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The bone collector

Mary Dawson, paleontologist extraordinaire, pursues clues to evolution while overseeing the Carnegie's fossil collection

Sunday, March 19, 2000

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the pale dreaming light of an Arctic summer, a woman is walking along the crunchy surface of the tundra, looking for a place to stop and eat lunch.

During a surprise party in her honor, Mary Dawson shares a laugh with Carnegie staffers, who presented her with framed photos (wrapped in a Toys R Us bag). They were celebrating Dawson being named as a lifetime member of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, a recognition somewhat comparable in the world of bone-collecting to the Kennedy Center Honors. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

As usual, Mary Dawson is walking with her head down, silver white hair falling into her face, walking the walk of all fossil hunters -- eyes riveted to the ground "just in case there's something that looks a little different."

She is not disappointed. There is something that makes her stop. She kneels and picks a dirt-encrusted object, and in a reflexive gesture of someone used to working out in the middle of nowhere, puts it in her mouth.

It has to be cleaned somehow.

She spits it out and peers at the object, which is indeterminate, foreign. Nothing she had expected to find here. Dawson goes back to camp, washes it off again, this time with some water. And what she sees makes her forget her lunch of crackers and cheese and chocolate bars and get down on her hands and knees for the next several hours, where she will find dozens and dozens of fragments of teeth.

Alligator teeth.

In the Arctic.

A quiet treasure

All of this happened more than 25 years ago, and it was just another discovery by Dawson that rewrote textbooks.

Just another frontier breached by a cheerful, plainspoken daughter of Midwestern Presbyterian educators who came to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History nearly 40 years ago as a lowly research associate, only to be told by its director, M. Graham Netting, that a woman should never expect to be promoted to head curator.

"Actually, he ended up making me curator 10 years later," she laughs.

Today, at 69, Dawson oversees the museum's superb collection of fossil vertebrates (prehistoric animals with backbones -- birds, fish, mammals -- as opposed to the spineless creatures known as fossil invertebrates). She is also widely considered the conscience of this venerable but troubled institution, a voice of authority on behalf of its scientists and research staff and for its great, century-old collection of specimens detailing the world's 4.5 billion-year history.

Internationally, she is known as one of the great paleontologists of her time, her discoveries reverberating across the fields of geology, biology, climatology and oceanography:

In the Arctic, in 1975, she provided the first solid proof that a "greenhouse effect" existed in North America 55 million years ago. Amazingly, in spite of 41/2 months without sunlight, this warm, swampy climate supported animals like alligators and tortoises at the North Pole and rivaled the tropics as an evolutionary hotbed.

Her discovery of the first prehistoric mammals within the Arctic Circle also provided the first paleontological evidence of a land bridge stretching eastward, from Canada across Greenland to Scotland and northern Europe. This was a key to explaining why fossils of ancient horses, rhinoceroses and tapirs in northern France so resembled those in the American West.

In Montana, her research helped unlock the mysteries of how the Pacific Rim's mountain ranges arose and how, 45 million years ago, much of the Northwest, from the coast into Montana, was a swampy, oceanic climate. As the first person ever to find vertebrate fossil mammals in Montana's Glacier National Park, Dawson has helped to document its chaotic origins: a gigantic overthrust of older rocks onto younger rocks, unique in this country.

And, in 1995, along with her colleague K. Christopher Beard, Dawson found fossils in China of the "dawn monkey," a tiny primate no bigger than a mouse, believed to be the earliest ancestor of man, monkeys and apes -- prompting colleagues to hail them as having discovered, in effect, humankind's "Garden of Eden."

Despite all these accomplishments, Dawson remains quite unknown to the general public -- "Fortunately!" -- she says with a laugh.

She has never been on a "National Geographic" TV special. She isn't a swashbuckling dinosaur bone collector like Museum of the Rockies' John "Jack" Horner, who served as a consultant on Steven Spielberg's movie "Jurassic Park" (and who was reportedly the inspiration for the leading man's role).

In fact, while most people think all paleontologists hunt dinosaurs, Dawson always has been after much smaller -- and equally important -- game.

When she's not trotting the globe, presenting papers at international conferences in Paris or Switzerland, Dawson drives her big blue Volvo in from her sheep farm near Saxonburg every day to her dusty, cramped second-floor office at the Carnegie in Oakland to pursue her life's work: peering through her state-of-the-art Wildheerbrugg microscope -- "my most indispensable tool" -- at what appear to be dots or grains of pepper.

They are, in fact, tiny ancient fossils of rat's teeth -- maybe not as sexy as a T. rex's jawbone, but for those in search of knowledge about the story of life on Earth, and what it can tell us about pressing issues like biodiversity and climate change, something akin to the Rosetta Stone.

"Dinosaurs are overrated," she sniffs, noting that rodents and rabbits -- the subject of a lifelong fascination -- provide a much broader and deeper view into evolutionary history than almost any other kind of animal, mainly because, her longtime colleague Malcolm McKenna adds, "there are so many of them."

Both animal groups have been with us since right after the dinosaurs, during the Eocene Epoch 55 million to 34 million years ago, a time when the diversity of mammals on Earth exploded. Tracking their progress through time is a major forensic undertaking.

"All we're just trying to do is detective work. I'll accept any clue at all, and so will Mary," says McKenna, Frick Curator of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The shattered pieces of that puzzle are kept in the Carnegie's basement, behind a door titled, without a trace of irony, the Little Bone Room. Here, in rows of new blond wood file cabinets (courtesy of a grant Dawson helped wangle from the National Science Foundation) are anywhere from 60,000 to 70,000 fossils, all neatly labeled and stashed away in cotton and glass vials.

There are larger pieces, too: shelves of skulls and jawbones and, in one corner, a relatively large fossil group of almost complete skeletons collapsed together in a heap, individual herbivores called Oriodontz.

"These poor animals were overcome in a sandstorm," Dawson says, speaking of the long-dead creatures with respect in her voice but, in the next breath, pronouncing their fossil remains "superb," like an oenophile passing judgment on a vintage Burgundy wine.

And in a nearby drawer there is the tiny jaw of a daphoenus (da-FEE-nus), a cross between a bear and a dog, now extinct. Dawson playfully named it Daphoenus de Milo, after finding it 30 years ago in central Wyoming.

She gently takes the tiny creature's jaw out of its box and holds it up to the light: It is 40 million years old, the oldest known fossil of its kind, its tiny but fearsome looking incisor the only sign of its onetime status near the top of the food chain.

"Isn't he marvelous?"

Her life

Dawson, right, discusses a reptile fossil known as Seymouria with Amy Henrici, a "preparator" responsible for cleaning and preparing the fossils in the Carnegie's Vertebrate Paleontology Preparation Lab. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette) 

While not "Jurassic Park," Dawson's own life could make a dandy little movie: independent-minded woman from proper Midwestern family storms ramparts of previously all-male profession of paleontology, makes great discoveries, swigs beer with the guys on field trips out in Montana, dodges wolves and polar bears, today is lauded and revered, if not by the general public, at least by museum professionals in Paris, Munich, Switzerland and China, where she is treated like the U.S. Secretary of State.

"A lot of Europeans are very chauvinistic when it comes to dealing with Americans," says Chris Beard, Dawson's colleague at the Carnegie. "But when they find out that I'm Mary Dawson's close collaborator, doors open up all over the place."

Indeed, Zhexi Luo, a Harvard- and Berkeley-trained paleontologist (who made headlines in 1997 for helping to discover an altogether new mammal species that existed 120 million years ago), says he came to the Carnegie to work as Dawson's assistant curator because "I knew her by her great reputation, even when I was a student in China in the 1980s."

While gracious in the face of accolades, Dawson cares not a whit about ceremony. Small, slight of build, her face is weathered, thanks to all those years outdoors, and a recent injury forces her to walk with a straight-legged limp. But she acts much younger: chortling at a colleague's off-color jokes, moving at a fast clip through the Carnegie's marble hallways with the energy of an 18-year-old. She's a curious mix of scientist and social animal, quick with puns, patient with stupid questions, a workaholic who juggles two jobs: science by day, farming and animal husbandry on evenings and weekends.

When asked, she graciously attends elegant evening functions with museum trustees, but always clad in the same sensible wide-whale corduroy pants she wears every day. "I've never seen her dressed up," says Ingrid Rea, a longtime board member. "She is always completely natural, but she's a real scientist. I think of her as the core of the Carnegie Museum."

Her manners are impeccable, even when confronted with borderline-rude personal questions.

"I haven't a housekeeping bone in my body," she laughs, when asked why she never married.

Her upbringing, as the second of three children, was middle-class respectable. Her mother, Olga, was a schoolteacher, her father, John, a career employee with Michigan Bell Telephone whose own father was an educator.

The Dawsons moved every four years, growing up all over the Michigan peninsula, in Ann Arbor and Grand Rapids, but also little towns like White Cloud and Menominee, where her father operated the community's telephone switchboard out of their home. He could be stern; Dawson's mother was the family's nurturing emotional center. "There was not a bad bone in her body," says Dawson's brother John of their mother.

Old photographs show a pert, pretty young girl -- one whose intellectual gifts stood out. Her brother still remembers her performance on the high school debating team. "I was impressed by her ability to size up a situation and make her points clearly," says John Dawson, 63, a management and communications consultant for the state of New Mexico. In fact, her only lapse appears to have been a "C" grade in a college fencing class -- "she was devastated over that."

When Dawson, who had loved animals from an early age, announced she wanted to go to Michigan State University to become a veterinarian, her parents assented without a second thought; the fact that she would be the only woman in the class "never appeared to be a problem. I don't ever remember my mother telling me I was incapable of doing anything."

So, too, her parents didn't flinch when she returned home at the end of her sophomore year in college and announced that she wanted to switch from caring for live creatures to studying their history. A crackerjack zoology professor had ignited her enthusiasm --plus, Dawson liked her animals "healthy rather than sick."

Upon graduating from MSU, she was offered a Fulbright Scholarship to study paleontology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, the birthplace of James Hutton, founder of modern geology.

It was there, in 1785, that Hutton first suggested that the land "on which we rest is not simple and original" but, instead, composed of layers of rock that may have shifted or thrust from subterranean heat or erosion from rain and rivers over millions of years -- not, as was then thought, because of sudden catastrophic events like Noah's flood.

But to Dawson, Scotland's cliffs and crags, its geologic strata and striations, weren't interesting just for themselves -- but for what vestiges of ancient life they contained. Fossils, she determined, shouldn't just be used to correlate the ages of different rock formations but to fill in the tree of life itself.

Upon returning to the United States, she headed for the University of Kansas, one of the great schools for paleontology, whose 1866 charter included the mandate to study the natural history of the past and present. This rural state of God-fearing farmers was also a hotbed of creationism, but after Darwin's theories of natural selection began to circulate, fossil hunters descended upon Kansas' chalk beds and their vast repositories of prehistoric marine reptiles.

As a graduate assistant, Dawson encountered students who resisted Darwin's theory that man was descended from lower forms of life. Her response was to calmly recite the facts and to say, "if they could come up with a better conclusion, it was theirs to do. They never did."

The fact that, at Kansas as in Michigan, she was the only woman in her class didn't faze her.

"The only thing that bothered me was finding a field party I could go on," Dawson recalls. "They didn't want women along, and I looked and looked and finally found one with a fellow who took his wife along. Isn't that disgusting? It annoyed me, but you go around those annoyances."


  Sheep follow Mary Dawson -- and their meal -- as she leads them up a hill on her farm near Saxonburg, Butler County. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

It was that kind of calm, nonconfrontational determination that made Dawson perhaps the perfect person to study rabbit and rodent fossils, a much neglected branch of the evolutionary tree that had frustrated paleontologists for years.

And for good reason, according to her colleague Malcolm McKenna: "They're hard."

To survive and to dominate the world as they do today, rodents adapted by diversifying wildly down through time, and today, this group ranges from rats to squirrels to beavers to porcupines to more exotic species like the capybara, which is native to South America and about the size of a small bear.

Rabbits, on the other hand, are the Ying to the rodents' Yang: They figured out their strengths and weaknesses long ago, had lots of big litters, developed teeth that, unlike rodents, never had roots and haven't changed much since -- "Once a rabbit, always a rabbit," Dawson says. "No one had done them comprehensively, simply because they all look alike."

Dawson's early work was mostly focused on rabbits; her later work on rodents continues to this day. Her graduate thesis on North American rabbits was groundbreaking: a comprehensive study of the animals dating from 45 million to 1 million years ago, showing not just their relationships to predators or prey, but subtle changes within their own species that led to minor miracles of engineering that are today's jackrabbits and cottontails.

Dawson had to look for such infinitesimal details as a rabbit's leg muscle as it developed over 45 million years ago. "If you look at a rabbit from that time, you could see that it had the capability of moving its leg to the side. There was some moderate flexibility there. Eventually, in a move towards more efficient movement of the limb, that flexibility became locked in so that their lateral movement was restricted."

After Kansas, Dawson continued her studies at the natural history museum in Basel, Switzerland, but by 1957, she had to look for a job. Faced with a dearth of museum openings, Dawson opted to teach at Smith College, where she spent two years.

She enjoyed interacting with students but missed the solitary, fascinating work of research -- "I need it!" So when she won a National Science Foundation grant to study fossil collections at Yale University in 1960, she grabbed it.

"We would sit during lunchtime under a magnified lamp and pick through the sand with tweezers, looking for fossil rodent teeth," Robinson remembers. "You've got to really like doing it; otherwise it can get very frustrating. And she never did get frustrated."

Dawson's next move was to Washington, D.C., where she spent another year at the NSF's headquarters evaluating research proposals. Then, in 1962, a friend called Dawson with news that he had scrounged together some funds for a research associate position at the Carnegie.

As one whose internal compass always seemed to be pointing northward -- a childhood on Michigan's upper peninsula, graduate work in Scotland and Switzerland, and later, a career focused on the Arctic, the stony, hilly city of Pittsburgh entranced her. "It reminded me of Glasgow. I had always liked the Carnegie, and I took to Pittsburgh right away. It seemed a very Old World type of city -- the old houses, the terrain."

More importantly, working in a museum she would not be tied to an academic schedule or politics, "and most importantly," she says, "you're freer to go out and take chances."

Carnegie: taking risks

Her progress upward at the Carnegie was swift; a year after she was hired, she was made assistant curator, and it was at this time that Graham Netting told her that as a woman she could never expect to rise much higher. So why, 10 years later, did he make her curator? Well, it was 1972, and the past decade "had been a real learning experience for him," she laughs.

Along with the museum's curator, Craig Black, she tackled the Carnegie's huge, relatively unstudied collections from northeastern Utah dating to about 40 million years ago and began making regular summer field trips to Wyoming as part of her effort to study the impact of climate change on evolution. Up until then, much of the American West resembled Borneo, but when the tropical landscape had begun to cool, Black and Dawson decided to examine how climate change affected animal diversity -- something few others had considered at the time.

She had help from David Love, the legendary geologist and surveyor who was profiled by New Yorker writer John McPhee in his Pulitzer Prize-winning series of books detailing the geology of the North American continent. Love remembers leading her and McKenna into wild terrain on horseback, with bells on to ward off the grizzly bears, to a place just south of Yellowstone Park he believed was full of fossils.

"It took a week or 10 days, and it snowed," recalls Love, now 86. "The weather was miserable, even though it was late August. She'd have her upper lip frozen to her nose on bad days, but she was a wonderful sport and always kept her sense of humor."

At the same time, Dawson's work on rabbits was attracting international attention, even penetrating into Chinese Communist work camps: Her paper linking North American rabbits to those in Mongolia was published in the early 1960s, and somehow in the midst of China's cultural revolution, word got out among Chinese paleontologists.

"They had all been sent to the same camps, and paleontology was one of the discussions still permitted when they took a break from hoeing radishes," Dawson says, and they would later tell her how heartened they were "that someone in North America was working on these fossils."

Then, one night in 1972, Dawson and then-Carnegie director Robert West found themselves stranded in the San Antonio airport. To kill time, they began some brainstorming, which led to a decision to go the Arctic to look for fossil evidence of a rumored land bridge from North America to Europe.

By this time, plate tectonics -- the notion that continents have drifted over millions of years -- had taken hold, and some wondered whether a long-lost land connection could explain why so many mammal fossils in North America matched those in Europe and Asia.

McKenna, of New York's American Natural History Museum, remembers an excited phone call from Dawson after a Canadian paper was published on the geology of the Eureka Sound formation in the Canadian Arctic -- a vast deposit of sediment between Canada's two largest land masses, Axel Heiberg and Ellesmere Island, showing rocks of just about the right age -- 55 million years -- that might yield fossils comparable with those found on both continents. For the past 100 years, scientists had suspected that global warming had occurred at the top of the world, enough to support some animal life, but only because of fossil plants found there. No animals had yet been found.

"There was her voice on the other end of the line, without so much as a hello, saying, 'Have you read it? Let's go!' She didn't have to say a word; I knew exactly what she was talking about," he recalls.

But McKenna didn't go on that first trip.

"I was too chicken."

Dawson, he said, had the "guts" to take the risk, but her first trip to Ellesmere Island in 1973, along with several other scientists, was nothing short of disastrous.

"We found nothing. We spent six weeks looking for fossils every day, and while we found a lot of fossil plants, we didn't find anything else. It was very discouraging," Dawson says.

Such trips to the Arctic were hugely expensive -- $3,000 a day compared to $3,000 a season in other places -- but Dawson, skilled at navigating bureaucracies and garnering grants, was able to secure funding for another expedition from the National Geographic Society.

So, in 1975, she flew up there again, along with West, and this time, from the air, the terrain looked more promising -- miles of weathered, buff-colored mudstone, the kind of rocks known to preserve fossils.

This time, they had guessed right, and that led to the fateful lunch of muddy alligator teeth and subsequent worldwide news stories of an almost-tropical Arctic and a land bridge to Europe that, some 55 million years ago, was the migration route of ancestors of rhinos, deer and camels migrating out of Asia to North America and Europe. (Dawson recognized her find right away: A seasoned paleontologist can easily distinguish alligator teeth from, say, mammal's teeth, because alligator teeth don't have roots. Their shape can best be described as that of an ice cream cone turned upside down, with vertical striations.)

Today, scientists still don't agree why the Arctic was able to support alligators -- which must have an average annual temperature of 59 degrees to survive -- and other animals in a place where, today, the average annual temperature is zero.

Whatever the reason, Dawson was the first to discover that it was true.

"I'm sure it was a Eureka moment," says McKenna. "It must have been a thrill, to find this in the middle of nowhere. It gets awfully quiet in the Arctic when the helicopter flies away."

"When we got on the radio that night, we were most certainly excited," Dawson says simply.


On a magnificent fall day last October, Dawson walked into her offices and into a surprise party in her honor. The occasion: her being named as a lifetime member of the Vertebrate Society of Paleontology, a recognition somewhat comparable in the world of bone-collecting to the Kennedy Center Honors.

There were bottles of "Tyrannosaurus Red" wine (bottled by an enterprising vintner near the site of her Western field trips) and brie and crackers lovingly assembled by her much younger colleagues.

The room fell quiet, however, when Director Jay Apt walked in to extend his congratulations. Relations between Apt and the research staffers at the museum had been strained for some time. Upon his hiring, the former astronaut had moved quickly to create exhibits that emphasized computer interaction, sound and light, flash and dash. Imac computers were in; dusty specimens were out.

Dawson, as fierce guardian of the museum's collections, felt the newer exhibits were somewhat shallowly rooted, making little use of the vast array of fossils to educate visitors about life on Earth. Indeed, the word "evolution" appears only in collections on the third floor, where the museum's bug collection is displayed.

Apt made a few congratulatory remarks and then left. He was pleasant, but the group in that room remained unsure that he grasped the significance of her achievement. A few months later, he was gone. Dawson remains, respected, listened to, but it's still not clear whether the museum's top officials today truly understand what they have.

"If you ask me what she does in the field, I'm not sure I could give you a technical answer," says the Carnegie's president, Ellsworth Brown. "I do know that she provides a well-honed and explicit voice of moral authority. And she is fulfilling the museum's mission: She is seeking knowledge and bringing it back and sharing it with colleagues."

But that's not enough, in Dawson's view. Museums have a moral obligation to share this knowledge with the public at large.

"In the view of most paleontologists, these things belong to civilization, not to individuals, and repositories for civilization are museums." And to date, many of these institutions, including the Carnegie, "are not fully utilizing these treasures and their contained information to educate the public about science," she says.

While acknowledging that the exhibits are not "as densely object-based as [Dawson] would like," Brown went on to stress that the interactive exhibits were mounted quickly to "play catch-up" after years of indecision, and the ongoing tension between what he calls the "digital people" and the "specimen people" is "not unique to our museum."

Nonetheless, Dawson notes with quiet glee that fossils can still trump computers.

A few years ago, for example, a major computer modeling project tracking the Earth's past and future climate at Pennsylvania State University encountered something of a setback after the computer scientists consulted Dawson. Their model had shown Wyoming's climate some 55 million years ago to be quite cool.

"I told them they were wrong," she says simply. The fossil record showed a land with palm trees and monkeys, and that, buttressed with her findings from the Arctic, was one of the reasons Penn State scientists decided to scrap that particular model and start over.

"What could they say? It was the old farmer vs. Bill Gates, and the old farmer won," she says, laughing.

Indeed, it's telling that Dawson, renowned scientist, would identify herself primarily in terms of her personal relationship with animals; today, she lives on her farm with 16 sheep, eight dogs "and quite a number of cats."

"Those of us who know her well know that she can be quite solitary and even reclusive," says McKenna. "Mary's essentially camped out in the world. She doesn't like huge meetings or to engage in a lot of rough and tumble discourse. All she wants to do is quietly find out things and go and publish them."

This summer, Dawson will head out to Montana with her colleagues to continue her field work. The Arctic is no longer an option. "I'm an orthopedic surgeon's nightmare," making treks to such isolated outposts impossible.

But she is not fragile.

"As long as I can drag myself outside I will," she says, and then -- in a characteristic attempt to make light of what must be a real hardship -- she adds with a grin:

"Old paleontologists never die. Their knees just give out."

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