When paleontologist Jordan Mallon of the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa was preparing to unveil a new species of horned dinosaur last week, the museum commissioned an evocative and biologically accurate illustration to go with the find.
But Dr. Mallon also asked his friend, comic book illustrator Brett Booth, to do an alternative take on the creature that has a distinctly muscular and superhero-like quality to it.
Dr. Mallon offered both versions at a scientific talk on Friday at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, where he cheekily called the specimen “bodacious.”
While filling in another chapter in the long saga of dinosaur evolution, the new species – officially known as Spiclypeus shipporum – also illustrates two trends at play across the field.
One is that dinosaur discoveries are on the rise. The find that Dr. Mallon presented is one of two novel species of horned dinosaurs reported last week. The number of species that make up the category has tripled over the last 25 years.
The other trend is that the scientists behind the current wave of discoveries are relatively young. Like Dr. Mallon, who is 34, their growing presence at conferences and in the scientific literature signals the coming of age of an entire cohort of paleontologists.
“It’s the Jurassic Park phenomenon,” Dr. Mallon said, referring both to the Michael Crichton novel and the Steven Spielberg film that made dinosaurs both cool and ubiquitous for children in the early 1990s. “All these kids my age grew up, got degrees and we’re opening our own labs now.”
The generational reset is having a noticeable impact in Canada, where the number of full-time positions dedicated to dinosaur studies remains small but has increased substantially over the past decade – shifting both the demographics and the research priorities of the entire community.
Those shifting priorities are playing out most obviously in Alberta, where the bulk of Canada’s dinosaur remains originate, and where more research teams than ever are actively exploring fossil sites around the province and asking different questions about the environmental context of what they find.
Like the creatures they are unearthing, the scientists are more diverse and specialized now. Some look at dinosaurs not through a traditional, geology-oriented lens but as field biologists more interested in reconstructing ancient ecosystems than individual skeletons. Others are zeroing in on chemical and morphological details that shed new light on what dinosaurs ate, how they behaved and what their development says about broader evolutionary questions.
“People are looking at things we never would have thought of 20 years ago,” said Phil Currie, long a leading figure in Canadian paleontology. With his signature mop top now turned a respectable grey, the University of Alberta professor stood out among the mainly dark-haired attendees at the Mississauga conference, the annual gathering of the Canadian Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The fact that the conference itself has such a short history – this is only its fourth year – suggests paleontology in Canada has reached a kind of critical mass. And the pace of the science is increasing as researchers look to make the most of recently emerging technologies, methods and excavation sites around the world.
“What a lot of us new guys have done when we want to go and find fossils is we’ve sought out areas that have been poorly explored and that other people haven’t staked out before,” said David Evans, who was hired as a curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto just as he was completing his PhD in 2007. At the meeting, he presented his work on a land-roaming species of crocodile that he and a collaborator discovered in North Sudan.
Next, Corwin Sullivan, a Canadian paleontologist who is based in China, talked about a small feathered dinosaur he worked on that used a membrane to glide like a flying squirrel. At the meeting, it was announced that Dr. Sullivan will join the University of Alberta as a new faculty member in the fall.
Yet the professional picture is not entirely rosy. New students inspired to enter paleontology still face the challenge of breaking into a rarefied field that is not growing as quickly as many other areas of science, despite its high media profile. And it’s obvious that women remain conspicuously underrepresented in faculty and museum positions, although there are now more female graduate students than ever toiling away at excavation sites.
While barriers to entry remain, the competition for funding among the latest crop of Canadian dinosaur researchers also ensures that the science they are trying to pursue is branching out in interesting ways. “Whether we realize it or not, there is a lot of exploring going on,” said Hans Larsson, a Canada Research Chair in vertebrate paleontology at McGill University in Montreal.
Dr. Currie noted that the emergence of a group of younger researchers all hitting their scientific stride at once means that Canada is likely entering a golden age in dinosaur studies.
“I think it’s going to be unbelievable what we’re going to see in the next 10 years in terms of the development of paleontology – and dinosaurs in particular,” he said.Report Typo/Error