Dr Kenneth Lacovara is the real life Alan Grant. At 54 years old, he has already discovered one of the world’s largest dinosaurs and undertaken roles as Professor of Paleontology and Geology at Rowan University and fellow of the prestigious Explorers Club.
His most recent position as director of Rowan University Fossil Quarry, New Jersey, may be one of his most exciting ventures yet. Recent news has suggested that the quarry may be home to a fossil bed from the great dinosaur extinction event; if true, this would be the first fossil bed ever found from this period. The implications are huge.
We spoke to Dr Lacovara to find out what’s really going on in Mantua Township.
1. You have already had an extremely successful career; fellow of the Explorers Club, named in Discover Magazine for conducting one of the ‘100 Top Science Stories of 2012’ for your work with 3D printing technology, and you discovered a new species of dinosaur, the Dreadnoughtus schrani. Your appointment as Director of the quarry project is relatively new – what was it that drew an accomplished scientist such as you to the project?
Thank you! My New Jersey fossil site is only four miles from Rowan University, so it made sense for it to be a Rowan endeavor. The president of Rowan, Ali Houshmand, was quick to see the significance and promise of the site, so it wasn’t long before we had an agreement that brought me here. I’m also an alumnus, which makes this move especially satisfying.
2. Can you give our readers a little background about the fossil quarry project and your role there?
I started working at the site about 13 years ago. Most of my research has been abroad, in places like the Sahara, Patagonia, and the Gobi. I initially thought of the New Jersey site only as a training ground for students. About four years ago, though, the mining company cleared out a 100 sq m area for us to excavate. Before this, we could only get to the fossils in vertical outcrop, where it’s impossible to assess their context. With the new area cleared off, for the first time, we could reach the fossil layer from the top down. When we did this, it became apparent that we had a mass death assemblage preserved of marine animals that died very close to the K/T boundary. That’s when we started to get excited.
3. News has been coming out over the past few days suggesting that the fossils found in the quarry are from the great dinosaur extinction event. You’ve been extremely hesitant to give credence to these rumours, so I wonder if you could tell us exactly what has been discovered?
It’s big claim to say that you have preserved a particular day in Earth history from 65 million years ago. We know we’re close, but a thousand years in geology is close. We have a bonebed, representing a mass death assemblage. Our hypothesis is that this bonebed represents the mass extinct at the end of the Cretaceous, but it’s a hypothesis only. To validate it, we need to find multiple proxies for meteor impact that are incontrovertibly in-place and associated with the bone layer. We are, in fact, making progress along these lines, but they evidence is not yet what I would call incontrovertible. So we have some work to do.
4. Imagine if you discovered that these fossils were from that extinction event – what would that mean for you as an individual and for the field of paleontology?
Certainly, it would be satisfying to play a part in unraveling one of the enduring riddles of Earth history. But that’s not what motivates me. I think most scientists, me included, are driven by curiosity. I really want to know, and I can’t just look it up in a text book, so I have to go and find out for myself.
5. What, in your opinion, is the most exciting find at the quarry so far?
Well finding parts of mosasaurs and big crocodiles and sea turtles is pretty great. But the biggest find is certainly the realization that we have a mass death assemblage of fossils preserved there. At a place like this, it’s not really about the individual species; it’s about the context.
6. You seem very keen to push the fossil quarry forward as a community project – why is this such a strong passion of yours, and do you feel that your goals are being achieved?
It’s the most good we can do. We’re not curing cancer or invented the next best solar cell. What paleontology (and astronomy for that matter) provides is perspective and humility about the place of humans in the universe. It ignites people’s imagination. That’s why I call paleontology the gateway drug to the sciences. If we can turn a kid towards the STEM disciplines by using the magic of fossils, that’s a real contribution to society.
7. Is there anything you’d like our readers to know regarding the quarry project or paleontology in general?
“The further back you look, the further ahead you can see,” said Winston Churchill. Certainly, all humans are concerned with the future. But we don’t have access to the future. So if you want to anticipate future occurrences, you have to study the past. That’s where the data are. That’s why studying the past matters. I think humans would take better care of their planet, if they better understood that species generally enjoy only a fleeting moment under the sun.
8. If you could do one more great thing in your career, what would it be?
I need to write a book. I think that’s what’s next for me, and I’m working on it.
9. Finally, why is paleontology important, and what can our readers do to get more involved in the field?
There are loads of volunteer opportunities at nearly all museums. Hard-core volunteers can even volunteers on certain digs. It’s very common for volunteers to be included in an excavation. Get outside. In most places in the world there are places to find fossils. If you live in a big city, you’re not out of luck. You can find fossils in building facades, stone pillars, tile floors, marble tabletops, and other unexpected places.