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Wolf-Ernst Reif Died on June 11, 2009

Wolf-Ernst Reif (27.6.1945-11.6.2009)

On the 11th of June 2009, Prof. Dr. Wolf-Ernst Reif died after a long illness. With his death, the world lost one of its most insightful, generous, and knowledgeable paleontologists. Wolf was born on the 27th of June 1945 in Heidenheim, in southern Germany. His interests in geology and paleontology began early: as a youth he collected fossils in the beautiful foothills of the Schwäbische Alb and prepared them at his home. He began his undergraduate studies of geology and paleontology under the supervision of Adolf Seilacher, then head of the University of Tübingen’s Institute of Geology and Paleontology, in 1965. During that time, Wolf worked on the fossil corals and sponge remains of the Nattheimer Chalk and described sponge spicules from these efforts in his first publication in 1967. His Diplomarbeit, which he published in 1971, was on the origin of the Muschelkalk, the middle part of the German Trias. Thereafter he began an investigation of the origin of bonebeds, particularly as related to the famous Grenz bonebed of the German Rhaetic.

At this time, Wolf began conducting his dissertation research on the form, phylogeny, and hydrodynamic function of shark scales. This work, starting with publications in 1974 and continuing throughout his life, exemplified the constructional morphological research programme (Sonderforschungsbereich [SFB] 53 of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) for which the University of Tübingen is well known.

After the completion of his dissertation in 1973, he became scientific assistant to Seilacher at the University of Tübingen and undertook leadership of the Konstructionsmorphologie project section in SFB 53. Two years later, he and his family spent a year in Hawaii, where, through funding by NATO, he continued his study of the hydrodynamic effect of shark scales. In this work, he determined the role of scale morphology in reducing current drag at different swimming speeds in sharks. The practical aspects of this research, reported in five of his publications, led to the industrial development of riblet foils that cut down on surface drag on ships and commercial airplanes. For this work, Wolf was honored with the Ernst Mach Prize of the German Aerospace Centre in Stuttgart in 1986.

Around this time I got to know Wolf, who served as supervisor on my own NATO postdoctoral fellowship in Tübingen in 1982-1983. A very engaging and multi-facetted person, he not only introduced me to the world of Konstruktionsmorphologie and the history of paleontology in Germany, he also taught me about, and how to make, Egyptian-style cylinder seals. Together we wrote three papers, one on Franz Baron Nopcsa and his contribution to Germanic paleobiology during the first third of the 20th century, another on shark swimming and caudal fin morphology, and the third an annotated bibliography of theoretical morphology. A fourth, on the biomechanical writings of Dominik von Kripp, we never finished.

In 1982, Wolf published his habilitation research on the odontode-regulation theory and the evolution of dermal skeletons and teeth. He was appointed to professor of paleontology as the successor of Prof. Frank Westphal in 1988.

Because of ever declining health, Wolf took early retirement in 1996. I say “retirement,” but for Wolf this was a time of even more scientific output: more than 50 scientific publications! He continued his work on constructional morphology (including theoretical morphology and morphospace), but also focused on Darwin’s evolutionary theory and the place of paleontology within it, suggesting that paleontological research was idiographic – to be assessed hermeneutically as individual case studies – and not nomothetic (law-like), as has been argued. Adjoined to these subjects, he also wrote about the history of German evolutionary biology and paleontology (including the influence [or lack of it] of the evolutionary synthesis on German paleontology), and the fundamentals of cladistics, which he critically investigated in more than 20 studies at the end of his life. During this time, Wolf-Ernst Reif also took over the editorship of the Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie. In November 2008, Wolf-Ernst Reif was appointed honorary member of the Palaeontologische Gesellschaft.

Wolf achieved international scientific fame above all through his investigation of the hydrodynamics of sharks, the microstructure of enamel in shark teeth, and through scientific- theoretical works on evolutionary theory and phylogenetics. His influence on others, certainly including me, was considerable. Perhaps more than he might have recognized, Wolf was my friend and inspiration. He will be missed.

David B. Weishampel
Center for Functional Anatomy and Evolution
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland 21205 

Photo courtesy of the University of Tuebingen. | Impressum