Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Other Fossils from Montana to Mongoliaby Michael Novacek
Michael Novacek, a world-renowned paleontologist who has discovered important fossils on virtually every continent, is an authority on patterns of evolution and on the relationships between extinct and extant organisms. Part memoir, part adventure story, part natural history, Time Traveler is his captivating account of how his boyhood enthusiasm for dinosaurs became a lifelong commitment to vanguard science. The book traces the progress of his passion for paleontology, from his beginnings as a young dinosaur addict discovering fossils in his own Los Angeles backyard, through his trials as a rookie doing his first fieldwork, to his eventual development into a leader of expeditions to some of the world's most important fossil fields. It is a journey in space as well as time, filled with adventures at the La Brea Tar Pits and the fossil- rich road cuts of Southern California, in the empty Baja peninsula of Mexico, atop the high Andes of Chile and the black volcanic mountains of Yemen, and in the promised land of dinosaur hunters, the incredibly rich fossil badlands of the Gobi Desert.
Wherever Novacek goes he searches for undiscovered evidence of what life was like on Earth millions of years ago. He vividly describes the unique thrill of discovery, of being the first to find a pristine, ancient fossil, and of working to establish just exactly what it represents. He has learned that fieldwork is not just a matter of expertise and adventure, but requires a tolerance, even an appetite, for heat, sandstorms, snakes, bandits, flash floods, bucking horses, boredom, loneliness, and disappointment. And he also knows that great discovery is eerily dependent on luck and, less romantically, on effective management of the bureaucracy and political intrigue accompanying any major expedition. Despite all these hardships, though, his devotion to the science has never wavered.
Time Traveler illuminates some of the most exciting issues in current paleontology -- dinosaur and mammal evolution, continental drift, mass extinctions, and new methods for understanding ancient environments and the geologic time scale. By revisiting our planet's past and his own, Novacek teaches us how to understand the prospects for the future not only of paleontology but of our global ecosystem.
Michael Novacek is Curator of Paleontology, as well as Senior Vice President and Provost of Science, at the American Museum of Natural History. His last book, Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. He is also coeditor of the books Extinction and Phylogeny and Mammal Phylogeny, author of numerous scholarly articles, and a contributor to Natural History and Scientific American. His research has been widely covered by The New York Times and National Geographic, among other publications, and has been the subject of television documentaries aired on PBSs Nova and the BBC. He holds a Ph.D. in paleontology from the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in New York City.
“[Novacek is] a world-class field scientist. He's also one of paleontology's most effective popularizers, a highly entertaining writer who is just as good at bringing oviraptors, glyptodonts, and other fantastic creatures to life in print as he is at spotting their fragmented remains in a wall of rock.” Jennifer Schuessler, The American Scholar
“An engaging book . . . [Novacek] gives us an excellent sense of the way paleontologists have arrived at their world-shaking conclusions . . . With good humor and generosity . . . he offers genuine insights into the kind of reasoning that has allowed us to know so much about past eras, and he conveys a lively picture of his professional experiences.” David Papineau, The New York Times Book Review
- Farrar, Straus and Giroux
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
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- 6.06(w) x 9.36(h) x 1.28(d)
Read an Excerpt
As odd as it may seem, Los Angeles is a particularly good place to become a paleontologist. I didn't always appreciate this. Indeed, as a young boy I sometimes resented deeply an urban incubation that kept me from steady contact with nature. On rare days there were opportunities. When a hair-dryer wind from the desert blew the smog offshore, I would lope up to a hilltop street appropriately named Grandview. From that high place I could see the whole sweep of the basin, from the slate surface of the Pacific to the sinuous line of the San Gabriel Mountains. Without this cleansing wind, however, the view was depressingly predictablea bristle of telephone poles and TV antennas that looked like charred trees rising in the haze.
As an everyday experience in Los Angeles, real nature was something you saw on television. Cathode-tube cowboys raced against a backdrop of naturealways the same nature, a mass of sandstonesplintered into rocky slabs like planks on the deck of a scuttled ship. Many years later, on trips with college mates to the Mojave Desert, I learned that this location for TV and movie shoots, Vasquez Rocks, had been degraded to a roadside rest area off the freeway. Power lines, airplanes, and streams of cars could no longer be reliably excluded from the frame. As I explored this thoroughly humanized terrain, littered with cigarette butts and disposable diapers, I contemplated sadly my childhood fantasy that Vasquez Rocks was a place of mystery, maybe even a place where dinosaur bones were buried.
In those early years, I hardly seemed cut out for bone hunting anyway. I was a skinny, spindly-armed boy, a kid with freckles, thick reddish brown hair, and a cowlick. The kind of kid who would stand earnestly by his lemonade stand on the sidewalk, more of a Beaver Cleaver type than a young Indiana Jones. I was not much of an athlete, and my nearsightedness required gigantic tortoiseshell glasses by the third grade. But I could run fast and far, climb pretty well, and balance decently on a narrow fence. I was not afraid of heights, but I hated closed-in spaces. I was not at all reluctant to be alone over stretches of time. There were other tendencies that prepared me for the life of a paleontologist. I liked crawling around in the dirt and mud, turning over rocks, and looking at things through binoculars and microscopes. I liked books, ones on dinosaurs of course, but books on just about anythingchemistry, astronomy, mountaineering, biographies, fiction, Mark Twain, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Superman, Batman.
When I was ten, I was not quite old enough for the parental ban to be lifted on viewing the classic 1933 film King Kong. After all, it was rather improper for a youth to witness a hundred-ton gorilla carry a young woman in shredded clothing around in his hairy hand. But one night, after endless and annoying entreaty, I got special permission to watch King Kong on television. Mom, who was watching with me, apparently dozed off, and so did I. I heard a dull thud when my dad set his guitar case down on the burnt orange carpet. He had a late-night music job. It must have been at least two in the morning. At my father's command, I staggered off tothe small bedroom where my brother and I shared bunk beds. I crawled up to the top bunk and lay there thinking about the movie. I tried to reconstruct my favorite sceneKing Kong meets Tyrannosaurus rex near a giant log wedged between the edges of a deep, fern-stuffed chasm in the jungle. I replayed the scene in my mind several times, with variations. King Kong, as per the movie, vanquishes Tyrannosaurus. King Kong and Tyrannosaurus are entangled in a death plunge to the canyon floor. King Kong and the dinosaur, exhausted, drift away from each other to their respective corners of the ring. Even more gory PG-13 variations came to mindthe tyrant king disembowels the gorilla with a single slash of its scimitar teeth ...
I could hear Dad laughing and softly talking to Mom. "Shirl, you should've heard that bass player tonight. Wow, he could play everything." Dad played jazz and those classic tunes by Rodgers and Hart, Billy Strayhorn, and others. He could also sing them spectacularly well. Only in later years did I really come to appreciate the singer and the songs. On this night, as on many others, I pulled out my transistor radio from the cleft where the bunk met the wall. The radio had a brittle plastic shell and some gouge marks for its ill-fitting screws that I'd made when I struggled to build the radio from a kit one Christmas Day. In the soft light from outside my bedroom, I could barely make out the words "Made In Japan." I turned the knob of the crude analog tuner as the radio popped and whined like the control panel in Flash Gordon's rocket ship. To my great delight, I captured the weak signal of Elvis's "Jailhouse Rock."
That night I had a variation of a recurring dream. I was walking on a red sandy hill, swinging a rock pick. An army canteen hung from my belt. I wore a wide-brimmed hat, like those of scientist-explorers in books on paleontology or even in King Kong. As I climbed the hill, a magnificent skeleton of a familiar carnivorous dinosaur stretched out on the ground below me. The skeleton was not completely exposed. I could see the tip of the snout and the rapiers of its front teeth reflecting in the sun. Amazingly, a couple of feet away, the brow of the eye socketpart of the same skullwas poking through the sand. Farther down were the small claws of a ridiculously tiny forelimb. A few other parts of the skeleton wereexposeda shoulder blade, some vertebrae, the stout upper leg bone, and a giant claw on the three-toed hind foot. The tail vertebrae extended a long way on the top of the hill, burrowed into the ground like a sand snake, and then emerged seven feet farther down the slope, the few tiny bones at the tip of the tail not much bigger than some of the wooden spools in my Tinkertoy box. It was all there. Every bone, process, and articulation was spread out before me, from the small openings of the nasal passages to the tip of the caudal vertebrae (like other intense dinophiles of ten, I knew many of the technical terms for dinosaur bones). I knelt down near the skull and started carefully cleaning the surface of the bone with a soft, broad paintbrush, like those in the turpentine can in our garage. As I worked, I felt alone in the world. The desert was motionless, devoid of living, breathing things, only a place where a line of red sand met the sky. There was no wind, only the low hum of the engine that pumps blood through your inner ear. Soon, though, I began to feel the intrusion of a shadow at my back. I turned around and was transfixed as a giant cumulus cloud coalesced into the form of Tyrannosaurus rex.
At the time I first learned about them, dinosaurs were believed to have been sluggish, dumb reptilian creatures. Their relationships with living groups were vague, though crocodiles and lizards at least provided some inspiration for what dinosaurs must have been like. Indeed, many science-fiction filmmakers recruited lizards and attached horns or spikes to them when they wanted live-action dinosaurs. They then filmed the embellished lizards attacking other lizards or even cavemen. Even as a kid I knew the juxtaposition of these faux dinosaurs with humans was absurdhumans after all appeared on the earth 60 million years after the big dinos went extinct. But in the late 1950s, neither I nor paleontological experts knew many things that we know today. For one thing, we didn't know that some dinosaurs indeed survived that massive extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period, the last chapter in the age of the dinosaurs. The survivors were of course birds. We have strong evidence that birds likely evolved from a subgroup of dinosaurs including active, predaceous, and probably very intelligent forms like Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor. Today a few scientists still object to this connection between birds and dinosaurs, but they do so in denial of a mass of accumulating paleontological data. This includes newly discovered fossils from China that show that nonflying dinosaurs much like Velociraptor had feathers!
As with many other young lives, mine was devoted to desperately re-creatingthrough dreams and mini-expeditionsa landscape that erased the banal ambience of my "hometown." When we think of nature, we may think of a magnificent African savanna populated with lions, giraffes, and herds of elephants. But what is nature to a kid in Los Angeles? To me it was a rather limited list of creatures: an overturned potato bug with its half-dozen legs desperately flailing to find hard ground, an alligator lizard popping out when lifted by its shedding tail, some fat tadpoles in a garden pond, a tiger swallowtail butterfly flickering yellow and black in the geraniums, a pill bug, an ant colony, a rat in a palm tree.
A neighborhood encounter with dinosaur bones or other fossils was of course essentially impossible. This experience would require some imagination. For me, a vacant, weed-choked lot became a fossil-strewn desert with endless prospects. One such area was a spitof eroded sand and gravel that divided a broad street a few blocks from my house. Crossing this escarpment one day I saw a string of fragmented concrete blocks that looked for all the world like the vertebral column of a long-necked sauropod dinosaur. I recruited a group of friends, including my rather forcefully conscripted younger brother, to excavate this monster. Our make-believe work on "Dinosaur Island" was my first field expedition.
I read about real field expeditions, especially ones that brought bone hunters to the canyonlands of Montana and Wyoming or the empty, windswept deserts of Mongolia in Central Asia. I knew with satisfaction that there were even great excavations and discoveries within the city limits. The very center of the L.A. Basinits lowest partis a jumble of upscale department stores and high-rise apartments along Wilshire Boulevard's "Miracle Mile." The only nature in this agglomeration is a poorly manicured park of tawny grass and dusky oak trees, where in places small pools with an unctuous film of slow-moving water covers the stews of bubbling tar. The tar gives the park its Spanish name, La Brea (although the sticky substance in the pools is actually asphalt, a mixture of different forms of tar and sand). Thousands of years ago, huge numbers of mammals, birds, lizards, frogs, and other creatures congregated around these pools for water. A great many of them fell in and died trying to struggle out. This accumulated carnage makes for one of the world's richest and most remarkable fossil sites.
I went to Rancho La Brea Park as often as possible with my parents to watch history in the making. I stared at those pools, waiting for some hapless squirrel or sparrow to go too close and get stuck fast. It takes many hours or even days to witness such tragediesindeed I don't think I ever saw anybut the evidence for mortality was abundant. It was a thrill to see a feather sticking out of the tar like a quill pen in an inkwell, or the leg bone of a rabbit picked clean by a predatory bird all the way to the tuft of dandelionlike hair around the tough, inedible foot. Death did not seem in any way dark or frightening; it seemed an inevitable conclusion whose circumstances left fascinating evidence of an earlier life. I even made a fleeting discovery that there was a La Brea in my own neighborhood. Romping through a broad swamp destined to bereclaimed as a golf course, my friends and I spotted some black, viscous ooze with that familiar rainbow sheen lazily swirling around the stalks of high grass and bamboo. "It's a tar pit!" we shouted. Moments later we were bitterly disappointed to find nearby a pile of ulcerating oil drums.
My favorite features at Rancho La Brea Park were some life-sized statues of saber-toothed tigers and imperial mammoths. These creatures of course no longer lived in the L.A. Basin and their bones were not visible on the surface of any of the pools. However, a stupendous array of tar-stained black bones of such animals filled the halls of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, some ten miles away. These were the remnants of an ancient and populous community of big mammals. They were an odd bunch, a combination of the bizarre with the familiarcat skeletons as big as bear skeletons, and elephantine skulls that looked like helmets of ancient Greek warriors, only with tusks that extended so far they curled back on themselves and crossed each other.
Above these mounts was a mural by the great painter of prehistory, Charles R. Knight. This is La Brea 12,000 years ago. The setting is all southern California. The stage is a burnished field of grass, the kind that becomes a tinderbox in the dry canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains on those hot September days. A few writhing, leafless oaks are rooted in the grass around the black tar pools. The backdrop is the distant deep blue of a mountain range, the same profile of peaks I could see from Grandview Boulevardafter all, mountains don't appreciably change in 12,000 years unless a volcano punctures them or an earthquake breaks them down. Perched on a surly gray oak are a gang of crook-necked giant vultures peering down on their mates feeding on a bulky carcass. The vultures look odd and out of scale on that tree, as indeed they should: with wingspans of nearly thirteen feet, they are about one-fourth larger than their living and highly endangered relative, the California condor. The foreground of this panorama is dominated by two different and famous La Brea species. At left center, a saber-toothed cat in full profile is in a stalking mode, its jaws at open gape, yawning, displaying its absurdly elongate upper canines. At dead center are a cluster of zombielike giant ground sloths. The biggest of these is standing high on its hind limbs, its neck stretched, its nose up, like a grizzly bear sniffing the air for intruders. Flanking this center-stage group is a cohort of dire wolves; their heads poke up through the tall grass ready to pounce and to dine. To the right, a bit farther back, a herd of camels stroll slowly into view, humpless, short-necked, barrel-chested, pigeon-toed. Behind the camels some stocky black-legged horses kick up the dust. As if not to overshadow this bestiary, the huge imperial mammoths, some fifteen feet high at the shoulder, can be seen in the far distance in a clearing among the oaks and below the blue mountains.
They are all dead, gone, extinct. There are no more imperial mammoths, dire wolves, La Brea camels, saber-toothed cats, and giant ground sloths. Not even those horses linger on. Horses native to North America went extinct around La Brea time; the horses that ran wild in the West or were mounted by Indians were import models, brought in by Spanish conquistadors and other explorers. Charles Knight's vision of life in Los Angeles 12,000 years ago was grander than the African savanna. I was struck by the fact that Los Angeles a few thousand years ago had bigger, more awesome animals than any place on earth today.
The La Brea Tar Pits and the fossils embedded in them were, to me, a miraculous gift to Los Angeles. In Catholic school, a nun who had visited Lourdes regaled us with tales of the astounding cures that came to pilgrims who partook of the holy waters there. But Lourdes did not seem at all interesting to me. Even at the ageof ten, I had developed a skepticism for the mystical and the unexplainable. La Brea was both fantastic and real; religious lore could not compete with its vivid evidence. My predilection for empiricism was not always rewarded. The same nun who waxed poetic about Lourdes had divided our fourth-grade class into three sections according to a scale of perceived intelligence and acceptability. The west two rows were the "Dummies," the east two rows, the "Smarties," and the middle purgatorial row, wherein I held a place of dubious honor, the "Spacemen." I tried to transport myself out of that miserable place as often as possible, usually by concealing my favorite science book behind a catechism for a surreptitious read. One day I savored the diorama painting of Ice Age mammals in the large, not so easily concealed Time-Life book The World We Live In. The nun swooped down on me and rapped my hands. "There you are once again reading about monsters!" she shouted as she threw the book to the floor and gave it a permanent stamp with her dainty little shoe. I was held after school, but I got the book back. Later that afternoon I sat on the porch at home reading the forbidden World We Live In and sipping lemonade. I daydreamed about a Los Angeles lost in time with its ground sloths, mammoths, and saber-toothed cats. I extended the dreamscape beyond my hometown to the Montana badlands where Tyrannosaurus took rest and to the empty red deserts of Central Asia where the first dinosaur nests, and the first complete skeletons of primitive shrewlike mammals (presumably the marauders of dinosaur nests), had been discovered. I dreamed of all the continents, canyons, and quarries still waiting to be plundered for fossils. It was good to be a "Spaceman."
Copyright © 2002 by Michael Novacek
Meet the Author
Michael Novacek is curator of paleontology as well as senior vice president and provost of science at the American Museum of Natural History. He lives in New York City.
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