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

History

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

mammalian).

Novacek comes to Princeton’s McCosh 50 to give a free, public lecture,

"Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs: A Fossil Expedition into

Mongolia’s

Gobi Desert," on Thursday, November 9, at 8 p.m. The talk comes

at an opportune time, closely following the annual International

Meeting

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

Museum’s

Mark Norell presented the latest evidence supporting their theropod

dinosaurs-to-birds theory.

In addition, Novacek and the museum crew have recently returned from

their 11th annual fossil expedition through the Mongolia’s Gobi

Desert,

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

expedition

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

previous

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

dinosaur

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

insights.

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

targets

of his current inquiry.

The genealogical connections between dinosaurs and birds is perhaps

the most widely popularized problem. Generally the scientific

community

accepts that small carnivorous theropod dinosaurs — like the

man-size

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

similarities,"

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

unearthed

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

audience.

Yet dinosaur discoveries frequently head straightaway for the

children’s

media. "Kids are not likely ever to be lured by human origin

questions,"

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

"Dinosaurs

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

cubicles,

a controversy of which he was not previously aware. As a scientist,

he responded, "artifacts should go to prime scientific study

areas,"

and he recalls that the scientific community bid greedily when

Princeton

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

available

to undergraduates.

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

course.’"

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

undergraduate

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

History

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

through

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

parent proud.

— Bart Jackson

Michael Novacek, McCosh 50, 609-258-3000. "Dinosaurs

of the Flaming Cliffs: A Fossil Expedition to Mongolia’s Gobi

Desert."

Free. Thursday, November 9, 8 p.m.

Also new in the area: Dinosaurs, Ammonites and Asteroids,

New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton,

609-292-6464.

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

featured

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.


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