Down to Earth With: Adrian Hunt

by David B. Williams
Thursday, December 18, 2014

Paleontologist Adrian Hunt studies fossil feces called coprolites. Credit: Courtesy of Adrian Hunt.

Adrian Hunt grew up in England, but after earning his undergraduate degree in geology at the University of Manchester, he began looking for somewhere foreign to attend graduate school. At the time, Hunt says, he thought, “If it doesn’t work out, at least I’d see somewhere exotic.” He ended up in New Mexico, where his brother was working at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Very Large Array in Socorro. It worked out and Hunt stayed to complete a master’s degree at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, followed by a doctorate at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

He soon became an expert in Mesozoic vertebrates. In 1992, Hunt ventured north to work with Martin Lockley as the Curator of the Dinosaur Tracks Museum at the University of Colorado in Denver; in 1996 he established a dinosaur museum at Mesalands Community College in Tucumcari, N.M. Never one to sit still, in 2002 he became executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque. And now, Hunt is the director of the Flying Heritage Collection in Everett, Wash., a museum devoted to vintage aircraft. But he has not abandoned his primary passion for fossils, particularly coprolites (fossilized feces), which led him to co-edit the recent publication: “Vertebrate Coprolites, Bulletin 57 of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.”

In December, Hunt sat down with EARTH contributor David B. Williams to discuss his interest in everything from fossil feces to flying machines.

DBW: How did you make the transition from dinosaurs to planes?

AH: I still do fossils on the side. My dad had been in the Royal Air Force and I always had an interest in planes. I was always interested in history, and archaeology is just older history and paleontology is just older, older history. I see it all as a long continuum.

DBW: How did you become interested in coprolites?

AH: In 1992, I was working on a particularly rich fossil deposit in New Mexico called the Kinney Brick Quarry. It has a very small number of amphibians. Because I was working on lower vertebrates, I was asked to write them up for a report on the deposit. The guy who was the editor, a fish paleontologist, said “What are all of those coprolites and whatever?” He was kind of joking. “You collect coprolites, maybe you’d be interested in those.” I started reading up about coprolites and their classification. What a surprise! I realized that there weren’t many people working on them. No one else seemed to care too much.

DBW: What is the difference between studying coprolites and dinosaurs?

AH: Studying coprolites is actually easier [than dinosaurs]. To be frank, there is less literature to keep up on! As a scientist you always want to make a difference and make an impact. I don’t have time to go dig up Jurassic dinosaurs or keep up on the literature on sauropods, but I can handle coprolites.

With trace fossils [like coprolites], there is a different level of detail you can get into. If you are doing tetrapods, say dinosaurs or phytosaurs, you can try to tell individual species and look at ranges and distributions and paleoecology. When you get to footprints and coprolites, in some rare cases you can match a coprolite with an individual species, but in general you can’t do that until the Quaternary, and even then you can usually only associate them with a broader group of animals such as a family or order. The good thing is that trace fossils are traces of a living animal, so you get biological information. The bad side is you are taking a more broad brush approach. [But] it’s fun to be able to make big broad statements; it’s sort of like dinosaur paleontology in the 1850s.

DBW: What was the biggest surprise you found while working on the book about vertebrate coprolites?

AH: Just how many people are becoming interested in coprolites all over the world. In 1986, there was an international conference on footprints in Albuquerque. That was really a touchstone, as it brought together all the people from all over the world [who were working on footprints]. We all suddenly realized there were a lot of us working on footprints. I know that there are far fewer people working on coprolites [than on fossil footprints], and that we aren’t going to find every doctoral student studying coprolites, but … maybe at a smaller level this [book] could spark a coprolitic renaissance … among the 50 people who care [laughs].

DBW: You dedicate the book to William Buckland, who worked on coprolites in the early 1800s. Is he the patron saint of fossil poop?

AH: He’s a fascinating man because, for his time, he was incredibly innovative. In paleobiology, he did things … [such as using] modern experimentation to test hypotheses. For example, he finds what he thinks looks like fossilized dung. He thinks it’s from a hyena, so he feeds stuff to hyenas and sees what comes out the other end. Nearby he also found fossilized bones bearing teeth marks. To see if the area was a hyena den, he gave bones to modern hyenas to chew so he could compare the modern and fossilized marks. That’s 1980s science and he was doing it in 1822. He was the father of it all. He even came up with the name, coprolites. He’s the man.

DBW: What are the biggest misconceptions about coprolites?

AH: I remember that Martin [Lockley] was going around telling people that dinosaur footprints are everywhere. … After working with him for not too long, I realized he was absolutely right; people were walking right over footprints. They didn’t pay attention or they didn’t care. To a much lesser extent the same is true of coprolites. There are coprolites from the Devonian to the Pleistocene. You’d think coprolites would never get preserved, but some of them get preserved really quickly, particularly carnivore coprolites. Buckland found [conglomerate] beds where there were pebbles and bones and coprolites. Coprolites are clasts in those conglomerates, so they can get reworked. [But the find also showed that] they must be fossilizing pretty quickly. So the idea of a squishy thing that dissolves instantly is not always correct.

DBW: Do people who study coprolites have a better sense of humor than other paleontologists?

AH: Everyone makes jokes about it; even Buckland did. You probably have to have a sense of humor, if only because all of your colleagues are going to rib you about it, saying “What are you doing, wasting your time?” But you know coprolites are not worthless. They have a use. Those caves in Oregon [the Paisley caves, where DNA from coprolites indicates that humans were in the Americas earlier than previously thought], were a huge deal.

DBW: You’ve spent a fair amount of your life as a paleontologist, so what do you think are the biggest misconceptions about paleontology?

AH: One sad thing is that in academia, in geology departments — which are now [called] earth and planetary sciences and much fancier names — fossils and paleontology are seen as essentially useless. It’s very sad to see the decline: that university departments could go without paleontology and that a sedimentologist can teach historical geology and that’s all the paleontology you need. New Mexico State [University] doesn’t have a paleontologist anymore and the New Mexico Bureau of Mines used to have multiple paleontologists. Now they have none. The only vertebrate paleontologists in New Mexico are at the museum in Albuquerque. Other people in geology don’t realize how important fossils can be. Paleontology is underappreciated.

DBW: How do you keep passion for paleontology alive for students?

AH: It’s hard. Kids love dinosaurs. It’s a great part of working at museums, seeing all the smiling kids, but translating that interest to future careers is a challenge. The job prospects are miserable in paleontology. Maybe we need to make paleontology be of more use … be a bigger part of evolutionary biology studies.

DBW: As a museum director, what do you think makes a good display?

AH: All museum exhibits have to be very accessible physically and psychologically. They have to have layered content — for people who just want to wander by in awe and for people who really want to learn things. The aesthetic of things is very important too. The ideal exhibit has three components that have to be in balance: Components created by curators, exhibit designers and educators have to work together. If any of those gets out of whack, you end up with a wonderful exhibit that looks pretty and tells nothing, or an exhibit that has reams of text that no one is going to read. Or, if educators had their way, it would all be fun and exciting but not have much content.

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