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Digging Into the Field

Meet an expert paleontologist

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David Fastovsky likes dinosaurs, a lot. A paleontologist and professor of geosciences at URI, he loves them so much that he critiqued his favorite children’s book, All About Dinosaurs, in his co-authored book Dinosaurs: A Concise Natural History. Although All About Dinosaurs was written in 1953 and was a bit clunky when it came to the semantics of the book, it inspired David to pursue a career in the field. (On a side note, the author of All About Dinosaurs, Roy Chapman Andrews, is thought to have been the inspiration for Indiana Jones.)

David’s research at URI focuses on the appearance and early evolution of dinosaurs (circa 230 million years ago) and the extinction of dinosaurs (circa 66 million years ago). He’s done digs in the Gobi Desert, Latin America, sites across the United States and is now expanding into Europe. And according to David, his most interesting dig is always his next one. “They’re all good because each [dig] brings with it unique fossil discoveries, unique cultural experiences, exotic travel and a rich intellectual harvest,” he explains. “When I return, we try to synthesize and evaluate the things we’ve observed and discovered.”

His most interesting discovery has to do with how exactly the dinosaurs went extinct 66 million years ago. “Prior to our work, everybody thought that dinosaurs went extinct gradually, over several million years,” he says. David and his colleagues were the first to definitively show that the extinction of the dinosaurs was abrupt, and the event that caused it was from a short-term catastrophe – like an asteroid.

But you might be wondering why it’s important to fill in these knowledge gaps. Why should we care what happened 66 million years ago? Turns out that this information is entirely useful in the present day. As David puts it: “Dinosaurs are a superb system for modeling all kinds of things, from ecosystem behavior to extinctions. Those of us that study extinctions and recoveries have unique insights into how the Earth responds to major environmental catastrophes (and their associated extinctions), such as the one that we are unques-tionably experiencing now with global climate change.”

Thinking more locally, David insists that dinosaurs must have roamed over Rhode Island. There are a few rocky outcrops on Block Island and in nearby Hartford, CT that are the right age to contain dinosaur fossils. In fact, there are rocks in Connecticut that have preserved dinosaur footprints. (Ever heard of Dino-saur State Park?) But Block Island doesn’t have any preserved dinosaur footprints because its dinosaur-preserving sediments were all ground away during the last glacial event and deposited into Narragansett Bay and ocean areas to the south.

To be honest, David can’t believe that he gets to live out his life’s dream. “I love teaching,” he says. “I love my research, and like many of my colleagues, sometimes I can’t get over the fact that they pay me to do this!” His next big dig will take him to Spain and France where he will have the opportunity to collect more data on the dinosaurs’ mass extinction. Up until this point, the only meaningful data on the mass extinction has been collected in North America. He is able to pursue this research because he has been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship (his second in fact). And for the foreseeable future, David will keep digging, because he knows that x never, ever marks the spot.