Thursday, April 24, 2014

Interview with Paleontologist: Mike Everhart

Today we will be looking at an interview with paleontologist, Michael Everhart.  I always admired Mr. Everhart and his work with marine fossils.  I was thrilled when he agreed to do an interview for Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs!  

 Michael J. Everhart is a 1969 graduate of Wichita State University. After his military service (U.S. Army) he returned to Wichita State for his Masters Degree (1973).  He worked for the Wichita Sedgwick County Health Department for 12 years and served as the Environmental Health Director from 1981-1985. He was hired as the Environmental Affairs manager at the Boeing Company, where he retired after 17 years. Mike has been an Adjunct Curator of Paleontology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas since 1998.

Mike is an expert on Late Cretaceous marine fossils of central and western Kansas, and on the history of paleontology in Kansas. In addition, he has worked with the T. rex, " Sue" exhibition at the Sternberg Museum in Hays, and Exploration Place in Wichita. Mike was a contributor to the BBC documentary "Chased by Sea Monsters" and served as one of the senior science advisers on the 2007 National Geographic IMAX film, Sea Monsters. His work has been featured in five made for television documentaries on the History and Discovery channels. 

Mike Everhart holding a Mosasaur skull.

Mike is the author of “Sea Monsters: Prehistoric Creatures of the Deep” (National Geographic, 2007) and “Oceans of Kansas – A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea” (Indiana University Press, 2005). The Sea Monsters book was awarded in 2008 by the American Library Association, and both titles were honored as Kansas Notable books. In addition, Mike has also written many papers describing the fossils of the Smoky Hill Chalk, including the 2005 naming of a new species of a marine reptile (mosasaur) from Kansas called Tylosaurus kansasensis. Most recently, Mike and co-author Alyssa Bell described two examples of the oldest bird fossils in North America, based on specimens that originated from Russell County, Kansas. 
He is the creator and webmaster of the educational “Oceans of Kansas Paleontology” web site: which has been on the Internet since December, 1996.  He served as an editor of the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science from 2006 to 2011 and is currently the Managing editor. Mike was President of the KAS in 2005. 

Mike and his dig crew in Kansas.

Question 1: Who did you admire growing up?

ME: I grew up in the 50s and 60s, so most of my heroes were baseball players (Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, etc.) and cowboys (actors, at least… John Wayne, Randolph Scott, etc.).  I was also interested in military figures…. Robert E. Lee, for one.

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

ME: About 9 or 10, I became interested in paleontology after reading Roy Chapman Andrews book, All About Dinosaurs. There are two chapters in that book about marine reptiles and pterosaurs from Kansas…. and at that point, I think I was hooked on fossils. I cannot honestly say I ever decided to pursue a career in paleontology… it just sort of happened.

Question 3: You are well known for your work with prehistoric marine life, specifically in the Late Cretaceous.  Did you choose that aspect of paleontology or did it choose you, so to speak?

ME: See answer to Question 2. Once I learned that these marine fossils came from Kansas, there was no point in going anywhere else.

Question 4: You have also authored a few books about prehistoric oceans.  What was that experience like?

ME: Well, first I have to say that I never intended to become an author.  I created the Oceans of Kansas web site in late 1996 and by 2000 or so, people were asking where they could buy the book….At that time, of course, there was no book, but it got me thinking that I certainly had enough things I could write about… When I proposed the idea to Indiana University Press, they jumped on it. There was no comparable book the time and they wanted one. So I sat down and started writing it. The first thing I learned was that I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did in many areas.  Writing the book turned out to be a real education for me. So much of what I had to say about paleontology in Kansas was historical… many fossils were literally discovered here first, starting in 1867 with Elasmosaurus. In the process of researching the book, I acquired a huge library of all the papers written by Cope, Marsh and many others, describing what they had discovered in the chalk of western Kansas. Everything came together over the next couple of years and Oceans of Kansas was published in June, 2005. The publisher was cautious, of course, and only printed about 2500 copies in the first press run. The thing that surprised us both was that they sold 1700 of those before the book was even printed in advance orders! Although it’s now almost 10 years old, the book continues to sell well and is one of their best selling books ever.

At the same time that I was working on the book, I was also working with National Geographic on a project documenting the discovery made Charles H. Sternberg. At first it was to be a magazine article and a TV special, but the documentary never worked out. Finally NG received funding from the NSF to make an IMAX movie called Sea Monsters, based on the same information. I was involved from the start as a science advisor (my name is even in the credits!)… but as we finished up the filming and the animations, NG realized that they needed a book to go along with the movie. At the time, Oceans of Kansas was selling nearly as fast as they printed it, so NG contracted with me to write the Sea Monsters book. After all the research on Oceans of Kansas, the writing went very quickly, especially since I wasn’t citing sources like I did on the first book. National Geographic provided all of the color photos and editing and the book came out at the same time as the movie. Of the two books, Oceans is still my favorite because I did everything, including the photography. Sea Monsters was sort of anticlimactic since I was more or less the “hired gun” in a big team of people that put the book together.

All in all, I’ve enjoyed the experience of being an author and sharing my knowledge of Kansas fossils and paleontologists.  I’ve got a couple of book ideas  on the back burner, including a second edition of Oceans of Kansas.

Question 5: What was your favorite prehistoric animal growing up?  What about now?

ME: I don’t remember having a favorite… Like most kids, I went through a “dinosaur phase” with Tyrannosaurusrex, Triceratops and Stegosaurus, but after reading All About Dinosaurs (Question 2) I really became interested in mosasaurs like Tylosaurus, and Pteranodon. Sixty years later, earlier this Spring, I was involved in getting both of these uniquely Kansas fossils named as the official state fossils of Kansas.  How cool is that?

Tylosaurus proriger by Christopher DiPiazza

Question 6: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines.  What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

ME: Start early and get as much science, math and computing as you can get in public school and college. Paleontology was a ‘classical’ science for many years, basically going out, finding the bones and digging them up. That’s not so anymore. We are getting so much more information about these prehistoric animals from studying their remains with all kinds of new technology. Tomorrow’s paleontologists will be spending more time examining these creatures with cutting edge technology than every before.

Question 7: 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?

ME: No matter what field you are in, the learning process doesn’t stop after graduation… it accelerates. Going into paleontology has it’s challenges… there is a lot of competition for relatively few jobs. You have to be the best at what you do and have multiple skills to be an asset to a future employer. No one is going to pay you to just pound on rocks. Get as much education as you can, learn to communicate (writing and reading skills are important). Beyond that, start now developing your contacts… Who you know in the business is important to your future.

Question 8: What was or is your favorite research project?  What are some of your current projects?

ME: My favorite research project has to be my first book, Oceans of Kansas. Along the way, I’ve done a lot of research on mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, sharks and birds with teeth, but those projects seem to blur together. Currently I am working describing the earliest occurrence of a marine turtle called Protostega gigas.

Question 9: 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 was your most memorable movie, book or TV program that inspired you with regards to paleontology?

ME: The one that sticks in my mind is Disney’s Fantasia. Even with its faults (animals from different time periods), seeing the animations in association with the music made a big impression on me. After that, I’d have to refer back to Question 2. 

Question 10: I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist.  Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met?  Were you a nervous wreck?

ME: Hmmmm…. The first real paleontologist I ever met was my paleontology teacher in college. He was a crusty old guy who was a recognized expert on invertebrate fossils. At the time, however, I was more worried about the class I was taking from him. I was majoring in biology and the other seven guys in the class were geologists. I figured I was going to be in trouble. As turned out, the professor was a great teacher and I soon discovered that paleontology is mostly about biology, not rocks…. I aced the course.

Question 11: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures.  Why do you feel they continue to fascinate us?

ME: Good question. It’s sad to think we care more about extinct animals (including the possibility of bringing one or more back using their DNA) than we do the tremendous variety of modern creatures now living on the Earth. Mostly I think that dinosaurs and such have been sensationalized by the media for nearly 200 years, and we don’t know any other way to think about them.

Question 12: What is your favorite time period?

ME: Other than now, I’d have to say the Late Cretaceous.

Question 13: Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?  What hobbies do you have (not necessarily paleo-related).

ME: Being a biologist by training, I’m interested in living things, both plants and animals. I do some wildlife photography, raise orchids, and try to grow a garden. I like doing research, including the genealogy of my family, and I’m currently interested in leaning more about the people who discovered the first big fossils in Kansas…. but were not paleontologists. 

Thank you so much Mr Everhart!  

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