Cold case: dinosaur edition

Photo illustration: Mark Zurolo ’01MFA. Dinosaur image: Nick Longrich.

Photo illustration: Mark Zurolo ’01MFA. Dinosaur image: Nick Longrich.

Albertonykus is named for the region of Canada where paleontologists founds its fossils. It means "Alberta claw." At 2.5 feet long, this 70-million-year-old dinosaur is one of the smallest ever found in North America. Its short arms and signature long claws were used for digging termites from rotten wood. View full image

Longrich grew up in a family of fishermen on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where he and his brothers watched wildlife and hunted for Indian artifacts. He studied biology at Princeton before settling on paleontology—attracted to the field less by its outlandish fossilized creatures than by its ability to answer big questions. “I was interested in evolutionary problems,” he says. “How did birds evolve flight? That’s not something you can answer by looking at modern birds.”

He began graduate study at the University of Chicago, but didn’t like the atmosphere and left after earning his master’s. Then, a few years later, he went to work at the University of Alberta as a volunteer, and started finding new species in the collection. He did his PhD work at the University of Calgary, focusing on birds. His dissertation was on the “four-winged” Archaeopteryx.

The paper was “heretical,” Longrich says. The prevailing theory was and still is that, because the bird is most closely related to therapod dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex, it was a ground-running animal and launched into flight from land, like a chicken. Longrich thinks it was a tree-climber. Its wings and hind limbs, he says, weren’t built for the kind of powerful lift needed for taking off from the ground. Instead it leaped from tree limbs, and, with its feathered legs spread out behind for loft, the Archaeopteryx glided into flight.

It was also in graduate school that Longrich started traveling around the country to pore over existing collections. It’s very expensive to launch new digs. But this, he thought, was a way to tackle big ideas and publish big papers on a shoestring. (And it also suits him. In his spare time, he looks at dinosaur fossils on eBay. He thinks he may have identified a new therapod species in one auction, but it was hard to tell just from the photographs.)

These travels helped him form relationships at several important institutions, but he’s also ruffled some academic feathers along the way. “He sometimes had trouble dealing with people because he is so enthusiastic,” says Currie, who has been a mentor. “It was just part of that awkward stage in life when he was focusing on one thing and didn’t realize he was failing in another.”

When Longrich visits a collection, he wants to see everything. As his experience in Alberta taught him, sometimes the most interesting dinosaur specimen is hiding in a lizard drawer. But many institutions will share only parts of their collections with outside researchers, reserving much of the material for their own scientists to explore—and publish on. Restrictions like these are hard on Longrich, with his freewheeling research approach. He sees scientists who keep material off-limits to other scholars as “territorial.”

Jack Horner, a paleontologist at the Museum of the Rockies, ended up coauthoring the paper on T. rex cannibalism with Longrich, who he says has the potential to be a gifted researcher. But he was angry at first, because Longrich had looked at the recently collected fossils without asking. Horner says he had already been planning to publish on the cannibalism when Longrich proposed a paper. “We didn’t collect for everybody else to come in and just poke around in it,” he adds. (Longrich says he didn’t have the impression the material was restricted or that Horner was planning a cannibalism paper. But he knew Horner was “working on” the bones.)

Horner is eminent in his field and celebrated in the media for his numerous big dinosaur digs. He dismisses Longrich’s tours through the storage drawers, saying it’s an approach unlikely to earn him research funding or a tenure-track job: “You can’t go out and get an NSF [National Science Foundation] grant to rummage.”

But in some ways, Longrich’s strategy isn’t so different from the traditional approach of searching rock beds for fossils. Both rely on luck—to pick the right place, to spot the right fossil—and on having the skill to interpret significant specimens. Longrich sees himself as filling an important role by correcting errors in the published record and making the most of the work of paleontologists who came before him. And the sheer toil of reviewing hundreds of original specimens has its value. “It’s kind of important to know the basics, but a lot of guys don’t even do this type of thing any more,” he says.

Longrich was just a graduate student when he wrote his Archaeopteryx paper, and his theory was unconventional, so it was published in a specialized journal and didn’t attract much notice. But he is revisiting the species: he’s planning a series of papers looking in detail at Archaeopteryx anatomy and aerodynamics. He hopes they will be accepted by a high-impact journal, where they can make more of a splash and start to affect the scientific debate.

Lately, the prominent bird discoveries have been coming out of the abundant bone beds in China. In July, a team of researchers published on newly discovered birdlike animals even earlier than Archaeopteryx, whose iconic status as the first known bird is now under challenge. The new work appears to support Longrich’s views about bird flight. But he’s not part of the action; the finds don’t make it any easier for him to earn a reputation as an expert on bird evolution or to find a permanent job.

Longrich knows he may be running out of low-hanging fruit in the old collections. He’s been to nearly every major natural history museum in the country, as well as a few small ones. In Wyoming, he stopped at a one-room museum staffed by a teenager and a team of elderly volunteers who call themselves the “bone biddies.” (The museum had some fine specimens. “You have a freakin’ Torosaurus,” Longrich exclaimed giddily over one dinosaur skull.)

After four museums in four days, Longrich’s last stop in the West was an actual fossil bed—the Lance formation, near Lusk, Wyoming, where O. C. Marsh collected many of his most famous specimens. Paleontologists at the Tate Geological Museum in Casper had arranged permission for him to drive on private land to see the massive ridge, with the understanding that he’d leave behind anything he found there.

It was late in the day when Longrich jumped out of the car. He climbed over a hill before bending down to scrape sand off the ground, and within a minute, he came up with a handful of rocks. “Bone scrap, bone scrap, bone scrap, here’s a gar scale. Here’s a turtle fragment,” he said, triumphantly, holding up a pebble-sized fossil that looked a lot like a pebble. “Oh! I found a lizard jaw. Nice.” But Lance is well sampled, and unlikely to yield any more game-changing fossils. The future, Longrich says, will be in China, Argentina, the Arctic, and other rock beds that are less explored. He hopes he can get the funding to be a part of those discoveries.

As the sun was setting, Longrich wandered up and down the hills of the formation, picking up fossils, putting them down, and taking in the big orange sky that he’d missed for all those days in the basements.  

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