It Takes a Village
They say it takes a village to raise a child. As for unearthing a dinosaur the size of about 3,000 children? Well, let’s just say it takes a really, really talented village.
By Diane Ketler
Illustration by Jennifer Hall
Chris Coughenour remembers his first day of field prospecting in Argentina as a new graduate student in 2005.
“I was extremely hopeful and optimistic,” he says. “We knew the area had great potential, but prospecting is very much like fishing: you simply do not know when or if you will cross paths with your intended target.”
After a morning of uncovering “float” (fossil fragments unassociated with other bones), Coughenour and the team of five hopefuls — led by Drexel paleontologist Ken Lacovara, PhD — stumbled upon a small plot of bones. Within a few hours, they uncovered the six-foot femur of what would eventually be known as the most complete supermassive dinosaur skeleton ever discovered: Dreadnoughtus schrani.
“The first several days after finding the femur were rather surreal,” says Coughenour. “We realized fairly quickly that we had a concentrated assemblage of material from what appeared to be a single animal. So really, in just a few hours our entire perspective shifted from one of complete uncertainty to comprehending the logistics of removing many tons of rock and fossilized material with only a few people in this extremely remote setting.”
Fast-forward through four field seasons, hundreds of bones, and a carefully orchestrated trip to the U.S., and the remains of one of the largest animals to ever walk the Earth found their way to the fifth floor of Drexel’s Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building in Lacovara’s fossil lab.
So what does it take to get the remains of a 65-ton supermassive dinosaur from Patagonia to Philadelphia?
For starters, it took chisels, pickaxes, hammers, airscribes, burlap and plaster casts. And then there were the rafts, stretcher toboggans, dump trucks, horses, forklifts, cargo containers and container ships. But most importantly, it took people. Very dedicated, tough people.
“I’ve learned that nearly any student can adapt to any situation if they try hard enough,” says Lacovara. “I’ve had students in the field from all kinds of backgrounds. Some of them may not have spent a lot of time outdoors, while others are seasoned in the field. But no matter their background, when they put away their concerns about creature comforts and instead focus on the work, I haven’t seen one yet who wasn’t able to adapt to field conditions. It’s all about motivation: their passion for the work makes up for any discomfort.”
Lacovara first traveled to Patagonia solo back in 2004, working with a few volunteers from the University of Patagonia. A year later, he came back with graduate student Chris Coughenour. The year after that, he brought more graduate students, and, for the first time, a Drexel undergraduate student, Alison Moyer.
In total, Lacovara has worked with over 75 undergraduate students and numerous graduate students on the Dreadnoughtus project. Of those, eight graduate and three undergraduate students are now co-authors on the research paper describing this new titanosaur. Another 40 volunteers committed their time and effort to piecing together Dreadnoughtus at the three sites to which the bones were sent: Drexel, the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University and the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh.
“This project has taken years of persistence, research and hard work from Ken and a very dedicated group of individuals,” says College of Arts and Sciences Dean Donna Murasko, PhD. “Ken epitomizes the public scholar, whose goal it is to educate the people around him and inspire the scientists of the future.”’
That includes scientists like Coughenour, then a physics undergrad, who, after taking several geology courses with Lacovara, went on to pursue his PhD in environmental science, with Lacovara as his advisor. And Lucio Ibiricu, the Patagonian-born student who volunteered his time for five expeditions, and came back to Philadelphia to complete his PhD at Drexel.
“The best part of being a professor is watching my students succeed,” says Lacovara. “It’s a big thrill to watch them advance and go on to great jobs and great graduate programs. That’s really what makes it all worthwhile.”
Q&A with Drexel Dreadnoughtus Co-Authors
The discovery and publication of Dreadnoughtus is an impressive achievement for an accomplished paleontologist like Lacovara — but for the 11 students who co-authored the paper (published in Scientific Reports), it’s life-changing. We caught up with them to learn what it means to be part of such a discovery.
What sparked your interest in paleontology?
Zachary Boles: Like the vast majority of paleontologists, I have always loved dinosaurs and ancient creatures, and never grew out of the desire to study them. Movies and documentaries like “Jurassic Park” and “Walking with Dinosaurs” also started coming out when I was a child and those only reinforced my desire to be a paleontologist.
Victoria Egerton: Whenever I visited my grandparents’ house when I was little, I would play with my grandmother’s rock and fossil collection. I loved to hear the stories of how the different rocks and fossils were formed and to imagine a world full of life that is different than today’s.
Lucio Ibiricu: The fieldwork. I always enjoyed working in the field.
Alison Moyer: Believe it or not, it was Dr. Lacovara himself when I had him as a professor for University 101.
Jason Schein: I always wanted to be an explorer when I was a kid. I wanted to go places and see things no one had ever experienced before, like Lewis and Clark or John Colter. Eventually I realized that, unless I was one of 100 or so people in the world that would ever get to go to space, or one of even fewer that would get to go to the bottom of the ocean, just about everywhere else on the planet has already been explored. Finding fossils, though, and learning things that are new to science, still gives me that sense of exploration and discovery.
Elena Schroeter: When I was 5 years old, my older brother thought dinosaurs were the coolest thing ever. I thought whatever he liked was the coolest thing ever. Many, many years later, I never grew out of dinosaurs.
Paul Ullman: A lifelong passion initiated by my parents reading dinosaur books to me at 3 years old. In fact, my third birthday party was dinosaur-themed.
Favorite memory(ies) from the field?
Chris Coughenour: Our first full day in the field in 2005. I think the combination of emotions — hopefulness, uncertainty, and finally discovery — that I experienced that day is what remains my favorite memory.
Egerton: There is not one particular memory that sticks out most from that field season — it is the combination of those memories that make me smile: unpicking a pile of cervical ribs like a giant game of Pick Up Sticks; or digging out our soda from under two feet of sediment after rainstorms; or sitting by a fire and staring at the stars with a great group of people.
Schein: When we would run out of food after 10-12 days, we’d head back into town for a few days to rest, recuperate and restock our food caches. During one of those periods, I stayed behind in camp by myself, working in the quarry, fishing, exploring and just enjoying the incredible scenery and solitude.
Most challenging part of excavating fossils?
Boles: You have to resist the urge to “field prep” any exciting fossils that you find. In the field, you only want to expose just enough of the fossil to know where all the edges end so you can safely excavate it. With unusual or exciting looking bones, it can be hard to wait days, weeks or months to get them back into the lab so you can clean and prepare the fossils.
Egerton: You can easily add 100-200 pounds of plaster to form the protective jacket around a bone that already weighs 1,000 pounds or more. Then comes the hard part: moving the jacket and transporting it from the middle of nowhere to the museum. Moving large jackets requires engineering and lots of creative thinking. We were lucky enough to have a front-end loader to help move the largest jackets in Patagonia, but it required a lot of preparation and fast thinking to get them out of the ground safely.
Moyer: In regards to the experiments I do now, the hardest thing is figuring out how the fossil has changed from its original state when the dinosaur died to being excavated after millions of years in the ground. And then taking methods that have been developed for modern samples and optimizing them to account for these changes in order to process our fossil material.
Schein: Perhaps the most challenging part of the process is finding specimens to excavate in the first place. There are many places we go around the world where we find fossils literally all over the place, but finding bones that are complete enough and preserved well enough to be worth excavating, is far more rare.
Favorite tool of the trade?
Boles: I think every field geologist and paleontologist loves their rock hammer. But for most of the field sites I’ve worked at, a simple flat-head screwdriver has worked best for excavating fossils.
Egerton: My favorite tool in the field, other than my rock hammer, is a blunt AK-47 bayonet. It may seem like a strange tool to use, but it’s very versatile. It allows me to be able to dig around fossil bones easily, but also cleanly split rocks to look for fossil leaves.
Moyer: Definitely my trenching tool. Dr. Lacovara and I have an ongoing debate as to whose trenching tool is better.
Schein: My favorite tool while I’m looking for fossils is an awl. It’s just a simple tool that is great for a lot of tasks. It is also small and light and I can hike for miles with it.
Schroeter: By the end of my time prepping the cervical, I had my own personal tool kit filled with dental picks I had bent or ground just right, cushioned tape for my fingers, work gloves, etc. But my favorite tool was my X-Acto knife, which I named “Faust.”
Ullman: My rock hammer, which I fondly nicknamed “Ol’ Rusty.” Had it for as long as I’ve been doing fieldwork, and it’s an essential part of any earth scientist’s toolkit. Useful in so many ways that many wouldn’t think of right away, including anchoring yourself along steep slopes while searching out fossils in the badlands.
What type of work went into this project outside of Patagonia?
Boles: There was a lot of negotiating and paperwork that had to be done by Dr. Lacovara to allow the fossils to leave Argentina. Once the fossils were in Philadelphia, they had to be split between the Academy of Natural Sciences, Drexel, and the Carnegie Museum in order for them to be prepped as quickly as possible. It took dozens of volunteers and thousands of hours to open jackets, remove sediment and piece the fossils back together. After the fossils were glued back together, we could 3D laser scan them to make digital models. This again took dozens of volunteers and hundreds of hours to accomplish due to the size and number of fossils we have. There was also, of course, the actual studying and describing of the fossils and comparing them to other known titanosaurs so we could positively identify and argue that Dreadnoughtus was a new dinosaur.
Aja Carter: When a jacket arrives in the lab, you have to carefully remove the plaster, burlap and separation layer. It’s like a birthday gift! So, I opened many of the jackets at the Academy and at Drexel. After the jackets were opened, I was part of the team that put the bones back together. After 70 million years of geologic pressure, they start to fall to pieces when brought to the surface. We have a plethora of tools, from pneumatic airscribes to dental picks to specialized glue. I always compare it to putting together a 3D puzzle but you aren’t sure how many pieces you are missing or how it should look in the end.
Ullman: Hundreds of hours of staring at bones, measuring bones, 3D laser scanning bones, reading papers describing related dinosaurs to compare to, and discussions with leading scientists in dinosaur paleontology and related fields. This type of project is not a one-man endeavor: collaborations are essential to fully exploit the wealth of history recorded in 77-million-year-old fossils.
Kristyn Voegele: It took three labs three years to clean and prepare all the fossils of Dreadnoughtus so they could be studied. In the lab, we had over 600 volunteer hours to 3D laser scan these fossils. Dreadnoughtus has been, or will be, at least a portion of eight PhD projects at Drexel.
What’s the most important thing you’ve taken away from this experience?
Carter: Never, ever, ever, stop asking questions. Asking questions is how I learned to prepare fossils correctly. Asking questions is how I got so involved in research and through that I am now working toward my PhD. Feed your curiosity. Whenever one question is answered, two more arise. That’s what makes science so interesting.
Coughenour: Only through the hard work and efforts of a team of dedicated people, particularly Dr. Lacovara, could the idea or dream of traveling to a remote location, engaging in field work that would yield scientifically viable specimens, and finally interpreting what the fossil and the surrounding rocks could tell us be realized. If you have an idea, try to follow through with it and big things can happen (quite literally, in this case).
Egerton: Knowledge and friendship are the two most important things I have taken from working in Patagonia.
Ibiricu: [My relationships with] all the people who worked on the project at different levels.
Moyer: College is definitely what you make of it. But, I was very fortunate to meet a couple of professors who not only encouraged me to explore my academic curiosities, but also were able to foresee my strengths and successes before I even knew they were possible.
Schroeter: A doctorate!
Ullman: The value of collaboration and outreach. We’ve had countless visitors come through our lab, from the very young to the very old, who all loved seeing such an extraordinary fossil. We’ve also had many community volunteers’ help. And all of them have been thrilled to contribute firsthand to scientific data collection.
What are your future plans? Any more fossil digs?
Boles: I am in my last year of grad school here at Drexel so I will be looking for a post-doc or job once I graduate. As for fossil digs, we still have our field site in NJ where we go once a week from spring through fall to excavate 65-millionyear-old marine life. There is also talk of trying to return to Argentina or opening up anotherfield site out West.
Carter: I want to go to Argentina, find more of Dread. Elena Schroeter was the last generation to go to Argentina. The rest of us only got to do lab work. One of our collaborators, Matt Lamanna, works in Antarctica. I’d like to go down there once. Beyond digging, I have my own research to get started on!
Coughenour: I hope to continue my sedimentology research dealing with coastal/tidal environments and stratigraphy. Much of this ties in well to an excavation and determining the paleo-environment that an organism inhabited. I would value the chance to continue working with paleontologists on future work.
Egerton: I have many more plans for fossil digs in the future. I am currently working at the University of Manchester doing research and teaching. Right now, we have a field site in South Dakota where we dig up everything from dinosaurs, like Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus, to fossil leaves and wood. This is a very productive site that is used for research and teaching students interested in paleontology. I do have aspirations to continue to do fieldwork in South America in the future or even Antarctica.
Ibiricu: Always, perhaps for the rest of my life.
Moyer: I hope my future plans involve being invited back to Patagonia for the next expedition!
Schein: I still lead expeditions each summer to Montana and Wyoming [through the NJ State Museum]. I hope to continue those throughout my career, but I also want to conduct field-based research all over the world. I would love to extend our field experiences to elsewhere in South America, Antarctica, and just about anywhere else in the world. Paleontology is what I’ve wanted to do since I was little, and now I’m living out my dream. I can’t imagine what I’d do if I wasn’t a paleontologist.
Schroeter: Never done with dinosaurs! I’m going to continue my post-doc and continue to pursue paleontology research.
Ullman: Absolutely more fossil digs. I’m currently working on finishing my dissertation and am applying to postdoctoral and tenure-track faculty positions that will allow me to continue research into dinosaurs and the curious Earth of the past they inhabited.
Voegele: I plan to finish my PhD in the next two years and would love to be a part of more fossil digs. Fieldwork is one of the many perks of being a paleontologist.
Dreadnoughtus Fast Facts
APPROXIMATELY 77M YEARS OLD
(roughly equivalent to seven T.rex or 12 African elephants)
70.4% OF THE TYPES OF BONES IN THE POSTCRANIAL SKELETON
(most complete giant titanosaur ever discovered)
What's in a Name?
The name Dreadnoughtus means “fears nothing.” It was inspired by the turn-of-the-century battleships called dreadnoughts, which were huge, thickly clad and virtually impervious. Schrani comes from the name of Philadelphia entrepreneur Adam Schran, whose significant financial contribution to the Dreadnoughtus project will help fund the analysis of the bones and additional expeditions.
About Adam Schran
Adam Schran is a lifelong entrepreneur, adventurer and tech aficionado. He is the founder and CEO of Ascentive, a tech company providing customers with PC performance products and services since 1999. Additionally, he was a principal shareholder and the Executive Vice President of Profusion LLC, a search engine technology company acquired by Intelliseek, now a part of Nielsen NetRatings.
“What I really appreciate about Adam is his innate spirit of exploration and his immense curiosity,” says Ken Lacovara, PhD. “He’s a fun guy to talk to because he’s most interested in everything — and not on a superficial level. He really wants to know how stuff works. He has an academic orientation toward the way he thinks, which leant itself naturally to a friendship. He thinks the way a professor thinks.”
Schran graduated from Haverford College in 1998 with an honors degree in computer science with mentorship from one of the Internet’s forefathers. He is currently a member of the Manhattan Software CEO Roundtable and a judge for the Wharton Business Plan Competition. Schran also volunteers with Covenant House, a safe harbor for homeless youth, where he conducts a personal and professional success mentorship program for young adults.
PhD Candidate, Biological Sciences '15
BS Biological Sciences '14
PhD candidate, University of Pennsylvania
Chris Coughenour, PhD
BS Physics '04
PhD Environmental Science '09
Assistant Professor, U. of Pittsburgh-Johnstown
Victoria Egerton, PhD
PhD Biological Sciences '11
Professor, University of Manchester
BS Custom Designed Major '16
Lucio Ibiricu, PhD
PhD Environmental Science '10
Scientist for the Argentinean CONECIT
BS Biological Sciences '08
PhD candidate and NSF Fellow, North Carolina State University
Former Graduate Student
Assistant Curator of Natural History, New Jersey State Museum
Elena Schroeter, PhD
PhD Biological Sciences '13
Postdoc, Northwestern and North Carolina State University
PhD Candidate, Biological Sciences '15
PhD Candidate, Biological Sciences '16