Who are the people of SVP?
Members of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology come from many different backgrounds and live and work all around the world. Here we highlight the life and work of one of our members so that you can get to know them better. Paleontologists that have been profiled in the past are also listed so that you can go back and get to know them as well: Past PaleoProfiles
Stephen J. Godfrey
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Undergraduate education: Bachelors of Science (Biology Honors), Bishop’s University (Lennoxville, Quebec, Canada)
Postgraduate education: Ph.D., Redpath Museum at McGill University (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), under the supervision of Dr. Robert L. Carroll; Post-Doctoral Fellowship, University of Toronto (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada), with Dr. Robert R. Reisz
Current position: Curator of Paleontology, Calvert Marine Museum, Solomons, Maryland
Top: Me with Carcharodon megalodon at home in the Calvert Marine Museum. Bottom: View of some of the Dinosaur Project’s “World Tour” exhibit.
Following a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at the University of Toronto, I moved to Drumheller (Alberta, Canada) to help a team from the Royal Tyrrell Museum assemble a large dinosaur exhibit that was commissioned by several companies in Japan. Upon completing that project, I moved on to an even larger dinosaur exhibit: Ex Terra’s “The Canada-China Dinosaur Project and The Dinosaur World Tour.” When this exhibit went to Australia, I was thrilled to spend five months in Sydney as the Exhibit Manager. Our young family had a wonderful time in the land down under.
For most of the nine years in Drumheller (The Dinosaur Capital of Canada), I was self-employed, doing exhibit work for museum’s all around the world. Most contracts involved sculpting the missing bones of dinosaur skeletons, reassembling the skeletons of prehistoric animals (both original bone and cast replicas), and sculpting life-like restorations of extinct animals. I very much enjoyed this kind of work, however finding a steady stream of contracts proved to be the most difficult aspect of this endeavor.
In 1998, I was delighted to become the Curator of Paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland (USA). We collect, preserve, and interpret the Miocene (approximately 25 to 5 million-year-old) fossils that erode from the cliffs along the western shore of Chesapeake Bay. The sediments that now make up Calvert Cliffs were laid down in a vast inland arm of the Atlantic Ocean during Miocene times. As such, the vast majority of the fossils preserved are of marine organisms. Shark teeth are relatively common on some beaches. From time to time, extinct whale and dolphin skulls and skeletons become exposed in the cliffs.
Taking a break from sculpting the neck vertebrae of the huge sauropod dinosaur, Brachiosaurus, for the Field Museum.
Top: The Jurassic pterosaur Dimorphodon stretches its freshly painted wings. Middle: Another Jurassic pterosaur, Rhamphorhynchus, sports a bright red head. Not knowing what their original color scheme was allows my paleo-imagination to run wild. Bottom: This hatchling Hypacrosaurus (a duck-billed dinosaur) “calls” for food.
Fieldwork is a very important part of my job and profession. Most of our fieldwork is done on the beaches along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay where the Calvert Cliffs are exposed for some 35 miles (50 km).
Other than shark teeth, the most frequently encountered vertebrate fossils are those of extinct cetaceans (dolphins and whales).
The variety of skulls and skeletons collected by museums from the cliffs for well over a century demonstrates that these deposits preserve one of the world’s most diverse assemblages of extinct whales and dolphins. Among over 30 extinct species found thus far, are the remains of sperm whales, shark-tooth whales, both long and short beaked dolphins, and at least 8 species of primitive baleen (filter-feeding) whales.
Unfortunately, as the price of waterfront real estate escalates along the Chesapeake Bay south of the Baltimore-Washington corridor, it is becoming increasingly difficult to quarry important fossils from the cliffs. In places, erosion pushes the top of the cliff back several feet every year. As water levels continue to rise and cliffs recede, many proprietors would like to riprap the cliff base.
Fortunately, large boulder rip-rapping of the entire length of Calvert Cliffs will not likely happen any time soon. Two threatened tiger beetle species nest only in stable but naturally eroding sandy cliffs. Rip-rapping would destroy this habitat. Thanks to these beetles and the state of Maryland’s commitment to preserve their nesting habitat, additional dolphin and whale fossils will continue to come to light for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, the protected tiger beetle act cuts both ways. In order to quarry in their habitat, we have to justify the claim that the paleontological value of the fossil outweighs the risk of potentially harming buried larvae.
Looking west from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay at the nearly horizontal beds of the St Mary’s Formation along Driftwood Beach (one of the Calvert Cliffs).
Most of the beaches along Calvert Cliffs are narrow even at the best of times. In the Chesapeake Bay, the wind has at least as much influence over the height of the tides as does the Moon. Whether or not we quarry depends on the direction and strength of the prevailing winds. Most of Calvert Cliffs is accessible on foot. However, some sections are only accessible by boat.
Calvert Cliffs sediments are “soft,” so digging into them is relatively easy work. Picks, rock hammers, and screw drivers are the tools of choice. Digging continues until the extent of the skull or jumbled skeleton is known. (Note: A word of warning! Digging in the cliffs is dangerous and is prohibited on all state and federal lands. On private land, permission must be obtained from the owners before digging.)
Then a typical plaster-bandage field jacket is made to cover and protect the brittle bones for shipment back to the museum. Large or heavy jackets are loaded into a boat for their trip to the Museum or to a waiting pickup truck.
The fun consists of working in clayey layers where there are few sharp shells to cut fingers. The fun continues when we find more of the skull and skeleton than we expected to find. Fieldwork becomes luxurious when the family on whose land we’re digging treats us to a delicious lunch or throws a garden party in our honor. Because the Calvert Cliffs are so close to my home, I’m always able to go home in the evening for a hot shower, home-cooked meal, and my own comfortable bed. Wow, not many paleontologists have that luxury when they do field work.
Left: Calvert Cliffs extend for nearly 50 km along the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay from Fairhaven, south of Annapolis, to Drum Point. (Map courtesy of the Department of Maritime History, Calvert Marine Museum). Right: My children get a quick peek at a jacketed Miocene dolphin skull (Eurhinodelphis bossi) before it completes its trip to the Calvert Marine Museum.
The greatest frustration by far is when I work hard to get permission to remove a fossil from private land, only to find that it has been vandalized or stolen.
Portions of baleen whale skeletons are regularly encountered. Their robust lower jaws are found most often. Fortunately, the largest known baleen whale skulls from the Miocene Chesapeake Group range between three to five feet in length, much smaller than their closest living relatives, the giant rorquals. The most recent complete baleen whale skull that we removed was about three feet (roughly one meter) long. One of the field jackets weighed over three hundred pounds and was quite a brute to wrestle onto a kayak without mechanical assistance.
Fossils worth collecting aren’t always easily accessible, like a partial Squalodon sp. skull quarried from Bed 11 of the Calvert Formation. Located high in the cliff, removal of the fossil was only possible by rappelling down to it. The discomfort of spending two days in a rappelling harness was a small price to pay for the partial remains of this exceedingly rare dolphin.
Q & A with Stephen J. Godfrey
Top: Quarrying along the Chesapeake Bay. Here we are in the process of jacketing a lovely baleen whale skull discovered by Paul Murdoch. (Pictured from left to right: Bill Counterman, Stephen Godfrey, Scott Werts, and Mike Foley). Second from top: A long-extinct Miocene baleen whale goes for another “swim.” Here we float the heavy skull-bearing jacket to safety. (Pictured from left to right: Bill Counterman, John Redick, Mike Foley, Stephen Godfrey, and Scott Werts). Third from top: Bill Counterman takes a short break after jacketing the partial skull of the shark-tooth dolphin, Squalodon sp. (Bed 11, Calvert Formation). Bottom: A line drawing of the shark-toothed dolphin, Squalodon sp., in a right lateral view.
How/when did you first become interested in science/paleontology?
From my childhood, I have been interested in the natural world. I took an early interest in fossils but never thought that I would become a professional paleontologist. As a teenager, I collected “road-kill” animals to get their skeletons. I would let the bugs clean off the bones, then using white wood glue and wire, would reassemble the skeleton like those I had seen in museums. I
very much wanted my own natural history museum, and my bedroom was slowly transformed into one. Shelves lined with pinecones, sea shells, pinned insects, and rocks and minerals covered the open walls. Fishing trips turned into hunts for fossils; stops at rest areas along highways provided an excuse to gather pinecones, or scour rock outcrops for the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals.
Trips to the ocean featured contests with my father and siblings to see who could find the niftiest natural object. At the end of our family summer vacations, black garbage bags in the back of our Volkswagen van more often than not contained a frozen critter or the pungent remains of some decomposing carcass.
My interest in biology predisposed me to take great interest in finding an explanation for the diversity and origin of life. The circumstances of my early life made it inevitable that I would seek to answer this question first by engaging the book of Genesis, rather than the theory of evolution. I was raised in an evangelical Christian home. We considered the concept of evolution a rival to the Bible’s explanation of the origins of biological diversity. We equated it with man’s attempt to deny the existence of God. The appeal of evolutionary theory to the atheist, we were taught, lay in its apparent ability to absolve man of his moral responsibility to an almighty God who had created all that there is.
For my family, God was the omnipotent creator of the world and its biological diversity. In the final year of my undergraduate stay at Bishop’s University, I decided that I would study paleontology further to see if what paleontologists were saying about the antiquity of life and the nature of the fossil record was true. Looking at sedimentary rocks in many places and studying the fossils they entomb forced me to abandon my childhood belief in a young earth. Footprint fossils of terrestrial animals throughout much of the geologic column proved to me that Noah’s Flood had not been responsible for the vast accumulations of sedimentary rock worldwide. Furthermore, by looking at the fossils preserved at different levels in the geologic column it became obvious that different suites of organisms have lived at different times on earth. Finally, within any given group of organisms, the most similar species are far more likely to occur at or about the same geologic time than they are to be separated at opposite ends of the geologic column — a prediction of evolutionary theory.
How do you spend a typical day when you are not doing fieldwork?
Every day is different. Working for a small museum, I have the luxury of being able to work closely with our Exhibits Department in assembling new paleontology displays. Some of my time every day is spent doing the paperwork that is needed to keep this department moving forward smoothly. I often spend time identifying fossils either for the public or for our permanent collection. Some time is also spent doing research on the many nifty fossils that need to be described, to add to our knowledge of the prehistoric life that lived in southern Maryland 25 to 5 million years ago.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you most about your work?
I love being able to participate in all aspects of paleontology, from finding the fossils, to quarrying them, watching them being prepared, studying them, and featuring these fossils in new exhibits. I’m still amazed that I am paid money to do this.
Top: Here I am with Skip Edwards (center) and Jimmy Langley (right), both master carvers at the Calvert Marine Museum. We made this life-like restoration of a sturgeon for a temporary exhibit on these remarkable fish with a lengthy fossil record. Middle: The sculpted ribs of the sauropod dinosaur Jobaria tiguidensis ready for shipping to Paul Sereno’s lab in Chicago. Bottom: Some of the sculpted vertebrae and ribs of the giant extinct crocodile Sarcosuchus imperator.
Being able to do paleo-art contract-work in my spare time excites me. I love receiving a phone call or email, usually from Dr. Paul Sereno (University of Chicago) telling me about some new critter he’s discovered in Africa and asking me if I would be interested in sculpting the missing bones so that a “complete” skeleton can be reassembled for National Geographic.
The complete skeleton of an extinct animal is a rare bird indeed. Many bones are often missing. If, for display purposes, a full skeleton is needed, the missing bones have to be created. That’s where I come into play. On the basis of the size and shape of existing bones, and those of closely related forms, I sculpt the missing ones from high-density foam. Moon-lighting sculpting projects for Paul Sereno have included carving the missing bones of the fleet-footed theropod Deltadromeus, the large sauropod Jobaria, the spinosaur Suchomimus, the tiny primitive dinosaur Eoraptor, and the gigantic crocodile Sarcosuchus.
What is the most difficult part of your job? What bugs you most about your work?
The most difficult part of my job is getting permission to remove an important fossil from Calvert Cliffs. What many land owners don’t realize is that the fossil will be destroyed either by erosion or vandals if it isn’t removed to the safety of a museum. Paperwork bugs me most!
What is your favorite fossil and why?
My favorite fossils are those that are well preserved. Few things are more beautiful than superbly well-preserved fossils that show the detail of their anatomy.
Who do you admire most in science or the world at large?
I admire those who get things done, make new discoveries or find new fossils, and then are able to make their work accessible to others. By doing so, they continue to shed light on the incredible diversity of life that has graced this planet for the past 3.5 billion years. I also admire volunteers and amateur collectors who prospect and report back to me on newly exposed fossils. They love fossils just because.
What would you recommend for future work for young paleontologists?
Although collecting fossils in some places may become more difficult in the future, there won’t be a shortage of fossils needing to be studied any time soon.
To learn more about this research, follow this link to Paleontology at the Calvert Marine Museum.
Ask a Question
To ask Stephen a question about fossils, or anything else, just email firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll forward your email. If you don’t hear back right away, please be patient. Remember, he may be off collecting more fossils right now!
Photos courtesy of Maureen Baughman, Bill Counterman, Stephen Godfrey, Jack Peterson, and Pam Platt.