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Cliff Green displayed his resin dinosaur sculptures at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Bozeman.

Big Crowd, Big Mike
Turn Out for Paleontology Conference

Dinosaurs once lived on every continent, but China, North Africa and South America are the new hot spots for scientists who study them, the president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) said during the group's 61st annual meeting held Oct. 3-6, 2001, at Montana State University-Bozeman.

"Some places (like western Asia) are hot spots that you wouldn't want to go to these days," added Richard Stucky, SVP president and vice president of programs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Montana, in the meantime, continues to be a constant in the world of paleontology, said Patrick Leiggi, chairman of the committee that hosted the gathering of the world's largest group of scientists that studies dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.

Stucky said the National Science Foundation funds many expeditions, but paleontologists have no centralized organization telling them where to go. They pursue their own interests, so end up going all over the world.

"It's pretty much up to the individual where they want to study," Stucky said.

Paleontologists who presented information at the conference have studied everything from tree sloths and dung beetles to horses and crocodiles. Besides discovering new specimens of dinosaurs and mammals, the current trend in paleontology is biodiversity studies, Stucky said. Paleontologists are also turning more to computers and CT scans.

Children and adults alike wanted a closer look at "Big Mike" after it was dedicated in a ceremony at the Museum of the Rockies.

Scientists who study biodiversity are especially interested in understanding extinctions that took place about 10,000 years ago, Stucky said. In his specialty (mammals and primates that lived in North America after the dinosaurs went extinct), CT scans have gotten down to one micron. That means Stucky is now able to recognize and map blood vessels in the embryo of a mouse brain.

What's really improved in the past 10 years of paleontology are the scientific illustrations, Stucky added. Many artists come to the SVP's annual meetings to hear the latest ideas about what dinosaurs looked like or how they moved. Cliff Green, for example, attended lectures when he wasn't manning his exhibit of resin dinosaur sculptures. D.W. Miller said paleontology is his passion, but he bows to the researchers' expertise when he paints his fish and amphibian illustrations.

Here's a sampling of other remarks and activities that occurred during the conference:
  • "Big Mike" was erected and dedicated outdoors near the main entrance of the Museum of the Rockies. The full-size bronze - the first bronze skeleton of a dinosaur anywhere - was made in the likeness of a Tyrannosaurus rex found in Eastern Montana in 1988. At 15 feet tall, 38 feet long and 6,000 pounds, "Big Mike" was named after the late Michael P. Malone, president of MSU-Bozeman from 1991-1999.
  • The T. rex named Sue had pus-filled infections, broken ribs and fused vertebrae, but it wasn't a weakling. It was robust enough to overcome numerous injuries and chronic infections, said Elizabeth Rega of the Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif. Rega and Christopher Brochu of the University of Iowa studied Sue's bones and found they generally responded to injuries more like modern birds and mammals than reptiles. One of the most complete and mature T. rex's ever found, Sue was excavated in 1990 in South Dakota by Sue Hendrickson and the Black Hills Institute.
  • Using life-size fiberglass replicas of dinosaur heads to attract passersby, representatives of the Fort Peck Dam Interpretive Center and Museum joined the record 1,200 scientists who attended the conference. The Fort Peck people staffed a booth in the meeting's exhibit area because they wanted to "further advertise Fort Peck," said board member Larry Mires. Mires hopes the interpretive center will detain visitors to the reservoir so they'll stay overnight along the Hi-Line and in central Montana. A number of scientists are involved in digs near the Fort Peck reservoir.
  • New molecular studies suggest that whales, dolphins and porpoises are more closely related to the hippo than an extinct group of hoofed animals that resembled wolves and bears, said Jonathan Geisler of Georgia South University. The theory is supported by skeletal similarities between whales and hippos as well as more obvious similarities. Those include a nearly hairless body, the absence of sweat glands and an affinity for water.
  • Paleontologists study much more than dinosaurs, but scientists who focus on dinosaurs usually attract most of the attention. Stucky, head of the SVP, said he doesn't begrudge their popularity even though he has discovered many interestings things about ancient mammals and primates. He said most kids and many adults are introduced to science because of their interest in dinosaurs and fossils. He called paleontology the window to science education.

Evelyn Boswell & Annette Trinity-Stevens

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