On 2 March 2022 at 7pm, the annual Clough Medal lecture took place for the first time as combined physical and virtual event. The medallist for 2021/22 was Dr Tim Smithson who gave a lecture entitled the “A new beginning: recent discoveries in the early Carboniferous of northern Britain reveal rapid faunal replacement following the end-Devonian extinction”. He was presented with his medal by Dr Tom Challands, the President of the Edinburgh Geological Society.
A brief outline of Tim’s career was described by Tom: Following his undergraduate studies at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne (UNUT), 1972- 1975) Tim started his PhD under Alec Panchen at UNUT in 1976 but, being somewhat regarded as a genius in his field, he was offered a post-doctorate position in Montreal to work with Robert Carroll at McGill University before completing his PhD. By the time he had completed his PhD in 1983 Tim had already published four academic papers. Again, before completing his PhD, he was awarded a Sir Jamed Knott Fellowship at UNUT until 1984. Tim’s academic record is all the more impressive given that the major part of his career was spent in teaching and managerial roles in further education and not as a university academic.
During his time in further education (1985-2012), Tim was still actively engaged in fieldwork and research and published 18 research papers including perhaps his most notable work is his discovery and description in 1989 of Westlothiana lizziae (aka ‘Lizzie’) at first considered to be the earliest reptile but now considered to lie on the amniote stem. Besides ‘Lizzie’ Tim has described no less than ten new tetrapods and fourteen new fish taxa from Scotland.
Between 2012-17, he became involved in the highly successful TW:eed (Tetrapod World: early evolution and diversification) project, which was led by the late Prof. Jenny Clack at Cambridge University. He currently holds a position with Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge and continues to publish on all manner of things fossilferous.
Tim’s provided a well-crafted talk telling us about the history of the people involved and also the nature of discoveries. From Prof Alfred Romer (1894-1973), through Prof Stanley Westoll FRS (1912-1995), a previous holder of the Clough Medal in 1976-77, and on until the late Stan Wood (1939-2012); Tim explained how each had played their part in filling the fossil record of the late Devonian/ early Carboniferous period between 359 and 330 Ma.
In his summary, Tim explained that:
• Vertebrates recovered quickly following the end-Devonian extinction;
• There is no evidence for either a fall in atmospheric oxygen or a post-extinction trough;
• Vertebrate diversity is much greater in the Early Carboniferous than previously recognised;
• For tetrapods this diversification probably began in the late Devonian; and
• Romer’s Gap is not a natural phenomenon but is an artefact of previous unsuccessful collecting.
The vote of thanks was given by Dr Dave Millward (ex-BGS) and who thanked Tim for an excellent talk which everyone had enjoyed. He was also thanked for a couple of things; i) being a Zoologist who was also interested in the rocks and ii) for Tim’s (and also the late Prof Jenny Clack’s) word-smithery around the naming of their fossils finds.
If Fellows weren’t able to attend physically or virtually, a recording can be found on our website.