Saturday, July 25, 2015


At this time last year (July 2014), Paleontologist Barbie was finishing her third week of paleontology field work with her colleague Tony Martin in the beautiful High Plains west of Choteau, Montana. While there, they worked with an incredible field crew from Montana State University, as well as from across the U.S. and other countries. In honor of her amazing contributions to science and science outreach, as well as to acknowledge her cohorts, here is an interview with her in which almost all of the questions came from other paleontologists via Facebook (see Paleontologist Barbie Rocks).

The Interview

Ulf Schyldt: What is your most important ichnological find in the Two Medicine Formation?

Paleontologist Barbie: You mean, what can I reveal (Paleontologist Barbie raises her eyebrows)? The Two MedicineFormation is full of trace fossils, even though it's most well known for its dinosaur bones and eggs. So it’s really hard to narrow my answer down to one ichnological find. But I would say that all the trace fossils are my biggest ichnological find, because they tell us how the animals were behaving in their environments 75 million years ago—that’s pretty darned important!
HIGH PLAINS OF CENTRAL MONTANA. The first day of field work is always the most exciting! Paleontologist Barbie is relishing the ride to the dig site as the field vehicle winds through the high plains of central Montana. “Three cheers for mindlessly picking through rubble in the hot sun all day for the sake of collecting data for paleoecological and taphonomic analyses that may or may not make it through peer review, and probably not get published for years!” she shouts, with what is admittedly not the catchiest of cheers. (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)

Andrew Rindsberg: I’d like to hear about your field assistants.

Paleontologist Barbie: My field assistants rocked! Of course, I did field work with my usual colleagues Ruth Schowalter and Tony Martin, but I also met and did work with the volunteers at Camp Makela, who were such willing participants in my paleo-enthusiasm. They were all hard working, curious, and loved learning about fossils and geology. You couldn’t ask for better companions in the field. I hope to see them again some day and wish them the best of success! See the photo to see how “rockin'” they were (Paleontologist Barbie laughs at her geological pun)!
THE TWO MEDICINE FORMATION. Formed by mud and sand in rivers and lakes during the Late Cretaceous Period about 75 million years ago, the Two Medicine Formation was the place where paleontologists uncovered some of the first evidence of dinosaur nesting and nurturing behaviors. “This place and its paleontological record fills me with awe!” Paleontologist Barbie says, in an awkward attempt to avoid saying the overused phrase, “This is awesome!” (photo and caption by Tony Martin)

Andrew Rindsberg: Paleo Barbie, is it true that your remains will survive the human race to be found hundreds of millions of years later by our successors, who will name our brief epoch the Barbiocene?

Paleontologist Barbie: (Paleontologist Barbie giggles) I wish, but it’s really hard to say how much of me will be around in the future. I just hope that my contributions to science outlast my physical presence. That’s what science is all about—it’s a letter to the future.
MAIASAURA (GOOD MOTHER). Paleontologist Barbie is thrilled to see a signpost in the same place where paleontologists Jack Horner and Bob Makela discovered nests of the dinosaur Maiasaura in the late 1970s. These sites included eggshells and bones of baby or partially grown Maiasaura, which led Horner and Makela to propose that these dinosaurs took care of their young, much like modern birds. “Get out of the nest, you lazy freeloaders!” she says, acting like a disapproving dinosaur parent. (photo and caption by Tony Martin)

Ronald McDowell: It could be my computer screen, but, Paleontologist Barbie, please tell me you haven't gone for the New Jersey orange tan.

Paleontologist Barbie:  Hey, I was born with this skin tone, so I am not going to apologize for it (Paleontologist Barbie laughs). I am fortunate to have a little more natural protection when out in the field than many of my colleagues. I really like how I look like most of the world.
READY FOR ACTION. As everyone knows, Paleontologist Barbie is always ready for action, and her first day of field work at the main dig site – Egg Mountain - was no exception, as she eagerly picked up the nearest rock hammer. “Stop: Hammer time!” she says with her usual aplomb. (photo and caption by Tony Martin)

Andrew Rindsberg: Paleo Barbie, how is it that a piece of dino poop can be preserved, when dog or cow poop doesn’t last very long in our usual experience?

Ronald McDowell: Andrew Rindsberg asks an important question, Paleo Barbie. Do you think there may have been something "special" about dino poo that staved off microbial or insect degradation?

Paleontologist Barbie: I got one word for you both: calcite!

Hallelujah Truth: Can you elaborate about “calcite” for those of us who don’t quite get its role in preserving dino poop?

Paleontologist Barbie:  Well, the dinosaur dung, otherwise known as coprolites, was cemented by calcite. That calcite held together all of the pieces of plants that went through the gut of a dinosaur. Calcite probably came from the water that contained calcium and bicarbonate that combined to form calcite. I could talk about chemistry all day, so I will stop right there, but let’s just say that it cemented so that dino poop is like concrete, preserving the dung-beetle burrows where dung-beetle mothers were trying to feed their children.

Jibunnessa Abdullah: Paleontologist Barbie, study of human poop can tell us so much about human movements, environment and disease (among other things). What’s the most exciting thing you’ve learned from looking at dino poop?

Paleontologist Barbie: In the Two Medicine Formation, the thing that we learned from dino poop is that dinosaurs ate wood. That’s right! They were like giant woodpeckers. These dinosaurs—which were hadrosaurs—chewed up the wood for some nutritional content. But that seems strange, doesn’t it? Because wood doesn’t have much nutrition in it. So my colleague Karen Chin thinks the dinosaurs might have eaten the wood because of the insects in it. Insects…yum!
DINOSAUR COPROLITES. Yet another exciting find in the field area was a dinosaur coprolite: yes, that’s right, fossilized dinosaur poop! These coprolites were studied by one of Paleontologist Barbie’s heroes, Dr. Karen Chin, and likely belonged to Maiasaura, which definitely did not pick up after itself. But wait, that’s not all! This coprolite is a two-for-one special, with a dung-beetle burrow also in it. “I’ll bet that beetle had a certain kind of grin, if you know what I mean!” she says, trying desperately to keep her composure before giggling uncontrollably. (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)

Lee Hall: Paleontologist Barbie, why does the Two Medicine Formation preserve delicate structures like wasp burrows and horseshoe-crab tracks so well but dinosaur tracks so poorly?

Paleontologist Barbie: Great question, Lee! Again, I think the answer is calcite. That at least for the wasp burrows and their cocoons, calcite cemented those with very fine detail. The horseshoe crab tracks were preserved in mud and then cast in sand. Because they were little, they were more easily preserved than a dinosaur track. Think about it—one dinosaur foot could have smashed down deep into the mud and made a real mess. It’s the difference between dropping a pebble in a pond or a boulder. So even though dinosaur fossil tracks are big, they don’t show much detail in the Two Medicine Formation.
INSECTS AND DINOSAURS. A closer look at the burrow reveals a few more details, showing that an insect likely burrowed into the ground next to the dinosaurs nests and made its own nest. This and other fossil insect nests tell much about the original environments there 75 million years ago. “Hey, it’s not an entire Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton, but insect trace fossils are way cool, too!” she points out to everyone there. Who can argue with that? (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)
LYRICS OF FOSSIL PUPA CASES. Speaking of fossil insect nests, Paleontologist Barbie is very excited to see places in the field area with thousands of beautifully preserved fossil insect cocoons. These cocoons were likely made by wasps, which dug into soils and laid eggs, which later grew up into larva and made cocoons around their pupal cases. “Can’t read my/Can’t read my/No, he can’t read my pupa case,” she sings exuberantly, altering the lyrics just enough so Lady Gaga wouldn’t be tempted to sue. (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)  
Trish Weaver:  Have you been seeing lots of evidence of invertebrate trace fossils or any evidence of invertebrate body fossils? Does Paleo Barbie lack “inverto-vision”?

Paleontologist Barbie: Ha! Never! Like I said before, there are lots of invertebrate trace fossils. And I love invertebrate body fossils. But they're not very common in the Two Medicine Formation. The invertebrate body fossils I did see are of snails. Small and large snails there lived both on land and in water. I’ve even seen some of these snail body fossils in the dinosaur coprolites.

Emmy Hill: Do your findings in the Two Medicine Formation seem to support the hypothesis of the “deltaic environment with a series of ponds” deposition?

Paleontologist Barbie: I really like that question, Emmy, because I love geology, especially sedimentology! Let me say that word again…sedimentology! That is the study of sediments and what they tell us about their environments. I think the sediments and the fossils of the Two Medicine Formation show mostly rivers and soils and not so much deltas. Sure, there could have been ponds. But those ponds might have been what geologists call oxbow lakes. Those are small lakes made when a river cuts through a channel and leaves behind one of its meander bends. But if anyone can prove me wrong on deltas versus rivers, it would be you, Emmy (Paleontologist Barbie laughs).
SCOPING IT OUT TOGETHER. Always wanting to be helpful when working with a field crew, Paleontologist Barbie adjusts the focus for Emmy Hill as she sights the crosshairs of her scope on a stadia rod. No, that’s not some euphemism: it’s science, and the best science is done cooperatively. (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)

Hallelujah Truth: Why did you go to the Two Medicine Formation this summer? You’ve been there before.

Paleontologist Barbie: That’s like asking somebody, "Why did you go to the Louvre again? You’ve been there before." The Two Medicine Formation is one of the most famous formations in the world for the environments that dinosaurs lived in 75 million years ago. It’s especially famous because of what it tells us about dinosaur nests and parenting. I went again to learn more about what's there and especially how the body and trace fossils can be used together to tell us about the original environments there.

AMONGST THE RUBBLE PICKERS. One of the nicknames bestowed on the volunteers working at Egg Mountain by their merciless overlord (who may or may not have been David Varricchio) was “rubble pickers.” This meant lots of breaking rock with hammers, gathering it with dustpans, and picking through the rubble for pieces of dinosaur eggshells, bones, teeth, fossil insect cocoons, or other fossils. “What a scoop!” Paleontologist Barbie exclaims. (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)
Hallelujah Truth: I know that you and your colleague, Tony Martin, talked a lot about different kinds of “vision” or ways of seeing for conducting fieldwork out in the Montana badlands. Can you explain?

Paleontologist Barbie: Yes! Every day I had to use different types of “vision” for seeing different kinds of fossils. For bones, I had to use what I call “osteo-vision,” for trace fossils I had to use “ichno-vision,” for eggshells, I had to use “oo-vision.”
DELIGHT AT EGG MOUNTAIN. A few of the other volunteers at Egg Mountain are delighted to have the assistance of an esteemed (and popular) scientist like Paleontologist Barbie there. Here, Emmy Hill (having just auditioned for Mad Max: Fury Road) and Eric sieve through rubble for small bits of eggshells, bones, and teeth. Good thing they have someone of Paleontologist Barbie’s expertise there to help. (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)

HUMOR AT THE DIG SITE. Sure enough, it’s not long before Paleontologist Barbie spots a bone fragment among the rubble. “With this much bone, we should be able to reconstruct the entire dinosaur!” she says jokingly. Unfortunately, someone takes her seriously, adds feathers to the bone fragment, claims it’s from China, and easily publishes an article about it in a prestigious journal. (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)

TOOLS OF THE TRADE. Paleontologist Barbie moves around the site, working cooperatively with Paul Germano and Jared Heuck to uncover a possible dinosaur nest. Working around the nest sites is delicate work, often requiring tools like brushes instead of hammers. “Why, I do believe we are looking at some dinosaur eggshell here” she says, following a decisive stroke of her brush. (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)

“EGGSHELL – YES!” It is an exciting discovery, considering how much of the original dinosaur eggshell is still in place. This is promising evidence that other eggs may be near this one. But of course, Paleontologist Barbie is also aware of how eggs or eggshells could have moved far away from their original nests before being buried. “How would you like your dinosaur eggs: scrambled, fried, or fossilized?” she asks rhetorically. (Photo and caption by Tony Martin)

Hallelujah Truth:  Weren’t three weeks in the field difficult or challenging? How did you collect and organize all that data?

Paleontologist Barbie: Sure it was difficult, but that was the fun part. I love a challenge. Each day, I went out in the field looking for fossils, looking at the rocks, with a few things in mind. But I also expected to be surprised. I documented whatever I saw by writing notes, taking photographs, and recording where these fossils were.

Hallelujah Truth: While doing this careful observation and recording, did you ever experience epiphanies?

Paleontologist Barbie: Of course! There were a lot of times while I was recording numbers, making a drawing, or writing down what I saw, that an explanation would suddenly pop into my head!

Hallelujah Truth: Can you give us an example?

Paleontologist Barbie: No, I can’t yet. Not until we publish our peer-reviewed research paper on it!

Hallelujah Truth: I know you found numerous hadrosaur tracks but feel discouraged about doing a study of them. Why?

Paleontologist Barbie: Hadrosaur dinosaurs had three toes on their feet, but most of the tracks we found had only two and sometimes just one. It was frustrating because we knew that hadrosaurs had three toes, so the tracks must have been badly preserved. That means it's much more difficult to do a study of them. Incomplete data—bummer!

Hallelujah Truth: How does your research relate to that of the other paleontologists at Egg Mountain?

Paleontologist Barbie: The paleontologists working at Egg Mountain are trying to figure out which dinosaurs were nesting there and what the environments were like that made them want to nest there. My research connects with theirs' by showing how when you put all of the fossils together with the sedimentology you can totally understand the dinosaur nesting. And I mean totally!

Hallelujah Truth: What was the most challenging thing for you being out in the field?

Paleontologist Barbie: I don’t know how to answer that. The weather is always changing. You had to be ready for it to be hot, cold, windy, or buggy. Or rainy or cloudy. Anything could happen!

Hallelujah Truth: What was the most fun thing about being at Camp Makela?

Paleontologist Barbie: At camp, the people were definitely and absolutely the most fun! I had so many great conversations about the paleontology, geology, science education, food, beer…and even nails (giggles)!
2015 EGG MOUNTAIN CREW. This photo documents only some of the Egg Mountain crew and others who were working on a bone bed near the camp. Volunteers came and exited all during the field season. (Photo by Paleontologist Barbie)
Hallelujah Truth: When will the public start seeing the results of your field work?

Paleontologist Barbie: Well, I hope with this interview they already are! But for the peer-reviewed articles…well, that will have to wait a few years. That is something to look forward to.

Hallelujah Truth: If you could imagine something really wonderful to come of your three weeks of fieldwork, what would that be?

Paleontologist Barbie: (Laughing) Other than being on the cover of Science or Nature? If I had to choose one thing it would be to go on the talk-show circuit and spread the word about how cool paleontology is as a science for younger people—especially girls.
MODERN and PALEO ICHNOLOGY. How awesome to be out in the field with both paleontologists! My husband Tony Martin examines modern tracks of a coyote with his colleague Paleontologist Barbie in the formerly Cretaceous (now modern) sediments of the High Plains. (Photo by Ruth Schowalter, aka, Hallelujah Truth)
COLLABORATORS.  Here we are Hallelujah Truth (aka Ruth Schowalter) and Chiboogamoo (aka Tony Martin), boon companions out in the Montana High Plains. I joined Tony for 10 days of mesmerizing fieldwork in July 2015. We both blogged about our Cretaceous Summer here. We have other blogs about his work with Paleontologist Barbie here. Most of the photos in this interview first appeared on Tony Martin's Facebook page here.


  1. Nice to hear from Paleo Barbie again. I learned something...the definition of an oxbow lake!

  2. Read this when first posted but enjoyed reading it again...