On the Shoulders of Giants: First Introduced to Dinosaurs through a Plastic Toy in a Cereal Box, Renowned Palaeontologist Philip J. Currie Embarked on a Life-Long Journey to Study These Creatures of the Past

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Last year, he had a museum named after him--the Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum in Alberta--and this year he joined the likes of Sir Edmund Hillary and Neil Armstrong as a recipient of The Explorers Club medal. In November, he will be presented with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society's (RCGS) Gold Medal at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. A feature speaker in the ROM's Dinosaur Hunters Speaker Series, Dr. Currie chats with Sheeza Sarfraz of ROM Press about his views on palaeontological research and the future of palaeontology.

Sheeza Sarfraz: There is a lot of excitement at the Museum around your upcoming talk in connection with the Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibition. What is the most striking difference between the dinosaurs of Patagonia and their counterparts in the north?

Philip J. Currie: I have always considered myself something of a specialist on the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous of North America (especially Alberta). Early in my career, I discovered that there was a preservational bias in our part of the world; for various reasons, dinosaurs and other animals that weighed less than a hundred kilograms when they died are rarely preserved in our fossil beds.

These preservational biases did not exist in Asia, where I have been working to better understand our own small Canadian dinosaurs. This inevitably led to an interest in researching the intercontinental movements of dinosaurs.

The dinosaur faunas of Alberta and the Gobi Desert are very similar because they were able to move back and forth through the Arctic (a fascinating story in itself!). However, the southern continents were long separated physically from the northern ones. For these reasons, the dinosaurs of the northern continents evolved for a long time in isolation from those of the south.

The physical separation of North and South America ended in the Cretaceous, however, and the faunas started to mix. Southern sauropods invaded Texas and adjacent regions, while hadrosaurs from our part of the world reached Patagonia by the end of the Cretaceous. It was the faunal interchange that attracted me to do research in Patagonia. Since 1995, I have taken a team of colleagues and students to Argentina almost every year to work with Rodolfo Coria from the Museo Carmen Funes and his team.

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There are many interesting questions concerning the changes that were taking place in Patagonia as the hadrosaurs invaded the south. But I have also become as interested in why some groups did not participate in the faunal exchange. Why, for example, did tyrannosaurs (which were so successful on the northern continents) not move south? I think that it was because there were already carnivores in South America that were as large (or larger than) and as specialized as Tyrannosaurus rex.

SS: There used to be a Troodon brain case in your office at the Royal Tyrrell Museum 16-17 years back, the case highlighting the fact that Troodon was much smarter than the average dinosaur. Had the K-T extinction (Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction) not taken place 65 million years ago, could this dinosaur have evolved into a model of intelligent life?

PC: Troodon is still my favourite dinosaur after all these years. Think of it ... a man-sized dinosaur with a brain six times larger than that of a modern crocodile, huge and forward-facing eyes that gave it three-dimensional vision, hands that were capable of manipulating objects, legs adapted to sprinting at high speeds, and a body covered with feathers like a bird.

Dinosaurs were still adapting and producing better "models" right up to the K-T extinction event, and if their evolution had not been cut off 65 million years ago, they would have continued to change and become more sophisticated. I am not sure where they would have been today, but I am sure that humans would not have inherited the world if we had been competing with the descendants of Troodon! …