Paleontologist Mark A. Norell:
Remains Make His Day
Even as a kid, Mark A. Norell was a collector. “I went for bugs,
rocks, even old bottles,” he said, during an interview in his spacious
office at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Now, as chairman and
curator of AMNH’s Division of Paleontology, Dr. Norell specializes in researching
the evolutionary relationship between small meat-eating dinosaurs and present-day
birds. He’s a collector still of remains from remote places. Dr. Norell
also will curate the AMNH’s landmark exhibition “Dinosaurs Alive:
Ancient Fossils, New Ideas.” Opening May 14, 2005, the show will shed
new light on dinosaur traits and behavior.
47, recalls a California childhood with supportive parents (his father
was an architect who loved science). “When
I was 12 or 13, I accompanied scientists from the Los Angeles
County Museum to the Mojave desert on research expeditions,” he
added. He earned a Masters in biology in San Diego, and came
to AMNH in 1989 from Yale where he was a lecturer in biology.
Dr. Norell earned his Ph.D. in biology at Yale in 1988, where,
since 1991, he has been an adjunct assistant professor of biology.
He has this advice to students considering careers like his:
get really great grades, attend a great grad school, and get
a well-balanced education. “Study math, physics, computer
science, photography, languages,” he said. “The more
you know the more it can help you,” he added.
“You’re in for
nine or more years of school,” he said. “You’ll
be in your thirties before you get a job. And you’ll never get rich
being a paleontologist,” he added. (Salaries start around $30,000-$35,000.)
Happily, the field welcomes both women and men. It’s hard work, too.
Dr. Norell speaks of his experiences as one of the team leaders of the joint
AMNH/Mongolian Academy of Sciences expedition in the Gobi Desert, now in
its 14th year. You will dig under the sun, sleep in on the ground and cook
on primitive stoves. “Mexican
sometimes,” he said, grinning. Dangers include close encounters with
scorpions and serpents.
expeditions can yield spectacular discoveries. Through well-preserved
fossils in Mongolia, Dr. Norell and his team have generated
new ideas about bird origins and the groups of dinosaurs
to which modern birds are most closely related. Dr.
Norell was on a 1993 Gobi team that discovered Ukhaa Tolgod,
richest vertebrate fossil site, dating from the Cretaceous. Some of his
other discoveries are: the primitive avialian Mononykus, the first embryo
of a meat-eating dinosaur ever uncovered, and an Oviraptor found
nesting on a brood of eggs. The Oviraptor find is the
first fossil to show definitive evidence of parental care among
dinosaurs. In addition, it reveals behavioral similarities
between extinct dinosaurs and modern birds to reinforce
their evolutionary link. Dr. Norell was on the team
in northeastern China that discovered two 120-million year-old
dinosaur species, both of which show unequivocal evidence
of true feathers. Want to learn more? The museum offers
a wealth of scientific research programs for people
of all ages, from preschoolers to seniors.#