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National Science Foundation
Special Report - Tawa hallae
Alex Downs

Alex Downs is the curator of paleontology at the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, located at the Ghost Ranch Conference Center in New Mexico. Downs has been interested in vertebrate fossils all his life. In 1982, while attending Northern Virginia Community College, he became a volunteer fossil preparator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.  After volunteering there for five years, he was hired to prepare fossils of the dinosaur Coelophysis from Ghost Ranch, for an exhibit. From 1992 to 1997, Downs worked at Ghost Ranch as a fossil preparator during the summer months and at the Smithsonian doing conservation work on vertebrate fossils in the winter. Since Downs joined the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology in 1997, the Hayden Quarry at Ghost Ranch was discovered in 2002, and the first Tawa fossils were collected there in the summer of 2004.

Contact: Alex Downs gralexd@yahoo.com

Randall Irmis

Randall Irmis received his doctorate in 2008 in integrative biology from the University of California, Berkeley, where he was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. He received his Bachelor of Science in geology from Northern Arizona University in 2004. In January 2009, he began a joint appointment as assistant professor in the department of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah and curator of paleontology at the Utah Museum of Natural History , affiliated with the university. Irmis’ research focuses on major changes in terrestrial vertebrate ecosystems in the fossil record and much of his work has centered on the origin and early diversification of dinosaurs. He is particularly interested in the influence of long-term climate change on these ecosystems, as recorded in the fossil and geologic record. Randall has conducted fieldwork throughout the American Southwest, including Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and California, as well as internationally in Mexico and Ethiopia.

Read more about Irmis in his UMNH Q+A.
Contact: Randall B. Irmis irmis@UMNH.utah.edu

Sterling Nesbitt

Sterling Nesbitt is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences. His research focuses on the early evolution of dinosaurs. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Geographic Society have sponsored his research, which was featured in the NSF-funded IMAX® 3-D movie “Dinosaurs Alive!,” released in 2007. He has collected fossils in the Western United States, Mongolia, Madagascar and Tanzania. Nesbitt received a doctoral degree in geosciences from Columbia University in 2009, with the majority of the work completed at the American Museum of Natural History. In addition to his work on Tawa, Nesbitt made a recent, important discovery about Coelophysis. Waiting on a subway platform in New York, he observed on the wall a bronze cast taken from a famous specimen from the American Museum of Natural History. The specimen shows a Coelophysis with the bones of what were thought to be a smaller member of the same species in its belly, suggesting cannibalism. Nesbitt examined the original specimen and discovered that the bones in the belly were actually crocodilian bones, debunking the macabre reputation of Coelophysis.

Contact: Sterling Nesbitt nesbitt@jsg.utexas.edu

Mark A. Norell

Mark A. Norell is curator and chair of the division of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. For the past two decades, he has been one of the team leaders of the joint American Museum of Natural History/Mongolian Academy of Sciences expeditions to the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. With the discovery of extraordinarily well-preserved fossils in Mongolia, Norell and the team have generated new ideas about bird origins and the groups of dinosaurs to which modern birds are most closely related. Norell, who came to the museum in 1989, was one of the Gobi Desert expedition team members who discovered Ukhaa Tolgod in 1993, the world’s richest vertebrate fossil site dating from the Cretaceous. Among the discoveries at the site are the first embryo of a meat-eating dinosaur, the primitive avialian Mononykus, and an Oviraptor found nesting on a brood of eggs--the first evidence of parental care among dinosaurs. In addition to fieldwork in the Gobi, Patagonia, the Chilean Andes and the Sahara Desert, Norell was part of the team that in 1998, announced the discovery in northeastern China of two, 120-million-year-old dinosaur species, both of which show unequivocal evidence of true feathers. Currently, Norell continues his work on the evolutionary relationships of dinosaurs and modern birds, has named new dinosaurs like Alioramus and Byronosaurus, and has developed new ways of looking at fossils using CT scans and imaging. He was curator of the museum exhibitions “Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries” (May 2005), “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids” (May 2007, with Laurel Kendall and Richard Ellis) and “Traveling the Silk Road: Ancient Pathway to the Modern World” (November 2009). Norell also lectures to general audiences and writes books and articles for diverse audiences. “Discovering Dinosaurs,” published by E.J. Knopf in 1995, won Scientific American's Young Readers Book of the Year Award. In 2000, “A Nest of Dinosaurs: The Story of Oviraptor” was given an Orbis Pictus Award by the National Council of Teachers as a noteworthy title. Finally, “Unearthing the Dragon” was published in 2005 and the coffee-table book “The Dinosaur Hunters: The Extraordinary Story of the Men and Women Who Discovered Prehistoric Life” was published with coauthor Lowell Dingus in 2008.

Contact: Mark A. Norell norell@amnh.org

Nathan D. Smith

Nathan D. Smith grew up in Crystal Lake, Ill., and received his Bachelor of Arts in biology with a minor in geology from Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He has received Master’s degrees in geoscience from the University of Iowa, and in evolutionary biology from the University of Chicago, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of Chicago and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Smith’s research focuses on the evolution and biogeography of Triassic–Jurassic dinosaurs and Cenozoic water birds, and the application of phylogenetic comparative methods to broad questions in systematic biology and paleontology. Smith has conducted paleontological fieldwork in Antarctica, Argentina, China and the Southwestern and Western United States. His research has resulted in more than a dozen scientific papers, including articles in Science, Systematic Biology and the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Smith and his colleagues’ scientific work has received local and international press coverage, and their field program at Ghost Ranch, N.M., was featured in the 2007 3-D IMAX® movie, “Dinosaurs Alive!” Several of Smith’s research projects have been supported directly by grants from the National Science Foundation (DEB 08-08250; ANT 08-38925).

Contact: Nathan D. Smith smithnd@uchicago.edu

Alan H. Turner

Alan H. Turner is an assistant professor in the department of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. As a graduate student, his research was supported by a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant (DDIG). Turner obtained his Master's degree from the University of Iowa and, after completing his doctorate from Columbia University, joined the faculty at Stony Brook in 2008. Turner's continued research focuses on reconstructing the anatomy, biogeography and evolutionary relationships of theropod dinosaurs and crocodyliform archosaurs. His work on theropods is a collaborative approach centering on the group's early history in the Triassic and the latter stages of their evolution in the Cretaceous, with particular attention towards derived coelurosaurs, such as dromaeosaurids and troodontids, and our understanding of the sequence and pattern of acquisition of traits associated with flight. A part of this work deals with characterizing the pattern of size change among theropods. In particular, Turner is interested in understanding the basis for these size trends and miniaturization's role in dinosaur diversification. His biogeography work focuses on developing methods for evaluating and overcoming the effects of sampling failure, as well as exploring new methods and techniques for incorporating temporal data in biogeographic analyses.

Contact: Alan H. Turner alan.turner@stonybrook.edu

Next: Image Downloads

The 2006 Ghost Ranch Triassic Project field crew
2006 Project Field Crew
The 2006 Ghost Ranch Triassic Project field crew included (from left to right) Kevin Padian, Sterling Nesbitt, Alan Turner, Nate Smith, Randy Irmis, Amy Balanoff, and Gabe Bever.
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The 2008 Ghost Ranch Triassic Project field crew
2008 Project Field Crew
The 2008 Ghost Ranch Triassic Project field crew was photographed in front of the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology at Ghost Ranch. Seen from left to right are Nate Smith, Randy Irmis, Sterling Nesbitt, Alex Downs, Alan Turner, Sarah Werning, and Michelle Stocker. Not seen in the photograph is co-author Mark Norell.
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