Montana State University

Spring 2011

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Mountains and Minds

David Varricchio's findings have cast a new light on dinosaurs and their young

Breaking ground April 25, 2011 by Evelyn Boswell • Published 04/25/11

David Varricchio's findings have cast a new light on dinosaurs and their young

David Varricchio has been intrigued by mining ever since he watched coal being pulled from the ground and swam in slate quarries as a boy in his native Pennsylvania. Now 48 and long settled in Montana, he is still fascinated by the extraction industry. He feels at home every time he visits Butte, the "mining city" in the Treasure State.

These days, though, Varricchio is a miner of sorts who goes below the surface himself as a Montana State University paleontologist with a reputation for extracting ground-breaking theories about dinosaurs. He has discovered that some dinosaurs made great dads, for example. He has found burrows that revealed that some dinosaurs lived underground. He has made a number of findings that make him part of an elite group of international experts focused on dinosaur eggs and babies.

For those and other findings in Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Argentina, Africa and China, Varricchio has won awards, had papers accepted for publication in major scientific journals and received prestigious grants that open the doors to new opportunities for himself and his students.

The National Science Foundation, for one, awarded Varricchio its most prestigious award for supporting the early career development of teacher-scholars. Varricchio will use his five-year, $590,000 NSF CAREER Award to study the evolution of reproduction in theropod dinosaurs and discover what happens to theropod bones after the dinosaurs die. Theropods are a group of primarily carnivorous dinosaurs, which includes birds.

The NSF CAREER Award, awarded in 2009, allows Varricchio to hire fellow MSU paleontologist and long-time collaborator Frankie Jackson, master's degree student Jade Simon, a half-time preparator and possibly another student. The team will be able to conduct at least three summers of field work at Egg Mountain near Choteau, "probably the richest nesting site in North America," Varricchio said. They will also study modern nesting sites in Florida, Washington and possibly Montana to see what today's birds and crocodiles can reveal about their ancient relative--the dinosaur. The grant also allows 16 public school teachers to participate in the research. It pays for Varricchio and Simon to examine sediments and egg material found in the Caribou Mountains of eastern Idaho.

Another NSF grant, this one amounting to $145,000 over three years, allows Varricchio and Jackson to take 27 Montana college students--nine per year--on a six-week research and cultural experience in China. The first group traveled there last summer. Among other things, they examined hundreds of dinosaur eggs at the Natural History Museum in Hangzhou and visited excavation sites. Several of the students are conducting research now on their findings.

An $18,440 grant from the National Geographic Foundation will allow Varricchio and Jackson to conduct related work with the Natural History Museum in Hangzhou. More than 1,000 dinosaur eggs have been found so far in the province of Zhejiang, and Varricchio and Jackson will return to China in December to analyze the geological context for those eggs. A big goal of theirs is determining why the Chinese eggs are so well preserved compared to dinosaur eggs in Montana, Varricchio said. Most of the eggs they saw in China were three-dimensional, while the majority of Montana's eggs were crushed.


Varricchio is a compelling instructor in the classroom as well as in the field, a windblown Megan McCoy said last summer at Beatrice Taylor Field Research Station near Choteau.

An MSU student who graduated from Forsyth High School, McCoy has dug fossils in her native Kansas. She has worked at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in Thermopolis. But she had never dug dinosaur bones in Montana or visited Egg Mountain before taking Geology 419 from Varricchio and Jackson.

The 13-day paleontology field camp began in Washington state where the 13 participants canoed to a private island and observed modern birds, feathers and nests. They also examined the sediments beneath the nests, noting among other things, a layer of ash from the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. The students then returned to Montana, where they spent several days digging fossils and documenting the surrounding sediment at the research station, once known as Egg Mountain.

The research station--the two square mile bone bed where grizzly bear country, dinosaur bones and Montana culture collide--is one of the sites that made MSU paleontologist Jack Horner famous because it yielded dinosaur eggs and nests and revealed the maternal behavior of the hadrosaur dinosaurs known as Maiasaura peeblesorum. Now owned by the Museum of the Rockies Foundation, Egg Mountain is located east of the Rocky Mountain Front, west of Choteau and south of the ranch that belonged to Pulitzer Prize winning novelist A.B. Guthrie.

"I'm pretty excited about being here," McCoy said.

During the camp, she had used a jackhammer to help loosen hadrosaur vertebrae and ribs from a rock. She sorted the fossils she had found on a hillside below the hadrosaur. Eggshells went in one Ziploc sandwich bag. Fossils that might indicate burrows, pupae cases or roots went into a second bag. Teeth went in a third.

Later, McCoy gathered around the picnic table at camp with other students taking the field course. After eating the tacos prepared by Jackson's husband, Bob, they discussed the fossils and sediments they found that day. Before the coyotes howled and the wind threatened to rip tents out of stakes, they prepared a presentation of their findings for their instructors and fellow students.

"This has been a great experience," McCoy said. "Everybody has been awesome."


Understanding the context of a fossil is more important to Varricchio than excavating an isolated bone. When he conducts his research, Varricchio said he combines geological and biological information, then draws his conclusions. He especially enjoys using field data and anatomy to say something new about dinosaur behavior.

"We do collect fossils, but for me, we emphasize information that goes along with fossils," Varricchio said about his field-
camp focus. "It is sort of time-consuming. It's easier to collect the fossils, but a lot of things we know about dinosaur behavior comes from understanding the other information around the fossils."

Much of that other information comes from the surrounding rock, said Varricchio, who has two degrees in geology and years of experience in analyzing sediment. The age, type and chemical makeup of rock all say something about the environment when the dinosaur was alive. The rock may also contain plant and animal fossils in addition to the dinosaur's.

"It's also more respectful to the fossils, in that we do full analysis of the fossils rather than just digging up a bone to teach someone how to dig up a bone," Varricchio continued.

To investigate the context of fossils during the 2010 field camp at Egg Mountain, undergraduates and graduate students brush loose rocks away from a hill so they can better see bone fragments and the separation between rock layers in the Two Medicine Formation. Nate Carroll, an undergraduate from Ekalaka, squirts diluted hydrochloric acid onto a rock, then watches it fizz.

"There are lots of cool stories to be told about each layer of rock," Carroll explained. "If it's calcite, it will fizz. Almost everything out here fizzes."

Students exploring another corner of Egg Mountain follow a dry stream bed to find a fossil that Jackson noticed during an evening stroll. Other students, while hiking back to camp, come across the pelvis bone of a dinosaur. Lacking the burlap strips and freshly mixed plaster that Varricchio was using across the way, they make do with wet Kleenex, a pre-packaged bandage and a mixture that worked like watered-down Super Glue.

That would stabilize the fossil long enough to carry it back to camp, Carroll said. The paleontology major grew up around dinosaur digs in southeast Montana, participated in some of those digs and has already published some of his findings. He traveled to China and Egg Mountain last summer. He has already earned the respect of MSU paleontologists and fellow students for his knowledge, leadership abilities and his dinosaur snow sculptures around the MSU campus.

"This entire summer has been huge," Carroll commented. "Between China and learning about eggs and here, this has been a really great summer. I wasn't an egg expert before and I still am not, but I have learned a lot."


Darrin Strosnider, an MSU graduate student who left the corporate world for dinosaurs, said Varricchio played an important role in his decision to pursue a doctorate at MSU.

Back when Strosnider was an aerospace engineer and wealthy enough to afford an adventure vacation, he saw an advertisement inviting readers to dig dinosaur bones in Montana. He applied for the trip and spent a week digging for dinosaur fossils. He then returned to his job where he continued to feel the stress of trying to meet the needs of customers and expectations of his employer. He kept on working at the company, however, but returned to Montana the next summer for an advanced field course. He then returned to Montana 16 more years during his summer vacations.

Increasingly disenchanted with his "real" work, Strosnider finally decided to switch jobs, but he moved to another corporation and discovered that life there was basically the same as his previous job. Deciding he had to make a bigger change, he talked to Varricchio about attending graduate school as a master's degree student in paleontology.

"I was nervous about going straight into the Ph.D. program, but Dave talked me into it," Strosnider said.

Strosnider said he's happy he took Varricchio's advice. Watching the sun set from on top of the cook shack at Egg Mountain, Strosnider relaxed after another day in the field.

"I feel pretty lucky," he said. "I'm just really happy. Up here is about as opposite of my work life as I could get."

He hopes to receive his Ph.D. in four years, but he has no specific plans after that, Strosnider said. Noting that the National Park Service recently approached him about leading a research project in the upcoming field season, he said, "One thing I've learned in life is to never limit my options."

Varricchio, like many youngsters who pursue careers in science, played with toy dinosaurs when he was a boy. He still remembers his enthusiasm when a school trip took him to a Cambrian site in Pennsylvania. The Cambrian period, which occurred between 542 million and 488.3 million years ago, is known for having an unusually high number of well-preserved fossils.

"That got me very excited," Varricchio recalled.

"But I strayed away from that and went into engineering," he continued. "It seemed more practical."

The youngest of five children born to Phil and Ida Varricchio, David enrolled at Cornell University to pursue engineering, but he realized he enjoyed the field trips far more than being in a lab with electronic gadgetry. He also realized that he wanted a career that was more tactile than engineering. He wanted a career that took him into the outdoors he had grown to love while living on a farm as a young boy.

"For me, the appeal of paleontology is the tangibleness of it," Varricchio said. "There are physical objects you can see, look at or examine."

Varricchio earned his bachelor's degree in geology at Cornell and his master's degree in geology from the University of Georgia. He finally came to MSU to earn his doctorate in paleontology under the renowned Jack Horner, who has since been designated a Regent's Professor of Paleontology. Varricchio said he wanted to study with Horner because he thought Horner addressed really interesting questions. Varricchio was Horner's only graduate student when he arrived in 1989, and became the first student to earn his doctoral degree under Horner.

Horner said recently that he is proud of his former student.

"He has improved upon much of my research ideas from those days in the late '80s," Horner said. "I was working on dinosaur behavior, and he has taken those studies to a much higher level and made a number of very interesting and important discoveries concerning dinosaur reproduction.

"It is a real honor to have graduate students who go on to make names for themselves by building on a person's initial research," Horner continued. "Needless to say, I'm very proud of David and all that he has and continues to accomplish. He is at the top of the field of dinosaur reproduction."

After earning his doctorate in 1995, Varricchio worked at the Old Trail Museum at Choteau, then MSU's Museum of the Rockies. He took a position in Wisconsin, then returned to MSU in August 2003 where he is now an associate professor who combines teaching and research. He strongly believes in the value of both as preparation for graduate school or a career in paleontology, Varricchio said.

"Education and research--I think that's a better way to go than one or the other," Varricchio said.


That dual focus was highlighted last fall with the opening of the Varricchio Family Paleontology Preparation Laboratory in the newly remodeled Gaines Hall at MSU. The Varricchio facility not only gives undergraduate students a classroom, but it gives them a teaching lab with new equipment, ancient fossils and daily guidance to prepare fossils and conduct their own research. Ventilation hoods now make it possible to conduct smelly experiments without inhaling the fumes, Varricchio said.

Money for the Varricchio Family Paleontology Preparation Laboratory was donated by Varricchio's father. A widower and former Navy recruiter who still works as a CPA at age 88, Phil Varricchio has long shown an interest in his son's work. He has joined David on dinosaur digs, sometimes as long as a month. He has cooked for the field crews. He has offered advice.

"He mostly watches now, but he sometimes likes to chime in and tell us what to do," David Varricchio chuckled.

And now, with the opening of the Varricchio Family Paleontology Preparation Laboratory, Phil Varricchio has something in common with the dinosaurs his son discovered. The father will long be remembered for providing paternal care to his son.

"The Varricchio Family Paleontology Preparation Laboratory is an exciting addition to the earth sciences instructional labs in the newly-renovated Gaines Hall," said Paula Lutz, dean of MSU's College of Letters and Science. "This state-of-the-art facility will allow our students hands-on experience in preparing and examining samples. The lab adds a new dimension to our already famous paleontology program--the only undergraduate paleo program in the country."

David Varricchio added that, "It's really great for the paleontology program. It's kind of wonderful."