Thursday, August 2, 2012

Interview with Scientist/Artist: Bruce J. Mohn

I have a special post for you all to enjoy today!  Bruce J. Mohn is a paleontologist specializing in the study of small carnivorous dinosaurs, early birds and pterosaurs.  He is also an artist, best known for his three dimensional, bone by bone reconstructions of the skeletons of Compsognathus, Archaeopteryx, Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhynchus.  He has also done illustration work for several major museum exhibits, books, magazines and television and life reconstructions and dioramas.  I had the pleasure of getting to know Bruce through the past few years since he worked in the biology department at Rutgers University when I was an undergraduate there.  He was always very supportive and more than happy to answer any questions I emailed him about paleontology and would let me come visit him in his office to check out the department's collection of dead (stuffed) animals, bones or sometimes just talk paleo.  Most important of all, however, Bruce was kind enough to mentor me through a lot of my own paleo-artwork and was never afraid to rip them apart (metaphorically) if they weren't scientifically accurate.  This is something I especially appreciated since it did nothing but drastically improve my own work.

Bruce Painting the teeth on an Archeopteryx model he sculpted.

On to the Questions!

Question 1:
How long have you been interested in paleontology?  Who did you admire
growing up?

BM: I have been interested in paleontology most of my life.  I remember sculpting a Triceratops in kindergarten and doing dinosaur illustrations and sculptures in grade school.  The librarian at the local children’s library used to order books especially for me on the subjects of evolution and paleontology.

My paleontological interests hit a snag when my family got religion in a big way around the time I was 9.  I attended a Creationist seminar when I was 11 and was encouraged to believe that all fossils were fakes and that the world was very young.  I had doubts, but it wasn’t until I attended a seminary in upstate New York that my doubts were clarified.

Upstate New York is loaded with marine fossils, which I assumed were evidence of the Great Floodas they seemed to be encrusting rocks, much as modern barnacles or mussels do today.  But as I hammered them out, I realized the fossils were actually weathering OUT Of the rock.  It became obvious that the rock was not just a random boulder, but achunk of seabed that had turned to rock and then been broken off a bigger bed of rocks, weathered and worn down to reveal the fossils inside it.  That was my first realization that there was ample evidence for the Earth being very old and if that was the case, then there was plenty of time to allow evolution to work.

I dropped out of seminary and embarked on a course of self-study and college studies that led to where I am today, a biologist specializing in evolution and anatomical studies.

I wasn’t really aware of any paleontologists when I was growing up.  The paleo-artist who most inspired me was Charles R. Knight.

Question 2:
At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

BM: I was inspired to pursue a career in paleontology when I was in college.  I had thought that dyslexia and associated problems with math would keep me from a career in the sciences, but was counseled otherwise by Roger Wood, a professor in evolution and anatomy at Stockton College.  He encouraged me to push through the courses that were tough and helped me design independent study courses in ecology, fossil preparation and reconstruction of extinct animals.

 Question 3:
When you were a child, what was your favorite dinosaur?  What dinosaur is your favorite now?

BM: My favorite dinosaurs when I was a child were Triceratops, Stegosaurus and Struthiomimus.  My favorite dinosaurs now are the dromaeosaurids and compsognathids.  I have a special fondness for Compsognathus as it was the first dinosaur for which I sculpted the entire skeleton, an educational and also a profitable experience.

Bruce's Compsognathus model.

Question 4:
Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many
disciplines.  What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

BM: Most paleontologists today are employed in fields other than paleontology.  A lucky few work in universities and museums as paleontologists, but most paleontologists teach biology, geology or anatomy and pursue their paleontological research on the side.  A few are employed as consultants in the private and public sectors.  If you are determined to work exclusively as a paleontologist, be prepared for a struggle.

I am a paleontologist, but am employed as a laboratory operations coordinator at Rutgers University.  I have worked as a field biologist, environmental consultant, exhibit consultant, designer and fabricator, sculptor, illustrator, television consultant, specimen collector, skeleton and fossil preparer, even done botanical studies and soils sampling.

Question 5:
Going to college these days and then on to grad school has become a
daunting task.  Many people are unaware of how long it takes to make
it to the finish line.  The rewards are great, but what would you say
to someone pursuing professional studies after college?

BM: Good luck!  If you want to be employed as a paleontologist, you need an advanced degree if you hope to get a job which will provide a decent wage.  Graduate school is a big commitment of time, energy and funds.

Question 6:
What was or is your favorite project?  What are some of your current projects?

BM: My favorite museum project of all time was developing, creating and assembling the elements of the dinosaur exhibit at the Delaware Museum of Natural History.  The staff and professionals were great to work with, the money was good and the final result is still satisfying.

My favorite personal projects have been the four skeletons I sculpted; Compsognathus, Archaeopteryx, Pterodactylus and Rhamphorhynchus.  All four species are known from fossils that are mostly preserved in two dimensions, very tiny, too fragile or too important to ever prepare the bones completely away from the surrounding rock.  I sculpted each skeleton mostly bone by bone with all of the joints articulating properly.  I then had the sculptures molded and cast for sale to museums, universities and private collections around the world.  I made reasonable amounts of money, quite good for a hobby, but not enough to quit my day job.

I’m currently working on a full sized skeleton of Velociraptor mongoliensis and restoring the exoskeleton of a Japanese giant spider crab that was collected over a century ago.

Diorama at the Delaware Museum of Natural History featuring many elements created by Bruce.

 Question 7:
Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I
know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for
dinosaurs.  What movie inspired you the most?

BM: I really didn’t see many movies as a kid and at the time there really weren’t many dinosaur themed movies other than some terrible B films and worse Japanese monster movies.  I was most inspired by books and particularly enjoyed the illustrations of Charles R. Knight, one of the earliest paleo-artists.  I tried to sculpt a few dinosaurs based on his work, but mine were only pale reflections.

Prehistoric Beast done in 1985 was the first dinosaur movie I saw that really thrilled me.  It’s a short film by Phil Tippett with gorgeously sculpted stop motion animation dinosaurs moving through an authentic landscape.  I think it was the first dinosaur depiction I had seen which put them in a deep forest, rather than on a tabletop landscape.  They were real animals in a real landscape, rather than monsters.

Question 8:
Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met?  Were you a
nervous wreck?

BM: The first paleontologist I ever met was Roger Wood, who became my undergraduate advisor in college.  Roger is an expert in the study of extinct and extant turtles and one of the nicest people you could hope to meet.

The first famous paleontologist I met was John Ostrom, who I met while I was an undergraduate student.  John was the describer of DeinonychusThe first fossils of Deinonychuswere discovered by Barnum Brown years earlier, but not recognized for what they represented until Ostrom found additional specimens in 1960).  No, I wasn’t nervous.  John was soft spoken and kindly answered all of my questions while he was giving my class a tour of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

After I became a member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and attended conferences, I met a large number of the paleontologists working in a variety of fields today, including a bunch who are known through the media.  Can’t say as any made me nervous.  They’re just people and generally want to talk to other people about the things that fascinate them.

Question 9:
Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

BM: They’re big and strange looking!  Except for the tiny ones of course, which are the ones I am most interested in.  They are aliens that we can study and try to understand.  Their bones are beautiful and terrifying.  And they’re dead!

Each new find tells us so much more about them.  Feathers on dinosaurs were completely unknown until 1996 and now there is evidence of feathers in a number of specimens.  Some specimens have revealed soft tissue details and others such as the various dinosaur mummies have revealed skin texture.

Question 10:
What is your favorite geological time period?

BM: Pretty fond of the Holocene!  I like a variety of species acrossthe range of geological time.  I can’t think of one single time or place I would like to visit if time travel was possible.  But there are a bunch of places where unusual preservation allows us to do the next best thing to time travel.  I visited Drumheller in Alberta, Canada in 1998 and saw dinosaur bone beds for the first time.  It was enthralling to be walking in a place where the bones were so thick I had to watch my step.  The only dinosaur bones I had seen in the field before that had been in Gloucester County, NJ and I only found two chips after several hours of looking.  More amazing were the specimens being prepared in the labs at the Royal Tyrell Museum.  There were two specimens being removed from the matrix, an ornithomimid and a Gorgosaurus.  Almost every bone was still in its proper place and the animals looked like the scavengers had just finished picking the meat off their bones.

Sculpting a Pterodactylus skull.

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