Fiorillo, whose fossil digs take him everywhere from West Texas to Australia, grew up in New Haven, Connecticut. He moved to Texas in 1995 to be a curator of paleontology at the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, and he is currently at work on a new dinosaur hall at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, slated to open in Victory Park in 2012. In the past three years, he has co-discovered three species of extinct birds.
There were two things I wanted to be when I grew up: a center fielder for the New York Yankees and a paleontologist. I had the good fortune of growing up near the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, and as a child I’d bug any relative I could to take me to the dinosaur halls. I’d stand there and memorize everything. Much to the detriment of my parents’ retirement plans, I never ended up in professional sports.
I remember in the sixties going to the New York World’s Fair, where Sinclair Oil Corporation had an exhibit of life-size dinosaur reconstructions. Much later, when I moved to Texas for this job, I learned that two of those Sinclair dinosaurs are now at Dinosaur Valley State Park, near Glen Rose. So my first trip out there was not to see the park’s famous footprints but to see those reconstructions. When my parents came to visit, my mother insisted on taking a photo of me in front of them because she has a picture of me as a seven- or eight-year-old with them in New York.
My first find was not planned. I was in college, on vacation in eastern Canada with a friend. We went to an area along the coast known for its fossils, and I literally stumbled on the skull of a type of amphibian called a labyrinthodont. It was below the high-tide line. It was illegal to collect, but I thought it was important that it go somewhere. I hate to sound like Indiana Jones, but what went through my head was “This belongs in a museum.” It’s at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History now.
That thrill of discovery has never worn off. Nowadays, much of my work is about filing reports, submitting applications for permits, and writing grant proposals. But I believe that, as a curator, if you’re not out doing fieldwork and building the resources and reputation of your museum, you’re not doing your job. So the summer is field season. I’ve been to digs throughout western North America as well as in Peru, Bolivia, Mongolia, and Australia. This past summer, I spent seven weeks in Alaska, at the Denali National Park and Preserve. A typical field day goes like this: get out of your tent, have breakfast, then go find some fossils. On days when you’re cold and wet because of uncooperative weather—or when you haven’t taken a shower in three weeks—you can’t help but laugh at the misperception of how this job is so glamorous.
The nature of paleontology is that while you achieve expertise in a certain area, there is also a strong element of serendipity to it all. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant plays a paleontologist who is on a very, very precise mission to find the one missing bone from the skeletal mount in his museum. In reality, even if you have that kind of grand plan, you have to be prepared to find almost anything. My focus, for instance, is later dinosaurs and their environments—How did they live? What were they doing?—but many of my recent findings have in fact been related to birds.
The first one of these, found near Lake Grapevine, was brought to the museum by a fossil enthusiast named Kris Howe, who asked, “Are these something?” After he picked us up off the floor, we said, “Yes, they are something!” He’d brought in the bones of the oldest fossil bird ever found in North America. We named it Flexomornis howei, after both the anatomy of the bird and Howe.
Up in Alaska, we stumbled into the best area in the world to study fossil footprints from one environment, because there are so many of them. All the footprints are from essentially the same period, so these birds perhaps saw each other on the landscape. The first track in Denali was found in 2005, and it was a lone footprint of a small meat-eating dinosaur. We knew dinosaurs weren’t pogo sticks, so we expanded our search to find other tracks. We spoke to some geologists who had done work in the park, and they directed us to this one mountain, where—again, unexpectedly—we found the first bird tracks. We were very excited. We couldn’t have predicted these finds, but when you’re thinking about an ecosystem, they help fill in the missing pieces.
Some of my first fieldwork after moving to Texas was in Big Bend, looking at late Cretaceous rocks. There is an invertebrate paleontologist at the University of Texas at Dallas who had been taking his students out there, and eventually we pooled our resources. This led in 2001 to the excavation of about 23 feet of neck of an Alamosaurus, which is the long-necked, long-tailed, four-footed dinosaur most people think of when they hear “dinosaur.” It was quite something to watch the helicopter sling vertebrae and land them on a flatbed truck for the ride back to Dallas.
We’re now putting together a reconstruction of the Alamosaurus for the Perot Museum. To fill an entirely new exhibit space is almost the biggest aspiration anyone in my profession could have. There’ll be fossil sea turtles and aquatic lizards called mosasaurs; one mosasaur skeleton, from Lake Ray Hubbard, is 32 feet long. One of our goals is for fossils to be more than interesting oddities and to have them evoke once living animals. The 80-foot Alamosaurus will be mounted so that it’s interacting with the Tyrannosaurus, for example, and nearby taxidermy mounts of modern animals will further illustrate the predator-prey relationship. This will help breathe life into the skeletons.
Scientists who work in museums do so for a reason. We believe there’s great value in interpreting science for the public. And dinosaurs, I think, are a portal for people to get interested in science. They fuel something within our imaginations at a primal level. To me, the reason we all find dinosaurs so fascinating is that they’re big, they’re toothy, and they’re scary—but they’re also dead. So they’re safe.