Corrections or additions?
This article by Bart Jackson was prepared for the November 8, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
How & When Dinosaurs Yielded to Mammals
It seems only natural that a Los Angeles jazz guitarist
would father four musical boys, two of whom now work as professional
musicians. Less natural, however, is the youngest son’s choice to
stray from this artistic fold to become one of the world’s premier
vertebrate paleontologists, now reigning as the American Natural
Museum’s senior vice president and provost of science.
Yet such has been the path of Mike Novacek — expedition leader,
author, dinosaur expert, and cutting edge theorist on the K/T boundary
(shorthand for "Cretaceous Tertiary boundary," that period
60 million years ago when dinosaur supremacy yielded swiftly to
Novacek comes to Princeton’s McCosh 50 to give a free, public lecture,
"Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs: A Fossil Expedition into
Gobi Desert," on Thursday, November 9, at 8 p.m. The talk comes
at an opportune time, closely following the annual International
of Vertebrate Paleontologists in Mexico City — a "stomping
ground," as Novacek puts it, "where we all argue and swap
the latest ideas." There he and the American Natural History
Mark Norell presented the latest evidence supporting their theropod
In addition, Novacek and the museum crew have recently returned from
their 11th annual fossil expedition through the Mongolia’s Gobi
which he acknowledges was "the most successful yet." The Gobi
is a one-half million square mile wilderness that contains some of
the richest fossil beds representing the age of the dinosaurs anywhere
in the world. First discovered in the 1920s by paleontologists from
the American Museum of Natural History, led by the flamboyant Roy
Chapman Andrews, these sites are famous for their abundant dinosaur
eggs, bizarre dinosaurs, and exquisitely preserved ancient mammals.
Since Mongolia declared its independence in 1990, Novacek annually
has led a joint Mongolian/American Museum of Natural History
into the Gobi, exceeding in distance and scientific finds the treks
of Andrews or any succeeding paleontologists.
I first met Novacek in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaan Baatar, where
he, Mark Norell, and the rest of the expedition team came stumbling
into the Chinggis Khaan Hotel lobby trying desperately to locate the
tons of gear previously shipped in. He joked about the trials of
expeditions. "In ’91 we damn near starved. Having eaten most of
the canned meat the Russians left since their withdrawal from Mongolia
during our 1990 trip, we had only the little freeze-dried we’d brought
and some odd canned things, such as horse meat," he recalls. In
1993 whole truckloads got lost in shipping.
But the toughest aspect of these expeditions remains the Gobi itself.
Digging must be done in summer, after the winter and spring storms
have etched away the soft sediments, exposing a new crop of fossils.
Roads and reliable maps are non-existent, dependable vehicles rare,
and the heat — through which the crew works all day — rises
to a breathless 120 degrees. Then of course there come the July rains:
a blessing for washing fossils into view; a plague for trucking them
out as the rivers of sand turn to axle-submerging mud.
Still, notes Novacek "There is nothing like the Gobi for finding
Cretaceous fossils — and fossils of the K/T boundary."
In 1993, Novacek’s team uncovered a trove of hundreds of intact
skeletons, dinosaur nests, mammal and lizard skeletons, and even the
remains of dinosaur embryos and dinosaurs preserved in a roosting
posture on their nests. The study of these specimens and the detective
work necessary to reveal how these creatures lived, died, and were
buried 80 million years ago, has yielded some extraordinary scientific
At this point in his Gobi searches, Novacek and his team are routinely
mapping, but bypassing, the still plentiful gigantic dinosaurs. They
search smaller fossils, that may hold the key to the more enormous
mysteries. Many of the team’s discoveries bear on the most interesting
problems in evolutionary biology today: the overlapping emergence
of mammals with the dinosaurs’ partial extinction and the evolution
of small feathered theropod dinosaurs into birds are the primary
of his current inquiry.
The genealogical connections between dinosaurs and birds is perhaps
the most widely popularized problem. Generally the scientific
accepts that small carnivorous theropod dinosaurs — like the
velociraptors seen in the movie "Jurassic Park" — hold
skeletal similarities and probably evolutionary links to modern birds.
Yet Terry Jones’ recent dynamic discovery of a seemingly feathered
lizard, "longisquama," predates the first winged dinosaur
by 75 million years.
Novacek, unwilling yet to concede that the fossil imprint is indeed
feathers, argues that "this animal’s skeleton holds no avian
and that even if they were feathers "they might have co-evolved,
but that doesn’t deny the theropod evolution."
Such are the scientific problems Novacek will cover in his lecture.
When did birds diverge from their successors? Why does the current
fossil record seem at evolutionary odds with new genetic studies?
Where do mammals creep along in all this? This year’s expedition
several new mammal species, including one hefty fellow about 18 inches
long (most 80 million-year-old mammals could have curled up happily
in a teaspoon).
Mike Novacek’s hard science probings certainly fall
a far shore away from the tsunami of dinosaur mania that seems to
besiege us primarily on the children’s level. Anything out of Olduvai
Gorge or the astronomic plane seems to draw the informed adult
Yet dinosaur discoveries frequently head straightaway for the
media. "Kids are not likely ever to be lured by human origin
notes Novacek. "Dinosaurs on the other hand are huge, terrifying,
and exciting. But more importantly, children are young scientists.
If it is dinosaurs that entice them into searches about evolution
or biomechanics, all to the good." The lure into science stands
a greater benefit than the threat of misinformation in various media.
To help set the record straight for the informed adult reader, and
to record his personal passion of the search, Novacek wrote
of the Flaming Cliffs," published in 1996. "Actually,"
says Novacek, "while a lot of adults may delve into writings about
cladistics and theropod-evolution theories, I suspect there are a
lot of closet children among them, squealing to read anything about
those terrible thunder lizards."
Based on the needs of adult and child scientists, I questioned Novacek
on his opinion about Princeton University’s move to sell off the Guyot
Hall Natural History Museum collection to make space for office
a controversy of which he was not previously aware. As a scientist,
he responded, "artifacts should go to prime scientific study
and he recalls that the scientific community bid greedily when
several years ago sold off the first part of its museum collections.
But as a curator, he readily admits that in any big institution, such
as his, the Princeton specimens would never be displayed or even
For Novacek personally, it was not museums or books,
but his mother who initiated his shift from hard rock music to hard
science. "After we got grown, she took a field zoology course
at Santa Monica College and said `Oh Mike you gotta take this
Novacek did. He explored the tidal pools along the San Simeon, and
fell in love with fossil prospecting. "You mean people get paid
for this?" was his response to the experience. He abandoned his
journalism and lyric writing plans and headed for UCLA as an
biology major. But the artistic vein still remains in the Novacek
family: daughter Julie is a 1999 Princeton graduate who majored in
theater; she now works as the assistant stage manager at McCarter
Theater. "She helped put on `The Odyssey,’" boasts Novacek,
"which was a great, sold-out success."
Today, sitting in his huge oval office atop the American Natural
Museum’s great right turret, Mike Novacek sees new expeditions, new
fossil evidence, and more enticing challenges. This is hardly the
cool, dispassionate scientist who will face the Gobi year after year;
brave Yemen during the Iranian war; traipse past minefields and
Chile during the Pinochet regime. Mike Novacek is a man in love with
the scientific quest and passionate for the answers. It will drive
him to Argentina shortly where a new area of fossil-rich Cretaceous
stratum has been found. And it will keep him writing, in a new book
to come out this fall. Such love of one’s work would make any artist
— Bart Jackson
of the Flaming Cliffs: A Fossil Expedition to Mongolia’s Gobi
Free. Thursday, November 9, 8 p.m.
New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton,
From the Maastricht Museum of Natural History, The Netherlands, the
exhibition features life on Planet Earth at the end of the dinosaurs
— about 72 to 65 million years ago.
A wide variety of fossil specimens from around the world, including
a tyrannosaur skull from Mongolia, dinosaur bones from Transylvania,
a new raptor from France, dinosaur footprints from Bolivia, and giant
Mosasaur skulls from Belgium and New Jersey are on exhibit. Also
are a number a New Jersey fossil specimens from the last part of the
Cretaceous Period. Interactive computer graphics show life in the
Cretaceous oceans and explore the idea that a large asteroid impact
ended the reign of the dinosaurs. To January 21.
Corrections or additions?
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