Paleonet: Remembering W. Bruce Saunders

Greenfest-Allen, Emily allenem at
Tue Mar 5 19:37:49 GMT 2019

It is with sadness that I share with you the news of the death of Dr. W. Bruce Saunders.  Bruce passed away on 27 February of complications from cardiac failure.  I last corresponded with Bruce just after the new year; he had been working on a paper together with Bruce Carlson, but due to his health asked that the two of us finish it without him.  His passing still came as quite a surprise as, at the time, his outlook had been positive and he was full of plans for additional projects over the coming year.  I first met Bruce as a starry eyed high school junior on a tour of Bryn Mawr College’s campus, fully determined to become a paleontologist.  He was a true advocate of women’s education and very proud to be part of the historically important Geology program at Bryn Mawr. He made sure his students all not only knew, but also appreciated their legacy.   For me, he was both a mentor and, in many ways, a second father.  He went above and beyond to help me grow as both an individual and a researcher.   He was my advocate from the start, finding work study for me in the Geology department (instead of the cafeteria) and dragging me to NAPC my freshman year, where he promptly abandoned me to my own devices while he went off “courting” (his words) his soon to be new wife (Nancy).  Bruce continued to mentor me through my post-graduate education – he was a member of my graduate committee and welcomed me back to Bryn Mawr for my first post-doctoral appointment.  He crashed my wedding.   And a few years later,  spent many hours trying to convince my daughter he was her grandfather.  He will be truly missed by not only myself but also my family.

He married again in May 2018 to a wonderful woman, Michelle Meier, in Granville, OH.   If anyone wishes to send condolences, her address is 4491 Price Rd., Granville PH 43055.  Cards are fine, but she asked for no flowers or other items.

I have attached below the text of a short “history” of his career, that Bruce penned to be shared with his friends and colleagues.


Emily Greenfest-Allen, PhD
Penn Institute for Biomedical Informatics
University of Pennsylvania

William Bruce Saunders (1942-2019) was born in Alabama, but his family moved to Peru when he was a child, where his father was involved in the mining industry. Growing up in the high central Andes was vitally important in setting his trajectory toward natural science, and by the age of 12 he began to assemble paleontological collections. He left home for schooling in the U.S. at the age of 14, but after a series of misadventures at boarding schools, he was sent to live with an uncle in Arkansas.  He majored in Geology at the University of Arkansas (B.Sc. 1966, M.Sc. 1968), and the University of Iowa (Ph.D. 1970), the leading center for the study of ammonoids, a group of extinct molluscan fossils and his life-long specialty.

Bruce joined the Geology faculty at Bryn Mawr College in 1970 and remained for 40 years, teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in paleontology, evolutionary biology, and various aspects of sedimentary rocks.  During a Jr. Faculty Research Leave in 1974 at the Academy of Sciences, Moscow, he established paleontologic collaborations that lasted throughout his career.  He also conducted field-work in the South Urals and Middle Asia at a time when western access was unheard of.  He collaborated with colleagues in Great Britain and elsewhere, publishing scores of paleontologic articles and monographs and was active in international stratigraphic and paleontologic societies.

Bruce became increasingly fascinated with the living chambered nautilus as the only other surviving molluscan cephalopod that posseses an external shell, similar to the ammonoids, and he felt that Nautilus begged to be studied as a living counterpart to the extinct forms.  Its striking coiled shell had been known since Aristotle, but the animal was not seen alive until 1832, and there had been only a handful of mostly anatomical studies completed by zoologists since then.  In 1977, joined by Claude Spinosa, another Iowa alumnus and former office-mate, he spent three months in Palau, Micronesia, which was life-changing for both men. They were permitted by the local tribal leaders to trap Nautilus (at depths of ~1000 m) on the promise that they would be released. Each animal’s shell was tagged and measured in order to permit tracking postmortem movement, in the assumption that the animals would not survive the rigors of being brought to warm surface waters.  A month later, the first recaught Nautilus survivors began showing up in traps, opening a new spectrum of research on growth and longevity, long-term movement, the use of baited still and movie cameras to study the animal in its natural habitat, predation, population demographics, genetics, and many other aspects of Nautilus.  Such studies required expeditionary research efforts, often in challenging conditions.  Bruce would not deny that old-style field-based marine biology held special attraction, sometimes using dugout canoes to support SCUBA operations in remote areas.  The hunt for Nautilus resulted in the discovery of populations in Indonesia, Micronesia, Philippines, Samoa, the Great Barrier Reef, Western Australia, and six separate populations in Papua New Guinea.  In 1981, the Palauan form was named a new species in honor of the new republic, N. belauensis.  In 1984, with L. E. Davis, he discovered a population of the first Nautilus scrobiculatus to be seen alive since being named as a shell-only based species by Lightfoot in 1786.  (This was named as a new genus, Allonautilus, with P. Ward in 1997).

The Nautilus work reflected Bruce’s transition to marine biology for the next 20 years, supported by 25 research grants, resulting in 44 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on Nautilus and Allonautilus in leading journals such as Paleobiology and Science. This was capped by a major book co-edited with colleague Neil Landman, in 1987, involving 36 paleontologists and 29 biologists that was regarded as groundbreaking.  The book was revised and reprinted in 1999 and is still referred to as ”the Nautilus book.” He used the experiences recounted there to inspire students to think independently and to chase their dreams, and championed leadership roles for females in the male-dominated geological sciences, in which Bryn Mawr College had led the way dating back to Florence Bascom, founder of the Geology Department.

Bruce chaired the Geology Department at Bryn Mawr College for 10 years. In 1986, he and close friend biologist Stephen Gardiner collaborated to offer one of the first integrated multidisciplinary courses at Bryn Mawr-Haverford Colleges, “Evolution”, co-taught by faculty in Biology, Geology, Psychology, Anthropology, and even Veterinary Science, from Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and the University of Pennsylvania. Both regarded this course as the highlight of their teaching careers at Bryn Mawr College, and the course became the most highly attended mid-level course in the sciences, with more than 1,000 students participating during the first 25 years. The inaugural offering featured the late Steven J. Gould, who joined the class for several days of interaction, and the course became required for a number of majors at Bryn Mawr College. One of the highlights saw Steve and Bruce engaging in faux conflict during their team-taught format that drew on differences in faculty personalities as well as diverse specialties, and that taught that consensus in thought is rare in emerging sciences, which are- and should be- dominated by debate and disagreement.

Cardiac issues interfered with Pacific field-work after 1995, and he turned to a theoretical analysis of a 100 million year data set developed with Bryn Mawr post-doctoral students Andrew Swan, David Work, Svetlana Nikolaeva, and Emily Greenfest-Allen (BMC ’81).  This study also broke new ground, spanning evolutionary history of shell form in ammonoids across mass extinction boundaries, but it was personally tame by comparison to the challenges of field work in the Pacific; so he began racing a vintage sports car at tracks from Watkins Glen to Toronto, Pocono, and Virginia.  (He confirmed what all self-supported racers know:  racing is a great way to make a small fortune …. out of a large one.)

Upon retirement in 2009, Bruce continued writing and racing until silenced by cardiac failure in 2019.  On his passing, his ashes were scattered at archeological mound sites in Ohio and Louisana, next to those of his younger brother, noted archeologist Joe W. Saunders.  Bruce Saunders is survived by his wife, Michelle Meier, and former wife Victoria Pinnick. He was predeceased by his second wife, Nancy Godfrey. He is also survived by his son, Justin, who accompanied him to Papua New Guinea in 1987, and by three step-children, Phillip, Cara, and Lang.

Let it be known that Bruce followed his own course, without pomp or circumstance, leaving his legacy in the scores of scientific contributions marked by single-minded dedication to a rigorous data base of thousands of released Nautilus and documented ammonoids  (reposited at the US National Museum of Natural History and the American Museum of Natural History) that will stand on its own.  As one colleague recently wrote, the data he assembled on Pacific Nautilus populations and ecology will likely not be matched in our lifetimes.  Bruce was pleased to assist the successful effort to see Nautilus achieve protected, endangered species status in 2016, helping to ensure that this emblematic living fossil will survive for a few more millennia.

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