Scannella explains how paleontology has changed

Museum of the Rockies (MOR), which has the largest collection of North American dinosaurs in the U. S., has over 100 specimens of Triceratops. Many museums across the world have only one or two Triceratops specimens within their collection. John Scannella Ph.D. explained in his talk, “The Dinosaur in the Window,” how having such an extensive assembly of a single species is an asset to paleontology and to science as a whole.


Scannella is the Interim Curator of Paleontology at Museum of the Rockies. He received his B.S. in Geological Sciences from Rutgers University and his Ph.D. from MSU through the Department of Earth Sciences. The talk was hosted by MOR and Gallatin Valley Friends of the Sciences on Jan. 18 in the MOR Hager Auditorium at 7 p.m.

Scannella explained how the significance of dinosaurs has dramatically changed. When fossils were first discovered in the 19th Century, emphasis was placed on finding and naming as many species as possible. This was exemplified during the Bone Wars, a fierce competition between scientists O.C. Marsh and Edward Cope in the late 1800s. This rivalry led to the discovery and naming of many dinosaurs we learn about in children’s books, but ultimately branded paleontology as little more than ‘glorified stamp collecting’.

The implication has remained: Why study dinosaurs? “When you dig up a dinosaur like a Triceratops, it can be a lot of hard work. It can require a lot of time, patience and physical activity, and you can find yourself in remote locations and exposed to extreme temperatures. Some people might say, why bother doing that?” Scanella asked. “Why dedicate time and resources to studying an animal that has been dead for so long that no human being has been alive to see one of them?”

Many scientific discoveries of the past few decades have challenged long-lasting beliefs about how dinosaurs lived and behaved. “It was assumed that these animals were slow, stupid, drab colored and spent their time in bogs, waiting to go extinct,” Scannella said. However, mounting evidence shows the contrary.

The discoveries of Archaeopteryx fossils have morphed scientists’ understanding of dinosaurs’ physical appearance. Due to its feathers, teeth and claws, Archaeopteryx has long been considered the first bird and a poster child as a transitional species in the fossil record. However, fossil findings in recent years show that feathers were more common among dinosaurs than believed. In addition, scientists are working on determining their pigments — research shows that many dinosaurs were brightly colored.

Dinosaurs’ social behavior was long considered to be equivalent to that of solitary snakes and lizards. In the 1970’s, Jack Horner described and named what is now the Montana state dinosaur, the Maiasaura. Horner described how the bones of infant dinosaurs were discovered in depressions, appearing to be nesting structures. This was one of the first of many examples showing parental care and community arrangements.

When a Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil was discovered in Eastern Montana in 2000, another door was opened into understanding the details of dinosaurs. The fossil, called B. Rex, was found under a massive amount of rock in a gully. The skeleton had to be separated in order to be moved, and in doing so the femur was accidentally cut in half. When paleontologist Mary Higby Schweitzer examined the fossil, she found that soft tissue had been preserved. This was shocking, as it had been believed previously that dinosaur fossils were rocks encased in the shape of the bones rather than actual tissue. This allowed for examination of dinosaurs on a molecular level. In inspecting B. Rex, scientists were even able to determine that the dinosaur was female.

As for the many specimens of triceratops that MOR holds, the variation of these fossils has allowed for Scannella and other paleontologists to examine the evolution of these creatures. “The field of paleontology has evolved over the years. It has evolved from being stamp collecting to addressing serious questions of evolution and biology. They offer a critical source of information about the history of this planet, and give us context with which to consider ourselves,” Scannella said.

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