Adolf “Dolf” Seilacher, the Grand Old Man of trace fossil analysis, has died

Last week, one of (or arguably the) greatest palaeoichnologist, Adolf Seilacher, died at the age of 89. I met him only rarely, and had little professional interaction with him, but that little makes me mourn his death more than I would mourn most other colleagues, even many that I worked or work with closely.

When I was a young student goofing off at Tübingen University I was lucky to have many excellent professors, luminaries in their field. Adolf Seilacher, however, stuck out in many ways, although he was rarely present: “Seili”, as German students called him behind his back, had retired before I even enrolled, but like many of his colleagues he would never stop being a researcher and teacher. Although he spent much time on Yale and in the field, he usually taught a compact course in Tübingen every second summer, and one year I was able to attend. The course was on trace fossils, Seilacher’s main research area, but instead of “Trace fossil analysis” (or whatever the actual German title was), it should have been called “How to be a good scientist, on the example of trace fossils” or some such.

I’ll have some more to say about this course later, but first let me tell you about Seili as a person. From spring through fall, everybody in the building always was aware of his arrival, because he invariably arrived on his trust old Vespa. I do not know how many he owned in succession, but given the work-out he gave them there must have been many. Over the course of the trace fossil analysis course and various conversations I had with him over the years there were quite a few stories, all research-related, that included “mei Veschpa” (yes, he had quite a Swabian accent). It all started, I gather, when as a young grad student or freshly promoted doctor he did not have the means to travel by car to sample the Pyrenees for trace fossils. So he packed as few personal effects as possible, loaded his Vespa with himself, his wife and a backpack that “threatened to work as an involuntary friction brake on the rear tyre”, as he put it, and set off. The narration was accompanied by a hilarious pantomime of the vehicles leaning on slopes up and down. As with many other stories, I am sure some embellishment was involved – but as I came to realise very quickly the embellishments were never meant to increase Seili’s prestige, but rather to drive home the lesson more forcefully, usually via humour. All of these lessons, and nearly every story had one, were delivered with boyish enthusiasm and twinkling eyes, had little to do with being a conforming scientist, and more with being an independent, active, diligent and resourceful inquisitive person. Much, however, was often left unsaid, and it could take me a while to figure out what exactly the central message was.

The funniest and certainly weirdest story Seilacher told us was that of a field trip to the deserts of western Egypt during which a neighbouring research camp was raided by Libyans, who abducted a young American researcher. The poor man was quickly and unceremoniously set free again at the door of some US embassy in Northern Africa, IIRC, and Seilacher thought no more of it for a few years. Then, he was accosted at a conference by a young man he had never met before, as far as he could recall, who stepped up to him and said words to the effect of “great talk – by the way, you’re the man who got me abducted!” It turned out that the Libyans had intended to abduct the world-famous Yale & Tübingen professor, and by accident driven to the wrong camp, abducting an insignificant PhD student instead of Seilacher. Seili concluded the story by remarking dryly that this encounter made him think twice about the personal invitation letter from Muammar Ghaddafi for a research stay in Libya! Needless to say, he didn’t go.

Another story, one that he repeated twice during the one-week trace fossil course (which already tells you that its lesson is important) was that of another meeting with a colleague at a conference, who tore into Seilacher’s just-given talk on trace fossils from some site in Jordan or Morocco or so (sorry, the message got across so well that I forgot the details). The colleague informed Seili that he had been to the very same rock exposure the summer before and had found plenty of trilobite body fossils, which Seilacher said didn’t occur there, but nary a one of the trilobite traces (Cruzianas) that Seili had talked about. He must, insisted the colleague, have mixed up the cliffs and formations! Seili, on the other hand, was quite adamant that yes, he was quite able to read a map, thank you very much, and that he was quite sure of the place and formation. The two of them parted with the conflict unresolved, but with an agreement that would allow a solution to be found a while later: that they would meet there and check out the place together. When they actually managed to make the joint field work happen, they found that they had indeed been talking about the same place. Now, one went left, the other right, to hunt for fossils. Thirty minutes later them met again. Unsurprisingly, Seilacher’s backpack was full of trace fossils. However, his colleague had a backpack full of trilobites! Having seen each other’s spoils, they now changed sides – and golly, the place was indeed full of both body fossils and traces! Lesson learned: collection bias is much stronger than even the most experienced researchers will be ready to believe!

Seili had many idiosyncrasies that make for great story-telling, foremost that one could never know if he was being serious, or making an important point in an elaborate way – or simply pulling one’s leg! A certain playfulness and sense of humour also pervaded his scientific work, most notably expressed in some of the species epithets he coined. Asteriacites gugelhupf is a track made by a suspension feeder from the Carboniferous of Egypt, the bilobed scratch pattern of the upturned arms suggests an asteroid rather than a brittlestar. Seilacher named the trace, because of its similarity in shape, after a cake that is a favourite for birthdays in Germany. Such names that were driven by everyday connotations and associations crop up quite often in his works, as well as other versions of “speaking names”. To Seilacher, science and everyday life were not separated, but one, and while some may see some of his work as science outreach, to him it was just natural, and communicating science to non-scientists came natural to him.

Others way more qualified than I will have much to say about Seilacher’s scientific work, his impact on palaeontology and ichnology, his Crafoord Prize and so on. I’ll just quickly note a huge part of his life effort that falls squarely within the outreach category, and has had a profound impact on the perception of palaeoichnology: the Fossil Art exhibition. This travelling exhibition takes casts of trace fossils and presents them as if they were works of art – accompanied by short texts succinctly explaining what they are. The overall presentation always has the character of an art exhibit, and Seilacher and his collaborator, Tübingen preparator (or should I say preparation magician?) Hans Luginsland selected mostly specimens with an immedatie artistic appeal. The latest version of the catalogue book for the exhibition is available in German from Schweizbart. You can find (low quality) photographs and details on many of its panels it on this page that accompanied a previous stop in Denmark. The most famous one, I guess is this one with plenty of Cruziana on it.

The show has travelled world-wide, with the last two stops in 2013 having been the ETH Zurich and the Senckenberg satellite in Dresden. As far as I could ascertain, the show has now been gifted to Senckenberg, but I was unable to find out where it will move next. I hope the death of Adolf Seilacher will not result in it being stored and forgotten, as it is a beautiful and striking way of arousing interest for palaeontology, and a branch often ignored and unknown to many at that, in the general public, fascination people of all ages and backgrounds.

But now it is really time to come back to the one Seilacher course I took. Trace Fossil Analysis was held in the summer break, with the lecture hall in the main building of the Institute of Geosciences in Tübingen stifling hot or, windows open, noisy and hot, quickly creating a drowsy atmosphere. Still, most attendants were highly motivated, as was the lecturer. We quickly went through some charismatic and historically important trace fossils, including Hitchcock’s ‘birds’ and, obviously, the Chirotherium story. Then came the first invertebrate tracks, and for some tedium set in. And Seilacher proved to be as excellent a lecturer as I had heard: he’s explain things repeatedly, until everbody had had ample chance to understand things, but didn’t mind that some of the quicker minds blanked out after the second repetition. So once he moved on to the next topic, he always raised his voice slightly to ‘wake’ us all again, before he proceeded, with a smile, with the next weird traces. Sometimes, he could hardly keep from laughing when suddenly, people sat back up who had lain down across several seats while he had been talking with his back turned.

At the end of the course, he gave each of us a trace fossil to comment on, as an oral exam. Given the large number of failures and successes he had seen during his long career, it was very touching to see how he tried very hard to coax a modicum of coherently presented knowledge out of the least gifted and interested, so that he could pass them and give them the coveted “Schein” (Attendance Certificate; grades were irrelevant as they didn’t count into the final grade for the diploma), and how tensely he waited for the replies from the obviously smart and interested – as well as his relief when they did perform well. Seili really cared for every young student who attended, and he understood the strength, weaknesses and motivations of all of them!

Let me end this post before I now get all maudlin. Seilacher will be greatly missed by many colleagues, as the many facebook posts already show. I hope that his legacy lives on in the works of the many students and colleagues he influenced.

 

 

 

 

 

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About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy working at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
This entry was posted in ichnofossil, Palaeoart, sad news, Tübingen. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Adolf “Dolf” Seilacher, the Grand Old Man of trace fossil analysis, has died

  1. Hans Sues says:

    Herzlichen Dank für diesen prächtigen Nachruf, Heinrich. Dolph war ein schwäbisches Urviech. Ich habe eine Fahrt auf dem Rücksitz seiner Vespa überlebt und viele schöne Erinnerungen an Diskussionen mit ihm.

    Hans

  2. Claus Beyer says:

    Dear Heinrich Mallison
    Thank you for the words about Dr. Seilacher whome I knew well from my work for Fossil Art. There are so many good stories about Dolf and it was interesting to meet him and listen to his lectures and stories in connection with the Fossil Art tour. Especially during the World Geology congress in Norway where Dolf gave fascinating small lectures at each cast. Now an era is over. A long and extremely productive life has ended. As you, I hope that the exhibition “Fossil Art” will start travelling again. For the moment it is packed down in a basement in Dresden where it does not serve the wish of Dolf which was to show the beauty of trace fossils, by showing the most spectacular of them, to the public including persons who may not be so scientifically inclined.Since I started managing it in 2005 it has been constantly travelling to about 20 localities from Bergen in Norway to Bucaresti in Romania. There are still many museums who have not shown it including the large museums in Berlin and Suttgart although I tried several times to bring it there. Hopefully Senckenberg will eventually rebuilt the exhibition and send it on tour again. It had reached its highest standard when exhibited at ETH, so it is a pity if this spectacular exhibition which was Dolf Seilachers “baby”, as he used to say, should be hidden and forgotten. Maybe it would be an idea to make a combined exhibition and ichnology conference next year when Dolf would have turned 90 years old.
    Dolf liked to travel in Libya where I met him. To Ghaddaffis invitation to Dolf I can add, that it may actually have been out of true scientific interest since Moammar Ghaddafi studied geology at the unversity of Sabha when he was young.
    Studying geology can lead many ways. For Dolf it lead to a remarkable carrier in the field of ichnology to which he contributed numerous papers and new and innovative thoughts which we are many who can thank him for.

    • Claus,
      many thanks for your reply! I do hope to see Fossil Art resurrected, and the sooner the better. As to why the exhibition never made it to Berlin: I have a very clear idea what or who is responsible. Maybe the future will bring about an opening, when the current renovation chaos is over :)
      As for Libya: what a weird series of transitions this country and dictator Ghaddafi have gone through! Several of my colleagues worked there, including women, without any problems – only a few years after such projects would have been utterly impossible. And in recent years one of them has seen his projects thwarted time and again. I really hope the country can find peace and progress soon.

  3. Brian H says:

    You are so right about, “How to be a good scientist.” I actually did do my Diplom with Dolph (I never heard “Seili” in 4 years in Tübingen). A formative point for me as a scientist was the time we were on a fieldtrip and I found a small fossil I did not recognize. I took it to Dolph who did not tell me what it was but instead said, “Look at it. What do you see?” I described it but still didn’t know what it was. Dolph asked, “Do you see lines?” I said I didn’t and he said, “All right, no growth lines, how does it grow?” I think I suggested in stages. “Which group of organisms with good fossilization potential does that?” Of course, arthropods! I had found a piece of a crab shell, probably discarded in a growth moult. More importantly I realized I had really had all the information for the answer all along, it was simply a matter of observation and deduction. I can now only recall few of the many ammonite genera committed to memory for my ammonite “Schein” in Tübingen but to this day Dolph teaching me to think sees daily application in almost any endeavor, scientific or not.

    • Brian,
      “Seili” may have come in use only after Seilacher went from theoretical to practical retirement, i.e. stopped giving lectures and courses except for the summer break intensive ones. He simply wasn’t as close to my generation of students as to those studying ten years before. I am so glad that I was able to attend that one course! :)

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