I’m Dr. Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Here, I oversee the nation’s natural history collection: more than 146 million specimens and artifacts that together comprise the largest collection of its kind in the world. Each year, the museum hosts more than 5 million visitors and its scientists publish more than 800 scientific research papers and name more than 300 new species.
On June 8, 2019, we opened The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils-Deep Time, a 31,000 square-foot exhibition that interprets the history of life on Earth and its relevance to the future of humanity. The exhibit is packed with real fossils and skeletons including a Tyrannosaurus rex from Montana, an elephant-sized EremotheriumGround Sloth from Panama, a Diplodocus from Utah, a Stegosaurus from Colorado, a 50-million-year-old palm frond from Alaska and hundreds more. The museum also houses a 52-foot-long model of the extinct Carcharocles megalodon shark.
Before my arrival to the Smithsonian in 2012, I worked as a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science where I led expeditions in 18 states and 11 countries. My research focuses on fossil plants and the extinction of the dinosaurs, and has taken me from the polar regions to the equatorial rainforests. In 2011, I led an ice age excavation near Snowmass Village in Colorado that recovered parts of more than 50 mastodon skeletons.
I’m known for my scientific articles, popular books, museum exhibitions, documentaries, and collaborations with artists. My recent documentaries include Ice Age Death Trap (2012), Making North America (2015), The Great Yellowstone Thaw (2017), and The Day the Dinosaurs Died (2017). My current show, NOVA’S Polar Extremes, which premiered on PBS on Feb. 5, uses the fossil record from the Arctic and the Antarctic to show that the polar regions were ice-free and forested for much of Earth’s history.
My recent book, Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline, The Travels of an Artist and a Scientist along the Shores of the Prehistoric Pacific (2018) explores the deep history of the West Coast from California to Alaska. And my upcoming book, Trees are made of Gas, The Story of Carbon and Climate, will be published this fall.
I’m originally from Bellevue, Washington and have a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College, a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in geology and paleobotany from Yale. Ask me anything!
Hey Kirk! Thanks so much for the AMA.
I’m a huge movie buff and the ending scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark when the Ark is shown in the massive warehouse always captivated me as a kid. I think the closest thing to an endless warehouse full of hundreds of rows of artifacts is the collection behind closed doors at the Smithsonian.
Obviously, very small amounts of people have access to these types of rooms. I believe you may. So my 11 year old self would like to ask: Whenever you are staring at some of the most important pieces of history of all time only a foot away, do you ever feel the gravity of the whole situation? Do you ever actually feel the importance fill the room with these pieces when you are handling them and looking at them? Because your experience is drastically different from me being able to see it on the wall in glass. That’s exciting!
You have put your finger on it. The most exciting part of my job is that I have access to the entire collection of 146 million objects that compose the national collection. This collection is essentially infinite and it would take a lifetime to see it all. Each year more than 10,000 specialists come to visit the collections and use them for their scientific research. The national collection is a genuine national treasure.
I recently rode a helicopter up on to a glacier. When I landed, I climbed into a van and banged my head on the doorjam and had to get staples in the top of my head. Lot's of blood but only on me. Not my favorite story but close to yours.
If you could describe an exhibit to a person who might never get the chance to see it, which would you choose? And how would you describe it?
That's a broad question. I like different exhibitions for different reasons. Our newest exhibition is the David H. Koch Hall Of Fossils-Deep Time. It opened on June 8, 2019 and displays hundreds of fossils and fossil skeletons that tell the story of the history of life on early from the first life about 3.5 billion years ago until the present and even takes the visitor into the future. We do this because humans are so prevalent on Earth that they have become a major part of our planet's history. The exhibit is for everyone from little kids to world experts and includes lots of different types of tools to help everyone enjoy and understand it. We even have an app that guided sight impaired visitors through the space.
In the TV show Bones, the main character works at and solves crime from a place called "The Jeffersonian Institute", which I always assumed was that creative universe's Smithsonian. If an FBI agent approached you with an offer to join forces and solve crimes, would you take them up on the offer?
The truth is that the FBI's forensics unit got its start by consulting with the physical anthropologists at the Smithsonian. We are the original CSI.
To me one of the most fascinating things about things like the Eocene polar environment would be how familiar, and yet oddly alien they would be.
For example, with lush forests growing on the Arctic islands, inhabited by flying lemurs and tapirs, the region still would have been above the Arctic circle and in total darkness for months of the year.
How do you think the plants and animals dealt with this tropical Arctic long night? Did they hibernate? Did the plants go dormant while animals survived on cached reserves?
Two thoughts. There are plenty of nocturnal animals in tropical rain forests and there are plenty of mammals that survive today's frigid polar winters. I think that much biology worried less about light and dark than we do. There is the issue of how plants photosynthesis and what dormancy would looks like. There is an argument that the seasonal low light would promote evergreen foliage because it would be too metabolically expensive to make new leaves each summer. A lot still to learn about this wonderful extinct ecosystem.
Hi, thank you s much for doing this, what an awesome career you have!
When I was little there were two bronze dinosaurs in front of the museum, I think a sauropod and a triceratops, IIRC - I have a very early childhood memory of my dad lifting me up on one and climbing on the tail and how parts of them were polished from kids climbing them and wanting to be big enough to get to the back of the sauropod but I was too small. I went back as an adult in 2002 and they were gone. They were really special <3
What happened to them? Where are they now?
The Triceratops was retired because it stood on National Park land and I believe that there was some concern of kids falling off. The bronze Triceratops skull is now located in the garden on the southeast side of the museum.
I grew up on an archaeological dig (every summer for about 12 years) that my dad was in charge of in the 80s in the south east of France, so lots of neolithic, paleolithic, gallo-roman and early Christian stuff... No dinosaurs but pretty similar field nonetheless. It was an absolutely amazing way to learn about all these eras, hands on! Anyway, my question is: do you miss being in the field, getting your hands dirty digging? Or do you still get out on some projects?
I miss it alot so I still try to do it a little and I also work on viseo productions so that I get out to amazing sites. Polar Extremes is an example.
Do you like the song I Am A Paleontologist by They Might Be Giants?
I've loved that song for a long time, and I've always wondered what actual Paleontologist think about it.
How does it feel knowing that, like astronauts and ballerinas, you have a job that kids aspire to grow up to have? You ever get a little rush knowing that you're living the dream for a decent number of six year olds?
Absolutely. That is why I am always so enthusiastic.
What’s the most bizarre place you’ve worked at?
The rainforest of the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. We were trying to find fossil plants in the dark understory of a modern rainforest. The rocks were wet and black. It was pouring rain. We had to use headlamps in the middle of the day to see anything.
What's the most valuable piece of history that you ever held in your hands? What would have happened if you, say, dropped and smashed it?
I've held lots of extremely rare and fragile fossils and I have broken quite a few. That is why they invented glue.
Hello Dr Kirk.
So what's the verdict: did the T-Rex have feathers?
Jury is still debating but the new Tyrannosaur exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York makes a pretty good case for feathers. As I recall, that the smaller ones did and that the larger ones didn't.
How did you get to where you are?
My little brother is currently starting his journey to a career in palaeontology, do you have any tips on how to be successful or what kinds of opportunities there are out there?
I started as a 4 year old who liked fossils and I never lost the faith. My main piece of advice is to cultivate as many mentors as possible. Science is all about people.
What’s the process like to be able to work in paleontology?
Quite rewarding. It's a great mixture of museum/lab science and outdoor exploration and excavation. You can do either or both. Most jobs are at universities or museums and there are lots of opportunities for volunteers and interns.
Why are the eggs of herbivore dinosaurs more round and carnivore dinosaurs more elongated?
Good question. I don't know.
What is the most ancient species or genus of plant that I can raise in my living room? (Without wrecking my heating bill preferably.)
What would you like to know about your favorite dinosaur that we don't already?
Personally I'd like to know why they had so many different styles of decorative... Things all over them.
Which ones were functional and which are decorative is still debatable I think.
I'd love to know the real story about their color.
What's something that hasn't been discovered but we're fairly certain is out there that you would like to see revealed in your lifetime?
How plants communicate.
So I get to drink cocktails and wander around the museum in a few nights, which exbibit do I absolutely have to make sure I stop and see?
What's your favorite dinosaur?
Triceratops. No question. But I also like Anzu and Deinocheirus.
Thanks for doing this AMA, Dr. Johnson. I visited the Smithsonian a few months ago and was completely blown away by just how cutting edge the curation and design of the Deep Time gallery is. Can you briefly describe the creative process behind creating an exhibition like the Deep Time exhibit? How did you and your team formulate a narrative for telling natural history and translate early ideas into reality? Was there anything interesting that got left on the cutting room floor?
Second, do you have any advice for anyone who wants to go into museum curation (in any field)?
Severla large teams worked hard for a decade to balance scientific accuracy with educational impact with design elegance. It was a brutal process but I love the result. Many good ideas, images, and fossils are on the cutting room floor.
As for advice, meet as many museum people as possible and learn theiur pathways and then use the one that is the best fit for you.
What does Sant mean?
It is short for Roger and Vicki Sant who endowed the Director position at the museum
Is there anything new that you've learned on the job that has absolutely blown you away? Either from something coming in as an exhibit, or something you've worked on yourself?
Being a scientists guarentees that you will be blow away on a regular basis. There are amazing discoveries every week. Life could not be more interesting.
Have you been to the Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre? Any thoughts on marine reptile exhibits coming in the near future?
I've been to Manitoba but not since the Centre opened. The plains of Manitoba have excellent fossil remains from the seaway that split North American in half about 70-90 million years ago.
The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils
How do you feel about corporate oligopolys such as Koch Industries destroying the environment while donating to philanthropic endeavours such as yours? Is it possible to maintain our shared history without gratifying the billionaires who are destroying our planet?
In general, I am very unhappy about the way humans mistreat the natural world. We are all part of the modern economy and, as such, we are all part of this challenge. It is much easier to point fingers than it is to make positive change. I see museums a part of the solution set to the 21st century. Museums can both present the natural world and also share our growing understanding of how to study and preserve it
I'm going to have to go with the old classic, what is your favourite dinosaur? And why?
Triceratops (see below). Why is because it was the first dinosaur I ever found.
What do you make of the cataclysms that happened in the late Pleistocene (Younger Dryas) and what implications did these events have for human populations? How severe was Meltwater Pulse 1B (the great deluge?) 11600 years ago in your opinion?
It was certainly an exciting time that was marked by warming temperatures and rising sea level. It pre-dated civilazation so people didn't have much in the way of permanent structures to worry about. My sense is that people are quite resilient and that the people that experienece this time were able to roll with the punches.
What is your view on the recent anti-science movement? Is it something that you can feel as Sant Director of the Smithsonian?
I am extremely disappointed with the anti-science movement. Science is an incredibly powerful tool for understanding the world/universe and creating new technologies. It's basically one of the most effective ways that we grow and share knowledge with future generations. In my role as director, I strive to help our audience understand what science is and why it is important.
How do you and the other scientists you work alongside cope in this new age of misinformation? I have a very difficult time explaining to people (who just won’t hear it) how vital it is to take steps to save our environment and I’m not a scientist. Thanks in advance.
We battle it with information and science (and Reddit)
What is something that people might not know about paleontology that you think more people should know about paleontology?
All of the best fossils are still in the ground wating to be discovered.
Any career advice for a high school kid interested in both paleontology and zoology? I’m hoping he ends up at the Bronx Zoo but I have to pay for his education first, lol.
Have him intern in both and see what he likes better.
I've always been interested in the vast amounts of artifacts that museums hold which *never or rarely get seen by the public. How do you decide which items to display in exhibition and which items to leave in archive? Also, in relation to this question, what item(s) in the museum archives do you think are fascinating but are not on display?
Most museum collections are saved because of their information content and their relevance to the creation of knoew knowledge through scholarship. Exhibition is only one use of collections. Think of them more as the planetary archive.
I have young kids. Any recommendations for resources to get them excited about learning about dinosaurs?
How young? Dinosaur Train on PBS is excellent. Obviously, your nearest museum. Also, get them outside and exploring nature.
With advances in technology, what discoveries have been made that contradict/build on previous research you’ve been a part of?
Additionally, what are the emerging technologies or research methods that most excite you?
This is a huge questions with many answers. Just as a start, I love GPS, LIDAR, Side-scan sonar, micro-CT scanning, electron microscopes, mass spectrometers, digital cameras, 3D scanners, the whole suite of genomic tools, and helicopters.
Oh yes, and my favorite tools are still shovels and pick axes.
Will you have any input on the Social Media Specialist position being hired for the NMNH? As a new paleobotanist it makes me so happy to see the wealth of fossil plants and insects in the new hall as it paints a more complete picture of the ecosystem during the Mesozoic. Have you had a chance to look at my dissertation on the new species from the Morrison yet?
I won't have input on that position. I haven't looked at your thesis yet but will do so. It came in when I was in the field and I have an email backlog. Thanks for sending it.
Do you have an ethical dilemma with dinosaur fossils being 'monetized'? Can that be dismissed as simply part of capitalism (which in itself can be deemed to be good or bad for museums) or do you feel like museums paying millions for fossils opens up the door to potential inequality problems between museums? Can museums be in the red, or must they become by default <for profit>?
I would prefer that rare fossils would be preserved for the public trust. There are however many types of common fossils and I think it is great for people to own them as a way of connecting themselves with Earth History. In the countries where dinosaurs sales are legal (like the US) then I don't think that such sales are unethical. When museums do buy fossil, they usually use funds provided by donors.
Museums can't operate in the red because they will go extinct.
What’s a part of your museum that most people overlook, but shouldn’t?
The bone hall
Is there something special in the basement, you really want on display?
The is a 5 ton giant lycopod tree that didn't make the cut for Deep Time. It needs a big room.
Can tell me about a cool b-list prehistoric animal? (I love learning about cool animals that don't get much picture book coverage like Okapis or Aardwolves)
Hyaeondon, Uintatherium, and Barbourafelis would be where I would start.
How has the recent pull back or censoring of science in federally funded agencies and institutions affected your job and the museum?
Some of our federal collaborators have had some of their programs redirected. Our federal funding levels have increased slightly.
In the first Jurassic Park film they touch on technology and it’s negative impact on paleontologists. Have you experienced anything negative due to advances in technology?
The atomic bomb is a start. I'm also not to excited about facial recognition software and the political misuse of social media
How did you enter the field of paleontology? What attracted you to it? Do you consider it to be a viable career choice for students in 2020 and beyond?
I loved fossils as a kid. Then I became a geologist. It is definitely a viable career choice.
Are they actual real dinosaur bones, or just the regular castings made of bonemeal from chickens?
Have you figured out a way to harness the intense fascination all little boys have with dinosaurs? Yeah, they're all in 4th grade but there's so many of them. Plus they've got tiny hands which I feel like would be useful.
Excellent point. Maybe a new energy source.
My Uncle is a Carbonate Sedimentologist. What can I get him for his birthday next month?
If you could ride one dinosaur into battle which one would you ride?
If you could bring back one dinosaur, which one would you choose?
Does climate change have any effect on fossils yet to be discovered? I'd imagine permafrost melting would expose previously hidden skeletons and cause erosion.
You are right that melting permafrost and ice fields are releasing lots of fossil and human artifacts. Most fossils however are found in bedrock and it is easiest to find fossils where the bedrock is not covered by soil or plants (think deserts). Coastal erosion can also expose fossils.
Other than the dinosaur exhibit, what are your other favorites? (I really like the epidemic and hall of human origins ones)
They are all great. I like Outbreak since we are giving a digital version at no cost to museums around the world and it's pretty timely now with the Coronovirus
Is there anything of Teddy Roosevelt's that's too exclusive for the general public?
Not sure that I understand the question but we do have more that 5,000 specimens collected by TR.
i was there yesterday for the first time in a long time, and the exhibit is really stunning. the flow 'though time' is a bit confusing as there are many ways to wander through the exhibit, but over all the presentation is wonderful. my question is when the seas were higher all those millions of years ago, what was the climate of DC at that time? underwater? are there dinosaur fossils in the mid Atlantic? it seemed to focus on the midwest and most western states when discussing north american dinosaur fossils.
The exhibit has some climate curves which are helpful to think about sea level over the last few million years. For older times, the continents themselves go up and down quite a bit. It is a cool and complicated topic and the exhibit will likely ask as many questions as it answers. It is true that the American West has yielded the vast majority of America dinosaurs (but check out the North America dinosaur map near the paleolab).
In the episode of Nova you glossed over the issue of ocean acidification yet I have heard it is a more immediate concern than sea level rise. What consequences will result over the next 50 years from ocean acidification and what can we do to minimize its impact?
There is only so much you can do in a two-hour show. Acidification is an increasingly imporatnt problem. You can decrease the impact bu helping to decrease carbon emmissions
Are you aware that you share the same name as the man who created goatse, one of the most famous shock images on the internet?
No, that is news to me.
What would you say to/do you have an opinion on the conspiracy theories that the Smithsonian hides evidence of giants?
(Sorry, I had to ask)
It is nonsense. I know the collections and we don't have giants. I can guarentee you that we would widely publicize them if they existed. Science is an honest endeavour.
Just a couple of demographic questions about your field: How many of your colleagues are women? How does that compare with the ratio of men:women in undergrad science programs (that might lead to your field)?
Thanks! (And I just taught my 5yo son about two new dinosaurs you mentioned: deinocheirus and anzu. He’s ecstatic!)
Women are at parity with men in the undergrad and grad level but not yet at the professor/curator level. That will change. Check out our new Bearded Lady exhibit
Out of curiosity, have you collaborated with a Dr. Rosmand Kinzler? She's my aunt and is currently a Senior Director at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan!
I have not. What is her expertise?
Hi! I live in DC and took my parents to the museum this week. I (unconsciously) always expect top quality from a Smithsonian, but I was really impressed by the exhibits there. We spent a lot of time specifically in the insect area and the mammals - both were outstanding.
What's your favorite exhibit?
My personal favorite is the bones hall where you can see skeletons of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. It is an old exhibit built in 1965 so we will have to renovate it eventually but I just love seeing so many different kinds of skeletons.
Of course, the new Deep Time exhibit is amazing.
What is your favorite exhibition you've done? What is your current favorite exhibition in the museum?
My personal best if the Prehistoic Journey exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. It opened in 1995. The Deep Time exhibit at NMNH opened last June. I oversaw the project but it was untaken by a large and talented team.
There's a video on youtube about a guy clamming Dinossaur aren't (and, never were) real.
Are you familiar with this video or its (pseudo?)arguments? Why, do you think, people go looking for stuff like this?
I have seen so many real dinosaurs and I have found many more. That guy is ignoring reality and I feel sorry for him.
What do you feel about the relatively recent resurgence of Creationism and “Creation Scientists”? Do you feel they have any impact on your work? Are there any books you’d recommend for educating someone taught Creationism?
I was rasied a creationists so I hcan say that the main resurgences happened in the 1910-20s and the 1970-80s. Ron Number's book The Creationists is a good place to start. Also the National Center for Science Education.
If the government came to you and said they had found a group of living Neanderthals* and needed your help to communicate with them, would you be able to?
Feel free to substitute for Homo Habilis (or whatever) if that's more possible 🤷♂️
That is an excellent question. I'm sure that we could make some progress with body language.
Do believe there is enough evidence to support the younger dryas impact hypothesis?
The massive changes in temperature and sea levels seem (to me, the layman) so much quicker than could be attributed to natural causes
I'm skeptical about the Younger Dryas imapct hypothesis. I have not seen enough evidence for it. Natural causes at the end of a glacial period can be awfully quite due to the mobility of melt water.
Any comment on the theft of Native American cultural artifacts by archaeologists working for the Heyer foundation, which the Smithsonian became the ultimate beneficiary of? An example would be the excavation/looting of the Hawikuh-Cibola Zuni complex led by Frederick Webb Hodges from 1917-1923.
I understand that about a third of the collection has been repatriated, but that leaves hundreds of thousands of objects comprising one of the largest symbols of institutional cultural genocide in North America.
The modern Smithsonian works in close collaboration with Native American groups to repatriate human remains, funerary objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. This is an ongoing and active process.
Does your team incorporate any machine learning tools to manage and research such an immense collection ?
We are experimenting in this arena
What is the biggest challenge in paleontology these days?
Land access to productive sites
I am a geology undergrad, did you follow your planned career path or did you take the opportunities that were presented to you which lead you to where you are now?
I didn't have a plan but I did have a very strong interest in paleontology and that helped me grab the opportunities when they came.
Hey Kirk, thanks for the AMA. I got two questions for you
What do you enjoy the most being a paleontologist and the Want Director at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural history?
What in your opinion is the most valuable artifact/fossil in the museum?
Every single day is full of amazing activities, people, and discoveries. The Hope Diamond tops our list.
Is there paleontological evidence for the chicken and egg question?
Yep, eggs pre-dated chickens by hundreds of million of years
What's the most amazing piece of history you have ever seen?
Edit: anything, whether it's recorded history, or fossil record
The wall at Dinosaur National Monument in Vernal Utah
For non-fossil, the Vasa in Stockholm
You said you've led expeditions in 18 states. Have you ever done one in Oklahoma? That is where I'm from so I'm curious if there are any interesting things you've found here.
There are fantastic fossils in OK but I have never dug there. I hope to someday.
Did you ever come across any mummified hadrosaurs while at the Denver Museum?
My undergraduate capstone project at the University of Cincinnati dealt with geochemical factors that affect preservation qualities of vertebrates of the Lance formation (equivalent to Hell Creek) in eastern Wyoming. While researching near Lusk, WY I met a person who said a couple of mummified hadrosaurs were found on their property in the late 1800s or early 1900s. It is said that one of the specimens was sent to the Denver Museum but when I tried to contact someone there they didn't have any knowledge of that specimen. They wouldn't even let me speak with any archivists or scientists to find out more information.
Denver does not have one of the two Lusk mummies. One is in New York at AMNH and the other in in Franfurt Germany at the Senkenburg Museum.
I once had a friend whose family loved buying exquisite museum quality pieces of history (cuneiform tablets, astronaut gloves, Dino bones, etc.) and displaying them for anyone to touch and interact with.
Obviously, I used this chance to lick their triceratops horn.
Have you had any similar zany experiences of opportunity?
Yes, but none that I can mention
Do you have any fun projects you're working on currently? Whether that be another book or a new fossil, what is it and what's your favorite part so far?
I'm working on a secret new NOVA show and a couple of research projects with Cretaceous fossil leaves.
Jurassic Park came out after you became lead scientist at Denver Museum, did you notice an uptick in visitors?
Also, what are your thoughts on Raquel Welch in a fur bikini?
We noted an uptick in paleontologists after JP. I'm still processing RW and a Pleistocene hominin.
If you could go back and work with Marsh or Cope, which would you choose, and why?
Followup: what prank would you play on the other team?
They were both jerks but my sense is that Cope was smarter and a better field guy. My prank would probably involve dynamite.
What would you say are current trends/misconceptions in the public perception of extinct life that need to die out (such as Shrinkwrapping, interpeting dinosaurs as voracious monsters rather than animals, tail dragging, and the "if it's extinct it must look hideous and starving" rule)
Also, would you argue that the "soft tissue" impressions on that one Carnotaurus skull are just hematite concretions? Or actual soft tissue. Based on skull texture alone, those "brows" seem likely, we already know abelisaurids (or "danger pickles" as I like to call then) had very armored faces.
This is a pretty broad question. Clearly there is both scientific and popular interest in dinosaur and there are tons of new discoveries and theories each year.
Hey! Paleontology rocks! I have a Megalodon tooth back home the size of my palm of my hand (do palms include fingers? I am not?), and I always in awe of it. I'd like to believe in a different life I'd be studying it formally.
My question is: what part of the world do you think has the most untapped potential for fossils? I imagine it might be China, but I'd like to hear what your professional opinion. (also, bonus question, what does "Sant" in your title mean? Is that a name?) Thanks!
Africa and Asia have vast uncexplored areas but so do the rest of the continents. There have never been enough digging paleontologists. Sant is for Roger and Vicki Sant who endowed my directorship.
Was Ross your most hated character on friends and why?
Because he was supposed to be a paleontologist but he never talked about his job. Paleontology is so cool that all paleotnologists always talk about their job to their FRIENDS.
Hi Dr. Johnson! This is super cool!!!
I'm a volunteer paleontology gallery interpretor in Utah and I spend a lot of time with kapairowits or Cleveland Lloyd dinosaurs. What's something you, as a communicator and translator of science, wish we could get out to the public more readily?
I was just at UMNH last week. It's such a great museum. I wish that we were more effective in helping people undertstand how landscapes (like Utah) form.
What Discovery were you most excited about?
The Snowmass Discovery. See the NOVA show "Ice Age Death Trap"
I'm an archaeologist. I always get asked if I've found any dinosaurs. Do you ever get asked if you've found gold/ treasure?
all the time
Big Bone Lick, Kentucky is the birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontolgy and many of the best specimens have been lost overtime, stolen, or are displayed in museums around the world. How can parks/museums reclaim possession of artifacts?
It's tricky if you don't know where they went. Big Bone Lick was one of the first ever found in the US so it had has a long time to be picked apart.
My wife is finishing a Bachelors in History and wants to eventually continue her schooling so she can become a museum curator. Working at the Smithsonian would be her dream job, especially working at the Museum for American History. Do you have any suggestions or advice on steps to take along a curation path?
Have her comwe meet people at the museum and watch jobs.gov
After excavations are done, are the smaller bones / eggs ever left on site, out in the elements?
If you were to work in another department within museum field, which would you choose? (Collections, Admin, Relations, Exhibits, Anthropology, Geology, etc)
What exhibit would you like to do that you believe the American people need to see?
How many times have you been asked if you are Jeff Goldblum/Indiana Jones?
What is the most tedious part of your job? What is one aspect that others would find tedious that you enjoy?
Do you play a part in the showmanship/PR of the museum, or are you more in a research role?
My son is 4 and a dinosaur nut. I want to get him a good book about dinosaurs - do you have a favorite?
Cruisin the Fossil Freeway
I'm an archaeologist, and I constantly get asked about digging up dinosaurs 😅 Do paleontologists ever get similar questions but about archaeology related things?
I visited the new Fossil Hall this past fall and loved the FossiLab! How do the folks who work in it feel about it? As much as I enjoyed seeing it I also understand how it could be awkward working in something akin to a fish-tank. Are there any plans to put more of the previously 'behind the scenes' work on display?
They are volunteers and work there because they want to.
Sorry to be a little off topic, but I went to your museum a few months ago and I was very disturbed by the displays of human remains. Has this antiquated idea started to change with the archaeological community? There were so many wonderful displays of recreations, like the dinosaur exhibits that could be used. I understand wanting to study mummies for scientific reasons, but to put them on display for entertainment is very distasteful, especially when it's obvious what they wanted to happen with their bodies.
This is an evolving area and one that varied from country to country. Interest in mummies is extemely high in the public as is the evidence for human evolution. We strive to be respectful when we exhibit human remains because we are aware that people have a wide variety opf beliefs and feelings about the topic.
With such an enormous collection at the museum, how are significant specimens not overlooked? Are you "discovering" things in the museum's archives that haven't seen the light of day in decades?
Each of our 442 collections (totalling more tha 146M objects) is assigned a specialist curator who is responsible for the intellectual integrity of the collection.
Do you remember the Lunchables sweepstakes where people got to sleep in the Smithsonian?
nope, how long ago was it?
What was your favorite field site to work on and why?
Snowmass because we found 6,500 large bones in 70 days
Was TREX really the strongest dinosaur that ever existed or not?
PT. rex was probably the strongest carnivore but some of the herbivores were so huge that they must have been stronger.
My three year old is incredibly obsessed with Dinosaurs, especially with the StoryBot dinosaur songs on Netflix. Can you recommend any other video series (youtube or such) that would be great for a 3/4 year old to learn accurate stuff about dinosaurs, but is also just fun for them?
Dinosaur Train on PBS
Next big breakthrough in evolutionary biology?
Something to do with the brain or the microbiome.
What got you into palaeontology?
I found fossils when I was 4 and my parents were always super supportive of my love of rocks.
What are your thoughts on nanotyrannus?
I'm agnostic. I;ve thought alot about it but I'm not a tyrannosaur specialist. Both sides have good arguments but if I have to bet I would call Nano a juvenile rex
Has there been any new/recent evidence about the "mound-builder" culture?
Most of that works was done long ago, in fact it was the one of the very first Smithsonian publications.
Do you ever stay overnight at the museum? If so, which of the exhibits that comes alive is your favorite? Some seem pretty chill
Yep, many times. Happily the dead stay dead
Why does the Smithsonian continue to hide evidence of giants?
We don't. This is a common myth.
Recently moved to DC, I stopped by the museum but it was far too crowded to really absorb what it has to offer. What day and time would you recommend I go for the most personal experience?
Sept ember to February are the low traffic times and weekdays are better than weekends
How does the museum decide what goes on display and what stays in storage? A lot of cool stuff that I'd like to see is in storage where only staff can see it. :(
We try to figure out what are the most important stories to tell and plan accordingly
No F.R.I.E.N.D.S reference? Really?
Really. Ross was a lame paleontologist who never brought his work home with him.
Are there prehistoric dinosaur or mammal species that have yet to be identified?
Many, both alreay colledted and in museum collections and undiscovered but surely out there. I like to say that the best fossils are still in the ground.
Can you watch Jurassic Park with a crowd without constantly commenting on what's realistic and unrealistic?
I can now. It was not possible in 1993
How does one go about becoming a paleo artist? I have a friend who's really good but we live in India and there isn't enough opportunity here.
The internet is his/her friend. Start posting the work.
Where is the next paleontological hotspot? I see a lot of cool work being done in Southern Nevada on Pleistocene fauna.TUSK
Many places are very active.
What is your opinion on the Koch-funded pro-global warming exhibit?
What exhibit are you talking about?
What do you guys have in the cooking for this year?
Five new temporary exhibitions and a program called Earth Optimism.
What is the process to go from a scientific discovery, to the discovery or artifact being displayed in a museum?
Long and painful. Most discoveries don't ebnd up as exhibits.
Do fossils reveal much about dinosaur behavior, or is much of what we see on TV the product of wild speculation or comparisons with modern creatures.
If the former, can you give some examples?
Sort of half and half. The best behavioural stuff comes from fossil trackways.
When you're not at work at your own museum, which of the other Smithsonian Museums do you most like to visit?
Hi Kirk. I am currently waiting to hear back from schools about my applications for PhD programs in paleontology. I am very interested in early Permian vertebrates, but I am getting discouraged about my chances of getting accepted. If I don't get accepted, do you have any advice or tips for my next round? Anything is much appreciated, thanks!
The giant collection of fossils sounds amazing and I hope to see them one day!
Start corresponding with the people in the field that you wish to join.
I'm currently an undergraduate at UCLA studying Evolutionary Biology and Earth Science and an aspiring paleontologist. What advice do you have to give for how to best approach these next few years and how to best use my time to help advance toward a career in paleontology?
Make a lot of contacts and define your targets. Make sure your mentors are excellent and that you learn how to do SCIENCE. Try and get into and out of grad school in a minimum amount of time
Why do you hide the skeleton remains of the ancient mound builders that were in excess of ten feet tall? Along with any other extra tall people?
Because they don't exist
Did you ever ask your parents if you were named after the actor (RIP), the Star Trek captain or someone else?
I was named after a Scottish church
Thanks a lot for the AMA!
What are some of the highlights of being a paleontologist? Something that gets you saying "Damn, this is cool, no other job has this thing going on!".
I've wanted to become a paleontologist for over a decade as a kid, before my parents forced me to look into something more "sustainable" as career choice. Shame.
It is an AWESOME career choice. The mysteries of the planet are my business.
My kids want to know: Was the Quetzalcoatlus named after the quetzal bird or was it was the other way around?
The bird came first
master’s from the University of Pennsylvania
Nice, a fellow Quaker. Any thoughts on the recent Penn Museum renovations? Suggestions for science museums to visit in/around Philly?
I went there on a Monday last year and they were closed so I can't answer your question but I can recommend the Wagner Free Institute in North Philly
Hello and thanks for this AMA. This may not be exactly your field but your opinion is valuable. Do you believe there was a somewhat advanced humman civilization before 10.000 bc that got completely wiped out by an asteroid hit in north Greenland?
Nope. No evidence
Number one piece of advise for someone interested in going in museum work perhaps for the Smithsonian Institute one day?
Determine your priomary interest, train well for it, and build a large group of colleagues and supporters
Hey there! Have you ever been to the Royal Tyrell Museum in Drumheller Alberta and did you hear that a new species of Tyrannosaurus was identified recently? They've named it Thanatotheristes Degrootorum.
I love that place.
Hi I'm currently a medieval studies undergrad, and I'm interested in maybe working in a museum. What is the process for getting into that world? What advice do you have?
meet people to learn their pathways into the field
For someone who wants to go into Paleontology, do you recommend to do Zoology, or Anthropology? How hard do you think each of these are?
It's all easy if you are really interested. Chose the path you want.
Using the newly invented Wayback Machine, when and where do you go and what otherwise unknowable things do you learn? No looking at triceratops or T-Rex feathers please!
Sorry. North Dakota 67 ma
How can someone tell the difference between a rock and a fragment of a fossilized bone?
The bone has bone structure, the rock has rock structure
What were the struggles you went through when you first started your job?
Figuring out how the vast Smithsonian worked
Is Ross Geller (tv show friends) an accurate description of the average paleontologist?
Not even close
What do I have to do to get in your line of work ?
Love fossils, work hard, repeat
Did giants exist?
There is no scientific evidence, either fossil or living, for a race of giant humans. There are occassionally very large individuals (ever watch football or basketball?)
What is the weirdest /strangest item you've had to deal with?
a walrus carcass
How do museums get a one of a kind traveling exhibit over another museum? Is there a museum vs museum bidding war, or do you need to suck up to someone to get the exhibit for your museum or something else? How does that work?
The shows are rented and the price is negotiated.
I've heard/read that the Smithsonian Museum was responsible or has participated in destroying and sometimes hording evidence of giants from several sites in North America. Is there any truth behind these stories?
As fond as history lessons in school were (43 y.o.) I feel as though the perception and understanding of history is evolving and changing as we speak. With this in mind how might someone go about a personalized history lesson and rework the evolved histories taught to me in my youth?
Read the new books
What does it take to get work in Historical Preservation and what does the job entail?
I'm not sure
What is the best thing you have in the collection that is not on display?
Impossible question as there are literally millions of options.
Which scientists do you have the most fun with?
My theory: People who study light/physics are the least chill. Then comes microbiology because that shit can happen quickly. Then animal biologists, because trapping their subject matter is hard. Then, there's plant people like me. We give ourselves at least a few weeks to return to the specimen.
But geologists? They're having a beer right now. Those rocks will be there tomorrow.
That is a fair assessment. I like the field scientists the best
I am an aspiring invertebrate zoologist who LOVES working in museums. I am currently a volunteer at the Denver Museum of Nature and science and have high hopes to publish creative works (childrens books, novels) alongside a career in zoology education. Whats your best advice for a young professional after 2 years post bachelor's degree?
Decide if you want to go the PhD path or not right now. If so, find the school that is best for you based on a mix of school quality, advisor quality, and research project. If not, then define your goal and obtain the skills needed to grab a job in that field.
Hey Kirk! I've read lots of the papers your authored on. Will you be in the Big Horn this year? What is your favorite portion of the Laramide Basin to do field work? What do you enjoy most about fieldwork (and you can't say the Paleontologists BBQ)?
Not sure yet if I will be there or not. I love that basin because it has so many fossils.
I’ve always had an interest in archeology and curation but don’t want to do it as a career. Do you have any suggestions on how I could get involved as an amateur and non professional?
volunteer at a museum to see what you like doing
This is going to be a stupid question, but if we could bring back/ see in the past non-avian dinosaurs, which one would you be more curious to see how it looked?
Which conditions are such that a fossil find would be better preserved if left untouched from its original site and which would be better preserved if excavated immediately?
It usually has to do with the nature of the fossil preservartion and the nature and hardness of the bedrock. Most fossils will not survive outside when they are at the surface. Some very haard ones can.
As a university student at GW, what exhibits do you find most fascinating or something thaat not many people know about the Smithsonian institutions?
I like the awesome objects and the clever beautiful exhibits