The Road to Dreadnoughtus: Cool Jobs Alumnus Dr. Kenneth Lacovara’s Titanic Journey

Lacovara headshot“When I get back from Patagonia I’ll have close friends that won’t recognize me until I’m up close… My skin is leathery, my hands are sometimes bleeding because they’re so cracked and cut up, and I usually drop about twenty pounds when I’m in the field.” Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, paleontologist, professor of geology at Drexel University, and Cool Jobs alumnus, is the man behind the recent unveiling of perhaps the largest land animal to ever live on earth—the dinosaur Dreadnoughtus. Dreadnoughtus is quickly becoming a household name, known for its tremendous size (weighing in at 65 tons) and the completeness of its skeleton.

Though Dreadnoughtus has been a media rockstar these past few weeks, I found myself more interested in the story of the man behind this gargantuan discovery. It was he, after all, who explained in his original Cool Jobs article that many of the most profound moments of his life had come in times of discomfort, and the road to the Dreadnoughtus media frenzy was definitely ripe with such experiences. Yet the rewards of Dr. Lacovara’s efforts seem proportionate to the discomfort he endured. If “studying sauropods is like taking out a mortgage,” there’s no doubt that Dr. Lacovara’s investment in Dreadnoughtus has just yielded incredible returns.

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And an investment it was. A 9 ½ year investment of time and resources that included four expeditions to Patagonia, several years of negotiations with the Argentinian government, 16 tons of fossilized bones, 4 years of prep work on the fossils, 2 years of anatomical analysis, thousands of hours of 3D scanning, and finally, a year of writing and editing the publication that has caused such a media buzz during these past few weeks. Couple these logistical details with the fact that much of the time in the field involves sleeping in tents, spending a large amount of time cold and hungry, and engaging in manual labor that rivals the most physical of professions, and the circumstances surrounding this discovery start to sound quite torturous. Yet what appears as utter misery to one person can manifest as an adventurous thrill ride to another with the introduction of the secret ingredient: passion.

In his original Cool Jobs article, Dr. Lacovara described the number of different hats his profession requires. He moved seamlessly through these different identities as he spoke, slipping on his professor hat when explaining the mechanisms through which a dinosaur as large as Dreadnoughtus adapted to keep its temperature down, then his scientist hat when discussing the gravity of finding a specimen as intact as this one. Yet underlying each of these professional identities was the palpable passion I remembered from the last time we spoke. In this STEM-Works interview, Lacovara discusses how his passion guided his 9 ½ year journey from the moment he first laid eyes on Dreadnoughtus to the time he stood at the press conference podium and felt the weight of the endeavor lift from his shoulders.

When I first heard of your unveiling of Dreadnoughtus, I remember thinking, “Wow. That’s got to be what every scientist dreams of when entering his or her field.” Was this discovery a dream come true for you?

I can’t say that I dreamed of the publicity, but I think every paleontologist has dreamed of one day discovering something like Dreadnoughtus. Being able to figure it out and name it… I don’t think it gets any better than that for a paleontologist.

In your previous interview you mentioned something that stuck with me. You talked about the fact that some of the most profound moments of your life have rarely taken place while you were comfortable. Do you think that the process that went into the discovery of Dreadnoughtus speaks to this idea?

The entire project that led up to the publication of Dreadnoughtus involved a huge amount of discomfort. Where we were working, down in Patagonia, is a really difficult place to work. I remember that during the first expedition down there I had provisioned cereal for the team to eat, which seems like a pretty simple, reasonable thing to do. But we soon discovered that we couldn’t eat cereal in that environment because the wind is so strong that it quickly blows it off your spoon.

During expeditions we were outside for weeks at a time—we only went to town about every two weeks—and it was really cold. We were pretty close to Antarctica, so we’d wake up in the morning and be cold, dig up rocks all day and be cold, then go to sleep at night and still be cold. After experiencing consecutive days of never warming up, it’s easy to get worn down.

Also, just working with these giant sauropods—some of them weighing many tons—and figuring out the logistics of moving them around is pretty hard. Every part of this project was difficult. But, you know, when you get to the end, it doesn’t matter. It’s worth it. You’re not going to get a result like this sitting on a couch.

I think there are a lot of preconceived notions about the glamourous side of jobs like yours, but it really is important to note that discomfort, and the fact that—as another cool jobs alumn said—“you have to work for your discoveries.”

What gets me on television is that they’ll see the scientist at the press conference or the exciting moment of discovery, but that’s such a small part of the process. When doing fieldwork, a lot of your day is worrying if you have enough wood to cook dinner tonight or finding a place to go to the bathroom. Do I really want to get out of my tent to see what is underneath, poking me in the back, or do I just deal with it? Those types of questions guide much of your day.

So once the buzz and the hype about Dreadnoughtus die down a little, what does this discovery mean for your field?

What has gotten the most media attention about Dreadnoughtus is obviously its great size—it’s the largest land animal for which we can calculate a mass. But what is more scientifically important is the completeness of the Dreadnoughtus skeleton. Previously, the largest animals on land were only known from very fragmentary remains—in some cases literally 1, 2, or 3 bones. With skeletons that incomplete, scientists find it difficult to gain a good understanding of their biology. Dreadnoughtus, because it’s about 70% complete, really gives us our first look into the nearly complete skeleton of one of these super giant land animals. People have made speculations about how they walked, how they held themselves, how they regulated body temperature, and other such things. Yet these speculations were all based on very little evidence. Now, because of Dreadnoughtus, we’re going to be able to address many of these questions in a more meaningful way. Dreadnoughtus gives us a chance to really understand these super giants as animals as a biologist would understand a raccoon or a bear.

That segues into my next question: what’s next for Dreadnoughtus?

I imagine that 200 years from now scientists will be reevaluating the bones of Dreadnoughtus. When new specimens are brought to light, scientists start making comparisons between the new discovery and the older discoveries. Also, as new technologies emerge we can go back and use those techniques on the existing specimens. I imagine that in the decades to come there are going to be technological developments that allow us to recover soft tissue from ancient fossils and sequence the proteins and see who is related to whom. There’s no doubt that scientists are going to constantly revisit Dreadnoughtus and learn things in the future that we’ve only dreamed of.

What does that knowledge mean in a larger perspective? What does studying dinosaurs mean for our world?

In terms of biology, we want to figure out how life on earth works. Whenever you’re trying to figure out how a system works, you want to look at the extremes. The smallest and simplest things, and also those that are the biggest and most complex. When looking at dinosaurs like Dreadnoughtus, we’re really looking at something that is pretty close to the end of what is biologically possible. We don’t know for sure what the limit is, but it’s got to be somewhere close to Dreadnoughtus. I’ve worked with Dreadnoughtus for years—this dinosaur is my old friend now—and I have an immense amount of respect for this creature. The problems that these dinosaurs had to overcome on an evolutionary level in order to get so big are just amazing.

For example, if you look at land animals today, we can plot their weight vs. their core temperature of their body and find a pretty solid relationship between the two. The bigger they are, the hotter they are inside. That’s fine up to the size of an elephant—an elephant is pretty warm inside but the high temperature is not going to hurt the animal. If you look at Dreadnoughtus on that plot at 65 tons, the correlating body temperature is a temperature that would cook meat. Yet Dreadnoughtus wasn’t cooking inside due to a number of adaptations that help it get off of that curve and to remain nice and cool. Its long neck and long tail give it additional surface area to help it shed heat. The spinal column has lots of holes and honeycomb-like areas where air bladders connect to the lungs—AKA pneumatic invasions—so Dreadnoughtus was able to gather a lot of heat in those air pockets and send it out through its nostrils.

Paleontology, in addition to being fascinating, puts our existence and our lives into perspective. When you have a really good view of the ancient past—when you realize that there’s been life on earth for 3.8 billion years and homo sapiens appear on the fossil record only 200,000 years ago—that really gives you a lot of perspective. We’re not what it’s all about. There’s a history of earth that doesn’t involve us, and we’re not at the center of things.

There has been a lot of other news about dinosaurs popping up in the past couple of weeks. Do you think discoveries like this will continue to be made, indefinitely?

The future is wide open. If you’re a kid today and you’re interested in paleontology, the one thing you don’t have to worry about is if there be fossils left for you. Dinosaurs were around for 183 million years and have left fossils on every continent. Paleontologists have only been digging those fossils up for 150 years. We’ve only—literally and figuratively—scratched the surface. I have no doubt that we will discover far less than half of the dinosaurs that ever walked, maybe even just a tiny fraction of them. There’s no end in sight.

Well, once again congratulations on this incredible discovery!

Thanks, it feels good. There must have been at least 200 times during the last nine years that I thought that this wasn’t going to happen. I thought that either something mechanical or bureaucratic was going to get in the way. Even when the paper was set up for publication, I lived in fear that maybe someone else has made the same discovery and is going to publish three weeks before I did.

It sounds like there’s a lot of fear when you’re working on something that is so important to you—fear that your project may not be relevant at the time you publish or that a number of other things can cause the project to go wrong. How do you keep going and work through that fear?

It can be super stressful. I spent a lot of nights lying awake worrying about what could go wrong with the Dreadnoughtus project. Many paleontologists choose not to work with sauropods for this reason. There’s a joke in paleontology that working with a sauropod is like taking out a mortgage. Many of my students are smarter than me because they dig up small dinosaurs. With small dinosaurs you can dig them up, conduct your analysis, and publish a paper a year later. Yet I am fascinated by these big giants. I also like the physical aspect of the work—my father was a carpenter and I grew up doing things with my hands. I find physical labor much more satisfying that sitting at a computer. And that’s something that I tell kids all the time. If you’re a really active person and you like to work with your hands, paleontology is a great field to go into.

So is it your passion for it that keeps you moving to the next step?

Oh, it has to be. If you did what I did and you didn’t like dinosaurs or science, it would be horrible. It would essentially feel like you’re cold and hungry and homeless as opposed to being on a thrilling expedition to dig up a dinosaur. If you didn’t have a passion for this, it would just be difficult. But when I looked at my watch coming up the podium at the press conference and saw that it was 9:00… It’s difficult to describe the weight that I felt lifting off my shoulders at that moment.

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