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MSU Paleontology Research Takes International Bent

By Evelyn Boswell Paleontologists dig
Paleontologists dig up a sauropod skeleton from the Sahel region of Niger. (Photo by David Varricchio.)
Frankie Jackson doesn't claim to soar in the same jet stream of fame as Jack Horner, the renowned curator of paleontology at Montana State University-Bozeman's Museum of the Rockies.

"Jack's popularity is pretty phenomenal," says Jackson, a paleontologist and research associate in the museum and earth sciences department.

Frankie Jackson
Frankie Jackson and an international team dug for fossils last August in the Junggar Basin of China's Xinjiang Province. (Photo by Frankie Jackson.)
But Jackson knew she'd entered a new dimension when she started getting phone calls from the national media, and they joined her on dinosaur digs in Patagonia. She's still shaking her head over plans by a California museum to make a life-size mannequin of her body, dress it in her old clothes, and make it part of a traveling exhibit.

"All this publicity is so new to me," Jackson says in amazement. "I have been overwhelmed with the publicity I have been getting from this project ever since it hit."

Jackson is an expert on dinosaur eggs and the reproductive physiology of dinosaurs, says Jim Schmitt, head of MSU's earth sciences department.

She is also one of a several MSU scientists whose growing reputations have caused an international trend in the university's paleontology research. Others are Mary Higby Schweitzer and David Varricchio, Schmitt said. Schweitzer is adjunct assistant curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, adjunct assistant research professor in biology and earth science, and assistant research professor in microbiology. Varricchio is an adjunct professor in earth sciences and research associate at the Museum of the Rockies.

Schmitt also deserves credit for the growing internationalization of MSU's paleontology research, as does Pat Druckenmiller, Schweitzer said. Druckenmiller is supervisor of the E.J. Bowman Fossil Bank at the Museum of the Rockies and spent part of last summer in Canada helping unearth the largest ichthyosaur ever found.

"I think that the opportunities for international paleo research are certainly increasing as MSU paleontologists in addition to Jack are becoming known for high-quality work and different areas of expertise," Schweitzer commented. "It (international research) is an incredible opportunity for MSU and will continue to enhance our reputation as a world-class facility."

Schweitzer's specialty is figuring out how biomolecules are preserved in fossils. Varricchio has a variety of research areas, including evolutionary taxonomy and paleo-ecology. Schmitt is a sedimentologist whose research deciphers the environments in which organisms live and figures out how specimens are preserved in rocks.

Pat Druckenmiller
Pat Druckenmiller with a cast of a small ichthyosaur from Germany. Druckenmiller was part of a team that excavated the skull of the largest such marine reptile found in the world. That one was located in northeast British Columbia.
As a result of those skills, almost half of the current projects in MSU's earth sciences department now focus on international sites, Schmitt said. Jackson, Schweitzer, Schmitt and Richard Aspinall, director of MSU's Geographic Information and Analysis Center, are all involved in projects relating to a sauropod nesting site in Patagonia. Varricchio continues to work on a bone bed project in Africa. Jackson, Schweitzer, Varricchio and Schmitt are studying another nesting site in Argentina. Jackson will soon be scouting new sites in China.

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