Birthplace: Syracuse, New York
Current City: Dallas, Texas
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I always wanted to be a scientist. I did not care what kind because I liked it all. Looking back, although neither of my parents was a scientist, I think they guided me when I was young and I never got off the track. I am very grateful for that.
How did you get started in your field of work?
I always liked the out-of-doors and I liked everything about animals. As a kid, we had a retired geologist as a neighbor who taught me about fossils and showed me how to tie a diamond hitch on a pack mule using a sawhorse. As an undergraduate, I was most interested in the physiology of invertebrates, such as deep-sea vent worms, which were just being discovered at the time. When I went to graduate school, I decided that the most important subject for me is evolution, the unifying concept that links disparate facts about life into a coherent whole. I studied paleontology because fossils link Earth and life, and you can hold them in your hand. I still get a thrill every time I do. I was guided in paleontology by Everett Lindsay, George Gaylord Simpson, and Edwin Harris Colbert.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to vertebrate paleontology?
There is no more all-encompassing science than paleontology because no other subject melds life and Earth in such multifaceted and grand ways. Almost every technique used to study life today, and almost every technique used to study Earth, has an application in paleontology. It is ever refreshing and always interesting because the evolution of life on Earth ultimately leads to us and to all other species living here and now. Thus, our understanding of the relationships between Earth and the life it bears is fundamentally important to our future.
What's a normal day like for you?
Every day is a collection of new challenges.
Do you have a hero?
Every person who does the best that can be done with honor and dignity is my hero.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite experience is usually the one I am having at the time. Most recently it was standing in southern Angola, my feet set on the crystalline rocks of the African continent, looking west over the fault that marked the edge of the rift valley that widened during the past 100 million years to become today's South Atlantic Ocean. It is like being part of the most obvious icon in earth sciences, the breaking of the puzzle-like fit of South America and Africa. We, Projecto PaleoAngola, are the first paleontologists to look at the coast of Angola with "plate-tectonic eyes," to collect beautiful fossil vertebrates in abundance, and to investigate the history of life along the shores of this growing ocean.
Challenges are part of the game, everywhere different. At Boney Spring, Missouri, it was keeping the pumps working while we excavated mastodons. In Pakistan it was malaria. In Yemen it was tribal conflict. In Antarctica it was a storm. In Alaska it was a bear. In Malawi it was tsetse flies. And almost everywhere it is obtaining needed supplies. But at the end of the day, back at camp, watching the sun go down with your friends, it is all good. Every day is a collection of new challenges.
What are your other passions?
Exploring the origin and evolution of the great ideas that have shaped our world—and the persons who shaped these ideas.
What do you do in your free time?
I do not watch spectator sports. I read quite a lot. But it usually has to do with paleontology. I enjoy history, especially as it relates to my "gunslinging" Western ancestry. My family is a joy, but since our trips are on Earth, I cannot help but think of the rocks and the fossils they should contain. When it comes right down to it, I do not do much of anything except be a paleontologist. My redemption is that my wife, Bonnie, is a paleobotanist. She understands. Ours is a match made in paleontological heaven. As a matter of fact, in my free time I have gone with her to Ethiopia and Kenya to assist in her projects.
If you could have people do one thing to help save each other and the world, what would it be?
Enjoy learning. Respect for it should be contagious. Consideration and understanding of others should flow from it. Responsible, cooperative decisions should result from it.
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Inside National Geographic Magazine
If feathers did not evolve first for flight, what was their purpose?
A fossil bonanza in northwestern China shows that the ancestors of T. rex and other reptile giants started small.
Read paleontology news from our editors and photographers, get photo tips, or comment on the latest issue.
A bizarre gallery of Mesozoic monsters prompted John Updike to ask: What has evolution wrought?
Paleontologist Paul Sereno's fossil-finding expedition into Africa's Sahara in 1993 sounds a lot like the plot of an Indiana Jones adventure movie.
In Their Words
There is no more all-encompassing science than paleontology because no other subject melds life and Earth in such multifaceted and grand ways.
Vertebrate paleontologist Louis Jacobs talks about evolution, the fossil record, and paleontology at Southern Methodist University as part of a faculty symposium to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.
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Paul Sereno earned a doctorate in geology at Columbia University and joined the faculty of the University of Chicago in 1987.
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