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Elisabeth Vrba

Elisabeth Vrba
Vrba in 2009
Born (1942-05-17)May 17, 1942
Hamburg, Germany
Nationality American
Fields Paleontology
Institutions Yale University
Alma mater University of Cape Town

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 graduate 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]

She is renowned as both a researcher and a teacher.

Her teaching practises and personality were written about by a student named Robertto Rozzi. 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)."


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 passed away in 2002 but their theory has been wide referenced in recent years in popular science writing on mammalian evolution, metabolic bases of evolution and evolutionary DNA change, as well as guitar playing. 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.

Vrba also constructed the Turnover-pulse Hypothesis, which is a significant addition to Macroevolution theory. This hypothesis tracks the rate that species adapt and survive. This is important because it explains how different animals within a species evolve at different rates.


  • Gould, S. J. and S. Vrba. (1982). "Exaptation—a missing term in the science of form." Paleobiology 8: 4-15.
  • Katherine Macinnes. "Evolving Vocabulary: the rise and fall of 'exaptation'" International Innovation, September 18, 2015,
  • Lewis, R. "Surveying the Genomic Landscape of Modern Mammals," DNA Science Blog, January 29, 2015.
  • Michael Garfield. "Exaptation of the Guitar" Guitar International, September 17, 2010,
  • Rozzi, Roberto. "Elisabeth Vrba | TrowelBlazers." 2014. Accessed October 17, 2015.
  • Shapiro, J. "More Evidence on the Real Nature of Evolutionary DNA Change," Huffington Post, The Blog, June 1, 2012.
  • Shell, E. R. (1999). "Waves of Creation." Discover 14 (May): 54-61.
  • Vrba, E. S. and Gould, S. J. (1986). "The hierarchical expansion of sorting and selection." Paleobiology. 12 (2): 217-228.
  • Vrba, E. S. (1993). "The Pulse That Produced Us." Natural History 102 (5) 47-51.


  1. ^ Yount, Lisa (2007). A to Z of Women in Science and Math Revised Edition. (Rev. ed.). New York: Infobase Pub. pp. 305–306.  
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