Neil Shubin

Neil Shubin, Associate Dean and Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, holds part of a fossil from Tiktaalik roseae.
Neil Shubin, Associate Dean and Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago, holds part of a fossil from Tiktaalik roseae. Photo © Dan Dry / University of Chicago.

Neil Shubin, PhD (born on December 22, 1960) is a paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and science writer. Shubin is best know in the popular media as being one of three principal investigators who in 2004 discovered the fossil tetrapodomorph fish Tiktaalik roseae. Neil Shubin's research interests center around trying to better understand how and why new anatomical features and faunas arose throughout evolutionary history.

His studies focus primarily on two critical time periods during the history of our planet, the Devonian and the Triassic.

Shubin's early research, while an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, focused on Devonian sites in Pennsylvania. From the rock exposures that lined newly cut roads, Shubin's team unearthed fossils of giant predatory fish, armored fish, and limb bones from early tetrapods. The fossils enabled Shubin's team to describe a river delta ecosystem that existed in the region 365 million years ago. But the bones Shubin's team recovered from the Pennsylvania sites were clearly too young to answer a question that was fast becoming Shubin's core interest: how did tetrapods evolve from fish? In Pennsylvania's Devonian rocks, the transition from fishes to the first tetrapods had already taken place. As Neil Shubin described it in a lecture he gave on his work, "the party was over by the time the rocks that we were working with [in Pennsylvania] were laid down."

So Shubin and his colleagues had to look elsewhere if they were going to find the fish-tetrapod transitional fossils they sought. They developed a fossil search image—a set of criteria that would guide their fossil hunting endeavors. The set out to find rocks of the right age, the right type and the right exposure.

After some deliberation and a serendipitous glance at a map in an undergraduate geology textbook, they found a location that matched their search criteria: Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canadian Arctic.

In 1999, Shubin and his team, which included vertebrate paleontologist Ted Daeschler and zoologist Farish Jenkins, Jr., started organizing an expedition to explore Devonian age rocks in the Canadian Arctic. They spent several years excavating sites that upon reflection appear to have been located at the bottom of an ancient ocean. Not a likely place to find a transitional fish-tetrapod fossil. Then in 2002, they moved their activities to Bird Quary, the site that two years later offered up the fossil remains of Tiktaalik.

Neil Shubin currently serves as a Robert R. Bensley Professor at the University of Chicago where he is also the Associate Dean for Organismal and Evolutionary Biology and a Professor on the Committee on Evolutionary Biology. Shubin is also a Provost at The Field Museum in Chicago.

Talks and Publications by Neil Shubin

In a two-part video (part I and part II), Shubin discusses the planning and research that lead up to the discovery of Tiktaalik.

His book, Your Inner Fish, explores the connection between paleontology—in particular, the anatomy of fossil life forms—and present day human anatomy.

It delves into the subject of how humans are shaped by their ancestors and what it means for who we are today.

Important scientific publications by Neil Shubin include:

  • Daeschler, E., Shubin, N., & Jenkins, F. (2006) A Devonian tetrapod-like fish and the evolution of the tetrapod body plan. Nature, 440(7085), 757-763. DOI: 10.1038/nature04639
  • Shubin, N., Daeschler, E., & Jenkins, F. (2006) The pectoral fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the origin of the tetrapod limb. Nature, 440(7085), 764-771. DOI: 10.1038/nature04637
  • Shubin, N., Tabin, C., & Carroll, S. (2009) Deep homology and the origins of evolutionary novelty. Nature, 457(7231), 818-823. DOI: 10.1038/nature07891


Tiktaalik roseae: The Fishapod

Neil Shubin, PhD (Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy)

Neil Shubin, PhD (University of Chicago News)