“I couldn’t help it. I happen to have been born to do it.

I am sure that I would have been a rotten failure doing anything else.”

~ Ends Of The Earth ~

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Hunting Dinosaurs ~ Part 1

Excavating an Isolated Hadrosaur Humerus, Dinosaur Provincial Park.  2010 
Photograph courtesy of Dr. Philip Currie, University of Alberta.

“This treasure must be at once deposited where it can
be thoroughly investigated and properly understood.”
            The Pickwick Papers
            Dinosaurs fascinate people of all ages in all countries, and museums displaying  dinosaur skeletons continue to attract large numbers of visitors.  However,  it is not apparent to the casual visitor just how much work is behind these mounted wonders;  the work of finding them, digging them out of the ground, patiently chipping their brittle remains out of solid rock, studying them, publishing research, and finally mounting them in museum galleries where they may be viewed by the studious and curious.  Who does this work? What is their story? 
            The story of  the dinosaurs is closely associated with the story of the men and women who hunt and study dinosaurs, paleontologists, that small segment of society who never lost their childhood  fascination.  Their youthful interest in sharp teeth and blood-letting  gave  way to a matured interest in the dinosaurs as living animals, a part of our biological past.  By studying the rise, world domination, fall, and eventual demise of the dinosaurs, paleontologists not only learn about this single group, but also about their complex interactions with the world they inhabited.  Information gained from these inquiries is  helping us to understand the planet we occupy today, and just maybe how to avoid their same fate.
            The term Dinosauria [terrible lizards] was first published in 1842. Since then dozens of major expeditions, and hundreds of smaller ventures have discovered and excavated dinosaurs from every continent including Antarctica.  Much of what is written by paleontologists is  admittedly dry reading, published in professional journals with precise descriptions of new specimens.  These research papers are essential tools in recording and sharing discoveries, but the necessary jargon involved  limits  casual  reading.  Fortunately, some paleontologists have also applied themselves to writing books that are not just about dinosaurs, but about the people involved, their likes, dislikes, triumphs, failures, travels to exotic locales, and historical events.  These personal stories offer readers not only a valuable perspective on science, but contain fascinating  reading in natural and human history.

Charles H. Sternberg

            Early this century, the pioneer work of two men, Charles H. Sternberg [1850 - 1943, and Barnum Brown [1873 - 1963], began a period of North American dinosaur collecting known as the “Great Dinosaur Rush.”  Now almost impossible to obtain, Sternberg’s privately printed The Life Of A Fossil Hunter, and Hunting Dinosaurs In The Badlands Of The Red Deer River, Alberta, Canada, are the classic early accounts of dinosaur hunting that chronicle not only the development of dinosaur hunting in  North America, but also the opening of the West to settlers. 

            Sternberg began collecting fossils as a youth during the 1860’s, and by 1876 was employed by America’s great vertebrate paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope.  This was a formative time when dinosaurs were poorly known, methods of excavation were crude, and the U.S. Cavalry was still  fighting  protracted skirmishes with Native Americans.  During his first summer in Montana, Sternberg and his team narrowly avoided an encounter with Sioux warriors who had just defeated Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Barnum Brown in Alberta, Canada.

            Working in friendly competition with Sternberg, who in 1912 was working for the Geological Survey of Canada,  Barnum Brown explored the Red Deer River Canyons for the American Museum of Natural History.  Notable among few accounts in Brown’s own words is,  Hunting Big Game Of Other Days, a National Geographic article about his  expeditions into the Badlands of Alberta, Canada.  During a sixty-six year career at the American Museum of Natural History, Barnum Brown excavated more dinosaurs than anyone, worked in almost every area of the globe, traveled on every form of transport except by submarine, but never found time to write his own autobiography. 

            Fortunately, Brown’s industrious life was recorded by his second wife, Lilian Brown.  I Married A Dinosaur,  and Bring ‘Em Back Petrified,  are two witty accounts of her life, including a  honeymoon spent collecting fossils in the Siwalik Hills of Pakistan, with “Dr. Bones”.

American Museum Crew Excavates a Centrosaurus Skeleton in Alberta, Canada. 1915

            North America and Europe were not the only areas being explored for dinosaurs early this century.  Tendaguru is a remarkable deposit located near Lindi, Tanzania, once  part of German East Africa.  First discovered and excavated by German scientists from 1909 - 1913,  it revealed unusual new animals such as the apartment building-sized plant-eater Brachiosaurus.  Mandated to Great Britain after the first world war, expeditions by British scientists, including a convalescing future anthropologist Louis Leakey, continued the discoveries at Tendaguru. 
            The Dinosaur In East Africa,  by John Parkinson also offers interesting reading for those not ordinarily interested in dinosaurs.  Extreme geographic isolation, poisonous snakes, disease bearing insects, predatory leopards, malaria, and primitive living conditions are but a few of many distractions encountered by the British.  
            Even though the Central Asiatic Expeditions opened exciting new fossil fields in Asia, the Depression, and World War II dried up funding for dinosaur hunting,  and it was not until the late 1940’s that excavations began again in earnest, this time led by the Soviet Union.
            Hunting For Dinosaurs, written by the female leader of three Polish expeditions, Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska,  remains the only English language first hand account of Soviet work in Mongolia.  Kielan-Jaworowska describes in  detail the previous work of Russian expeditions, and the success with which her own expeditions discovered important new dinosaurs.
            The expeditions entered areas that no other team had risked before, and were handsomely rewarded with numerous discoveries that contributed substantially to paleontology.  Little had changed in forty years since the Gobi had first yielded dinosaurs, conditions were as  primitive, food  and water were still scarce, and maps were no more accurate.  Hunting For Dinosaurs is also an unintentional record of a Mongolia that no longer exists, a Mongolia before Pepsi, German hunting lodges, and Japanese golf courses.
Rolling Verdant Grasslands of Outer Mongolia.  Photograph by Clive Coy.