I Love My Job: The Local Professor Who Dug Up a 65-Ton Dinosaur

For those of you who don't believe in dinosaurs, Dr. Kenneth Lacovara has some words.

Photo by Robert Clark.

Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara, who’s world-renowned for discovering the giant plant-eating dinosaur Dreadnoughtus (it weighed 65 tons when it was alive), has a new book out called Why Dinosaurs Matter. In it, Lacovara, the founding dean of Rowan University’s School of Earth & Environment, makes a strong case for why humans, in the face of today’s big environmental challenges, have so much to learn from the ancient past. Worried that we’ll be wiped out from the face of the earth? The dinosaurs experienced that, so why not look to them? And for those of you who don’t believe in dinosaurs, Lacovara has some words. TED.com named his viral TED talk one of the best of 2016, and Lacovara’s constantly popping up in documentaries to shed light on the wonders of science and discovery. He tells us about his latest pinch me moment and why it’s a huge compliment to be called a dinosaur. 

I grew up in … Linwood, New Jersey, a residential town near Ocean City. It was a great place to grow up because there was always something to do like crabbing or fishing and surfing.

In school my favorite subject was … Science. I always loved it from when I was very young. And it was really because of all the NASA space missions.

I’m most known for… discovering the dinosaur Dreadnoughtus at the bottom of Patagonia.

Most people, when they hear Patagonia, they think… of the clothing brand. But it’s named after the vast region of South America that makes up the southern half of Argentina and Chile. It’s the southernmost land outside of Antarctica, and it’s a very rugged windswept terrain. We were there during the austral summer but it was still very cold there because we’re so close to Antarctica. There are penguins and killer whales along the coast there. I spent about a year of my life living in a tent there next to the Dreadnoughtus quarry. I’d wake up and sometimes the drinking water inside my tent would be frozen. It’s a tough place to work, but it’s also maybe the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.

I got interested in paleontology when… I was very young. My brother Tom began bringing rocks and minerals back from our uncle’s dairy farm in Pennsylvania. That’s really what piqued my interest. I was probably four or five. And then in second grade a woman brought a box of rocks and minerals into our Cub Scouts meeting, and I was hooked. I’d say this is a common story for people in my field. Most people knew they wanted to do this from very young.

The best part of my job is … I get to know things that no human has ever known before. That’s an amazing feeling, and you want it to happen over and over again.

Lacovara in Patagonia. Courtesy photo.

Most people don’t know that… I’m a jazz drummer. I spend a good bit of my life playing the drums.

A habit I’m trying to break is… staying up too late. I’m up early by 6 or 6:30 but I don’t go to bed until well past midnight. So I’d like to get more sleep. I thought I could tough it out, but I’m reading new research that suggests that you die younger if you continually miss out on a good night’s rest. I don’t even want more sleep. I just don’t want to die younger.

Last pinch me moment I had… was when Jane Goodall wrote an endorsement for my book. And then there was also the time when Al Gore tweeted out my TED talk.

When I want to relax… I either go hiking with my family or go in my woodshop and make things like pieces of furniture with hand tools.

I don’t spend enough time… exercising. I come back from the field in great shape but when I’m not there, a lot of what I do happens at my desk. I’d like my days to be filled more with physical work.

My snack of choice is… bread and olive oil. Particularly sourdough and olive oil.

I got my first job… playing drums with my dad’s band. I made money throughout high school playing gigs.

Some top misconceptions about dinosaurs include… that oil comes from dinosaurs. It does not. People will also often say that birds are related to dinosaurs. Birds are truly dinosaurs so it’s not correct to say they’re related.
People also wrongly believe that dinosaurs died of their own incompetence. That’s false because they were murdered by an asteroid and would still be here if that asteroid didn’t hit the earth. That’s why I bristle when people call a company or politician a dinosaur. I always think they should hope to be so lucky. Global dominance for 165 million years. They were cosmopolitans and had adaptations that had never been seen and some never matched since. To be called a dinosaur is a tremendous compliment.

A fascinating scientific discovery that came out recently… happened this summer. A dinosaur called the Nodosaur was unveiled in Canada that had been preserved in the tar sands of Alberta. It was an amazing specimen preserved in 3D. It kind of looks like you’re in the room with a dinosaur the way it was unbelievably and beautifully preserved.

People who don’t believe in dinosaurs … don’t accept the fact of evolution. They think the earth is young. For example, there’s a group on Facebook called Christians Against Dinosaurs. And this is all a particular problem for the U.S. We have by far the greatest number of Nobel Prize winning scientists but among developed countries we also have the largest percentage of science deniers, creationists and young earthers. It’s very strange. Some have asked me whether I just sculpt the fossils I find. I always say, look, if I were to sculpt a dinosaur, I’d definitely pick a much smaller one.

Courtesy photo.

I love fossils and dinosaurs because… they are a means of time travel. I get to crack open the pages of earth’s history and dive into that book and travel back into time. I’m actually surprised sometimes that more people aren’t paleontologists. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to be one. But I’m glad everyone isn’t.

If I were a dinosaur I would be a… bird. I’d trade my big brain for the ability to fly. I’d be a seagull. They live a nice life.

The biggest surprise we found when studying Dreadnoughtus schrani was… that it was 65 tons when it died, but the real surprise is when we looked into the bone tissue, we could see it was growing fast at the time that it died. So it was not full grown. So we don’t really know how big Dreadnoughtus or other species of giant dinosaurs get. Dreadnaughtus was 65 tons and there was another one this summer where they claimed 69 tons. And 65 tons is the equivalent of 13 African elephants, 9 T-Rex, or ten tons heavier than a Boeing 737.

I’ve traveled to many countries through my work including… Argentina, Italy, China, and Egypt.

Working for my alma mater is… surreal. I’m halfway over it. I was a much different person when I went here as a student. When I came back as a dean, I’d walk around various corners and realize I hadn’t been to that specific part of campus in 32 years. And sometimes it seems so long ago that I can’t even make the connection actually.

Courtesy photo.

The Jean and Ric Edelman Fossil Park in South Jersey is important… for two reasons. The first is scientific. I think what we have in a bone bed at the bottom of the park is a window into the very last moments of the dinosaurs. I think we actually have the extinction layer preserved there. And that shed light on the events that caused the world’s fifth mass extinction. The fifth extinction is particularly important right now because presently we are experiencing the sixth extinction. Only this time we are the cause of it. We are the asteroids of our age. It’s very important to understand how the earth and earth’s ecosystems responded to the last great catastrophe of the earth. And we see that at the bottom.

Secondly, it’s important because in the layers just after the times of the dinosaurs, we have areas where we can let the public collect. It’s become immensely popular although we’re only open right now during special events. But in three years when we have a museum, we’ll be open everyday. It’s particularly profound for kids. When they make a connection between themselves and the broader world, we can give them pathways into the STEM discipline. We’re not trying to train thousands and thousands of paleontologists. We’re trying to give them the tools they need to receive and process information in a rational way. Then using the scientific method, they can apply the knowledge to physics, and medicine, and chemistry or even voting. [Laughs] We hope to be growing better-equipped students and better citizens.

A common thing people say about my job is … that it’s just like Ross on Friends. Every paleontologist hears this and we’re pretty sick of it. It’s nothing like Ross on Friends because A, I have to show up for work. And B, I don’t have a 2,000 square foot apartment in Manhattan. Although I have to say my wife is prettier than Jennifer Aniston, so kind of the same that way.

Why Dinosaurs Matter. Amazon.

I wrote Why Dinosaurs Matter because… it has been a long time since there was a trade press book about dinosaurs written for adults. When people hear I’ve written a dinosaur book they automatically assume it’s for kids. But it’s not. There are some big lessons from the ancient past we humans need to learn today. We are all more interested in the future than the past, but we don’t have access to the future. We are facing large challenges like rising sea levels, environmental destruction and the loss of biodiversity and coral reefs. Since we don’t have access to the future the only information that can help guide us to make the decisions we need to make, is all that information about the past. We need to familiarize ourselves with the past and learn lessons of the past. The book is called Why Dinosaurs Matter, but I really could’ve named it Why the Past Matters. And I’m shooting for curious adults who want to dip into a topic but don’t have time to read an 800-page account. This is dinosaurs for people in a hurry.

The feeling I had giving my first TED talk was… exhilarating. It was a little bit scary at first. Everyone is a bit nervous before a talk. But once up on stage. I found my groove. It was just thrilling. I have nothing but gratitude for the entire experience.

Being on TV or interviewed for documentaries is… a tremendous opportunity because when I’m in a documentary I get to teach more people that day about the earth than all the students who travel through my classroom.

A problem I’m constantly grappling with is … how the actual process of fossilization occurs. If you buy a geology textbook today it will have a fairy tale. They’ll say the meat decays away and bones becomes a representation of their former selves. But that’s not the whole process. We recover some ancient material still in their bones. We can see that’s what we have but we don’t understand the process yet that led to that preservation. We thought we understood fossilization but now we’re trying to figure out how the process truly works.

By studying dinosaurs, I’ve learned that human-induced climate change… is an existential threat to humanity. What the lesson of dinosaurs tells us is that no matter how successful you are or well adapted you are to this planet, systems change and things don’t last forever. The rein and hegemony of dinosaurs lasted 165 million years. And we’ve been on earth for just 300,000 years. We just got here as a species. We look around and think it’s all about us, but we’d be foolish to think that things don’t change. The world doesn’t have to have dinosaurs any more than it has to have humans. We are not inevitable or even necessary organisms on this planet. And if we don’t take better care of the planet, our very existence could be threatened.

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