Long live the kings
Just a few months ago, David Burnham and his former student, Robert DePalma, proved again why KU’s paleontology graduate program deserves its ranking as the seventh best in the nation. At a site in South Dakota, using meticulous techniques borrowed from archeology, DePalma recovered two hadrosaur vertebrae that had healed and fused around the tooth of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Their resulting paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences settles a centuries-old debate by proving that T. rex was a predator, not a scavenger.
In fact, David Burnham carries on a long tradition of fossil hunters at the University of Kansas. Books, notes, and scale-model dinosaurs fill his office in Dyche Hall, where he works for the Biodiversity Institute as preparator. Some replica fossils — and one original dinosaur bone — rest in a cardboard box on a tabletop nearby. A laser they bought on eBay sits in one corner under a table, awaiting its second life as a tool of paleontological discovery.
“We make do with what we have and strive to be the best in the field,” Burnham says, indicating the laser with a nod of his head. “This is a powerhouse and has been for a long time, both in vertebrates and invertebrates.”
On a traditional paleontology excavation, researchers simply scoop out a few thousand pounds of dinosaur bones. Instead, DePalma and his team dug down one centimeter at a time, pinpointing the minutest details of the Cretaceous world — including annual rainfall cycles — to a three-month level of accuracy. The T. rex tooth, he says, was just the first of many discoveries this method yielded.
“The discovery is a link to the past,” DePalma says. “It isn’t just an answer to an academic question. It isn’t just a dusty bone in the ground. It is a glimpse of a single day of Cretaceous life, and it gives you insight into dinosaur behavior.”
Fossils tell a story. We read those stories and reconstruct past life.
The building where Burnham works, Dyche Hall, tells its story through objects hidden in plain sight. Outside, limestone grotesques decorate the façade, including the first known representation of a Jayhawk. Inside, a panorama displays mammals that the hall’s namesake, Lewis Lindsay Dyche, exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. And in a hallway leading to the Burnham’s office, a small portrait shows Samuel Williston, the Yale-educated academic who built the paleontology program at KU.
During his time at the university, where he eventually became the first dean of the School of Medicine, Williston taught many notable researchers. His students took influential positions all over the country (one of them even founded the Field Museum in Chicago). In particular, though, he mentored a man who would go on to became one of the world’s most celebrated paleontologists: Barnum Brown.
Brown grew up in Kansas in the emotional and physical wreckage that came after the American Civil War. After graduating high school, unusual in those days, he enrolled at KU in the fall of 1893. According to his biographers, Brown was very proud of his time as a Jayhawk. His professors — including Dyche and Williston — were also glad to have him as a student.
Six years later at Hell Creek in Montana — near the region of South Dakota where Robert DePalma would uncover his fossilized hadrosaur vertebrae — Brown stumbled on a carnivorous dinosaur that no one had described before.
“Brown has been with me on two expeditions, and is the best man in the field that I ever had,” Williston wrote. “He is energetic, has great powers of endurance, walking thirty miles a day without fatigue, is very methodical in all his habits, and thoroughly honest.”
“I have never seen anything like it,” Brown wrote of the as-yet-unnamed Tyrannosaurus rex. “He is now the dominant figure in the Cretaceous Hall to awe and inspire young boys when they grow up to search for the same or other fossils, for almost every expedition turns up some remains of new or more complete prehistoric creatures.”
That story continues even now.
Robert DePalma was just the kind of young, inspired fossil hunter Barnum Brown had in mind when, many decades after the discovery of T. rex, he met David Burnham in Florida at a conference centered on Bambiraptor, a small, birdlike dinosaur — the most complete raptor from North America, in fact, which Burnham had described after some amateur fossickers had brought it to him in a paper grocery bag.
DePalma and Burnham stayed in touch after the forum, and, when the time came for him to pursue a graduate degree, DePalma decided to come to KU based on the strength of the faculty.
“He took me under his wing, DePalma says of Burnham. “It means a lot to a younger person, a person in high school or even middle school, to have that sort of nurturing educational environment. Just that one tiny change, just to give them the time of day and help them out, can make such a tremendous difference.”
You each have your own ideas and strengths. Then you put your heads together and you come up with something truly incredible.
Now, years later, DePalma has become a paleontologist in his own right. Like most paleontologists, he says, he has a soft spot for the history of his science. He still uses some historical equipment — “I’ll have a GPS in one hand and a pickaxe from the 1800s in the other,” he says — although he tries to use innovative techniques whenever possible. Still, he’s quick to share credit with his fellow researchers, and to point out the importance of teamwork.
“It’s collaboration that produces these amazing results,” he says, pointing to contributions from his team and from his fellow researchers at KU. “You each have your own ideas and strengths. Then you put your heads together and you come up with something truly incredible.”