Despite helping discover and name a new dinosaur just a couple weeks ago, paleontologist Patrick O’Connor said he has yet to carry around an Indiana-Jones-style pistol and whip during his work in the field.
This year, researchers at Ohio University are probably going to end up discovering five to 10 new species of animals, O’Connor, a professor of biomedical sciences, said.
OU is actually a “hotbed” for paleontological research, Lawrence Witmer, a paleontologist and professor of biomedical sciences, said, as many people are studying how animals have evolved and making discoveries in both the field and the lab.
The extent of many people's knowledge of paleontologists comes from what they see in Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park. Here is what the experts from OU have to say about just how they go about making these new discoveries:
Get out to the field
When looking for the right place to study in the field, having a strong geological mindset is necessary, O’Connor said.
“We can go look for dinosaurs in Athens County, but we’ll never find them,” he added. “We don’t have rocks of the proper age.”
Tanzania, Madagascar and Antarctica are a few places O’Connor has practiced field research. Choosing those locations resulted from studies of geological maps, which showed that the rocks in that region were the same age as the period of dinosaurs.
Other logistical issues also play a factor when getting out into the field. O’Connor added that the accessibility of locations influence where researchers study, as well as how easy it is to work with the government and ministry of science in those countries.
Work with others to find fossils
Paleontologist and biomedical studies professor Nancy Stevens said her “favorite thing” is discovering new fossil sites. In her most recent field season, she found three new locations, which have already led to interesting insights.
Going into the field is not a one-person job, though. Paleontologists perform their field studies with other faculty and students from OU, as well as representatives from universities local to their research areas, O’Connor said.
“You spend a lot of time walking and looking, and occasionally you’ll come upon a dinosaur, and it’s, like, perfectly laid out like in Jurassic Park,” he added. “Most of the time, it’s not.”
Geologists also join in on field research as they try to understand the environment in which the animal lived by studying the rocks.
Once fossils are found, sending them back to OU’s lab is the next step in scientific discovery.
In the field, scientists find the edges of fossils in the rock, extract the rock from the ground and layer it with plaster and burlap for protection as it is sent to Athens, O’Connor said.
Remember Comparative Anatomy 101
Many undergraduate students at OU take basic biology and comparative anatomy courses. The skills learned in those classes are the basis for the examinations performed on fossils, O’Connor said.
With the fossils safely shipped to the Life Sciences Building, teams of researchers carefully remove the rock the fossils are encased in and prepare the skeletons to be studied.
The basic process includes first trying to identify what kind of animal the skeleton is by comparing it with both prehistoric and modern skeletons. That's what allows the researcher to determine whether or not the fossils may be from a new species, O’Connor said.
Once the fossils are examined in the lab and models are made, the fossils normally make their way back to where they were found, he added.
Discovering new species of dinosaurs is just one breakthrough that can occur in paleontology.
“We’re not here to be Dr. Dinosaur,” O’Connor said. “Those fossils are merely one type of data that we are compiling to address big questions about earth history.”
Witmer’s lab spends a lot of time looking at and dissecting modern relatives to dinosaurs, including birds, crocodiles and lizards. The lab then compares fossils collected in the field and in museums to modern skeletons to learn more about how dinosaurs function and how animals evolved.
Witmer is specifically studying brain evolution in dinosaurs, and 3-D-printed models of bird, crocodile and tyrannosaurus rex brains inhabit the shelves of his office.
“Paleontology often seems like a very old science in a sense that a lot of it’s done by actually walking around the Badlands looking for pieces of bone,” Witmer said. “Paleontology is also extremely advanced technologically, in that we use 3-D imaging, like CT scanning and 3-D visualization and computer modeling.”
Answer different questions
While Witmer’s studies are more lab-based and focus on how dinosaurs functioned, Stevens said her work is fueled by trying to find out how well paleontologists know what they think they know.
Stevens focuses her effort on where there are gaps in knowledge about a certain time period or geographical location. Collecting data from undersampled regions accompanies her other work exploring extinction dynamics.
“(O’Connor and Stevens) discover the history of life on our planet by going out and finding new fossils,” Witmer said. “There are others of us that are more concerned with trying to explain those fossils and tell us how they explain sort of the evolutionary tapestry of life on our planet.”