Montana State University

MSU grad student thrilled to study ancient marine mammals

May 2, 2011 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Bobby Boessenecker prepares the partial skull of a dwarf baleen whale in MSU's new paleontology laboratory in Gaines Hall. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).    High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
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BOZEMAN - Bobby Boessenecker has been blasted by sand, trapped by high tide and broken his tailbone while excavating fossils of bizarre marine mammals near the Pacific Ocean.

And yet the Montana State University graduate student in earth sciences says he can't think of anything he'd rather do than conduct research. And there's no field he'd rather pursue than paleontology - especially the study of weird marine mammals that lived between two million and 10 million years ago. Among them are walrus-faced whales, sloths adapted to the ocean and walruses with an extra set of tusks.

"I do research because it's extremely exciting and it basically lets me be a little kid forever. I have always wanted to be a paleontologist. This is my dream job," said Boessenecker, 25.

Boessenecker successfully defended his master's thesis in April and is graduating this spring. He is also publishing five scientific papers, an accomplishment his adviser said is unprecedented, in his experience, for a master's student.

Boessenecker said he became interested in paleontology when he was a boy in California and collected fossils from the beaches and cliffs near his home. Even as an MSU student, he excavated fossils from southwest Oregon and the Halfmoon Bay area south of San Francisco. One of his sites was a sea cave where he removed a porpoise skull from the ceiling. Another was a cliff where he examined a bone bed, then broke his tailbone by jumping onto what he believed was a sand dune.

He often prepared fossils in the family home during his field season, Boessenecker said. While in Bozeman, he generally prepared and analyzed fossils in MSU's new paleontology laboratory in Gaines Hall, sometimes with equipment from MSU's Museum of the Rockies. He displayed some of his fossils on wooden shelves and stored others inside plastic boxes in his office cubicle in Traphagen Hall.

"Paleontology is literally one of the coolest jobs right up there with firefighters or astronauts," he said. "There are very few jobs as rewarding, cool or fascinating on a day-by-day basis."

Pulling out some of his specimens, Boessenecker showed a sea lion vertebrae covered with fossilized barnacles, ear bones from extinct dolphins and whales, and a jaw bone that may have come from the embryo of a prehistoric whale. He described a hollow bone fragment that was 18 inches long and 1 ˝ inches across. He originally thought it might've been the lower jaw of a toothed whale, but a closer look made him realize that it probably came from a bony-toothed bird that was "really stupendously large."

Analyzing the bird bone was a side project to his mammal research, and an upcoming paper in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology explains his findings, Boessenecker said. The May 2011 paper says the fragment demonstrates that pelagornithids survived in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans until the late Pliocene Epoch, which occurred between 2.6 million and 5.3 million years ago. Pelagornithids were large sea birds with tooth-like points on the edge of their beaks. Some pelagornithids had feathered wing spans between 21 and 26 feet, making them among the largest flying birds ever.

Another paper Boessenecker published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology focused on new records of an extinct fur seal from the Plio-Pleistocene Rio Dell Formation of northern California. A paper in the journal Palaios said the unusual bite marks Boessenecker found on a fur seal fossil didn't come from a shark, but possibly a pilot whale, walrus or other mammal that lived in the Mio-Pliocene Purisima Formation of central California. Boessenecker discovered the bite marks - like many of his other finds - in the laboratory after removing plaster jackets and sediments. Boessenecker published other papers this spring in Paleobios and the PalArch's Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Many MSU paleontology students have published scientific papers, Boessenecker said, crediting their success to the university's "fantastic" paleontology program. Jim Schmitt, Boessenecker's adviser, said, however, that it is highly unusual for a master's degree student to publish as many as Boessenecker. Schmitt added that Boessenecker is largely self-taught, both in his knowledge of marine mammal paleontology and how to publish scientific articles.

"Bobby has a really bright future in paleontology, either in a museum or academic setting," Schmitt said.

Patrick Druckenmiller, a former MSU paleontologist who specializes in marine reptiles, agreed.

"Because he is strongly motivated, bright and inquisitive, I am confident he will go far in our field," Druckenmiller wrote from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks where he is earth sciences curator for the University of Alaska Museum and an assistant professor in geology and geophysics.

Boessenecker said he enrolled at MSU because of its reputation in paleontology. Initially interested in dinosaurs, he said, "This is the natural place to come for that."

And even though he decided as a sophomore to focus on marine mammals instead of dinosaurs, Boessenecker said he stayed on as an undergraduate and graduate student because he figured he could conduct his research at MSU as well as anywhere else. For questions about taphonomy and sedimentary processes, he usually consulted with Schmitt and MSU paleontologist David Varricchio. Taphonomy is what happens after a vertebrate dies and before its bones are discovered millions of years later as fossils.

For advice more specific to marine mammals, Boessenecker turned to outside experts. Co-authors on some of his papers were Frank Perry, a research associate with the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History; N. Adam Smith, a doctoral candidate who specializes in bird paleontology at the University of Texas at Austin, and Jonathan Geisler, an expert on whale and dolphin paleontology at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Druckenmiller said, "Even though dinosaurs still rule at MSU, the undergraduate and graduate program strives to train young scientists in a broad range of disciplines that serve anyone working in vertebrate paleontology. This includes both biological and geological training, and unmatched opportunities to conduct fieldwork.

"Whether or not you are digging out a tyrannosaur skull or a dolphin skull, the skills are the same," Druckenmiller continued. "In general, knowledge of a specific group of animals is mostly done on one's own, and not through coursework. Additionally, MSU has a great mix of students, faculty and facilities to help anyone interested in vertebrate paleontology follow their interests."

Boessenecker said one reason he enjoys studying prehistoric marine mammals is because they were a mix of advanced, primitive and bizarre creatures not seen today. It is also satisfying to focus on an area of paleontology that's wide open compared to dinosaurs, Boessenecker said.

Druckenmiller, who has said he feels like a pioneer in his specialty, said, "In the big picture of things, there are not really that many people in the world who study this fascinating area of marine mammals, which means that motivated young investigators like Bobby have great opportunities to carve a niche in the field."

Boessenecker said his next step is earning his doctoral degree in paleontology. He is applying to graduate schools now and hopes to research marine mammal fossils next from New Zealand.
Druckenmiller said he would also like the two to collaborate on taphonomy experiments in Alaska, since the state has lots of coastline and occasional access to marine mammal carcasses.

"I definitely see Bobby as a future colleague in the field of vertebrate paleontology," Druckenmiller said. "Ever since I have known Bobby, it was pretty clear in which direction his career would go. It is refreshing to see someone who knows what they want to do."

For related articles, see:
"Fossils from ancient sea monster found in Montana."

"Sea monster search draws MSU scientist to land of polar bears"

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu