Thursday, January 7, 2016

Interview with Paleontologist: Liz Freedman Fowler

Today we have the pleasure of talking to paleontologist, Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler! Dr. Fowler received her Ph.D. in paleontology at Montana State University under the guidance of Dr. Jack Horner at the Museum of the Rockies. Her dissertation research focused on the evolution and growth of hadrosaurine dinosaurs from the Judith River Formation (Late Cretaceous, Campanian) of Montana. Dr. Freedman Fowler is originally from Florida, and received her B.A. from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After completing her doctorate, Dr. Freedman Fowler was the Curator of Paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana, and an adjunct professor at Montana State University. In January Dr. Freedman Fowler will become the Museum Director of the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site in St. George, Utah.

Question 1: Let’s start from the beginning.  What was your earliest sign of interest in paleontology that you can remember?

LF: In preschool, dinosaur toys were always my favorites. In second grade, I learned the word “paleontologist” and my career was set. I never changed my mind.

Question 2: Did you have any professionals or family members who served as role models when you were younger?  Do you still have any now?

LF: My parents were always supportive of my interest in paleontology, and took me to lots of museums, parks, and fossil fairs when I was a kid. My mom took me on digs in Florida, where I grew up, and once I started leading dinosaur digs in Montana, my family came out to help dig.

Question 3: Was there anything you did or learned as you were on your way to your current career that you feel got you to where you are?  By this I mean any sort of field experience, a class, networking with the right people, or possibly something different or all three?

LF: My senior year of high school, I was invited to a special national conference for high-achieving students, and Jack Horner was there. I gathered up the courage to sit at his table for breakfast one day, and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be a paleontologist. Jack had a replica dinosaur foot sitting on the table, and asked me what it was. I said Deinonychus, and Jack immediately invited me to come out to Montana and dig up a T. rex with the Museum of the Rockies that summer. I’ve been digging dinosaurs with the Museum of the Rockies for just about every summer since then!

Question 4: Is the field of paleontology different now than from when you started as far as you can tell?  How about from when you were a child?  What would your advice be to anyone trying to make a career in paleontology (or science in general for that matter) now?

LF: As a whole, paleontology used to be based in geology departments. In the past couple of decades, there has been a shift toward paleobiology and evolutionary biology, so professors and graduate students have been based in biology departments. This has led to lots of amazing research, but now many new paleontologists are not getting much of a background in geology. Understanding geologic processes, and spending time out in the field looking at the rocks, it critical to understanding the biases in the fossil record and the way specimens are collected. Without that knowledge, biological interpretations could be very misleading: look at faunal lists for any formation or time period, and relative abundances of each species – did all of those animals really live at the exact same time in the exact same environment? Generally not. For accurate paleobiological interpretations, you need to know your data set inside and out, and the best way to do that is to get out in the field and collect the fossils yourself!

Question 5: What was or is your favorite project in paleontology so far?  Would you be able to tell us about some of your current or future projects?

LF: My favorite project is the claws research I did with Denver Fowler, John Scannella, and Robert Kambic. It was a multifaceted project where we studied the anatomy and functional morphology of the claws of modern raptors (hawks, owls, etc.), and correlated different claw sizes and shapes to different feeding and hunting behaviors. We got to watch a lot of fascinating YouTube videos of hawks tearing apart their prey. Then, after determining the relationship between claw morphology and predatory behavior in modern birds, we used this information to study how raptor dinosaurs like Deinonychus captured and ate their prey. We spent a lot of time studying that very same Deinonychus foot that Jack showed me the first time we met, back when I was just graduating high school, so it was really special to incorporate that specimen into our research as grad students.
As for current and future projects, I just graduated with my PhD in May 2015, so I’m in the process of getting my dissertation papers published. My dissertation examined the evolution and ontogeny of Campanian hadrosaurs in the Judith River Formation. The first chapter, naming the new genus and species Probrachylophosaurus bergei, was published in November (, and the next three chapters, on a bonebed of Gryposaurus, will be published soon. Then there will be some spin-off projects based on additional hadrosaur material, and then some other dinosaurs from the same area…I’m not done with the Judith River Formation yet!

Probrachylophosaurus bergei by Christopher DiPiazza

Question 6: Did you have a strong interest in these specific subjects within paleontology or did the projects choose you?

LF: I was always interested in paleobiological questions – looking at dinosaurs as living animals. Using modern analogs is a great way to study how dinosaurs might have behaved, so I was very pleased to get to study modern raptor birds and then compare them to raptor dinosaurs (non-avian). My PhD research “evolved” due to the specimens I collected during the summers. The new species I described in my dissertation hadn’t been collected when I started doing research in the Judith River Formation! I was very lucky that we found these great sites, and that I got to lead crews from the Museum of the Rockies in collecting these amazing hadrosaur fossils.

Dr. Fowler with Probrachylophosaurus material, cast, and life restoration by John Conway.

Question 7: What sort of interesting places have you traveled to while working?  What was your favorite traveling experience so far?  Do you see yourself traveling more in the future?

LF: Most of the research done at the Museum of the Rockies is based in Montana, but we travel to places that have similar types of rocks, to compare the dinosaurs found in these places. Because my field area is in northern Montana, I have visited Alberta several times to see rocks of the same age and spend time with our Canadian colleagues. Jack Horner has helped form a collaboration between the Museum of the Rockies and Mongolian paleontologists, so I did get to visit Mongolia, which was a very special and memorable experience.

Question 8: A popular image of paleontologists is that they are constantly out in the field digging up fossils, which is true to an extent.  What people don’t realize sometimes is that a lot of paleontology work is conducted in a lab as well.  In your experience, how much of your projects (in general) take place in the field, and how much are in the lab?

LF: Almost all of my research has required extensive fieldwork. Paleontology needs fossils, and someone has to dig up those fossils. Some museums are still sorting through a backlog of specimens collected decades ago, but if you really want to find something new and exciting, and have very detailed data so you can accurately study the evolution and growth of dinosaurs, you really have to get out there and collect new specimens yourself. Without new fossils, paleontology would stagnate. I always want to be finding new specimens and pushing the science forward.
That said, the lab side of things takes a lot of time, too! Fossils have to be cleaned and stabilized in the lab, molded and cast, and then studied with a variety of methods. The academic year fits the timeline pretty well – spend a couple of months in the summer collecting fossils, then clean and study them the other ten months of the year.

Probrachylophosaurus known material

Question 9: One of my pet peeves is when people assume paleontology doesn’t really do any real good in the grand scheme of things and is just a “for fun” science.  To you, how does paleontology benefit us as humans and play into the “big picture”?

LF: To understand our current world and all of the life on it, we have to understand the past. How and why did each species evolve? How do changes in the environment and geologic processes affect the rates and directions of evolution of different groups of animals and plants? Why is a Jurassic ecological community different than what we see today? Every piece of anatomy and physiology in your body evolved for a reason, but to understand some of the unusual things about our bodies (appendix, pineal gland, middle ear bones), we have to consider our evolutionary past.
On the more emotional big-picture side, paleontology evokes a sense of wonder about a strange past world, keeping kids and adults interested in dinosaurs, science, and learning. Almost every little kid loves dinosaurs, and even though very few will ultimately become paleontologists, hopefully their interest in dinosaurs will translate into an interest in their science classes and other classes in school, leading them to STEM careers.

Question 10: Do you ever get criticized on any of your work?  How do you handle it?

LF: Not really; my research has generally been well received. I work very hard to make sure every single detail is as accurate as possible. For the most part, paleontologists are very civil to each other, and even if they disagree with someone’s research, they try to do it politely. If someone does criticize my work, then I try to respond with a clear, unemotional explanation. Maybe they disagree because they didn’t understand some aspect of my work, and maybe they didn’t understand because I needed to explain it more clearly. Or maybe we will always disagree on the interpretation of the data, and that’s ok.

Question 11: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum, I know) were just two of the programs I remember as a kid that helped fuel my obsession with paleontology into adulthood.  Did you have favorite shows, movies, or even toys growing up that fueled your passion?

LF: I was definitely a Land Before Time kid. The original movie, mind you; I haven’t seen any of the sequels. I think Land Before Time helped cement my interest in dinosaurs. My favorite stuffed animal as a little kid was a handmade Brontosaurus (yes, I still called it Brontosaurus, deal with it, I was 6) that I named Littlefoot after the Land Before Time character. Then several years later Jurassic Park came out and I absolutely loved it. But I want to be clear – I wanted to be a paleontologist long before Jurassic Park. I’m like a paleo hipster that way.

Question 12: Who was the first paleontologist you met?  How was that interaction? 

LF: Growing up in Florida, I met several paleontologists, mostly mammal researchers. Frank Garcia was an avocational paleontologist who was always very kind to me, and he is a really fun guy. But the first dinosaur paleontologist I met was a familiar name. When I was, oh, about 14 or 15 years old I think, I went to a Paleofest at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and their keynote speaker was none other than Jack Horner. After the lecture, he signed my copy of Digging Dinosaurs and asked me what my favorite dinosaur was. I said raptors. (Foreshadowing much?) So this was actually the first time I met Jack, although he wouldn’t remember me. A few years later I properly met him at that conference for high school seniors, and we talked about the raptor foot. A few years after that, I surprised Jack by visiting him at another Paleofest at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and had him sign another book. He asked me to be a crew chief at the dig in the Judith River Formation that summer. He spent the summer convincing me to come to Montana for grad school, and so I did, doing research on Judith River dinosaurs as well as raptor feet. It all came full circle. 

Deinonychus foot

Question 13: Why do you think prehistoric animals are so influential to us today?

LF: When I was a kid, the main reason I liked dinosaurs was because they were strange and amazing monsters, but they were real. Not mythical creatures like dragons. How did these strange animals live, and why was their world so different than it is today?  I think that dinosaurs and other prehistoric mammals are popular because they have that sense of mystery, but because they are real, we can solve the mystery if we study them hard enough.

Question 14: What is your favorite prehistoric animal?  Was it different when you were younger?

LF: My favorite dinosaurs were the raptors, and Parasaurolophus. I liked raptors because they were small and fast and clever, like very deadly birds. And that was before we knew raptor dinosaurs were feathered! I’m not sure why exactly I liked Parasaurolophus…I think the crest was just very elegant. So it’s fitting that my research ended up focusing on the evolution of hadrosaur crests, and how raptors kill things. 6-year-old me is happy.

Parasaurolophus by Christopher DiPiazza

Question 15: If you could use a time machine to go back and pick only one prehistoric animal to bring back from history and observe alive and in person, which would it be and why?

LF: Opabinia. Five eyes? What the heck is going on there? Animals on this planet mainly stick to bilateral symmetry and paired structures, so how did five eyes happen? Are there really five or are we misinterpreting the fossils? It’s just so hard to comprehend a life form so different from everything else we know.

Opabinia by Christopher DiPiazza

Question 16: Back to the time machine.  This time you can go back to any place and time period and have a look at what the environment was really like.  Which one would you pick and why?

LF: Ooh, tough choice…either the Hadean/Archean Eons or Snowball Earth (Huronian glaciation). The farther back in Earth’s history, the less we know, and the more errors accumulate in our speculations. I would love to see the earth just as the crust starts cooling, and oceans and tectonic plates start to form. I’m also fascinated by the concept of a massive global climate change being triggered by the evolution of early bacterial life, and the global chaos caused by the Great Oxygenation Event.

Question 17: Which is your favorite museum?  Why?

LF: Ooh, loaded question. I have affiliations and loyalties to many museums. Obviously the Museum of the Rockies has been my home for many years, so it will always be my favorite. For very small museums, I have always been impressed by the Rudyard Depot Museum (where I did my dissertation fieldwork), which has great local dinosaur fossils as well as what I consider the finest local history museum in Montana, and the community support and pride in their museum is amazing. For small-to-medium museums, the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana has some truly exceptional dinosaur specimens, and a wonderful group of people running it. Stop by and visit! But, to pick a dinosaur museum outside of Montana, my favorite is the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. It is huge! On my first research trip there, I only had an hour to visit the exhibits, and I ran through them taking photos as quickly as I could, and I still had to skip the mammal section!

Question 18: What hobbies do you have?  (Don’t have to be paleo-related.) 

LF: I like to observe wildlife, any and all kinds of animals. Most paleontologists love animals, and studying modern animals is one of the best ways to learn about possible dinosaur behaviors. I take photographs and videos of modern animals every chance I get. Our research on birds of prey led to an interest in all birds and all feet (not just birds), so now I am constantly on the lookout for wildlife, and yes many of my photos focus on the feet. As my husband and coauthor Denver Fowler says, “feet are the business end of the animal”. You can learn a lot about behavior from an animal’s feet.

That is all for now!  Thank you so much to Dr. Fowler for the great interview!

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