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Elisabeth S. Vrba (born 17 May 1942) is a paleontologist at Yale University. Vrba earned her Ph.D. in Zoology and Palaeontology at the University of Cape Town, in 1974. She is well known for developing the Turnover Pulse Hypothesis, as well as coining the word exaptation with colleague Stephen Jay Gould. Her specific interest is in the Family Bovidae (antelopes, etc.), but her current students are studying a wide range of species. She has been a faculty member at the Department of Geology & Geophysics, Yale University, since the early 1980s. She is married and has a daughter.[1]

Elisabeth Vrba
Elisabeth Vrba 2009-02.JPG
Vrba in 2009
Born(1942-05-17)May 17, 1942
Alma materUniversity of Cape Town
Scientific career
InstitutionsYale University

She is renowned as both a researcher and a teacher.

Her teaching practises and personality were described by a student. He wrote about her on Trowel Blazers, saying, "I had the pleasure and honor to meet ESV one time when I was still a student and I experienced not only her charisma and clear talking but also her humanity and openness (she patiently answered questions coming from hundreds of students, professors and children…sitting on a stairway)."[2]

Vrba studied zoology and mathematical statistics at the University of Cape Town to earn her undergraduate degree. She remained there for doctoral study in zoology and paleontology to earn her Ph.D. After receiving her doctorate, Vrba conducted her early research on African fossil records over the last several million years, tracking the sequence of fossils from analyzing the geological strata and analyzing the morphology of the fossils.[3]


Vrba and colleague Stephen Jay Gould are renowned for their theory of exaptation. Stemming from Charles Darwin's research on genetic traits developed during adaptation in evolution, Vrba and Gould's research suggested that the historical origin of a genetic trait is not always reflective of its contemporary function. Genetic adaptations may take on new functions and may serve a species a different purpose further on in evolution. Gould died in 2002,[4] but their theory has been widely referenced in recent years in popular science writing.[5][5][6] Vrba and Gould's theory has also been criticized] in recent years by scholars who assert that genetic traits are pressured by multiple factors, making it challenging to determine when adaptation or exaptation is at play.[7]

Vrba also constructed the turnover-pulse hypothesis, a significant addition to macroevolutionary theory.



  1. ^ Yount, Lisa (2007). A to Z of Women in Science and Math Revised Edition (Rev. ed.). New York: Infobase Pub. pp. 305–306. ISBN 1438107951.[unreliable source?]
  2. ^ "Elisabeth Vrba - TrowelBlazers".
  3. ^ 1964-, Oakes, Elizabeth H., (2002). International encyclopedia of women scientists. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 0816043817. OCLC 45835614.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  4. ^ "Remembering Stephen Jay Gould | Natural History Magazine". Retrieved 2018-01-08.
  5. ^ a b "Surveying the Genomic Landscape of Modern Mammals | DNA Science Blog". DNA Science Blog. 2015-01-29. Retrieved 2018-01-08.
  6. ^ Shapiro, James A. (2012-01-06). "More Evidence on the Real Nature of Evolutionary DNA Change". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2018-01-08.
  7. ^ Innovation, International. "Thank you - International Innovation". International Innovation. Retrieved 2018-01-08.