2022 Honorary Member - Elisabeth S. Vrba

Dr. Elisabeth S. Vrba is a mammalogist, a paleontologist, and an evolutionary biologist.  She was born in Hamburg, Germany, but grew up on a farm in Namibia where she acquired an early interest in the diversity of African bovids, in particular their often spectacular seasonal migrations. After completing a PhD at the University of Capetown, South Africa, in 1974, Dr. Vrba spent about 20 years as the Head of the Department of Paleontology and Paleoanthropology and Assistant Director of the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria, while leading two major paleontological excavations in South Africa.

In 1986, Dr. Vrba accepted a position as Professor in the Dept. of Geology and Geophysics at Yale, where she soon became Curator of both Vertebrate Paleontology and Vertebrate Osteology at the Peabody Museum.  For the 20 years prior to her retirement, Dr. Vrba also directed the YIBS ECOSAVE Center, which focuses on rare and endangered mammals.  A complete list of her publications could not be located, but a section of her CV titled “Selected Publications” lists 100 items, at least a dozen of which have been cited over 300 times, with one receiving nearly 6,000 citations to date.

The focus of Dr. Vrba’s research has been bovids and hominins.  She has published many descriptions of new fossils and discussed their implications for our understanding of mammalian evolution. She has also conducted analyses of the phylogeny of ruminants – both living and fossil – particularly bovids and some tribes therein.  One nominator commented that from the 1970s to the 1990s, Dr. Vrba “almost single-handedly established the basic principles of mammalian paleoecology and the scientific basis for evaluating hominin evolution within the context of paleoclimate change.”  A lifetime of study of ruminants eventually yielded the co-authored book Antelopes, deer, and relatives: fossil record, behavioral ecology, systematics, and conservation in 2000.

Dr. Vrba is known primarily for her contributions to macroevolutionary biology, including novel ideas about the origins of mammalian diversity.  Many of these are clearly summarized in a Journal of Mammalogy paper in 1992 entitled “Mammals as a key to evolutionary theory,” which has received 425 citations. Together with Stephen J Gould, Dr. Vrba coined and promoted the term “exaptation” to describe how a trait shaped by natural selection for a particular function can become co-opted for use for a different purpose. 

Dr. Vrba is also well-known for her “turnover-pulse hypothesis,” which describes how changes in climate, through physical changes to the environment, can often result in a period of rapid extinction, migration, and appearance of new species across multiple lineages.  She tested these hypotheses with data from African antelopes and hominins.  Many of the ideas described in the turnover-pulse hypothesis are reflected in modern refugial theory.  Dr. Vrba has also proposed and tested hypotheses about species sorting versus species selection, including describing differences between ecologically generalized and ecologically specialized clades with regard to extinction and speciation rates.

On her website, Dr. Vrba commented on her own research thusly: “I prefer to push the frontiers rather than sail through tranquil, well-traveled seas.”  A distinguished nominator commented that she was “one of the greatest thinkers I have encountered in my career.”  ASM is proud to recognize Dr. Elisabeth S. Vrba as an Honorary Member of the Society.