lost, Columbia University Press, New York, 1993, ISBN 978-0231080910


  • Evolution of the Earth, McGraw-Hill, 2003, ISBN 0072528087
  • Bringing Fossils To Life: An Introduction To Paleobiology, McGraw-Hill Science/Engineering/Math, 2003, ISBN 0073661708
  • Sedimentary Geology, W. H. Freeman, ISBN 0716739054
  • Interpreting the Stratigraphic Record, W.H. Freeman & Co., New York, 1990, ISBN 0716718545
  • Earth: Portrait of a Planet (first edition), W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2001, ISBN 0393974235


Prothero is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine,[24] and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for such scientific journals as Geology, Paleobiology, and Journal of Paleontology. His fellowships include the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, the Linnean Society of London (1987), the Guggenheim Foundation[25] (1988), the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry,[26] and the National Science Foundation.

He served as the president and vice president of the Pacific Section of Society for Sedimentary Geology,[27] and five years as the program chair for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. He has also been a member of Society for the Study of Mammalian Evolution since 2005.

Critical reception[edit]

Prothero's 2005 work The Evolution of North American Rhinoceroses received critical attention in the Journal of Paleontology, where Professor David Froehlich lauded the book's comprehensive coverage of North American rhinoceros species, but noted that the work would be less likely to appeal to nonspecialists, for whom the "bulk of the book" is likely to be "more than most would like to know about North American rhinos."[28] However, Froehlich wrote that for those "who need this kind of detail, this book is virtually unmatched and indispensable," noting that his "one real quibble" was the "lack of an overall discussion of rhinoceros evolution" that was geographically comprehensive, which Froehlich thought would "put these organisms in a global context for the nonspecialist."[28]

A May 2009 Reports of the National Center for Science Education review of Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters described Prothero as "equal to his task" of providing resources for evaluating the fossil record, and praised the book's breadth of coverage of its topic.[29] Although the reviewer criticized Prothero's treatment of creationist claims for the book's "polemical tone" and "contempt" for religion-based opponents of the biological sciences, he also noted that Prothero "is well versed in the history of science and religion and makes it clear that he sees no necessary conflict between science and religion."[29]

In a review of Prothero's 2011 book Catastrophes!: Earthquakes, Tsunamis, Tornadoes, and Other Earth-Shattering Disasters for the American Library Association, Prothero is described as "seiz[ing] teaching opportunities" to explain the methods involved with taking metrics of the types of disasters discussed.[30] While the reviewer praised Prothero for his approach to these topics and "recommended" the work, Prothero's "presentation becomes more complex" as the book discusses ice ages and global warming according to the reviewer, who states that "with all scientists convinced that warming is occurring as a result of human action, [...] he disparages the denialists."[30]

Awards and honors[edit]

Prothero has received a number of honors for his research as well as his lectures and books. In 1991, he received the Charles Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society for the outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40.[31] His book Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters received the 2007 PSP award for excellence in earth science from the Association of American Publishers.[32]

In 2013 he received the Diamond Award for Distinguished Achievement in Science and Technology from the Glendale Unified School District.[5] The National Association of Geoscience Teachers selected him for the 2013 James Shea Award.[33] His lectures on topics like evolution, fossil mammals and climate change have been featured at the Skeptic Society Lecture Series and at The Amaz!ng Meeting as well as the Paleontological Society where he was named a Distinguished Speaker in 1993-1994.

Prothero was awarded the 2015 Joseph T Gregory Service Award honoring his outstanding service to the welfare of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.[34]


  1. ^ Gould, S.J. (2002). The Structure of Evolutionary Theory. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0674006133. 
  2. ^ "Episode #4013". Retrieved February 18, 2013. 
  3. ^ Mr. Deity and the Flood (video). Lazy Eye Pictures. June 17, 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Brown, Christopher (20 Jul 2011). "Meet The Skeptics Podcast: Donald Prothero". Meet The Skeptics!. Retrieved 18 Aug 2014. 
  5. ^ a b Sowby, Ruth. "On the Town: Education gala raises $30,000 for students, Glendale Center Theatre debuts 'Crazy for You'". Glendale News-Press. Retrieved 17 February 2013. 
  6. ^ Barrett, Paul M. (April 2010). "Blowing Hot". Times Literary Supplement (5584): 32. 
  7. ^ Prothero, D.R.and Schoch, R.M. (2002). Horns, Tusks, and Flippers: The Evolution of Hoofed Mammals. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. 
  8. ^ Prothero, Donald R. (1993). "Fifty million years of rhinoceros evolution". Proceedings of the International Rhino Conference, San Diego Zoological Society: 81–87. 
  9. ^ Prothero, D.R., and N. Shubin (1989). The Evolution of Perissodactyls. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. pp. 142–175. 
  10. ^ Dawkins, Richard (2009). The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence of Evolution. London: Free Press. ISBN 978-1416594796. 
  11. ^ Prothero, D.R. (2007). Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. Columbia Univ. Press. pp. Forward, xiii. 
  12. ^ "Book Reviews". Origine. Retrieved March 1, 2013. 
  13. ^ "Are Rhinos Dinos?". Paleoworld. Season 2 ep 9. 1995. The Learning Channel. 
  14. ^ "Prehistoric Monsters Revealed". 2008. Retrieved February 28, 2013. 
  15. ^ "Killer Pig". Prehistoric Predators. Season 1 ep 4. 2008. National Geographic Channel. 
  16. ^ "Razor Jaws". Prehistoric Predators. Season 1 ep 5. 2009. National Geographic Channel. 
  17. ^ "Walking with Prehistoric Beasts". Retrieved March 2, 2013. 
  18. ^ "Bear Dog". Mega Beasts. Season 1 ep 5. 2010. Discovery Channel. 
  19. ^ "Creationism". Conspiracy Road Trip. October 2012. BBC. 
  20. ^ "MonsterQuest - The Last Dinosaur". Livedash. Retrieved February 19, 2013. 
  21. ^ Mayor, Adrienne. "Abominable Science" (PDF). Columbia University Press. Retrieved March 2, 2013. 
  22. ^ a b Colanduno, Derek. "Episode 214 Reality Check". Skeptic Magazine. Retrieved 2014-06-05. 
  23. ^ "Ten Distinguished Scientists and Scholars Named Fellows of Committee for Skeptical Inquiry - CSI". Retrieved 2015-10-15. 
  24. ^ "Editorial board". Skeptic Magazine. Retrieved February 27, 2013. 
  25. ^ "Donald Ross Prothero". John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. Retrieved February 27, 2013. 
  26. ^ "Ten Distinguished Scientists and Scholars Named Fellows of Committee for Skeptical Inquiry". Skeptical Inquirer. Center for Inquiry. Retrieved 13 October 2015. 
  27. ^ "Past Officers". Pacific Section, SEPM, Society for Sedimentary Geology. Retrieved February 18, 2013. 
  28. ^ a b Froehlich, David (2006-05-01). "The Evolution of North American Rhinoceroses by Donald R. Prothero Review by: David Froehlich". Journal of Paleontology 80 (3): 603. doi:10.2307/4095157. ISSN 0022-3360. 
  29. ^ a b Dodson, Peter (May–June 2009). "Review: Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters". Reports of the National Center for Science Education (National Center for Science Education) 29 (3): 39–40. Retrieved 2013-03-06. 
  30. ^ a b Zipp, L.S. (September 2011). "Prothero, Donald R.: Catastrophes!: earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and other Earth-shattering disasters". CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries (American Library Association) 49 (1): 147. ISSN 0009-4978. 
  31. ^ Stanley, Steven M (1992-07-01), Presentation of the Charles Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society to Donald R. Prothero. (awardee for 1991) (Society Records and Activities) (Transcript) 66 (4), Paleontological Society, Inc, p. 712, ISSN 0022-3360 
  32. ^ "Winners 2007" (Press release). Association of American Publishers. February 7, 2008. Retrieved February 28, 2013. 
  33. ^ "2013 Awardee - Dr. Donald R. Prothero". National Association of Geoscience Teachers. Retrieved 21 June 2013. 
  34. ^ "SVP Congratulates the 2015 Award Winners". The Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Retrieved 19 October 2015. 

External links[edit]