John spent the early years of his life in Belgium, where he was brought up doing natural history activities with his father. Weekends involved catching butterflies, collecting fossils or watching birds and this is how John’s love of natural history blossomed. This upbringing has had a profound effect on his broad research interests, which cover everything from palaeoanthropology, ornithology, sedimentology, archaeology, ecology and palaeoecology.
The width of John’s research interests are reflected by his varied background, encompassing earth sciences, life sciences and archaeology. He completed his undergraduate degree in Geology at Royal Holloway and a Master’s in Quaternary Science at the Guildhall University. His PhD in Zoology at UCL focused on the evolution of birds during the last 2 million years.
Prior to joining BU John held numerous high profile positions, including a post-doctoral research post at the University of Cambridge studying the ecology, adaptations and extinction of the Neanderthals, and a similar role at UCL. Most recently John worked at the Natural History Museum, assessing collections of the biotic responses to climate change, incorporating several million specimens across 5 different departments!
Other areas that interest John include the location of ice age refugia, the timings of species evolution and how palaeoecological data can be used as evidence of what may happen in the future.
John’s work has taken him all over the world and he has carried out research in countries such as Spain, Belgium and Sweden just to name a few. However, John states that he faced his most unusual challenge in Abu Dhabi, where he excavated an entire Whale skeleton, albeit not without the help of a very capable team of conservators.
So what is John’s biggest career achievement so far? “Managing to become a professional palaeontologist which is not easy as the demand is not great. Early on, while still a teenager, I discovered a new species of auk in the Pliocene marine sediments of Antwerp which was recently named Alca stewarti. This helped fuel my determination to pursue a career in fossils,” he said.
When thinking about the pressing issues in his area of research John states: “The biggest issue in my area of research is that the new methods being developed by scientists studying ancient DNA are in the process of changing the agenda of Quaternary earth science. We are moving into an era where we can study the population dynamics of animals and plants in the recent past. This signifies that we will be beginning to study evolution in greater detail through time and with a much smaller degree of inference than before. This is why I often use the words Evolutionary Palaeoecology to describe what I do, not only because this is my aspiration but because now it is actually possible.”
In his spare time John enjoys walking in the countryside, where seeing a butterfly and its food plant, or a noisy reed bed and some cuckoos calling in the background, constantly refresh his love for what he does. That’s when he’s not listening to blues music!