Society News Paleoprofiles Past PaleoProfiles François Therrien
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
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Undergraduate education: B.Sc. Geology, Université de Montréal; M.S. Geosciences, University of Rhode Island
Postgraduate education: Ph.D. candidate, Functional Anatomy & Evolution, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Born in Montréal, Québec, I have been fascinated by prehistoric animals, especially dinosaurs, ever since my early childhood. Despite the abundance of Paleozoic and Quaternary invertebrate fossils in the area, my sole contact with paleontology had been through books and occasional trips to museums. In college, I became extremely interested in Earth history and the history of life, so I pursued and obtained a B.Sc. with honors in Geology at the Université de Montréal where I was the only student interested in “soft rocks” and fossils.
François conducted fieldwork in the colorful deposits of Petrified Forest National Park (Arizona) during the summer 1998. The most complete dinosaur remains occur in paleosols documenting wet environments, possibly ephemeral waterholes, in the Late Triassic monsoonal climate. Photo courtesy of François Therrien.
Following the completion of my undergraduate studies, and with help from Drs. Robert Carroll (McGill) and Pierre Lespérance (UdeM), I moved to the U.S. and began a Master’s degree with Dr. David E. Fastovsky at the University of Rhode Island. With his guidance, my fascination for dinosaurs matured into an interest in the paleoecology of extinct organisms and in the paleoenvironments they inhabited. My thesis research took me to the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation of the American Southwest where I studied the paleoenvironments and preservation conditions of early theropods in the Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona, and compared them to those observed at the famous Coelophysis Quarry of Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. After the fieldwork experiences, laboratory work, and the defense and publication of the results, I decided to broaden my horizons by tackling the biological aspect of vertebrate paleontology.
In recent years, I have been working on my Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine with Dr. David Weishampel. Of all the new fields to which I have been exposed, it is that of functional morphology that appeals to me the most. Using biomechanics to gain insight into the behavior of extinct animals, another approach to paleoecology, I have begun investigating feeding behaviors amongst extant and extinct crocodylians, phytosaurs, theropods, and sabertoothed mammals. However, I have not forsaken my geological background and my dissertation project reflects this.
For over a century, Maastrichtian (latest Cretaceous) continental deposits, preserving the remains of multituberculates, crocodylians, turtles, pterosaurs, and dinosaurs, have been studied in the area surrounding Hateg, Romania. Some researchers even think that the K/T boundary may be present in these deposits. My dissertation project consists in determining the location (if present) of the K/T boundary and documenting the biodiversity and paleoenvironmental changes recorded in the Romanian deposits. This research, requiring a cm-by-cm study of the sedimentology and paleosols of the 2,000m-thick deposits, will shed light on the events that took place at the end of the Mesozoic in eastern Laurasia and offer the possibility to compare the recorded paleoenvironmental and biodiversity changes with those observed in contemporaneous deposits, such as the Hell Creek Formation of North America.
François climbing the steep cliffs formed by deposits of the Sînpetru (or Sânpetru) Formation in Transylvania, Romania. These deposits were formed by braided streams and preserve one of the best latest Cretaceous dinosaurian faunas of Europe, consisting of dwarf ornithopods and sauropods, small “raptor-like” theropods, and gigantic pterosaurs. Photo courtesy of François Therrien.
Because I am interested in reconstructing both the environments in which ancient animals lived and the behaviors and interactions of these animals, I get to conduct fieldwork and visit a lot of museums. For my Master’s project, I worked in the Petrified Forest National Park of Arizona. Walking around in the desert, I studied the highly colorful rocks and fossils of the Upper Triassic Chinle Formation in order to better understand the ancient environments and ecosystems in which early dinosaurs lived. In places, tree stumps are preserved in standing position, indicating that forests once grew there.
By studying the colorful ancient soils, it was possible to reconstruct the alternating wet and dry seasons that prevailed when dinosaurs and other animals roamed these forested areas. I also spent a few days at the famous Coelophysis quarry in Ghost Ranch (New Mexico), where thousands of complete and partial skeletons of this little theropod are preserved in a mass death assemblage. This allowed me to compare the evidence for environmental conditions present at Ghost Ranch with that preserved in Petrified Forest National Park.
For the past three summers, I have been working in Transylvania (Romania). I get to work in a beautiful region at the foot of the Southern Carpathian Mountains and discover remains of an extremely strange dinosaurian fauna, where dwarf ornithopods and sauropods lived alongside small theropods and gigantic pterosaurs. For example, two years ago, I discovered postcranial elements of a small theropod, which are known almost exclusively from teeth, and this year I found postcranial remains of a dwarf sauropod. Dinosaur remains occur in river and marsh deposits recording wet and dry conditions. It will soon be possible to compare the record of ancient environments in Romania with those observed in other latest Cretaceous (close to the time of dinosaur extinction) deposits all over the world.
Q & A with François Therrien
How/when did you first become interested in science/paleontology?
My fascination with dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals dates back to my early childhood. I knew then that I would, one day, become a paleontologist. Since there were no fossils and hardly any sedimentary rocks where I grew up, my exposure to paleontology came through books. As a result of this, I found myself more interested in imagining what the world looked like millions of years ago and how those strange animals lived (paleoecology) than in looking for bits of bones.
How do you spend a typical day when you are not doing fieldwork?
During the academic year, when I am not busy with classes, I either analyze the rock samples I have collected during the field season or I pursue my second interest, which is the study of the feeding behaviors of extinct predators, like theropods, crocodylians, and sabertoothed mammals. To do so, I go “behind the scenes,” in museum collections, to study the skulls and jaws of these extinct animals.
François standing next to the largest entelodont known, Dinohyus hollandi (at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA). Photo courtesy of François Therrien.
What do you like best about your job? What excites you most about your work?
I love to compare fossil bones to those of living relatives. This provides insight into what the animals could and could not do. It is at this point that fossils begin to look less and less like old bones and more and more like animals that were once alive. Although reconstructing the behaviors of extinct animals requires a good dose of imagination, this must be combined with the use of proven scientific approaches, based on physics and the study of how the shape of a bone reflects its function. This combination ensures that such reconstructions remain within the realm of the “possible.” What I wouldn’t give to see a live sabertooth cat!
What has been your most exciting discovery? What are other important discoveries yet to made that are of interest to you?
During my work in the Petrified Forest and in Romania, I’ve been able to reconstruct ancient environments and climates that dinosaurs were living in during the Triassic and Cretaceous Periods. This kind of discovery allows a better interpretation and comparison of those ancient environments and the lives of the animals that lived in them. This makes the past relate more to our understanding of the present.
What message would you send to “future paleontologists,” regardless of their ages?
The field of vertebrate paleontology is currently undergoing important changes. With the teaching of natural and evolutionary sciences in schools and the production of films with a paleontological flavor, interest in vertebrate paleontology has increased greatly over the years. Unfortunately, the growth in the number of paleontology-related jobs has not kept up. This makes vertebrate paleontology a highly competitive field and jobs scarce.
Although the situation may appear grim, we stand at the edge of a new era of vertebrate paleontology: New, innovative technologies can now be applied to the study of fossils; better understanding of the effect of climate on ecosystems is gained through multidisciplinary studies; international collaborations allow the exploration of previously inaccessible areas and discovery of key specimens for our understanding of evolution. This means that future graduate students who wish to obtain jobs in vertebrate paleontology will need to have a broad academic background (geology, geochemistry, biology, physiology, biomechanics) and be willing/able to adapt to different opportunities that might arise.
Future students will need to adopt a “problem-based” approach. For example, interested students should not only see dinosaurs as “cool” animals to study, but that the study of these animals can also answer questions about ancient environments and the evolution of all life. These are promising times for graduate students who dare to venture off the beaten paths and “boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Ask a Question
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