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Undergraduate education: B.S. in Geology, University of Alberta
Graduate education: Ph.D., McGill University
Current position: Curator of Vertebrates, Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Drumheller, Alberta, Canada
I am from southern Alberta. My interest in paleontology was established from collecting fossils in this area while growing up. When it came time to go to University, I knew I wanted to go into the area of geology. The university I chose, University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, had a program specifically for people interested in paleontology, so I enrolled in this program. I had the opportunity to work for the vertebrate paleontologist there (Dr. R.C. Fox) during the summers, which gave practical field experience to my education. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science I enrolled in McGill University in Montreal for graduate work. My supervisor was Dr. R.C. Carroll. His area or research was early amphibian and reptile evolution, and he started my on a project studying the structure and function of the ankle joint in diapsid reptiles. This involved dissections of recent lizards and crocodiles, filming of lizards and crocodiles walking and a survey of the structure of the hind limb in fossil reptiles. I graduated in 1979.
On graduating, I was hired by the Museum of Comparative Zoology under a collection renovation grant to help with the upgrading of the collections there. This involved identifying and cataloging a large amount of material that had been collected from the Permian of Texas, as well as moving the collections into new cabinets. During the final year of this project, the Royal Tyrrell Museum was established, and I was hired as one of the vertebrate paleontologists here to work in the area of non-dinosaur vertebrates from the Late Cretaceous. This has led to my current research interests, which are in two general areas. One of these is the interrelationships of turtles. In am also interested in paleoecology and how communities of the Cretaceous functioned. My approach to this has been to use vertebrate microfossil localities. These are localities in which small fossil bones and teeth are found in abundance. By collecting large numbers of specimens from such localities, information about the diversity and relative abundance of animals present can be obtained. My most recent study has been to use the remains of teleost fish to interpret the diversity of fish that are present in the Late Cretaceous.
Don Brinkman (left) with David Kazmaier, a volunteer with the Tyrrell Museum’s Field Experience Program, in Dinosaur Provincial Park during the 2000 field season. The block contains two skeletons of the large terrestrial turtle Basilemys found by David Kazmaier. Photo courtesy of Don Brinkman.
During my career, I have worked in a number of field locations. One of my areas of field work was in north-eastern British Columbia, collecting marine Triassic vertebrates. We started from a known locality, and worked out from there. The localities were within the mountains and difficult to access. The first time we went in we used horses, after that, we used a helicopter to bring us and our equipment in. The helicopter would drop us off at our camp-site, and then come back at a pre-arranged time usually ten days to two weeks later, to pick us up. We would hike out from our campsite looking for fossils. In this setting, wildlife is abundant, and we would regularly see marmots, elk, caribou, and even grizzly bear.
Most recently, I have been working in Dinosaur Provincial Park, in southern Alberta. This is one of the richest areas for Late Cretaceous non-marine vertebrates, over three hundred articulated specimens have been collected over the past hundred years from this area. However, each year, we seem to collect something exceptional. Last year it was two large turtles found together. Each of these had a shell about a meter long. They were at ninety degrees to one another, the shell of one slightly overlapping the other. They were at the base of a layer of volcanic ash, and one of the turtles had a depression that looked about the size of a dinosaur foot. It seems that these specimens were happily going about their business when they were buried in an ash fall, then stepped on by a dinosaur.
Don Brinkman with Natalie Rybazniski, a student at Duke University, mapping bones in a ceratopsian bonebed in Southern Alberta. Photo courtesy of Don Brinkman.
Collecting specimens from the park can present some logistical problems. The turtles came out in a single large block, weighing about a thousand pounds. As a park in an environmentally sensitive area, there is limited vehicle access, so getting such block out of the badlands can be a problem. We have found that one of the most efficient ways for specimens under about fifteen hundred pounds is to put them on a car hood, tie ropes to the hood, and have fifteen or so people pull on them to drag them out. The last time we did this was to move a skull of a horned dinosaur. The car hood we had been using was badly beat up, so I had to get another one. I went to the local wreckers, and explained what I wanted and why. So they gave me the hood from the car they were currently taking apart — a BMW.
I work for the Tyrrell Museum, so all the specimens that I collect are part of the Museum’s collection. It is accessible to researchers, and the best of the specimens are put on display in the museum.
To learn more about this research, follow this link to the Royal Tyrrell Museum.
Ask a Question: To ask Don a question about dinosaur 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!