Professor Jim Sprinkle Retires

Jim Sprinkle
Jim Sprinkle

Jim Sprinkle, First Mr. and Mrs. Charles E. Yager Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, has retired after 42 years of teaching and conducting research at the University. A celebration in his honor is being planned for Friday, November 15.

His research focused on Paleozoic marine communities and especially on early (and now mostly extinct) echinoderms. Echinoderms are marine invertebrates with protective calcite spines and plates. Some, like the blastoids and ctenocystoids (which he named with Dick Robison in 1969), are now extinct. Others, such as starfish, sea urchins, and crinoids, have survived in the oceans to the present day.

He produced over 180 publications and supervised 8 master’s theses and 9 Ph.D. dissertations. Seven of these former graduate students now have academic careers, while others went into industry.

“Jim taught me that the most important things in science are creativity and attention to detail,” says Colin Sumrall (MS ’91, PhD ‘96), assistant professor of paleontology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “Jim has always been a really great sounding board for some of my more unconventional views of echinoderm evolution, always poking around the edges and uncovering holes in my ideas.”

Sumrall says Sprinkle has been the key person helping him define and refine the directions of his research career. He also noted that his thoroughness and tenacity have led to big advances in our understanding of echinoderms.

“Jim’s taxonomic descriptions are simply the finest in the echinoderm field in terms of seeing and documenting all of the aspects of the organisms regardless of perceived importance,” he says.

Now an emeritus professor, Sprinkle plans to complete a large number of research projects left over from his many years of teaching. Most of these involve naming and describing previously unknown fossil echinoderms, and trying to work out their evolutionary relationships.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Sprinkle’s career documenting the life and evolution of echinoderms began while he was growing up in a suburb of Boston. There were the fossil collecting trips across the border in New York State with junior high science teachers. There was the summer job at Harvard’s zoology museum. And there was the high school science fair project in which he identified and described some castoff fossil blastoids from the museum and others he’d bought from collectors. He shared first prize in his school and went on to an honorable mention at the state fair in Boston.

What probably sealed the deal was a chance discovery while taking a summer field geology course at Indiana University’s Field Station in southwest Montana after his sophomore year at MIT. On one of his mapping projects, he noticed blastoids weathering out of some limestone slabs. He brought chunks of this rock back to camp and put them in Styrofoam cups with bubbling acid to dissolve away the surrounding limestone.

“By the time I was done, I got 25 or 30 blastoids out, which was more than anybody had ever found in that part of Montana,” he says.

Ray Gutschick, a Notre Dame paleontologist doing field work in the area, was excited and enlisted Sprinkle to work as a field assistant over the next two and a half summers, during which they collected 1500 blastoids from all over western Montana. It took them 25 years, however, to describe the specimens, including two new genera and eight new species, in Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology Bulletin.

He notes that 15 out of 20 classes of echinoderms that have ever lived are now extinct, including blastoids.

“So there are no living representatives from those groups,” he says. “If you’re going to know about them, you’ve got to go to the fossils and work out what’s going on–how they lived, how they’re related to each other, how much diversity there was, things like that.”

He says fossils are also critical for understanding where the living echinoderms such as starfish came from. That’s because echinoderms rapidly diversified 500 million years ago, near the beginning of the Paleozoic.

“Just looking at living animals will only get you so far,” he says. “You get some ideas of where things join up going into the past, but that’s got a lot of problems with it. You’re too removed from when the interesting things were going on.”