ExplorersBio

Phillip Manning

Paleontologist/Writer

Expeditions Council Grantee

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Photo: Phillip Manning

Photograph by Phillip Manning

Birthplace: Hertfordshire, England

Current City: Manchester, Lancashire, England

What did you want to be when you were growing up?

Since I can remember I have been fascinated by life on Earth, both past and present. At five years old my parents took me to the British Museum of Natural History in London. I saw my first dinosaur face-to-face. My fate was sealed that day!

How did you get started in your field of work?

I started collecting dinosaur bones and other extinct giants in my garden from age five, but these I have since discovered were just chicken bones, horse teeth, and on a good day, a chunk of limestone. However, age 7 my family and I moved to Somerset and I was rewarded with finding a fossil marine reptile vertebra in my garden. This 180-million-year-old beauty was my first decent find. I still have this bone today.

What inspires you to dedicate your life to paleontology?

As a child I had no idea that paleontology could be a career, as that was impossibly amazing. Thankfully, I was wrong. I discovered this when at school and just worked bloody hard. I've had many lucky breaks along the way but the harder I work, the luckier I seem to get.

What's a normal day like for you?

I head the Paleontology Research Group at the University of Manchester in the U.K., but am also an adjunct associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania (U.S.). I have Ph.D. students at both institutions and teach several courses at Manchester, so much of my time is spent convincing students that paleontology rocks. The remainder of my time is devoted to research and fieldwork. I spend at least three months in the field every year. So on some days I spend my time getting sunburn, being eaten alive by bugs, and avoiding snakes in the Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota. We also dig up plenty of gorgeous dinosaur bones and the fossil remains of other contemporary beasties and plants. No day is the same, but I do also tend to work every day. I cannot remember the last day when I did not work.

Do you have a hero?

Sir David Attenborough is the consummate gentlemen and brilliant natural scientist. I have watched his documentaries since I was a child and have been enthralled by his captivating tone and gentle dissemination of hard science. I have been lucky enough to meet Sir David a few times. He was even better in person. His TV documentary series Life on Earth, transmitted in 1979, changed my life forever.

What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?

I do not even have to think about this. This was when working with Tyler Lyson (now at Yale) and his team from the Marmarth Research Foundation. The challenge was extracting a vast block of Hell Creek Formation sandstone, which contained the best part of a mummified dinosaur—challenging, scary, difficult, exhilarating, and terrifying all in one go! Shifting the 12,000-pound block took Tyler, the MRF team, and me the best part of a week. The endpoint of the digging, welding, logistics, and transport was a rather special dinosaur fossil!

What are your other passions?

My passion is to learn as much as I can about life, past and present. The links between life from the past and present are only just being unpicked my paleontologists, biologists, and chemists. New techniques are shedding light on old bones, making the past few years some of the most exciting in the field of paleontology.

What do you do in your free time?

Free time?

If you could have people do one thing to help encourage advances in science what would it be?

People should support and value the research that natural sciences generate. The spin-offs from these "blue-sky" fields are numerous and far-reaching. My group's current work on the preservation of fossils has led collaborators into a better understanding of how nuclear and biohazard waste might be stored in deep time. Advances in one field are often the function of a curve ball from another.

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In Their Words

My passion is to learn as much as I can about life, past and present. The links between life from the past and present are only just being unpicked my paleontologists, biologists, and chemists.

—Phillip Manning

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