Editor’s note: This issue, Malcolm W. Bedell, past president and honorary lifetime member of the Western Interior Paleontological Society (WIPS), graciously responded to questions from the FOSSIL Project’s Eleanor Gardner. Susan Passmore, co-chair of the WIPS communication/outreach committee added the following: “Malcolm….has been passionate about paleontology since childhood. His professional career was in the insurance field. He developed and has run a WIPS field trip to Baculite Mesa (east of Pueblo, Colorado, Cretaceous Pierre Shale) for over 25 years. A specimen discovered from that field trip by another member turned out to be a new genus of crab. Malcolm recently co-authored with Torrey Nyborg (Loma Linda University) and others a paper on this new crab, which was part of a volume in honor of the late Bill Cobban published in Acta Geologica Polonica in 2016 (https://geojournals.pgi.gov.pl/agp). As a result of his work running a dinosaur quarry in Wyoming (as a volunteer), Malcolm also co-authored a chapter in the book Thunder-Lizards: The Sauropodomorph Dinosaurs on the “First Articulated Manus of Diplodocus carnegii” and is working on a second paper describing a hind foot with pathology from the same quarry.”
How did you first discover your passion for fossil collecting?
I would not call it necessarily a “passion for collecting,” so much as a passion for the science – with collecting included. It began so long ago that it is genuinely difficult for me to determine that, but I think my parents dragging me across the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History may have had something to do with it. I was the kid still stuck in the first room, reading all the descriptive signs, when mom and dad were already three rooms ahead.
How long have you been collecting fossils (when did you begin)?
I have a book called All About Dinosaurs by Roy Chapman Andrews. Inside the cover, in pencil, is written “To Malcolm, Christmas, 1955 from Gram.” My grandmother on dad’s side gave me that gift presumably because I must have indicated some interest well before then (my age was single digits), …….so, over 60 years.
Do you have a private collection of fossils? If so, how do you identify/organize your fossils (i.e., which texts or other resources do you use, or which professional paleontologists do you consult)?
I have a large library of references, as well as reference fossils, and access to some of the most famous paleontologists in the world either through personal acquaintance, or the organizations to which I belong. I use scientifically recognized binomial nomenclature for genus and species, with information about locality and geology, occasionally with special notes.
How did you become involved with the Western Interior Paleontological Society?
Steve Jorgensen, a world-expert on certain types of Cretaceous invertebrates and WIPS’ first president, along with a mutual friend then also on WIPS’ board of directors, were also both on my homeowner’s association board back in the late 1980s. We had gotten into discussions about paleontology enough that they suggested I become a member. When I agreed, they sponsored me.
I understand that you are an expert on the marine fossil faunas of the Baculite Mesa region of southern Colorado. Can you please tell us about this region and its paleontological significance?
The importance of Baculite Mesa, in a general scientific sense, has to do with it providing information and evidence concerning the time when “Colorado had beachfront property.” In other words, a period of, all-told, about 60 million years (mid-late Cretaceous) during which a great inland sea split our continent roughly in half. It was a time of transgressing and regressing seas (moving back and forth, expanding and contracting). There were times when the shoreline ran right by the Mesa, and many others when it was hundreds of miles away. Baculite Mesa shows a good sample of what the latter part of this period was like. How marine life adapted to these changing conditions is what makes it interesting. Also, this was the area where the concept of “Biostratigraphy” (identifying time zones by the fossils contained within them when other methods are insufficient) was most closely worked out by such top paleontologists as Dr. William Cobban.
In 1995, when I was president of WIPS, a member of the society made me aware of a new museum in northern Wyoming where WIPS members might be able to assist with excavations, and in other ways. I met the owner; we had lengthy discussions, which seemed to go very well, I did some fieldwork with them, and then brought a proposal to the WIPS Board of Directors. As a result, a small “test group” of volunteers was sent up the following year. Very little work was done on the quarry in which the important foot bones were eventually found, but the experience left everyone wanting more. In 1997, a WIPS volunteer found some bones – at what eventually became the “FS” (for “Foot Sauropod”) Quarry – that she thought were “horns.” I identified them as claws, and we were off to the races. To shorten a long story, there turned out to be several articulated (very rare) feet of a sauropod dinosaur there, one of which is the first articulated front foot (manus) of Diplodocus carnegii, an animal otherwise very well-known for over 100 years. We submitted an abstract with reproduced bones and other material to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, which was accepted and displayed in 1999. Many professionals examined all this, and we were asked by the best in that field at the time to write a deeper description, bringing to bear all the evidence we could find. That too was done (but took until 2005 to finally get accepted by peer review and published). Scientists from around the planet read it, and many comments were received. One was from the fellow heading up relevant paleo operations at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, PA, Dr. Matt Lamanna. He asked in 2006 to use our information in a renovation of “Dinosaur Hall” to occur in 2007, and we said “yes.” Scaled up to size (our animal is a sub-adult, theirs an adult), the correct front feet could now be seen on “Dippy,” as the kids call their main attraction, for the first time ever, and the work WIPS volunteers had done for years at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center’s “FS Quarry” could be seen to have described a “complete circle” – from discovery to excavation, to description, to use.
What other paleontological projects are you currently working on, in partnership with professionals?
I am collaborating as lead author on a paper with several authors about the hind foot of a dinosaur, which had osteomyelitis by unique circumstances. Also, I have been asked to be involved with the excavation and possible descriptions of other dinosaurs in several places, though I continue to work with invertebrates as well.
What is your most favorite fossil that you have discovered? Why?
Probably the femur of a mammoth from the famous “Snowmastodon” site near the town of Snowmass, CO. It was really a joint discovery, and there were many important discoveries during that project, but the euphoria of the entire enterprise, for those lucky enough to be allowed to participate by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, was unforgettable. This is a hard choice, as I have worked on and seen many things for the first time (as has anyone in my position). Discovering bones of the Utahraptor before it was described, while working as a WIPS volunteer under Dr. Jim Kirkland at the “Yellowcat” Quarry in Utah, which was larger and more impressive than Spielberg’s fantasy Velociraptor in “Jurassic Park,” was also a thrill.
Do you have any recommendations or tips for other fossils clubs/societies who are trying to improve their level of collaboration with professionals?
First of all, don’t call yourselves a “club.” Formulate a set of scientific and ethical standards and behavior with respect to how fossils are going to be handled (this does not have to preclude collecting), and stick to that closely. Arrange and teach courses for members on all the basics, then make available if possible, or encourage, more advanced courses for those who might be interested. Offer to help understaffed and underfunded professionals. Develop MOUs with federal land agencies and be “citizen scientists” whenever the opportunity arises.
To learn more:
Nyborg, T., Bedell, M., Garassino, A., Larson, N. L., & Bishop, G. A. (2016). A new homolid crab, Zygastrocarcinus tricki sp. nov., from the Pierre Shale (middle Campanian), Baculite Mesa, Pueblo County, Colorado, USA. Acta Geologica Polonica, 66(4). (If your browser blocks access via the link, you can search for the article on Google Scholar.)
Western Interior Paleontological Society website