What would YOU ask a Paleontologist?

Leonardo dig

A team of paleontologists and
volunteers starts the excavation
of Leonardo. As you can see, it
takes a great number of people
to get a 6.5 ton fossil out
of the earth.

In about a week or so, I’ll be headed to Malta (that’s the one in Montana, not the one in the Mediterranean, but thanks for rubbing it in) with Dr. Robert Bakker, our curator of paleontology, David Temple, our associate curator of paleontology, and Steven.

Why, you ask?

Well, because that’s where they found Leonardo, the famous mummified dinosaur for which our Museum is currently developing a world premiere exhibition. Dr. Bakker and the team will be prospecting a few new sites and going back to the site where Leonardo and several other important specimens were found.

We’ll also be meeting up with a few other paleontologists. Geopaleontologist Mark Thompson will be there, as well as Dave Trexler - both of whom have been involved with the Leonardo Project since the discovery.

We’re planning to bring you lots of photos and video of the week’s events right here – but I am positive that all of you have some very interesting questions that you might want to ask these guys, stuff we might not even think of.

So, let us know what you’re curious about – Leonardo, the original excavation of this amazing mummy, current interpretations of the fossil, how you find such a thing, other fossils from the area, paleontology in general – or whatever else you might want to know. As long as your questions are relevant and good-natured, we’ll ask ‘em.

So, fire away – leave your questions in the comments section and we will get you the answers!

39 thoughts on “What would YOU ask a Paleontologist?

  1. I have a question!

    Can you tell us what the significance of this find is? I have heard that this fossil is a mummy, but how does that make it more/less important than other dinosaur fossils?

  2. What proof do we have that dinasours actually killed and ate other dinasours? Is it not possible that the so called “flesh eaters” only ate the dead ones and did not actually kill to eat.

  3. Hi Scott,

    As I understand it, there are many dinosaurs that show defensive wounds that have healed – so predators have come after them, and they escaped to live long enough for bone to regrow. In fact, one of the hadrosaurs we saw in Montana – called Dak – shows evidence of this exact scenario. If dinosaurs only ate carcasses after death, you would not see evidence of healed attack wounds.

    However, there are also theories that some dinosaurs – such as T. rex – which are commonly associated with predation, were really scavengers.

    I am definitely not the expert on this, so I will also ask Dr. Bakker and Mark Thompson for a more specific answer for you and post that as soon as I can.

    Thanks for reading!

  4. Hi again, Scott! Here’s an answer for you from Mark Thompson, one of the paleontologists who has been involved in the Leonardo discovery, excavation and research from the beginning.

    “There are various lines of evidence that suggest dinosaurs did kill and eat other dinosaurs (predation) compared to cleaning up the scraps afterwards.

    The famous ‘fighting dinosaur’ specimen found in Mongolia during
    1972 shows Velociraptor and Protoceratops undeniably locked in a battle of jaws and claws. They probably weren’t kissing! And their three dimensionality shows one of them was not dead. So we have excellent evidence that at least some flesh eating dinos interacted rather strongly with plant eating dinos, much more likely predation over scavenging. But there are various other lines of enquiry in the fossil record to test the idea.

    In some dinosaur footprint fossils we see groups of herbivores scattering before the entrance of a carnivore. Not the sort of behaviour one would expect in response to a passive scavenger entering your midst.

    And back in skeletal fossils we find dinosaurs with injuries likely to have been caused by predatory claws or teeth, but where the bone has re-healed. This is compelling evidence that the animal was alive at the time of damage, indicating predatory behavior and not scavenging. There are several Hadrosaur specimens with such evidence although they are understandably rare. The DAK specimen from the Malta area that may come to Houston is one, and another is at the Denver Museum of Natural History. A new undescribed Hadrosaur jaw from the Malta area has some incredibly vivid tooth marks from a tyrannosaurid, that arguably are post mortem but the shape and mechanical forces behind the tooth marks is much more suggestive of predation.

    Other lines of evidence suggestive of predation include the morphology (shape and structure) of some dinosaurs skulls, teeth and claws that are better suited to predation rather than scavenging.

    And finally one can(and should) turn the question around. What evidence is there to prove that dinosaurs were only scavengers of other dinosaurs? One may ask why, over several hundred million years, did the many carnivorous dinosaurs continue to increase the size of their bodies, claws and teeth; yet the plant eaters all have such easy carefree lives until AFTER they died? What would give a meat- eater an advantage to scavenging, and did they have enough time to evolve such behaviour?

    The behaviors of dinosaurs was undoubtedly as complex as today, where carnivores who behave with predation far outnumber those that only scavenge, although they are quick to scavenge too if the meat is there… It makes one skeptical that any flesh eating dinosaur would be strictly scavengers. The case for scavenging is just weaker an argument than that they were predators.”

  5. I know someone who found a dinosaur egg the size of a basketball, cracked open on top with the fetus exposed. What would that be worth?

  6. Hi Kim,

    I’ve sent your question to David Temple, our associate curator paleontology, and I am sure we’ll have an answer for you here soon.

    Also, to Scott – Dr. Bakker sent the following reply to your question about whether dinosaurs actually killed other dinosaurs – or if they were exclusively scavengers:

    “Could the rex kill? Look at the rex forehead – it’s incredibly wide. Jaw muscles filled the head here, so the bite would be tremendous. One snap of those jaws and the duck-bill’s head would be bitten off.

    2) We have fossils of herbivorous dinos that were bitten and escaped. Up in the museum at Malta Montana (where the duck-bill mummy “Leonardo” came from) they have a juvenile duck-bill that was bitten by a tyrannosaur – a big chunk of the rump was ripped out. You can still see the row of bite marks left by the predator (it was a daspletosaur, an early relative of T. rex). The duck-bill got away. The wounds left on the backbone have healed over.

    There are a couple of other duck-bills that were bitten while alive, then escaped.

    Dozens of paleontologists study tyannosaurs and other meat-eaters from the Msozoic. All these scientists, except one, agree that carnivorous dinos regularly killed prey. Of course, like lions today, a tyrannosaur would be delighted to find a duck-bill already dead, victim of a flood or drought.”

  7. Hi Kim,

    I got a response for you from David Temple, our Associate Curator of Paleontology here at the HMNS:

    Your fossil sounds good – really too good. Where was it found? It would definitely be worth taking a look at- you can email me pictures at DTemple@HMNS.org or to set up an appointment to look at it. If it is real it would be scientifically important and of value. I would like to get a closer look. Thanks for the inquiry. – David Temple

  8. I am 12 years old and have wanted to be a paleontologist since I was 2. Yes, that is a long time. I was wondering what I can do (other than stay in school and make good grades) to make sure I can become a paleontologist. Are there certain books I can read? (All of the books at the museum are too simple for me). How can I go on a dig? How can I meet a paleontologist? Leonardo was more than awesome!!!!!!!! I thought it was soooo cool to see the ancent dinosaur up close, I got to see all the details from the shoulder muscels to the damaged rib bones!!!!!!

    Thank you for your time in reading this!
    Myria

  9. Hi Myria,

    That’s wonderful! I am so glad to hear that you enjoyed the Leonardo exhibit – and that you want to be a paleontologist! I’ve been lucky enough to go on a few digs and I can tell you that it’s an amazing experience. Thanks for reading the blog, and for your question. I will ask our paleontologists to comment here in response.

    In the meantime, here are a few things you might be interested in:

    Our paleontology department runs a series of digs along the Brazos River – the next one is on Oct. 18. Click on the link for more information on how you can participate.

    Dr. Bakker, our curator of paleontology, will be at the museum for Dino Days on Nov. 1. He’ll be drawing dinosaurs and answering questions, so if you’d like to meet a paleontologist, this is a great chance to do so.

    Plus, Dr. Bakker has invited everyone to participate in our Draw A Dinosaur Contest. Just draw your favorite dinosaur and get it to us by Nov. 1 and Dr. Bakker will pick a winner each for two categories – scientific accuracy and artistic effect. More details are at the link above.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  10. Dear Myria:

    Thanks for writing. Did you know that the very first professional paleontologist – the first person to get paid for digging skeletons and getting them to museums – started at the age of 12?

    That was back in 1811. And the person excavated complete Jurassic sea-reptile specimens, first an ichthyosaur, then a plesiosaur, then a ‘dactyl. The finds became so famous that professors from all over the world came to Lyme Regis, England, to meet the kid.

    This pioneering bone-hunter was Miss Mary Anning. She spent her whole life digging Jurassic fossils. She not only excavated bones but invertebrates too, especially coiled squid-like species known as ammonites.

    Once she got a perfect Jurassic squid, preserved in black ocean-bottom sediment. Even the ink-sac was preserved. Mary dissolved some of the fossilized ink from the squid to make drawings of the fossil.

    Mary Anning shows what you must do to become a field scientist. She read voraciously. Neighbors and relatives lent her science books – especially volumes on anatomy and geology. She taught herself to draw, so she could make diagrams of her finds. She trained her eye to see the key features in skulls, bodies and limbs. Her drawings were so accurate that they helped scientists understand how the petrified bodies were constructed.

    She didn’t go to school – back in the early 1800’s few young women did. But she kept in touch by letter with museum people all over the world.

    Most important: Anning observed living creatures to help her interpret her fossils. She watched sharks and squid in the seas near her home. She dissected oysters and clams to figure out fossilized shells. And she appreciated all of Nature, alive and petrified.

    Our advice to you: go to zoos and aquaria. Watch animals move. Borrow a video camera and make your own movies. Make digital photos of lions and crocodiles, turtles and lizards. Label the parts. Know where the femur is, and the ulna and ilium. Then come to the museum and diagram a Triceratops or a T. rex.

    Books are good. So are real skulls and backbones. You can order skulls from “Skulls Unlimited” in Oklahoma. Then you can label the bones in the head.

    There are field trips and lab work you might be able to participate in – watch our HMNS blog.

    Keep thinking about the Deep Past, all the critters who lived in prehistoric times. And keep figuring out how each kind of animal fit into its habitat.

    good luck…

    Dr. Bob Bakker

  11. Hi, I am doing a project on a career and I chose being a paleontologist as my career choice. I have 10 questionsto ask you.
    1. What made you choose being a paleontologist?
    2. Where (else) do you travel to find fossils?
    3. Is there something you like or dislike about your job?
    4. what part of paleontlogy do you like best (working in the field or in the lab)?
    5. Do you find this job easy with a family or without one?
    6. What do you do with the fossils you find?
    7. What skills would you need in this career? What degrees would you need?
    8. Who emoloys you to find fossils?
    9. what is your history in this career?
    10. If you could have a different job, would you take it?

    (you could send the answers to mpavlovic@comcast.net)
    I hope you will get the chance to answer my questions.

  12. Hi Robert,

    Thank you for reading the blog – and for all of these great questions! I will ask our paleontologists to comment here in response. They’re often in the field and away fro computers so it may take a few days – just wanted to let you know.

    Thanks again!

    Erin

  13. Hi Robert,

    Thank you for all the questions about a career as a paleontologist. I am actually a micropaleontologist and I study one-celled animals called Foraminifera. As a child I was intrigued with dinosaurs and I believe that they inspired me to choose a career as a paleontologist years later when I was in college. Fossils can be found all over the world depending on what you are looking for and depending on where you live, some maybe nearby. The farthest I have traveled to find fossils is Antarctica. In response to what I like or dislike about my job, well what I like is that I always am learning something new. I like to work anywhere as long as it involves working with fossils. My current job is in an office, but I have worked at well-site on drilling rigs, in the field helping to excavate dinosaurs and been a docent in a museum. My current job is easy for me because my husband is a geologist and he loves fossils. He often goes to the field or museum with me, and he is patient if I have to travel on short trips. So if your family is supportive, there should not be any problems with having a family. The fossils I usually find and use are Foraminifera. They are extremely important, because they can help in dating rocks and identifying environments. They are commonly used in the oil and gas industry to help correlate wells and identify rock and time units. For my career, you need at least a Master’s degree although some companies require a PhD. Currently, I work for Devon Energy in Houston, Texas who employs me to help them in hydrocarbon exploration. In 1980, I graduated from Northern Illinois University with a Masters in Geology and a specialization in Micropaleontology. I was then hired by Amoco Production Co. and worked for them for 17 years. In 2000, I started my own successful consulting firm called GeoFixit Consulting. Devon Energy brought me on as a consultant in 2004 and hired me in 2006. Today, I really enjoy working for Devon and all the opportunities I have. In my spare time, I am a docent at the Houston Museum of Natural Science and participate in other paleontological activities. The job I have today is the ideal job and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

    I hope you will consider a career as a paleontologist! It can be very rewarding.

    Sincerely,

    Nancy Engelhardt-Moore

  14. Would it be possible to find petrified squid in Wyoming? I have some rather interesting looking things that are anywhere from 1″ to 3 ” in length that someone said were petrified squid. Thank you!

  15. Hi Trisha! Chris Flis, one of the Museum’s paleontologists, had this to say in response to your question:

    “Squid-like Belemnites are commonly found Jurassic and Cretaceous rocks of Wyoming. These cephalopods, relatives of their contemporaries, the Ammonites, leave behind the pen or bullet-shaped fossil shell that once housed its cuttlefish-like inhabitant. Hooked tentacles were used for grabbing prey which would include fish and other small marine creatures.”

    If you send a photo of your find to blogadmin@hmns.org we’ll do our best to help identify it. Happy fossil hunting!

  16. Hello
    I have a very round stone slightly larger than a tennis ball it is covered in hundreds of pock like marks of which approx 8 are holes that go inside the stone. can you please tell me what it could be. thank you Heather..

  17. i hi im doing a school prject and i wanted to know if u could give me a few important questions and answers along with them bye

  18. do all birds come from a specific raptor, or do they come from different species of raptor that are cousins and not ancestors. i wonder this because while all birds are similar, they dont seem to be any more similar than different raptors i have seen, and while this isnt great information, i have heard of many raptors likely having some form for feathers. i apologize for any poor spelling, this form seems to think that raptor is spelled wrong so i’d even love a correction on that, but primarily i wonder if the consensus is that all birds came from a single species, or that they came from a family of species instead, and this answer would also have implications that people should know for any species or family of species

  19. My dream is to Become a Paleontologist. I have a few questions:1) Is a Ph.D in Geology enough to Become a Paleontologist? 2) I live in Ireland, so is there any course in Ireland that could qualify me to be a Paleontologist of the highest order? If not where is the nearest place? 3) as I said I live in Ireland, so if I were to Become a Paleontologist could I organize an excavation in Hell Creek for example or any region in the world for that matter. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  20. ok so, if dinosaurs, for the most part had tiny little brains, and giant heads, what filled up the rest of their head if not brain? like some kind of brain slushie or what?

  21. I am 13 currently. I have wanted to be a paleontologist for my whole life. I study the required subjects to achieve high grades in them, I read books about evolution and biographies of paleontologists. I am going to volunteer at my local museum (When I become the minimum age) but for the time being I am not fully sure on what to do to help me progress towards this career.

    Thank you for reading this post and I hope you relpy.

    Best regards
    Vincent

  22. Hello!
    I am an afterschool teacher of 2nd and 3rd graders who are wanting to learn about dinosaurs. I am wondering if you would be willing and able to answer a handful of questions about dinosaurs and paleontology in April of this year when we start this unit? If you are willing, please email me and maybe we can set up a date when you can expect these questions to come your way and would be able to handle it.
    Thanks,
    Elizabeth

  23. Hi,

    I teach a class on dinosaurs to Pre-K -2. We have an activity on measuring footprints, body length, and stride length. Could you tell me the stride length of the following dinosaurs: Tyrannosaurus Rex, Apatosaurus and Troodon?

    Thank you.

    Susan Kollaja

  24. I have all sorts of questions for a paleontologist, this kind of opportunity to talk to a paleontologist(by the way Bob, I’m a big fan), and I’m sorry about this comment being a few years after the post. Probably the biggest question I can think of to ask is where can I get reliable information? I have way to many questions to ask, do you know if there’s a database or something of in-depth material, where I can find information? That’s always been a setback for me. I ask stuff like “How did the species of Dimetrodon, or Iguanodon, differ?” I can’t find anything on that. I wish there was a go-to place that had more than just those little factoids you can find in any kid’s book. Right now the best source I can find is wikipedia, and I think that’s kind of sad. I always see things that say all the theories, but then never give anything that the scientists use to back that up. Anyway, any response to this comment would be appreciated.

  25. I have just viewed a program on the Discovery Channel that went into great detail as to what happend to the LAND DWELLING dinosaurs after an asteroid hit the earth off the coast of what is now the Yucatan Pennisula.

    However, what happend to the SEA DWELLING dinosaurs who were not affected by such disasters as air borne dust clouds, etc., etc.?

    Thank you.

  26. I have 2 questions that have puzzled me for many weeks. First One. If genetics mutations and natural selection is mainly involved in our evolution, and we now know that genes have a big play in this through DNA of genes that are switched on and off. What is controlling the information of the switch genes? When a ear or finger is made through the Hock genes, who or what is controlling the switches in those genes? Second. If natural selection is true and considered to be what we believe in, why hasn’t any TAG’s showed up any species alive today. I created the TAG theory relating to a Acrochordon on the skin. TAG in this case meaning imperfections. If even the best of the best survived in all species, why is there no evidence of a TAG in any species today. Think about it. And excluding the evolutionary process of useless body parts being evolved out of us.Carrying all the survival abilities though millions of years. Not one species has a TAG. It would almost seem impossible to create perfect animals and species without some form of TAG’s that have also been carried in a species or 2. Thank you for your time in this. Just a couple questions that has plagued me over the past few weeks.

  27. Hi! i have loved dinosaures sence i was three. i have a huge collection of them. I really want to be a paleotologist when im older. im still in middle school so….yeah. either way what college do i go to tobecome a paleontologist?

  28. Did dinosaurs wag their tails like dogs do? Or were their tails just for balance? I’ve always wanted to know!!

  29. Is there any evidence that supports Spinosaurus would rather run away and not have a fight with large theropods? Cause I’m getting tired of hearing people telling me Spinosaurus isn’t as aggressive and vicious like T-rex or Giganotosaurus. I want to hear an expert tell me this rather hear it from kids.

  30. Sorry, I wanted to ask a bit more questions. Most about Spinosaurus…
    1.Did T-rex really have a toxic/bacterial bite? I don’t believe in it and I do believe in it. In my opinion, I think all theropods have bacteria in their bite due to what they eat.
    2. Did spinosaurus only/mainly eat fish?
    3. Is Giganotosaurus larger than Spinosaurus?
    4. What was the bite force of spinosaurus? It must have bitten hard because its teeth needed to grab prey with a strong bite, right? So it must have had a strong muscle on its neck to grab prey.
    5. If spinosaurus is light built, why does it weigh more than T-rex?
    6. Have you guys discover any new marine reptile?
    7. Who would in a fight between kronosaurus and tlyosaurus?
    8. Could T-rex really swim?
    9. Is there any evidence that supports Spinosaurus would rather run away and not have a fight with large theropods? Cause hearing things from non-paleontologist telling me that Spinosaurus isn’t as aggressive and vicious like T-rex or Giganotosaurus. I want to hear from an expert.
    10. What was your most amazing discovery of all time? Why?
    THANK YOU!

  31. Whale blowholes: No one in the world has answered this!!
    What are the relative positionings of the actual surface blowhole of whales when compared to the specific location of the nasal orifice(s) in the bone of the skull.
    The sperm whale has an interesting anomaly in that its skull has a nasal skull hole in front of the eyes ( similar to the extinct aetiocetus ) leading to a blow hole right at the front of its head (muzzle).
    Why did its nasal skull hole not move back to the front of its skull in line with its surface blow hole which presumably having moved back ancestrally, then moved forward as the sperm oil and huge melon structures evolved.
    I need a clear diagram showing the position of the nasal orifice in the skulls of different modern whales and if poss the aetiocetus and other protowhales.
    Simply cannot find this anywhere in details showing exactly the nasal skull holes compared to the eyes.

  32. I am looking for some help identifying a bone I recently found while hunting in the woods. At first, I thought it was just an interesting looking rock. I quickly realized it was not a rock but a fossilized bone. There are distinctive channels running through the bone. It is about 3 inches long by about 1 inch diameter but is not perfectly symmetrical. It almost looks like a tooth. Do you have any idea who could help me out? I have photos of the bone I can send via email. Thanks!

  33. Could brown adipose tissue (“brown fat”) have led to the evolution of larger,more complex brains in dinosaurs by raising their metabolism?

  34. Hey would you mind letting me know which webhost you’re working with? I’ve loaded your blog in 3 completely different web browsers and I must say this blog loads a lot faster then most. Can you recommend a good web hosting provider at a honest price? Thanks, I appreciate it!

  35. Is it possible dinosaur fossils (and plant fossils from the era in which they lived) were part of the base materials which eventually became earth, as opposed to them living and dieing and fossilizing here? I’m curious to know if there exists alternate scientific theories of this type.

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