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‘Truly a spectacular thinker’: Paleontologist James Valentine dies at 96

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An inspirational figure for many in fields such as macroevolutionary research, paleontologist James W. Valentine died April 7 at age 96 of natural causes.


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MAY 17, 2023

James W. Valentine, a paleontologist known for his humble nature yet striking mind that made him a key figure in the field of paleontology, died of natural causes at age 96 on April 7.

Following his upbringing in Los Angeles, Valentine joined the U.S. Navy in 1944, Berkeley News reported. The G.I. Bill funded Valentine’s schooling at Phillips College in Oklahoma, after which he earned his doctoral degree at UCLA.

Stewart Edie, a paleobiologist and curator of fossil bivalvia in the Department of Paleobiology at the Smithsonian Institute Natural History Museum, collaborated with Valentine and David Jablonski to answer the question of how functional ecologies, as Edie described them, of long-extinct species persist in modern species. 

Edie wrote in an email that a paper authored by himself, Jablonski and Valentine strung together Valentine’s original ideas on the topic of functional ecologies and his “knack for testing in empirical arenas” in an attempt to piece together an answer to their question of biodiversity after mass extinctions — one Edie still busies himself solving today.

“We had a great time collaborating ever since, for more than 30 years,” Jablonski, a professor at the University of Chicago in the department of geophysical sciences, said in an email. “Although a fair amount of my effort has involved laborious compilation, vetting, and analyses of big datasets that ultimately confirmed ideas that Jim had formulated years earlier, on a few scraps of data and his brilliant intuition.”

Besides his well-known scholarship in paleontology and fields beyond, Valentine proved generous and kind in nature, noted Shan Huang, assistant professor of paleobiology at the University of Birmingham and postdoc with Jablonski.

“He was a gigantic figure in the field when I got to interact with him, yet, interaction with him was always easy (and inspiring),” Huang wrote in an email. “Many of my colleagues aspire to be like him.”

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MAY 17, 2023