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“ At best, we were expecting to find a couple of birds, based on the history of the site. When we got to Changma, and saw that the team had already found a bird, I figured we had paid the bills. But it just kept getting better.”

- Matt Lamanna



A Rare Bird

Turning his childhood dream of finding dinosaur bones into a grown-up reality, Carnegie Museum of Natural History paleontologist Matt Lamanna hopes that the discovery of an ancient flying creature provides a missing link in the story of bird evolution.

Matt Lamanna is hungry. It’s a few minutes before two o’clock on an early October afternoon, and he’s missed lunch because of an unscheduled, last-minute meeting. Yet instead of catching a bite to eat, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology gladly discusses the one appetite he can’t seem to satisfy—his love for dinosaurs.

“ I was about four years old when I told my parents I wanted to be a paleontologist,” says the 31-year-old upstate New York native. “I was a dinosaur fanatic from the start.”
Today, seated in his office at the Museum of Natural History behind a massive desk and surrounded by crowded bookshelves, maps, charts, fossil casts and computer equipment, the obsessed kid who fantasized about finding dinosaur bones is now an enthusiastic adult changing the way the world looks at the creatures who roamed our planet for more than 150 million years.

The Proverbial Foot in the Door
At an age when many paleontologists are looking to snag a temporary university or museum position, Lamanna is pushing the pedal to the metal on the expressway to success and recognition. A little more than two years after receiving a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania’s department of earth and environmental science, he owns one of the top jobs in his profession and a reputation as an important contributor to the understanding of how dinosaurs and their environments evolved. Building on earlier work in Argentina and Egypt, he made a big splash earlier this year as part of a team that discovered a prehistoric amphibious bird in the mountains of northwestern China.

A quarter-century earlier, a Chinese paleontologist found a tiny fossil bird foot approximately 110 million years old at a site called Changma, about 1,250 miles west of Beijing. Following the uncovering of this original specimen in 1981, no further avian finds from the site surfaced until a former Penn classmate of Lamanna’s returned to the region in September 2002.

“ Hai-lu You went to Changma because he knew it was an ideal place to look for more fossil bird specimens,” says Lamanna. “He and his team dug there for a few weeks and found the partial wing of another ancient bird. When he came back to Penn in March of 2003 and asked me to join him, I was excited. Even though my research tends to involve dinosaurs from the Southern Hemisphere, this kind of discovery was too important to pass up.”

Excitement, however, wouldn’t be enough to drive the project. Even with the approval of the Chinese government, the expedition required major funding. As was the case during a previous dig in Egypt, where he and colleague Josh Smith unearthed the bones of one of the largest dinosaurs ever found, Lamanna turned to the media for a healthy infusion of cash.

After securing significant financial backing from the Discovery Channel, Lamanna set out for China.

Collecting An Early Jackpot
Most times, paleontologists don’t expect to uncover a mother lode of bones. In fact, they anticipate the opposite. Still, Lamanna never imagined what would greet him when he arrived in Changma.

Paleontologists Hai-You and Matt Lamanna in the Changma basin.

“ There was a crew of eight to 10 Chinese helpers who found the vast majority of fossils at the site,” says Lamanna. “By the time we got there, they had already turned up this.”

“ This” is a slender, triangular chunk of brown mudstone slightly larger than a slice of pie. Embedded in the rocky sliver are what appear to be a couple of short, slightly gnarly twigs. They are, of course, fossil bird bones neatly hidden for millennia between thin layers of shale. At the site, Lamanna immediately recognized what the workers showed him. The nearly parallel, slightly raised impressions in the rock indicated that fossils were just under the surface. To verify his gut feeling, he and his colleagues sent the specimen to Beijing, where a technician peeled back shaly layers to reveal a pair of exquisitely preserved bird legs. At the time, Lamanna felt he had hit the jackpot, not realizing even bigger payoffs were yet to come.

“ At best, we were expecting to find a couple of birds, based on the history of the site,” he says. “When we got to Changma, and saw that the team had already found a bird, I figured we had paid the bills. But it just kept getting better.”

If It Looks Like A Duck
As the field season wore on, workers on the site uncovered fossils by the score. By the end of 2004, the expedition had produced more than 40 fossil bird specimens, many of them nearly complete and amazingly well preserved. Over the next year, the count soared to almost 100. While the numbers exceeded any imaginable expectations, the bones connected to tell a compelling story on many levels, as well as providing additional evidence to support the theory that modern-day birds evolved from dinosaurs.

Reconstruction of the Early Cretaceous amphibious bird Gansus yumenensis.
illustration: Mark a. Klinger/CMNH

To begin with, the fossils represent a species—Gansus yumenensis—that wasn’t quite a traditional dinosaur and not exactly a direct ancestor of today’s birds either. Dating to the early part of the Cretaceous Period, these feathered creatures might resemble at first glance any number of ducks swimming in the rivers and lakes around Pittsburgh. Some specimens even preserve remnants of webbing between the toes, indicating that the birds could propel themselves and dive in water, just like a duck. A closer look, however, reveals that Gansus is no common mallard.

For instance, it is small, maybe no more than a foot across from wing to wing. Further inspection of those little bones shows structures long missing from current birds — a pair of claws on each wing. The skeletal structure also provides evidence that it was a good flyer, but not as adept as modern birds. As Lamanna points out, Gansus is Model-T compared to its living relatives. Still, this primitive bird is yielding an abundance of information, thanks to near-perfect environmental surroundings that helped preserve its fossils through the ages.

“ The conditions in the area are special,” says Lamanna. “When the birds died, they sank to the bottom of an ancient lake. Along with weaker currents than you’d find in a river, the lake may have not had much oxygen at its bottom, which means there weren’t scavengers down there to eat the birds. Over time, sediment covered them and preserved them in the condition we found them.”

After Gansus died out, eons passed. The lake dried up. More rocks were laid down, further protecting the fossils. Then, beginning about 70 million years ago, the Indian sub-continent smashed into southern Asia, causing a violent, relentless grinding collision that thrust once low-laying lands upwards to form the Himalaya Mountains and the Tibetan Plateau. Over time, the parched lakebed eroded, and its fossils were driven closer to the surface. Today, the barren, brownish landscape bears little resemblance to the once lush wetlands, which makes fossil hunting an easier task. With finds becoming nearly commonplace, the surplus of specimens will allow Lamanna and others to probe more deeply into Gansus and the world it inhabited.

A nearly complete fossil skeleton of Gansus yumenensis shown at actual size. Feathers are preserved adjacent to the wing at left. Photo: hai-lu you/cags

A Lost World Revisited
Sometimes, a window on the past is as easy to open as turning the pages of a history book. Understanding the life and times of dinosaurs, however, proves more difficult. The reality is that solving the puzzle of how these prehistoric flyers lived is a matter of studying what remains long after their deaths.

“ Fossils are the only direct evidence of large-scale evolutionary processes,” says Lamanna. “That story can’t be told in detail without additional discoveries and new studies of existing specimens. Because we have so many Gansus specimens, we already know a lot about it. And the additional specimens will allow us to determine further aspects of Gansus’ biology, such as how males and females might have differed, how their populations were structured, how fast they grew to adulthood. All this is unknown now. But with so many Gansus bones available, we can start slicing into them to find what answers may be inside.”

Along with Gansus and other extinct birds, the expedition yielded beautifully preserved fossils of plants, fishes, turtles, a salamander, and even insects with traces of their original color patterns. These finds will help paleontologists accurately recreate the world Gansus lived in—a skill at which Lamanna excels.

“ Matt is gifted in the sense that he’s able to contextualize fossils,” says Chris Beard, Carnegie Museum of Natural History curator of vertebrate paleontology and section head. “You can train almost anyone to learn how to find fossils. But beyond that skill is the ability to address questions in new ways. Matt has the ability to put a single fossilized specimen in the big picture and offer new insight on how dinosaurs evolved and how life on Earth changed through time.”

That talent also will help Lamanna in his role as lead scientific advisor on Dinosaurs in Their World, the Museum of Natural History’s stunning exhibit that will nearly triple the size of the former Dinosaur Hall. When unveiled late next fall, Dinosaurs in Their World will range over 25,552 square feet, enough space to display over 15 mounted dinosaur skeletons and more than 200 other ancient plants and animals in a way that captures them in their habitat as never before.

“ Visitors are going to see newly restored, much more dynamic and scientifically accurate dinosaurs,” says Lamanna. “We’re sweating the details. Not only are we grouping our dinosaurs into their proper time periods, we’re recreating the ecosystems they inhabited, too. When visitors walk through the exhibition, they’re going to feel as though they’re actually walking through the same environments the dinosaurs lived in. The only thing missing will be the meat on their bones.”

The Best is Yet to Come
As of May 2006, the number of identified dinosaurs stood at 527. That total represents a mere drop in the paleontological bucket, says Peter Dodson, professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania’s school of veterinary medicine.

“ At the current rate of discovery of about 15 dinosaurs a year, the number of dinosaurs that will be found in the next 30 to 50 years should reach about 1,275,” says Dodson, who instructed Lamanna at Penn.

To discover those dinosaurs in waiting will require imagination and innovation, two words that describe Lamanna.

“ No one works harder than Matt,” Dodson says. “He’s followed his childhood dream to find fossils that will grab people’s attention. His work so far is off the charts.”

With Lamanna on board, the Museum of Natural History stands poised to reinforce its reputation as one of the world’s leading contributors to dinosaur research and discoveries.

“ Matt is a perfect example of the type of scientist we want,” says Beard. “He not only puts us on television when The Science Channel makes a documentary, but he also helps to advance our public programs, lectures and exhibitions. I expect great things from him far into the future.”

With Gansus and Dinosaurs in Their World already near the top of a crowded resume, Lamanna admits that the hunger that led him to the Museum of Natural History remains strong.

“I’d like to get more scientific publications out there,” he says. “I’d like to establish a domestic field program to build the museum’s collections from the Cretaceous and other periods of the Age of Dinosaurs. And I already have a backlog of unstudied fossils that’ll last me at least the next 10 years. So I’ve got my work cut out for me. But this is my dream job.”

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