Amateur Spotlight: George H. Junne, Jr.

Editor’s note: This issue we interview 2013 Strimple Award Winner Dr. George H. Junne, Jr. Dr. Junne is Professor of Africana Studies at the University of Northern Colorado, but his paleontological ties are with Albion College and the University of Michigan where he mentored, among others, Jonathan Bloch of the Florida Museum of Natural History. We shared George’s answers to the interview questions with Jon and asked him to comment.

George H. Junne, Jr.
George H. Junne, Jr.

I understand that you have an undergraduate degree in photography and were first introduced to the paleo collection at the University of Michigan through a photography job you held while working on your graduate degree in higher education. Had you had any prior exposure or interest in fossils or paleontology as a youth?

George Junne: My first contact with fossils, except for seeing some at a museum, was when I got the photography job at the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan. That was in the spring of 1980 and in a few weeks, everyone I knew seemed to disappear. I found out that they were going to Wyoming to collect. When Phil Gingerich returned, I asked if I could go the following year and he looked at me in surprise because the previous couple of photographers had not wanted to go. Photographing the finds also got me more interested. In 1981, Gerald Smith, professor emeritus of the Fish Division, invited me to go with his group to Idaho, where I stayed before going to Gingerich’s camp. Smith noted that I was spotting things and at one point, he was explaining to me what to look for. I said to him, “You are standing on one.” He was surprised, as I could see it clearly from where I was standing.

At Gingerich’s field camps I began doing less and less photography over the years and more and more collecting. I also began to bring out a Weber grill and barbeque turkeys and other foods. On a couple occasions with Gregg Gunnel of Michigan and Bill Bartels from Albion College, I was the camp director, scheduling the cooking, the dishwashing, getting lunches made, water coolers filled, the grocery shopping, etc.

Jonathan Bloch: I published a paper several years ago using some of George’s very high quality photographs of small mammal fossils from the 1980’s. In the years of photography before digital cameras, illustrations of tiny teeth were hard to do! George was a talented photographer who clearly had a good understanding of what we really need to see when we are describing fossils. George has always had a sense of community when it comes to paleontology. In the beginning, he followed his friends and colleagues out to the badlands of Wyoming to see what this was all about. But, he really became hooked on fossils the way so many of us do…by going to the field and experiencing the hunt and excitement of discovery! By the time I participated in some of these collecting trips with George, in the Bridger Basin of Wyoming, he was not only a critical and enthusiastic part of organizing camp day-to-day activities but also a legend for his ability to find amazing fossils in places nobody else could.

Jonathon Bloch
Jonathon Bloch

I read that you are really good at finding fossil teeth and bones. To what do you attribute your skill?

GJ: I do very well at finding fossil teeth and bones, including very small specimens. However, I am not the best and I know it. Part of this is experience, seeing a unique shape and knowing that when I turn something over, there will be a jaw or some teeth on the other side. What I did not know until a few years ago is that I have a slight case of astigmatism. After revealing this to me, my optometrist told me that if someone drops something on the floor, I would be the best person to find it.

JB: George has that rare ability to be to see what is subtly different…the one-in-a-million “tiny pebbles” in a field of tiny pebbles that looks just a bit different from the rest. I remember one fossil in particular that George found while collecting at SC-67. The way he describes it, he picked up a tiny piece of mudstone that looked odd. He saw what he initially interpreted as insect legs sprouting from the mud (it is very common to pick up dead insects while prospecting for small mammal fossils) and he was about to throw it back to the ground when he decided to take one more look. The “insect legs” were the cusps of molar teeth sprouting from a nodule encasing bone! I am very glad he did not throw it back, because George had found the upper jaw of a very tiny insectivorous mammal that later became the holotype of a new species, Macrocranion junnei, named in honor of George Junne.

You continue to work at SC-67 nearly every season. What draws you back?

GJ: SC-67 is a very difficult place to collect because of all of the slopes out there. Also, almost every level space has been picked over for years. I was able to collect there for a couple days this summer. I think what draws me back is that it is a challenge and almost anything one finds there is important. SC-67 is one place that people have worked all day and found nothing!

JB: SC-67 is a small locality in the Bighorn Basin that preserves a short interval of time ~56 million years ago called the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum.” This time not only marks a massive global warming event that lasted about 200 thousand years, but it also happens to be when the first artiodactyls (even-toed ungulates like camels and pigs), perissodactyls (odd-toed ungulates, including the first horse), and modern primates appear in the fossil record. But fossils from this locality are rare, and it is not uncommon to look for hours and find nothing. Recognizing that everything he found was going to be important, George kept going back and slowly helped build one of the best collections from this interval of time in the world. His dedication to this task underlines one of the most important rules in fossil collecting as part of the scientific process…that we should have a question when we start looking. And most of the good questions can only be answered by looking in places where others have not. If it were easy, everybody would do it!

To date, there are three different species named after you! Do you have a favorite fossil find?

GJ: I really don’t have a favorite find. What I can relate is that there have been days when I have bee crawling around for half a day-tired, hot, disgusted-and look down and see a little jaw smiling at me.

JB: Obviously, in hindsight some fossils turn out to be more important that others. And what an honor to have something named after you! But, while I would not presume to really know, it would not surprise me if in the moment of discovery, George might assume that everything that he finds is new and exciting! And it is. He is the first one to see the remains of this mammal in millions of years. To quote one of the greats:

Fossil hunting is by far the most fascinating of all sports. It has some dangers, enough to give it zest and probably about as much as in the average modern engineered big-game hunt, and danger is wholly to the hunter. It has uncertainty and excitement and all the thrills of gambling with none of the vicious features. The hunter never knows what his bag may be, perhaps nothing, perhaps a creature never before seen by human eyes. Over the next hill may lie the next great discovery! It requires knowledge, skill, and some degree of hardihood. And its results are so much more important, more worthwhile, and more enduring than those of any other sport! The fossil hunter does not kill, he resurrects. And the result of this sport is to add to the sum of human pleasure and to the treasure of human knowledge.“— George Gaylord Simpson (1934: Attending Marvels)

Bighorn Basin photo courtesy of Jason Bourque
Bighorn Basin photo courtesy of Jason Bourque

You have been recognized as a wonderful mentor and teacher. What are the most important lessons you try to share with novices? What are the most common mistakes novices make?

GJ: Sometimes novices are left to fend for themselves and what I try to do is to work with them a bit by showing them a possible layer to explore and encouraging them not to quit the spot if they are not finding things right away. I also try to lift their spirits when at the end of the day they might not find anything when other people are. Sometimes I might collect with someone and will spot something, not tell the person, and have that person collect in that spot.

JB: My first collecting trip to the Badlands of Wyoming was in the summer of 1993. I had just finished college at the University of California, Santa Cruz and had been accepted for graduate school at the University of Michigan. It was the beginning of a grand adventure…I threw all my things into the back of my pick-up truck and drove out to the Bighorn Basin where I met up with paleontologists for a 4th of July BBQ in Powell, Wyoming. Here I met my PhD advisor for the first time, and joined a crew of fossil collectors. But I really had no idea what I was doing! I quickly learned that, if I was not finding fossils, I just had to find George. I would observe what he was doing and then copy it. He explained to me that I needed to walk up and down the different layers until I found even a trace of bone. Then, I should stick to that layer and walk it out until I found something amazing. It worked! I remember various pieces of insight from George, including “if it’s not there, you can’t find it” or, when a fossil was particularly broken up “we don’t make them, we just find them.” He taught me a lot about how to work in the field. I now often use these same techniques to teach my own students how to collect fossils in Wyoming.

I understand you have collected a large percentage of the mammal fossils at the University of Michigan. Do you have a personal collection as well? What are your thoughts about the amateur collectors and the contributions of amateurs to the science of paleontology?

GJ: About the only collection I have is gar scales or a few things I have picked up wandering the badlands away from a University of Michigan/Johns Hopkins site. Everything that I pick up while working for those schools is turned in to them. Amateurs can contribute greatly to paleontology and I don’t think we use them enough. Where we collect in Wyoming, the Churchill family, for instance, has brought fossils and sites to our attention. Also, amateurs are also wandering the badlands for recreation and hunting and stumble across all kinds of things. It would be good if they were instructed to not only pick up things, but also to GPS the spot. I know for a fact that there are many people with good stuff sitting on shelves in their homes because I have seen some.

JB: It does not surprise me that George does not really have a personal collection. George is not a professional paleontologist, but he is no amateur when it comes to fossil collecting. He has a very sophisticated understanding of the scientific importance of what he collects and how it should be used and preserved for future generations. He is an important example of the seamless way in which the amateur and professional communities can (and do in many cases) work together to better understand and teach about the history of life.

Many of our members do education and outreach with children. Do you have any advice to share with them about ways to effectively reach the young?

GJ: At both the Michigan and Johns Hopkins camps there have been people who have brought their children, and many of them have done well. We often joke that because they are closer to the ground, they might be able to see things we adults miss. Because of conversations at camp, I know that some young people grew up learning something about basic anatomy, geology and other topics that helped them out in school.

JB: George has a deep understanding of the importance of direct participation in the fossil collecting process to engage young people.

As an academic by profession, you must constantly be learning by reading. Does that apply to your work with fossils as well?

GJ: I really do not have much time to read about paleontology except for items people that I know. Sometimes I will go to their websites and read about their latest finds and their importance. Over the years I have attended conferences to catch up on what people are doing. Many years ago I told one of my cowboy buddies in Wyoming what I do and he said, “Oh, I see. You’re the bird dog!” That’s what I do. I find things.

JB: George’s response speaks for itself. That said, he knows a lot more then he lets on, but probably from experience more than anything!

Do you have any frightening or funny stories from the field you would like to share?

GJ: One time I was collecting with the Michigan crew around Opal Bench. I had my rock pick with me as usual. All of a sudden, I heard scraping sounds and I could tell something was scrambling up the side of the small butte I was working. Suddenly a male mountain lion jumped up about 30 feet in front of me. We both looked at each other in shock and I got a tighter grip on my rock pick. As we used to say when I was young, “If somebody gets hurt here, I won’t be the only one!” Within a couple seconds, it turned around and scrambled down the side. I could hear it and ran over to the side to look down and get a last glimpse. I could see for at least a half-mile and there was nothing!

JB: Never heard that one! Strange what we see when the sun is relentlessly beating down, boiling our brains in our skulls. Sometimes we commune with the living beasts in dramatic ways…other times the dead ones. George has many amazing stories…but you might need to pry the best ones out of him over a few beers at the pig races in Bearcreek, Montana!

Do you have any thoughts about the future of paleontology?

GJ: Paleontology will continue to be an important field as scientists recreate the history of the planet. With new technologies, they are also able to make keen insights for the future. For people like me, I just stumbled into the area and it is unfortunate that many young people know nothing about it.