The People of Paleontology
The people of paleontology range from independent fossil workers to university employees to museum curatorsto amateur enthusiasts. While their jobs, their scientific focus, and their favorite paleo experiences may differ, they share several "characters." Most of all, they love fossils. They love ancient monsters. They love taking a glimpse into the past. And here is a glimpse at a selection of the people who bring the past home to us.
Phil Currie, from the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Ontario, once saw an ankle bone sticking out of the groundit turned out to be an absolutely complete Albertosaurus. Phil is a scientist who hunts for fossils all over the world. He has found new species and collected fossils from Asia, South America, and North America. He’s found countless types of duckbills, T. rex relatives, Triceratops relatives, oviraptors, and Troodons. He may have found more species of dinosaurs on more continents than any living person. He’s also the world’s expert on meat-eating dinosaurs.
When crawling around on a cliff face in Morocco, Paul Sereno, of the University of Chicago, found the only good Carcharodontosaurus skull. Like Phil, Paul roams the globe looking at dinosaur bonesincluding unidentified bones found by other researchers. He also classifies dinosaurs and works as a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Lately, he looked at some bones stored in a museum in India. There he identified and named the new Rajasaurus, a large theropod with a horn on its head.
We're pretty used to hearing these stories about scientists making incredible discoveries. For example, various crews from around the world have visited the Gobi Desert, in Mongolia and China, because of its amazing fossils. Remember when Mark Norell, from the American Museum of Natural History found an Oviraptor sitting on its nest? And when Polish paleontologist Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska discovered the only known parts of Deinocheirusits long, scary arms?
It's wonderful when museums fund these kinds of expeditions, but you may be surprised to know whose eyes spot the most fossils. For example, of the 30-plus T. rex specimens found, how many do you think were found by scientists? One? Five? Twelve? Twenty-five?
The answer is one!
Professional paleontologists can’t possibly do all the work that’s needed in the field. Pete calls amateur paleontologists the “foot soldiers of paleontology,” because their hobby provides so much of the raw materials for science. Amateurs do everything from finding fossils to volunteering at museums. They donate materials, write scientific articles, and attend conferences. The reason for this Web site is that two amateur paleontologists found Wyrex. (See more about them in Meet the Dig Team.)
Some of the most prolific amateur paleontologists have done a lot for the study of T. rex. One we know personally began his love affair with fossils sometime in the 1960s, when he found his first Triceratops vertebra. Stan Sacrison was eight at the time, and he hasn’t stopped. In 1987 he found his first of two T. rex, named Stan after him. A few years later came Duffy, and with that Stan Sacrison became the first person ever to find T. rex in two different spots. As if that weren’t enough, soon after that, his twin brother Steve Sacrison found another T. rex! Steve (who is one of our Bobcat experts on this site) has three sons, Finn, Drew, and Ian, all of whom also are fossil enthusiasts and diggers. Growing up, the young brothers spent entire days on their bellies, faces just above microsites, picking out tiny jaw bones and teeth; lizard, frog, and turtle parts; and teeth from Nanotyrannus, T. rex, Triceratops, and the duckbill Edmontosaurus. Some of our favorite amateur paleontologists are children like the Sacrison boys. We love to watch them grow up in the field. A few we have met or heard about are listed below (and are written about in more detail in Pete and Kristin’s book, Bones Rock!).
Way before dinosaurs were described and talked about, in the early 1800s, visitors to the coast of Lyme Regis in the south of England would see a young girl hunting for fossils around the base of the cliffs. Mary Anning was collecting ammonites and sea creatures. Mary trained herself to analyze her finds, and many scientists came to buy fossils and to ask her questions about geology and anatomy. Mary was one of the first paleontologists ever, and the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore” was written about her.
Black Beauty is one of the best T. rex ever found. She was poking out of a riverbank in southwestern Alberta, Canada, and Jeff Baker found her in 1980. Of course, he and his fishing buddy showed the fossil to their teachers, who sent the boys directly to the nearest paleontologist, Dr. Phil Currie, who began excavation in 1982. Chantell Bury, age 11, and her sister Cortney, 10, found a dinosaur on June 26, 2002, while on a fossil-digging vacation. It was a huge duckbill named Big Bury, which they helped excavate the next summer.
Bucky Derflinger found his first T. rex tooth when he was eight. When he was sixteen, he found a duckbill dinosaur skeleton. Then, when he was twenty, he found two T. rex within two months of each other. The first was named Buckya teenaged T. rex; the second, named E.D. Cope, might be part of the first T. rex that was ever known. Bucky tied the Sacrison record of finding two T. rex, and now he says he’s spotted number three!
The Linster familycomplete with seven kidsare all expert fossil diggers, but thirteen-year-old Wes Linster made a huge impact on paleontology in 1993. At a Montana duckbill quarry, he saw a tiny jawbone with tiny meat-eater teeth in it. Once he and the family excavated it and other related bones, they invited paleontologist Dave Burnham to have a look. After Dave put some time in, the world was introduced to a little creature that looked like an adorable, horrible, teeny-tiny Velociraptorwith a five-inch-long skull, a two-foot wingspan, and an overall length of 33 inches. Bambiraptor turned out to be one of the most important dinosaurs ever, and a whole new species.
In 1979, India Wood was thirteen. As usual, she went out fossil hunting on a friends’ ranch Colorado not far from Dinosaur National Monument. As usual, India found a small bone poking out; in subsequent years, she found more and more in that spot, and she looked them up in library books. By the time she took the parts to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, she had correctly identified the fossil as an Allosaurus, and the museum not only finished the excavation, but it also put it on display. Go have a look!
Professional paleontologists are either generalists or specialists. A generalist usually has a broad view of the subject, with knowledge spanning many areas of studyand a focus on geologic history and overall relationships among creatures. A generalist might use this Big Picture focus to clean up the entire dinosaur classification system, for example. Phil Currie and Paul Sereno, discussed above, can be called generalistsas is Bob Bakker, the paleo wildman often profiled on PaleoWorld and Bonehead Detectives. He knows lots of things about lots of different dinosaurs, and about living animals, too. He uses today’s animals as living models for extinct creatures whose behaviors we cannot watch first hand. Bob also publishes papers on diverse topics, and has a hand in many research areas.
A specialist, who delves deeply into a single subject, or several related subjects, often offers detailed studies into his or her specialty area. Specialists are very focused, and their work “fleshes on” the object in their sites, bit by bit. A few specialists whose work impacts our T. rex studies are listed below.
Karen Chin, from the University of Colorado in Boulder, is the science’s coprolite expert. She’s the paleontologist everyone turns to when they have a poop question.
Greg Erickson, of the University of Florida in Tallahassee, studies crocodiles. He likes to use them as living models for T. rex and other theropodsto figure out how they grew, how they replaced their teeth, and how strong they were.
A paleontologist from Brown University, Steve Gatesy, was wondering how fast an extinct creature walked, or whether it could run. He uses dinosaur trackways and actual bones to create computer models.
Kirk Johnson, of the Denver Museum of Science and Nature, is a paleobotanista plant guy. He’s discovered and named dozens of new plant species from the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. His work helps us to know more about T. rex's environment.
Mary Schweitzer, at North Carolina State University, is studying weird, tiny red “balls” in the channels where blood vessels once ran through T. rex bone. She’s trying to discover if they are bits of original molecules from the T. rex, and if so, what they can tell us about the animal.
Kent Stevens, from the University of Oregon, is interested in how the long necks of sauropods worked. He wrote a whole new computer program, called Dinomorph, to make models of each bone, and then string them all together. Kent also will be using Dinomorph on theropods, tooand soon he’ll be morphing Stan.
Museums are the usual place to find fossil displays and experts who know about them. Universities with geology departments also might have a museum, and rock club members around the country have some wonderful collections that are often on display at their annual meetings. Scientists agree that fossils are for studying, and most paleontologists welcome the participation of enthusiasts in their areas. Here are some links to the paleontology museums we know best, as well as the American Federation of Mineralogical Societieswww.amfed.orgwhere you can find the rock club nearest you.
You could also check Black Hills Institute’s Web site for additional information about the scientific work we do: www.bhigr.com.