Digging Deeper: An Interview with Paleontologist, Dr. Michael Caldwell

“There’s something about paleontology that makes people’s imaginations come afire,”  says Dr. Michael Caldwell, renowned paleontologist and chair of the biology department at the University of Alberta. Any child who went through a dinosaur phase (or never left it) can speak to the allure of ancient beasts and old bones. As a well-known researcher, focused on snake evolution, Caldwell gets a closer look at something most people can only read about in books.

Dr. Caldwell made headlines this January because of his discovery of two-legged snake fossils that turned out to be around 170 million years old, about 70 million years older than the previous known specimens. He found misidentified fossils in a London museum; they were originally thought to be lizards but were actually just an earlier stage of snake evolution. It was a “pretty cool” discovery for Dr. Caldwell, who has spent many years looking at the development of early snakes.

Dr. Caldwell chalks up part of the public’s captivation with paleontology to the appeal of dragons and monsters and mythical beings. “The fantastic is always fascinating for the human psyche,” he says. But that isn’t all there is to it. “The other thing that keeps the passion alive is that it’s more than just fantastic—it’s real. It means that this current reality isn’t the only thing that ever existed. There is something more to the world that we’re a part of.” Paleontology allows us to contemplate larger ideas, like time and ancient things and the reality of the world we call home. It’s truly “mindboggling.”

“Like a lot of kids, I was absolutely in love with dinosaurs when I was tiny,” Dr. Caldwell says. However, he tried out several different undergrad programs first, not sure that paleontology would really be a sustainable career. It all came down to a chance epiphany. “I was out in the mountains and I found some fossils, and I realized what I really wanted to do was to go back into science and become a paleontologist”.

Dr. Caldwell had thought his love of paleontology would lead him to dinosaurs. However, in 1996 when working in Jerusalem, he found that some fossils misidentified as lizards were actually an early version of a snake.  They had two hind legs. This find, which was “complete serendipity”, helped set him on his course of studying snake evolution. Dr. Caldwell now believes that snakes once had four legs, not just two—and he’s determined to be the guy who proves it. “When you find some discoveries, they rewrite the story. We might be able to discover that four-legged snakes looked quite different than we imagine.”

Jerusalem was hardly the last site for his world-wide research.  According to Dr. Caldwell, “travel is a part of the business,” something that shapes the life of a paleontologist.  Geographically, the world is far different from what it was millions of years ago, and similar specimens can be scattered across many countries. Inevitably, “the things you want to study can be widely separated from where they once were.”

While paleontology is similar to many academic fields, there is a major difference: fieldwork. “Enjoy camping, to be sure, as much as you enjoy reading and writing,” Dr. Caldwell recommends. Fieldwork can be challenging sometimes. “I was just in Argentina,” he says, “It was hot, it was dry, and there was no running water. Any water we had to haul in.”

But, the form fieldwork takes can be very different, depending on where you are.  Dr. Caldwell is especially fond of his work around the rim of the Mediterranean. “Italy, Croatia and the Middle East—the fossils have been extremely intriguing and important to my work,” Dr. Caldwell says, while admitting the tasty local cuisine doesn’t hurt either.

Although the fieldwork is worldwide, there are dinosaurs in our own backyard. There’s “an economy” for paleontology in Alberta, stemming from a long history of research that began in the early twentieth century.  “There had always been an interest and funds to support paleontological research as a science,” Dr. Caldwell says. “As a stroke of luck, the province has a lot of paleontological resources accessible.” With its sweeping badlands and rich fossil beds, Dinosaur Provincial Park is “one of the most spectacular dinosaur and other fossil sites in the world.”

A lot of paleontological research has already been done, but there’s always something new to discover. With so many years of prehistory behind us, much still remains unknown. “One of the great things about walking through the desert is that you never know if you’re going to find something. And if you’re lucky enough to find something, chances are that it’s nothing anyone has ever seen before.” Recently, researchers were surprised to discover that many dinosaurs likely had feathers, but Dr. Caldwell believes that this is just the tip of the iceberg.  “There’s got to be some other big surprises waiting in that rock record,” he says. Our past is a giant puzzle, and paleontologists like Dr. Michael Caldwell, are forever looking for the next piece.

ScienceExpo is a network of young people who provide enrichment opportunities for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, also known as STEM. It started in Ontario in 2010, and is now currently expanding its reach in Alberta. For more information and interesting science connections, visit our website http://www.science-expo.org/

Photo Credit: Oli-Oviyan via photopin (CC)

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