Just a family argument. Image courtesy flickr user niznoz.
The newest episode of Distillations focuses on a much loved childhood favorite: dinosaurs. Recent discoveries have paleontologists reevaluating exactly where to place dinosaurs between their reptilian forebears and avian descendants. With the discovery of several new species of dinosaur, and the revelation that many of those we already knew were feathered, it seems that popular perception of these Mesozoic monsters is in for yet another momentous change. But how are we just now figuring out that many of these dinosaurs were feathered?
I had the pleasure of helping with a recent excavation of a prehistoric turtle a few months ago in Sewell, NJ, and I can tell you first hand that one reason paleontology moves like it does is that fossil-hunting itself is a slow-going experience. Fossils – the completely mineralized bones of ancient creatures – are by definition just rocks. Uniquely shaped rocks, but rocks nonetheless. And because any computerized machinery that was designed to help us find rocks in the dirt would be far more successful than useful, fossil-hunters are limited by how fast they can carefully and gently dissect giant swaths of land with the right age soil.
A lot more paleontology than you’d think happens in the lab, but much of that research is dependent on what paleontologists can find out in the field. New discoveries help us slowly fill in our lacking fossil record, and create a slightly better understanding of the science in general. Over time that bigger picture forces paleontologists to revise what they may have believed decades or a century ago.
But finding the dinosaurs you’re looking for is an entirely different ordeal. When I was in Sewell, before earning my title as one of the “seven strong men” that lifted the 66-million-year-old turtle into the back of a pickup, I faced major uncertainty. I knew that if I found anything at all digging through the Cretaceous Jersey ocean, there’s no guarantee it would be more than a calcified sharktooth. Ultimately I left only with dirty boots and a sunburn, but I came away happy, understanding why this slow-moving science captures the imagination of kid and adult alike.
William Herkewitz is an institutional advancement and marketing intern at CHF.
Episode 131: Dinosaurs [Distillations]
Heavy Lifting in N.J. [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Trove of Dinosaur Feathers Found in Canadian Amber [WiredScience]