Dr. Lindsay Zanno is the Director of the Paleontology Research Laboratory at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. Here, she explains why she strays so far from home in her search for dinosaur bones. Questions and answers have been edited.
Q: You just got back from digs in Montana and New Mexico, and now you are headed out on another expedition to Utah. Why do you have such a soft spot for the American West? In other words, why isn’t North Carolina the best place to go dinosaur hunting?
A: Paleontologists, like all scientists, collect data to answer specific questions about the way our world works. However, in our case, answering the big questions about how life evolved over millions of years can’t be accomplished without first having a complete picture of which species were around throughout the long history of our planet. Given the number of dinosaurs already known, it’s easy to think that not much else is out there. But remember, dinosaurs have been roaming almost every corner of our planet for more than 230 million years (as birds for the last 65 million) so, by some estimates, thousands of dinosaur species remain undiscovered. Moreover, for certain times and places, nothing has yet been discovered by scientists; leaving breaks in the dinosaurian story spanning tens of millions of years.
Rocks exposed in the American West preserve one of the most complete records of dinosaur evolution anywhere in the world. Yet, even here, there are major gaps in our understanding. For example, the dinosaurs living there between 98 and 80 million years ago are virtually unknown, and as you might have guessed, a lot can happen in 17 million years. In particular, this time represents a period of global warming and elevated sea level, making it a good case study for exploring the consequences of the environmental challenges we are facing today.
Each year my team and I embark on several field expeditions to the American West, targeting rocks of this age, with the hopes that we will find dinosaurs that have as of yet, gone unrecorded. So far we’ve found the remains of at least five new dinosaur species (predators and plant-eaters alike), as well as ancient crocs, new species of turtles, mammals, frogs, lizards, fish, and plants – all of which are helping us fill in the picture of how life responded to rising seas and changing climate during the Cretaceous.
So what about North Carolina? Those same rising seas flooded large portions of North America, including the eastern half of our state, which was submerged under the ocean for much of this time. And although there are Cretaceous-age rocks at the surface in North Carolina that have yielded fragmentary dinosaur remains, these rocks are not well-exposed and they are not easy to prospect – most are covered with the abundant plant life of our region making finding fossils a challenge. Because of this, the museum benefits greatly from its partnership with local fossil enthusiasts such as the N.C. Fossil Club, who often discover and donate important specimens to enhance our collections. Such discoveries can, and often do, dramatically improve our murky glimpse into Cretaceous life on the east coast of North America, so that we can one day tell the story of the dinosaurs and other animals that lived right here in our own backyard.