Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Dinosaur Hunter

Magazine article Foreign Policy

The Dinosaur Hunter

Article excerpt

Robert DePalma, a paleontologist and curator for the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History in Florida, has led expeditions all over the Americas, including in Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Haiti, and Costa Rica. And when he returns from the field, the question he is most frequently asked is not about his new discoveries, but, rather, how he found his dig site in the first place.

Even in 2014, the hunt for dinosaur bones still begins in the library; "The maps are where everything starts," he says. Color-coded to correspond with the geologic periods in Earth's long history, these diagrams have been the compasses for the world's fossil hunters for nearly 200 years. But until recently, scientists have taken little more than hammers, brooms, and graph paper with them on their travels to exhume and catalog the skeletal remains of ancient creatures.

In the past few decades, technology has revolutionized paleontology. Now, traditional techniques are augmented by cutting-edge machinery: Digital-imaging devices map geologic layers in three dimensions, 3-D printers produce copies of dinosaur bones, and satellite photos document where surface rock is exposed. In 2013, a team of scientists even used X-ray imaging to reveal the color of a winged dinosaur's feathers, possibly shedding light on the mate-selection process 150 million years ago.

For DePalma, this high-tech revolution has yielded tangible results: From 2004 to 2009, he and his team used micro-computed tomography scans to discover ancient insects preserved in opaque amber deposits in North America.

But these advances do not mean that the old-school gear is at risk of extinction. Most of the tools that DePalma packs for a field expedition are the same ones used by his predecessors. "We have some amazing opportunities to use the newest gadgets," DePalma says. "But there will always be a place for a pick and shovel."

Foreign Policy caught up with DePalma in March before his summer expedition to Montana and the Dakotas to learn about what he packs, both for research and survival, when he goes out for a dig.

Estwing geological hammer

Every paleontologist carries this at all times. An incredibly versatile tool, it splits rocks, takes small geological samples, and

Whisk broom

Gentle enough not to damage the bone, it is also forceful enough to get rid of the tougher debris. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.