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UNF Paleontologist aired on ‘National Geographic’

The last place you might expect to find fossils of gigantic, prehistoric, sea-dwelling reptiles is in the desert lands of Southern Utah. But 90 million years ago, a portion of Utah was under water, flooded by the vast Western Interior Seaway, which split North America in half and stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean. A large variety of marine reptiles flourished in the seaway — including the plesiosaurs, a large carnivorous sea creature resembling Scotland’s mythical Loch Ness Monster.

Finding fossils of plesiosaurs in remote regions of southern Utah became the mission of UNF’s Dr. Barry Albright 10 years ago, when he was curator of paleontology at the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff.

“We got a call that someone had found some bones up in southern Utah, so we went to investigate and it turned out to be several vertebrae of a plesiosaur,” Albright said. “So that launched our research into that area. Over the next couple of field seasons we started finding more plesiosaurs, which led to full-scale excavations.”

Through the years, Albright and his crew explored the Tropic Shale, a layer of strata that had been about 300 feet below the surface of the water 90 million years ago, and uncovered some nearly complete specimens of the ancient whale-sized reptiles. They even discovered a few new species, recently described in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Although plesiosaurs are not the only aspect of paleontology that Albright studies, he still returns to Utah each summer to continue the field and research program that he started prior to joining UNF’s faculty in 2003.

In May of 2008, Albright led a small team of paleontologists to a remote part of Utah that previously had not been explored. The targeted area is in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, a 1.9-million-acre region of rugged, remote desert land featuring bold plateaus and multi-hued cliffs and terraces. It was such rough terrain that the team had to be airlifted in by helicopter.

With the going rate for a helicopter $1,500 an hour, it was not going to be an inexpensive expedition. So in order to make the project feasible, Albright applied for a grant from the National Geographic Society, which ended up not only providing the necessary funding, but also sending along a videographer to document the six-day adventure. As a result, Albright and his team were featured on National Geographic’s “Wild Chronicles” television program, which aired multiple times on PBS stations in September and October.

“It’s a pretty dramatic-looking place. If you dream about being a paleontologist, that’s the kind of area you picture working in,” Albright said. “And we knew we only had one shot to get out there.”

They had to bring along a week’s worth of food and water, in addition to their camping gear and tools for excavation, so it took more than one trip to deposit the four-person team and their gear at their starting point. But before the helicopter pilot left them, he took the team on a reconnaissance flight to get a feel for where they should begin their search, which was not unlike trying to find a needle in a haystack.

The next six days were filled with hiking, digging, picking and scouring the ground for evidence that plesiosaurs had been there, and finally, on day five, Albright found some of what they’d been searching for: fossilized plesiosaur limb bones. Although the team had certainly hoped to find more than just a few fragments, especially since a videographer had been sent to accompany them, Albright said finding any evidence of vertebrate life in this area was worth the effort, especially considering how rare plesiosaurs fossils are.

“The whole point of being a paleontologist is to study past life. So at the most basic level, if we find something new then we’ve just added to our knowledge of past life on this planet,” he said. “Finding fossils, any fossils, forces us to become more aware of just how different the Earth has been in the past.”

As he pointed out to students in his ESC 2000 Earth Science class in November, the Earth has undergone continental shifts and major climate changes throughout the ages. Dozens of cycles of ice ages and warm ages have occurred in the past 3 million years, with the last one ending only 10,000 years ago. Continents have been in different positions, sea levels have been higher and lower, global climate has drastically changed in the past and will continue to change numerous times in the future.

During Albright’s explanation about the climate changes the Earth has experienced, sophomore Alex Eveland raised his hand and asked if it’s possible to predict the next ice age. Albright answered with an enthusiastic, “Absolutely! We’re going there, both literally and in our lecture.” Eventually he pointed out that the next ice age should begin in the next 5,000 to 20,000 years.

Eveland, sitting next to his twin brother William, who’s enrolled in the same class, is eager to learn about the history of the Earth because “it’s really intriguing being able to see what has happened here on Earth before we existed,” he said. “History is one of my favorite subjects.”

Alex and William Eveland agree that their professor has much to teach them, and both are impressed with Albright’s plesiosaur research and appearance on TV. “I think it is a gift to have Dr. Albright as a teacher. He really stands out,” William said. “I can actually say that my earth science teacher is on television. I’m not well-educated in his research, but the stuff he has told us about in class is very interesting and I’d like to know more about what he’s accomplished.”

Special education major Rebecca Hackney is also wowed by Albright’s experience in the field. “I took this earth science class to satisfy a course requirement, but it’s turned out to be really interesting,” she said. “Dr. Albright is really enthusiastic, and you can tell he’s very passionate about his work.”

As for his research, Albright said he would continue to work in southern Utah for the next several years, using funding he’s secured through other granting agencies, such as the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. After that, he said he plans to move on to other aspects of paleontology that interest him, including certain groups of fossil mammals that evolved long after the dinosaurs went extinct. “Mammals have been center stage since extinction of the dinos 65 million years ago,” he said. “That’s a lot of mammal evolution to study, and that’s what I’m interested in.”

Albright said regardless of what he’s looking for in the field, it’s always exciting and fun. “It’s like a treasure hunt,” he said. “You know these things are out there. It’s just a matter of turning the right corner or looking in the right spot, putting in your time, and you’re going to find it.”

Sparking an interest in science

Many years before Dr. Barry Albright earned his doctorate degree and became a paleontologist prospecting for fossils in places like Southern Utah, Patagonia and Antarctica, he was just a kid interested in science. As a child, he often wondered what the Earth had been like millions of years ago – and things like mammoth bones and prehistoric sharks’ teeth fascinated him.

Raised in Charleston, S.C., Albright regularly combed the riverbanks for sharks’ teeth with his grandfather, who encouraged his interest in paleontology. His interest in natural history grew when he joined the Charleston Museum’s natural history club, which offered fossil-collection field trips to kids 9-12.

“I always knew I would be a scientist from as far back as I can remember,” Albright said. “I dreamed of being an explorer, doing lots of field work as part of my science.”

Albright hopes that his research and findings will inspire young children and the students in his Earth Science class to pursue careers in science. According to Albright, young children are fascinated with dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, but they seem to lose that interest by the time they’re 12 or so. Older children don’t seem to realize that their early interest in fossils can lead them into any number of exciting scientific careers.

“I consider it part of my job to try and help restore that interest, to try and re-instill that sense of wonder and maybe lead more students into the sciences, whether it’s paleontology, geology or any other aspect,” he said. “If we could just turn on more kids to science and get them to major in scientific fields, then that would make my job complete.”