SALT LAKE CITY — Although dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years, there is still much we don't know about these prehistoric creatures. But the one thing paleontologists do know is where to look.
“I always compare it to … how do you find an egg?” asked Sterling Nesbitt, an assistant professor of geosciences from Virgina Tech. “There are a couple places you can go to. So you can go to a supermarket, but once you get into a supermarket, you go where the eggs are. … We do the same thing. If you want to go find a new dinosaur, you have to go to the right place, with rocks from the right time.”
What paleontologists are learning when they go to the right places will be one of the many things discussed and celebrated at the Natural History Museum of Utah's Dinofest 2019 this Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 26-27. Attendees can explore exhibits, participate in hands-on activities and attend lectures from leading scientists — such as Nesbitt — in the field.
Utah is a good place for dino-enthusiasts. Given the Natural History Museum's extensive dinosaur fossil and bone collection — and the numerous fossil-rich sites throughout the state — dinosaurs are pretty easy to learn about.
“There's always new folks coming from Utah, especially (with specimen from) the end of the dinosaurs, when you have really big dinosaurs,” Nesbitt said. “… it’s always great to see so much research being done. Not just finding new species, but figuring out the context in which the dinosaurs lived in … their paleo environment, what other animals were living at the same time.”
Outside of his fascination with a “giant reptile species that once dominated the world,” Nesbitt said that the study of dinosaurs — which attracts those interested in the mythical, obscure and unknown — help introduce kids to the study of science, one of the things that Dinofest aims to foster.
“The reason I think paleontology is really powerful is that it gets people using their interest in extinct animals that are amazing,” Nesbitt explained. “It helps them understand how science is done. Not just paleontology, but the scientific process … many people start out liking dinosaurs when they're little kids. So if you can reconnect that to understanding the biology of a cell or physics problems, the methodologies are pretty similar science … (and) using that spark can inspire breakthroughs in all kinds of different sciences.”
Dinofest caters to all ages and interest levels. In addition to crafts and activities for kids, festivalgoers can explore the museum's Paleo Prep Lab and Paleontology Collections, both rarely open to the public. And then there are the lectures, given by leading paleontologists and researchers from around the world. The Field Museum's Ken Angielczyk — replacing the National Museum of Natural History curator Hans-Dieter Sues, who cancelled due to the partial government shutdown — and Jessica Whiteside, associate professor of geochemistry at University of Southampton, will present the keynote addresses.
Nesbitt's lecture will address a topic that predates dinosaurs — the fossils of the dinosaurs' ancestors, what scientists call "dinosaur precursors." These creatures — including lizards, amphibians and turtles — existed before and during the time that dinosaurs roamed, Nesbitt said. Some of them continued to live alongside dinosaurs up until the mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic era, the time frame encompassing the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods when dinosaurs lived.
One of the reasons that dinosaur fossils are particularly present in Utah, Nesbitt explained, is because of the abundance of rocks from the Mesozoic period available for exploration.
“(In) any Mesozoic sediment … you find dinosaurs. About 230 million years ago is when (dinosaurs) started showing up,” Nesbitt said. “Utah covers lots of rocks from the earliest era to the very end of the Cretaceous. But that's why Utah has been really important for understanding evolution, because that's where the rocks are.”
Rocks — or rock strata — preserve remnants of life from almost all points in time on earth. Geologists and paleontologists can excavate these layers of rock to discover fossils that indicate what species, plants and earth environments were present during a given time period.
It was rock, fossils and of course, the lure of those mysterious dinosaurs that captured Nesbitt's attention — all of which continues to fascinate young and old today. For Nesbitt, the fact that these creatures were real, and not just mythical, is one of the things that keeps people passionate about dinosaurs.
“It's similar to why people go to the zoo, I think, especially to see species from Africa just (existing) in the world," he said. "And with dinosaurs, it's a part (of the world) that you can't see anymore, except through research and museums.Comment on this story
“Lots of people watch science fiction movies and things like that. But this was real. This was our planet, all over, for 150, 180 millions years.”
If you go …
What: Natural History Museum of Utah's DinoFest 2019
When: Saturday, Jan. 26, and Sunday, Jan. 27, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: National History Museum of Utah, Rio Tinto Center, 301 Wakara Way
How much: $14.95 for adults, $12.95 for seniors age 65 and older and young adults age 13-24, $9.95 for children age 3-12, free admission for children 2 and under.