Why Study Extinct Animals? Two Paleontologists Explain Their "Sexy Medium"
Inside a climate-controlled room on an upper level of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, doctors Michael Habib and Nathan Smith are showing off a Nyctosaurus. It's not a complete skeleton — the head and neck are missing — but there's enough here to indicate what it is, and enough to spark the onlooker's imagination and curiosity. Its short, hind legs are fossilized mid-plié. I half-expect the bones to pop out of the sediment like the Looney Tunes frog, ready to sing "Hello, My Baby" with a tip of a top hat from its headless body.
If the remains of this creature came with a head, it would be a large one. The researchers know this because they've seen the feature on other similar specimens. There aren't many Nyctosaurus remains in decent shape. In fact, there are four: one in a private collection, one at Chicago's Field Museum, another at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the one that's currently stored away from public view in Los Angeles' NHM.
Habib, an assistant professor at USC's Keck School of Medicine and a research associate at NHM's Dinosaur Institute, unleashes a bounty of information about the Nyctosaurus in dense, rapidly spoken paragraphs. The reason why there are so few known specimens of this creature, he explains, is likely because Nyctosaurus, with long, narrow membrane wings made for soaring, lived far out over the ocean. "When was the last time you were driving down the freeway around L.A. and saw an albatross?" he asks rhetorically.
Nyctosaurus is a pterosaur, one of Habib's areas of expertise. Those limber hind legs are one of the indications of this. So is the creature's incredibly long finger. A pterosaur isn't a dinosaur; the two are related, but they aren't the same thing. The former is the subject of the Natural History Museum's current exhibition, which opened July 3 and runs through early October. "Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs" is a traveling show that launched at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Habib was the lead consultant for the exhibition. Smith, who joined the NHM staff as associate curator at the Dinosaur Institute last September, has been working on preparing the museum for the exhibition.
"A lot of people commonly assume that pterosaurs are just flying dinosaurs, when in fact they aren't," Smith says. "This kind of indoctrination starts when we're really young and we get our little box of toy dinosaurs. There's almost always a pterosaur thrown in there and almost always a sail-back Dimetrodon, which is a mammal-like reptile that is more closely related to us than it is to dinosaurs or pterosaurs."
It's probably not unusual that Habib's and Smith's own interest in prehistoric animals began when they were children. Smith grew up near Chicago and would visit the Field Museum on weekends, where he would ask lots of questions and attempt to "stump" those who may have had answers. Habib grew up fairly close to Washington, D.C. — "technically closer to Baltimore," he specifies — and would make trips to the National Museum of Natural History, where the dinosaurs piqued his curiosity. "I would enthusiastically corner any of the volunteers or staff I could," he recalls.
Both returned to the subject while studying evolutionary biology in college and, ultimately, became vertebrate paleontologists. Despite those similarities, their work is quite different. Smith studies really old dinosaurs. He's involved in a dig at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico where the dinosaurs they find date back about 212 million years. Habib is interested in creatures that are less old. He is involved in field work on another site in New Mexico where the finds range in age from about 68 million to 73 million years. They work in a field where terms like old and young are relative.
"There really isn't young and old, there's just younger and older," Habib says. "The only way you can be objectively young is if it's current and it's only objectively old if you're getting near the origin of life."
As paleontologists, their work is a culmination of a variety of subjects, including geology, anatomy and evolutionary biology. For Habib, who looks at how the wings of pterosaurs may have worked, his coursework involved a heavy amount of math as well as fluid dynamics. While Habib and Smith study the fossils of long-gone creatures who continue to spark the imaginations of everyone from little kids to Hollywood directors, there's more to it than that. They're ultimately, students of time and Earth, and that gives them a perspective on contemporary issues as well.
"I think that the biggest thing that is a pet peeve of ours is people saying, well, climate was different in the past," Smith says. "Climate has changed. Temperatures have changed. Worlds have changed, but often associated with great upheaval."
Habib adds, "And a lot of things died and that's why we're worried."
As the two talk more about the scale of time in which they work, it becomes clear how their work intersects and how it connects to today. "The more you study deep time and paleontology and Earth history, the better appreciation you have for how big these scales are, which gives you a better appreciation for what's going on now," Smith says. "We're getting huge changes in what is essentially a geological instant. When we talk about species extinctions that are ongoing or habitat loss that is happening now, it's happening at a rate that's unprecedented, even in comparison to some of these mass-extinction events in Earth history, and that's one of the things to be really concerned about."
Habib says he's often asked why he's not working on a cure for cancer or building aircraft. To that, he responds, "The reason why you need all that health care and defense and transport and such is so that, then, you have a society that can make art and discover its own history and the history of the planet it's on and understand our place in the universe and other fundamentals and realize what makes up the universe."
Sometimes the research does end up fulfilling practical purposes. Particularly because he works on winged creatures, some of Habib's research has made a tech impact. That, however, wasn't the initial reason for it. Ultimately, he says, paleontology is "just legitimately interesting."
And it's interesting work that can have a big impact. "Paleontology is really the most publicly accessible scientific endeavor," Smith says. "We're kind of the tip of the spear when it comes to getting people involved with science and also when you look at things that, rightly or wrongly, become really hot-button politicized issues in science — like human-induced climate change or also evolutionary biology and theory — paleontology is right at the forefront of all of those. So, we've got a medium, a very sexy medium, with which to educate people about those topics."
"Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs" runs at the Natural History Museum through Oct. 2. Dr. Nathan Smith will be speaking on his field excursions at the "Paleo PTalks" event on Tuesday, July 12, at 6 p.m.
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