Saturday, October 13, 2007

Digging Dinosaurs

Paleontologist Mark Norell of the American Museum of Natural History spent part of last summer’s field season in the remote White Ghost Pagoda region of western China. The locals wouldn’t venture into these places for fear of evil spirits. Norell’s expedition team explored deserts that no dino hunters had yet entered. The sand was littered with artifacts from centuries-old Silk Road expeditions: coins, arrowheads, and bones of dead camels.

We met Dr. Norell last Thursday in his office in one of the corner towers of the Museum of Natural History in New York, overlooking the leafy vista of Central Park. He and staff artist Mick Ellison showed us some of the paleo art from the museum’s rich history: original dinosaur paintings by Charles Knight and exquisitely detailed ink wash drawings of fossils by Erwin Christman.

Mark Norell is one of the world authorities on feathered dinosaurs. He said that he is encountering more and more evidence of feathers on two-legged meat-eating dinosaurs, perhaps even T. rex. He is even finding a hint of light and dark barred patterns on some of the feathers.

Fossil preparator Amy Davidson showed us how she has been carefully removing the surrounding rock from a new Tarbosaurus skull. This T. rex relative shows some of the best detail yet of the central part of the cranium, revealing new information about the olfactory and optic areas. This work may shed new light on how well these creatures could see and smell.

We then followed a labyrinth of dim hallways to the “Big Bone Room,” supervised by collections manager Carl Mehling, seen with a beard in the previous photo. He showed us the massive sauropod bones resting on metal shelves, bones so heavy that a forklift is required to move them.

It is often said that artists are the eyes of paleontology. If so, the scientists and museum specialists are everything else: legs, hands, muscle, mind, and heart. They do their detective work with tireless zeal and imagination, usually on shoestring budgets, to help us bring the picture of these long-lost animals into better focus.


Unknown said...

I love your insights into this world! I find this so interesting. My wife is a scientist and so are many of my friends and I could ask them endless questions. Archeology, paleontology or anthropology are the runners up for what I would have done other than art. Though I'm glad I'm where I am. And they think it's cool I'm an artist. Thank you so much for suggesting the MET for the Sinornithosaurus reference. I yahoo'd loudly when I saw it. It's perfect.

Stephen James. said...

My biggest pardagim shift was when they moved T-Rex out of the Carnosaur grouping and in with Coelophysis and it's kin. Every book I had read growing up had T-Rex alongside the big Jurrasic meat eaters and then suddenly poof they rewrite the book.

That's what good science is about though, always making new discoveries.