Lessons of the Bones
University of Utah alum Lindsay Zanno seeks clues to the future in the fossils of the past.
Paleontologist and University of Utah alumna Lindsay Zanno spends much of her time out in the field prospecting for dinosaur bones, and this past summer took her to the Mussentuchit Flat area near Cedar Mountain in Utah’s Emery County. It’s difficult work, in a moonscape of drab, barren hills. But that’s where you find dinosaur remains, and Zanno hit pay dirt with a new discovery the same way she always does: by looking down.
“Someone else on the team called me over to the other side of a hill, and as I was walking over there, I looked down and saw bits of brown bone sticking out of the ground,” says Zanno MS’04 PhD’08. “I got very excited right away because I could tell it was a theropod bone—they’re very thin, with a big cavity on the inside, just like the bones of a bird. That’s how you know you’ve found theropod leg bones, by the thinness.”
Zanno’s team collected what they could and tagged the area for excavation, which they’ll go back to do in 2013, in a process that can take a couple of years before the new species is named and its significance assessed. Then it will go into the database Zanno has been amassing for years, to help fill out an ancient family tree of feathered dinosaurs that stretches from hundreds of millions of years ago to present-day bird species. It’s work that suits her, because Zanno has always been fascinated with ancient history.
“It’s almost an obsession,” she says. “The idea that the world was once very different than it is today. I enjoy trying to help people understand the idea that life is transient but also permanent. It changes, but everything is intertwined that way. It’s thrilling to be part of a longer story, the idea that you’re part of a long web of interactions through time. It’s an interesting way to look at life. What we see now is a snapshot in a very long history, and the present is this one little piece. Paleontologists get to go back in time and experience a little more of that past through a longer lens. That helps put my own life in perspective.”
As a paleontologist, Zanno splits her time between work in the field and work in her lab, hunched over a microscope examining fossils, or crunching numbers. She also holds forth to visitors at the North Carolina Museum of Sciences’ Nature Research Center, explaining scientific findings in layman’s terms. Zanno, a research assistant professor at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh, is director of the Nature Research Center’s paleontology and geology lab, which has a fossilized skeleton of a young Tyrannosaurus rex standing guard outside the door.
Zanno grew up in a single-parent family in Norbrook, New York. Her parents divorced when she was 3, and her mother, Sally, worked the night shift as a nurse. So Zanno had long stretches of time alone as a kid, developing a streak of curiosity and inquisitiveness. She liked being outside, taking things apart and putting them back together.
When it came time to choose a college, Zanno knew she wanted to get out into the world. So she opened up a road atlas to a random page and wound up at the one for New Mexico. That led her to the University of New Mexico.
“I can be fairly impulsive,” she says with a laugh, “although that’s lessening somewhat in my old age. But I don’t like living or thinking within the box. I wake up every morning thinking, ‘How can I erase what I know, think in new ways, and create something completely different?’ I still try to live my life that way.”
At New Mexico, Zanno started out studying human evolution. Then she did an internship with a grad student named Andrew Heckert (now an associate professor at Appalachian State University), who was doing a dissertation on microsorting fossils under microscopes. That resonated with Zanno’s obsession with ancient times, inspiring her to shift the focus of her studies farther back in geologic time. She changed to dinosaur paleontology and came to the University of Utah to study with then-new curator of paleontology Scott Sampson for her graduate work. With Sampson serving as her advisor, Zanno received master’s and doctoral degrees in geology.
“She’s always been driven and curious, and also interested in women in science,” Sampson says. “That’s a really important aspect of her personality, how to get more women into the field, and how to make science more relatable for the general public. We need more scientists trained in communication. She also wrote an amazing dissertation examining a group of small-bodied feathered relatives of Velociraptor. One important discovery was that a number of them were not carnivorous but herbivorous. She’s continued that work and made a real contribution to evolutionary history.”
Along with fieldwork unearthing fossils, Zanno’s other formative experience at Utah was working as a resident graduate student at the old Utah Museum of Natural History, which gave her numerous opportunities to interact with the public. One of Zanno’s earliest efforts at making science more accessible to the public was a children’s book she wrote while at Utah, The Fall Ball (2005, BookSurge Publishing). Zanno wrote the book, and her sister, Kristine Zanno-Kratky, illustrated it. They did it as a tribute to their mother, who died of breast cancer in 2000.
“She’d work the night shift while we were growing up, and she’d write ideas for stories in her journals,” Zanno says. “When she died, my sister found some of them, and we decided to write one of her stories for her. It’s about the cycle of life, trees that dress up by putting on their fall colors, sleep through the winter and then come back in spring. We’ve talked about doing a dinosaur book, too, but I’m not sure how that might work out, because they keep me pretty busy here.”
“Here” would be the Nature Research Center, Zanno’s professional address for the past year. Before that, she did stints as a research associate at Chicago’s Field Museum and as an assistant professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. But the Nature Research Center job offered special allure for Zanno, thanks to its mission of demystifying science and involving the public in the process as much as possible through “citizen science” initiatives. She moved to Raleigh with her husband— fellow U alum Terry Gates MS’04 PhD’07, a postdoctoral fellow in paleontology at Ohio University—and their two young daughters in time for the museum’s opening in April 2012.
Zanno is one of four lab directors at the Nature Research Center and oversees a staff of six researchers and graduate students. Her job involves as much communication about science as hands-on research. The museum’s research work takes place in an atmosphere of transparency, with a mantra of, “How do we know what we know?” You can watch the scientists at work through the glass, and the public is frequently invited into the labs to take part and talk to scientists about the work.
“When it comes to dinosaurs, the most common public misconception is that they’re extinct,” Zanno says. “That’s something I say on a daily basis to any audience I can, because it’s a tidbit of information that can be transformative. Explaining to somebody that dinosaurs are still here and you interact with them whenever you see a bird, something clicks. It opens up a new fascination with the world we live in.”
As part of its goal to make science more appealing to lay people, the Nature Research Center envisions and presents its four directors as “rock stars”—visible personalities, and the institution’s faces. Each of the Nature Research Center’s labs is in charge of public outreach programming for one day every week, and Zanno’s paleontology and geology lab handles Tuesdays.
Most Tuesdays, you’ll find Zanno presenting her findings in the museum’s Daily Planet multimedia theater, either in-person or via satellite from the field. Margaret Lowman, the Nature Research Center director who hired Zanno, calls her a rising star.
“She may even be a supernova in the constellation of amazing scientists I’ve been honored to hire,” Lowman says. “Lindsay has an extraordinary enthusiasm, and also an amazing ability to relate to young people—which is important, because there’s a unique component of science communication that’s required as part of her job. But what’s even more important is that the paleo-history work she’s been doing in Utah is incredible. The family tree she’s constructing is going to be fascinating. As a botanist, I hope to learn from it myself.”
The outreach aspect of the job is perfect for Zanno, who has always put a high value on making science appealing to the general public. But the science profession hasn’t always seen the need for accessibility. Scientists have at times thought that explaining themselves and their work was beneath them.
“I’m not so sure that time is entirely past,” Zanno says. “But it’s a process. The public in general does not seem to trust the scientific process anymore, and as scientists we are responsible for that. The recent trend of mistrust toward science, I find that disturbing and concerning because our problems about the environment, technology, and health are only getting more intense. If I can help make a difference in terms of building trust between science and society, I feel like my career will have been a success.”
A common question people ask Zanno is how she knows where to find dinosaur fossils, and the answer is simple: in places where there aren’t too many plants. For example, there’s the Crystal Geyser Quarry, one of her research outposts, in Utah’s Grand County. Zanno and her crews regularly go there to unearth fossils from a “mass death assemblage” of Falcarius utahensis, a plant-eating dinosaur from the Cretaceous era, bringing the specimens back to North Carolina to pore over them in the lab.
Originally discovered in 1999, the Crystal Geyser Quarry cache is a hillside with a layer of fossilized bones about one meter thick. There are several hundred bones per square meter, from newborn dinosaurs to elderly specimens, and they’ve yielded up a veritable gold mine of information about growth curves and how that rate changed over time.
Fossil records are usually just fragments that give researchers clues, and it’s very rare to find so many individuals of one species in the same place, as Zanno and the other paleontologists have done at Crystal Geyser. But there are still some sample gaps for Falcarius utahensis; Zanno is hoping to find more of the skull, for example. Maybe that will shed light on how these dinosaurs died, which is where the practical modern-day value of Zanno’s work comes in.
You could say Zanno is going back to the future here, trying to understand how dinosaurs responded to environmental changes similar to those happening today as the earth’s climate becomes warmer and dryer. Some people may debate about the reasons for climate change, but the way Zanno sees it, whether mankind is causing climate change is irrelevant. Whatever the causes, its potential consequences are ominous.
“There have been other periods of rapid climate change in the earth’s history— each associated with a mass extinction event,” she says. “Humans are adapted to a certain temperature range and sea level, and the temperature is getting hotter while the seas are rising. We have to deal with it. It doesn’t matter if this is natural or not. And paleontologists are the only ones looking back through the longest-running natural experiment, life on earth, with a historical perspective on how life changes in response to climate change.”
To that end, you’ll find Zanno spending summers at various dig sites for the foreseeable future, and the rest of the year trying to put it all together. The future is unknown, but the best way to predict it might be to look at the distant past.
“It might be the same spirituality that religion is for many people,” she says. “The idea that you’re part of a story, and you can understand that everything that happened before led to this point. Not that they were predestined to be that way; it’s just how things unfolded. But you’re part of it.”
—David Menconi is a features reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina. His freelance writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times and Salon.com. His book Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown was published by University of Texas press in September.