Dr. Kenneth Lacovara, Paleontologist and Geologist

Lacovara headshot
  • Name: Ken Lacovara

  • Education: Ph. D., Geology, M.A., Coastal Geomorphology B.A., Physical Geography
  • Target Audience: Middle School

Science fiction movies have imagined the most complex time machines, but in reality a common shovel can take you back in time! Whether you find a giant dinosaur or a tiny organism, digging just below the surface of the earth can reveal a lot about our ancient past. And now with technology advancements such as 3-D printing, re-creating dinosaur bones can be just as easy as making a photo copy! Read on to find out how Dr. Kenneth Lacovara discovers and studies our prehistoric world.

What is your job?

imageAs a professor I have more than one job. I mentor students, teach them about the history of life on earth and help turn them into good citizens and good scientists. My job as a researcher is to travel around the world, dig up extinct creatures and learn what I can about our ancient past. I specialize in the largest land animals that ever lived - Sauropod dinosaurs. One of the reasons that I like studying these very large creatures is because they test the limits of the biological system. There are a lot of questions about how these giant beasts lived: How did they take in enough food? How did they reproduce? How did they lay an egg if their hindquarters stood 2 ½ stories in the air?

I have been involved in the discovery of several new species of dinosaur- one in Egypt, one in China- and I recently discovered a new genus and new species of dinosaur in Patagonia, which happens to be the largest dinosaur skeleton ever found!

Why did you choose this career?

I had always known from the time I was very young that I wanted to be a geologist. I came across an essay that I wrote when I was in 2nd grade about why I wanted to be a geologist. I wrote about igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks, and why sedimentary rocks were the best - because you can find fossils in them. I also wrote that being a geologist is great because you get to camp out all the time. I have spent about 2 years of my life in tents so far.

Explain what an average day at work is like for you.

imageDuring an average day in the field I am living in a tent without electricity, plumbing or water or the internet. I wake up each morning with my crew (I usually have 10 or so people with me at the site) and we eat a very meager breakfast, maybe crackers and coffee. Because we are camping in very remote areas, we can't bring very much with us, so we eat very simply and usually eat the same thing every day. In the beginning of the dig we start by prospecting. Most people think that prospecting is just about digging holes and getting lucky, but that is never how it works. You have to find places that have sedimentary rocks of the right age and it is good if it is an arid environment, such as a desert. The desert offers good exposure to the rock, as well as good rates of erosion. If you have those 3 things present, you just walk and you will find dinosaurs every time. Whether or not these finds are of scientific significance is a different story.

Early on in the dig there is a lot of walking in the desert to find research objects. Once these research objects are identified my day goes like this: wake up, break rock, eat lunch, break rock, cook dinner (usually a piece of meat on a stick), go to bed, repeat.

Can you tell us about any of the new species of dinosaur you have discovered?

The exciting finds in the field can be very rare specimens, very large or very small examples of something that is already known, or a new species altogether. I have been lucky enough to find several new species, and sometimes I have actually been able to realize at that moment in the field that it is a new species. It is a pretty special feeling to be looking down upon something that I know no other human being has ever seen.

I haven't announced the name yet, but one of the new species that I have most recently discovered is a giant plant-eating dinosaur from Patagonia. It is huge - in life it would have weighed 60 tons, which is as much as 8 T-Rex dinosaurs or 12 elephants!

What do you like best about your job?

I like exploring and being outside. I think that comfort has very little to do with enjoyment. All of the best and most profound moments of my life have occurred when I was uncomfortable. When I am outside on a dig I am usually cold or hot - things never feel quite right, but that is fine. That is where the answers are. When I go outside I am in awe of the natural world. For me, the nicest city pales in comparison to the natural world.

When you were a kid, did you like science? If so, what subject did you enjoy most and why? If not, what changed your mind?

I have always liked science, and geology and astronomy were always my favorite subjects. I didn't have the opportunity to take geology and astronomy courses in high school, so I read about these subjects on my own. I always liked biology, and anything that had to do with the natural sciences. A lot of schools have much more specialized courses now, but I never had that opportunity as a kid.

Was there a moment when you knew that you wanted to become a paleontologist and geologist? Tell us about it.

imageI remember when a woman, a local rock hound, visited our Cub Scout troupe with a big box of geodes, fossils and similar things. Having grown up on the coast where there really are no rocks or fossils like that, I had never seen anything like that before. The box of rocks and fossils that she presented really floored me, and I remember that I couldn't stop thinking about them. I went out and got books on geology and fossils, and always loved them from that point on.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming a scientist?

Every step along the way is actually pretty hard. The academics are hard - anyone who pursues a Ph. D. has to be pretty diligent and disciplined. In paleontology it is difficult to make a name for yourself. There are pretty much two ways you can do it. You can be a museum researcher, and go into the collections at museums to examine artifacts that have already been collected, which is a very sensible way of working. But if you want to be a field paleontologist you have to find the funding for your expeditions, you have to get permits, you have to make contacts and you have to go to some very remote and sometimes dangerous places in the world.

Was there a person who inspired or convinced you to get involved in your field? Who was he/she and how did he/she do it?

I didn't have any contact with any sort of scientist when I was growing up, not even a science student. But I would say that many of the skills that helped me as a successful field scientist I learned from my father. My father was a carpenter who knew how to work with his hands, and also knew how to get things done. He had a great ability for improvisation, which is exactly what you need as a field scientist. You can plan for an expedition all you want, but your plan will usually change within the first 6 hours after arriving. Usually I don't have much money when I go out into the field, and often don't have an exact idea of how I will accomplish what I want to accomplish. I just know that I need to get it done.

Do you have a particular memory from the field that you would like to tell us about?

imageI travel to some very remote places of the world where tourists never go, so I get to meet, work with and in some cases live with the people that live there and really see what their lives are like. That is really special. I have had dinner in a home in China where I was the first Westerner that they ever saw. I'm a drummer as well, and I have drummed with Bedouins in a tent in the Egyptian Sahara desert. These are really the memories that I treasure most. The generosity and hospitality of the people that I meet in these remote areas is really amazing, and it seems almost universal wherever I go.

You are working on an initiative that uses 3-D printing technology to re-create dinosaur bones. Can you tell us about it?

The research and educational process is not great for fossils. Taking fossils in and out of museum storage can do damage to them. Sometimes the way they are stored makes study difficult. Many displays in museums are casts of original fossils, and the molding and casting of fossils is not great for them either. With 3-D printing technology, the fossils can be scanned and turned into digital copies, which can then be printed out in 3-D form. This allows for an unlimited amount of copies to be made of every single specimen. Right now, all hypotheses about ancient creatures are tested in theory, and models are made on computer systems. With the 3-D specimens, we can now conduct actual physical experiments that can provide us with more information about the behavior of these ancient creatures. We can test our hypotheses in the real world with robots.

Click here for more information about this endeavor.

Do you have any suggestions for how kids in middle school can get practical experience in your field?

Find your local museum of natural history. Oftentimes these museums will have programs that you can get involved, such as summer camps, dinosaur sleepover nights, and other such activities. Most importantly, go outside! Get a field guide and find out what types of plants, animals, and rocks are in your area. If you are fortunate enough to live in an area which has fossils, find a rock face and dig a hole. You might be surprised what you may find if you just look.

Which high school courses would you recommend to incoming high school students?

In the fields of paleontology and geology, I would say that secondary education is behind in this country, so there aren't a ton of specific academic opportunities for high school students. Biology and other natural science courses are always helpful, and, really, all science courses are connected. So, take any science course. Physics helps me be a paleontologist. Chemistry helps me be a paleontologist, as does math. You need a good foundation of all the sciences.

Are there exciting things happening in your field that could involve children who will enter the field in 10-15 years?

Probably the most exciting development in paleontology right now is a new area called molecular paleontology. I am involved in it, in collaboration with my colleague Mary Schweitzer at North Carolina State University. Mary was first to demineralize dinosaur bones and actually recover ancient biomolecules from them. In my lab we have recovered collagen protein that is 65 million years old. Because protein can carry hereditary information, similar to DNA, this protein can now be sequenced to see who is related to whom. The technology that surrounds this sequencing will definitely affect kids who are entering the field in the next 10-15 years.

The Dirt on Paleontology:

  • The earth in 4.5 billion years old, life on earth has been around for 3.8 billion years, if you take the age of the earth and squish it down into one calendar year, then essentially our species, Homo sapiens, appears on December 31st at 11:59:59.9 P.M.
  • Living on the surface of the earth at this point in time, we have a very tiny view of our planet. Because our planet is so old, and our species has only been around for 200,000 years, almost everything that has ever happened occurred before we were around. The crust of the earth is like an eggshell is to an egg, and our view of our world is like an amoeba sliding around for a fraction of a second on that eggshell. So if you want to know more about our world, you have to dig a hole.
  • The oldest fossil ever found was a microfossil of bacteria. This fossil was found in Australia, and the fossil was 3.6 billion (with a b!) years old.



Key Terms:

Bedouin: A nomadic Arab of the desert who lives in Asia or Africa.
Erosion: The process by which the surface of the earth is worn away by the action of water, glaciers, winds, waves, etc.
Geode: A hollow, globular rock often lined with crystals.
Igneous: Produced under conditions involving intense heat, as rocks of volcanic origin or rocks crystallized from molten magma.
Improvisation: Acting in a way that is unrehearsed or unprepared.
Metamorphic: Rocks that have been altered considerably from their original structure by pressure and heat.
Patagonia: A region in southern South America that spreads from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean.
Prospecting: To search or explore a region.
Sauropod: Any herbivorous dinosaur of the suborder Sauropoda, from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, having a small head, long neck and tail, and five-toed limbs: the largest known land animal.
Sedimentary: Rocks formed by the deposition of sediment.

(As adapted from dictionary.com)