Palaeontologists are often viewed in our imaginations as lonely sorts, out in the fields of far off countries, in badlands more suitable to snakes and sage brush; the image of ‘Indiana Jones’, adaptable and commanding of any environment or situation. This may have been so, at least in times gone by, but today’s palaeontologist is much more integrated.
For the longest time, palaeontology in Saskatchewan profited by having ‘others’, those from eastern institutions, who would spend a few weeks at best in the hills of the Cypress Hills, or in the badlands near the American border, passing through to their Alberta destinations.
An eastern explorer found the first dinosaur bone in western Canada in what is now Grasslands National Park. In 1875, the intrepid explorer from the Geological Survey of Canada from Ottawa, George M. Dawson, made the find. Even though Dawson worked with his team surveying the boundary between two nations, he is still seen as a sole explorer, on a mission, with a vision.
Today, palaeontology still has these hallmarks, but we are less defined by them. I have spent many field seasons by myself in search of the rich Cretaceous and Tertiary fossils. The interest or resources for broader expeditions were simply not there for the longest time.
Yet, for the first time, with my colleague John Storer, our fossil resources became known. Dr. Storer spent his field season in search of mid-Tertiary fossil mammals, developing an understanding of a significant shift in environment across the Eocene-Oligocene boundary, some 45 million years ago or so. I spent many years in search of anything Cretaceous in age, the iconic ‘Age of Dinosaurs’.
This split in interests, between me and Dr. Storer, evolved through a breadth of published research. In time, from our collective efforts as resident Saskatchewan palaeontologists, working alone, but together, we ‘promoted’ the wealth of palaeontological material found here. This wealth showcased how life has and has not adapted over great spreads of time, applicable to the mechanisms of life adapting to climate change today.
In 2009, the RSM and the T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, Saskatchewan, hosted a conference – “The Frenchman Formation Terrestrial Ecosystem Conference”. In part, it was to showcase the latest research based in whole or in part on the fossils from the Frenchman Formation, the last geological moments before the great extinction 65 million years ago. One of the poster presentations I provided highlighted the growing trend in integrative/cooperative research, led, or in participation by the Royal Saskatchewan Museum.
In my tenure, which stretches back to the 1980s, we have joined forces with the Universities of Alberta, Michigan, Florida, Calgary, Regina, Saskatchewan, Kansas, McGill, Yale and museums like the Canadian Museum of Nature, Manitoba Museum, Royal Tyrrell Museum, Royal Ontario Museum and both the Geological Survey of Canada and the United States Geological Survey - to name but a few.
This list alone illustrates that the days of solitary field and research are evaporating. Palaeontology, too, is becoming more and more integrative. We can kindly bid adieux to Dr. Jones, and his ways. The 21st century is much more of a group effort. Or, at least it should be.