Featured Paleontologist: Rebecca Hunt-Foster

Rebecca Hunt-Foster
Rebecca Hunt-Foster

This issue, we spotlight Rebecca Hunt-Foster, District Paleontologist for Bureau of Land Management Canyon Country District in southeastern Utah. She is based out of Moab, Utah. Her district covers 3.5 million acres and includes sites that hold exciting new dinosaur discoveries.

Your current research focuses on dinosaurs. Were you a huge fan of dinosaurs as a child?

I was not a huge fan of dinosaurs as a young child, but was always into animals, particularly reptiles and amphibians. I seemed to skip the “dinosaur phase” that many younger children go through, or at least had a delayed response to it. I did enjoy dinosaurs, but I came to find them through books when I was around 13 years old. My mom is a librarian and the first book on paleontology I read was Jack Horner’s “Digging Dinosaurs.” That book opened the door on paleontology to me and made it very appealing. After that I devoured every book in my mom’s library, and then got as many things on Inter Library Loan as I could at the time. I also had the opportunity to spend time in college libraries where I had more access to additional books and journals. I started to write to ‘local’ paleontologists (there was only one vertebrate paleontologist in Arkansas when I was growing up, so I wrote to many others in surrounding states) and asking questions and if I could participate on excavations. Our local Arkansas paleontologist, Dr. Leo Carson Davis, took me on my first excavation in northern Arkansas where I had a chance to work at Pleistocene vertebrate site inside a cave. In the stream beds outside of the cave were the common Paleozoic invertebrate fossils, such as crinoids, brachiopods, and bryozoans. It was a day I have never forgotten and my first real introduction to fossils in the field.

I read that you are the sole field paleontologist in the Bureau of Land Management. Do you think aspiring paleontologists might see that as a viable career path?

I am currently the first and only district paleontologist in the BLM.  Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument has had a field paleontologist on staff since 2000, and the BLM also currently employs 2 state paleontologists, 3 regional paleontologists, and 1 national program lead. The National Park Service also employs about 10 professional paleontologists at at least 7 parks and monuments, and also has a national program lead. The USDA Forest Service currently employees three professional paleontologists. Federal land management is a viable career path in paleontology. The jobs are few, but they do exist and we are always looking for qualified people who are experienced with museum collections, federal land management, and professional paleontology (i.e. paleocrats). With the signing of the Paleontology Resources Preservation Act in 2009, requiring that the agency manage paleontological resources using scientific principles and expertise, the bureau will likely hire more state and district paleontologists in the future, although I am unaware how or when they will be adding these positions.

I chose to pursue a position with the federal land management agency over working in a museum or academic positions for a few reasons. I like working with a variety of people, and my job allows for me to interact with a variety of spectrums, from the public to higher level researchers. The type of work I get to do with my job appeals to me – the days are seldom the same and I have a variety of things I am responsible for accomplishing. I really enjoy being able to be outside and experience this great area, and to encourage other to get out and enjoy it as well. I see new things and meet new people all the time, and that since of discovery and helping to educate and excite people about paleontology really drives me to do my job.

Rebecca and volunteers working in southern Utah
Rebecca and volunteers working in southern Utah

What is a typical work day like for you?

I do not have a typical work day – it is often something new, and greatly depends on the season and activities going on in our area. One day I might be working with a paleontologist to help them in obtaining an excavation permit, and the next day I could be in a classroom speaking with children or giving a public lecture to interested members of our community. I also get to work with other members within our BLM team to assist with their projects – everything from recreation and wildlife to mineral extraction and range land issues – we have actually had cows find dinosaur tracks!

I give advice on paleontological field work taking place in my area, and assist researchers and consultants with obtaining the appropriate permits they need to do work in my district. I have been developing a paleontology education program that includes public outreach, to help our community and visitors gain a better appreciation for our paleontological resources, while also helping to educate about the need for protection of these fossils. I work with my other natural resource specialist through the NEPA process, and develop stipulations for actions needed to protect fossils. I maintain databases, and work in GIS for various projects that I give input on. For instance, if a new hiking trail or oil pad were to be constructed, I would give advice about what the potential would be for finding fossils in that area. If the potential is high or likely I would suggest a surface survey or monitoring for the area before, and sometimes during, construction. Fossils are often found before the work occurs, and these can be safely removed or the project can be moved around them so they are not damaged. When the potential to find fossils is very high, a paleontologist is on site while the work is taking place, to help safely remove any fossils discovered before any damage or additional damage is done. This type of work is often called consulting or mitigation paleontology, and is a growing field that many may want to consider as a possible career path.

Given that the goal of FOSSIL is to link amateur groups with professionals, what are your thoughts about the role of amateurs in the science? 

I believe that amateurs are vital for the progression of science. In my job I work closely with the Utah Friends of Paleontology (UFOP), which is a statewide non-profit volunteer organization dedicated to preserving Utah’s fossil resources through public education and volunteer support of sponsoring institutions. Our local chapter (the Gastonia Chapter) was started in February of 2013 and we have a great group of local community members who help me to preserve and protect the fossils in southeastern Utah. Our volunteers actively participate in monitoring sites with our new paleontology site stewardship program, assist in local paleontology projects such as helping researchers uncover tracksites or excavate fossil sites, trail and locality maintenance, community education activities, and with finding fossils themselves. On almost a weekly basis I will get an email from our local UFOP chapter members, other community members, and visitors to the area who have discovered a new tracks or bones in the field, or who want to know more about our area and how they can make discoveries themselves. I love begin able to interact with them and visit these discoveries with them and their families.

I think it is important to work with your local community, as they are often the ones out on the ground finding the fossils. Being able to include them in the scientific process and help further their appreciation and education about why these sites are important is a wonderful experience. I find that amateurs ask some great questions about the HOWS and WHYS, and really make me think about it from different angles, which I find very beneficial and helps me to be a better educator and communicator.

Rebecca Hunt-Foster with dinosaur track in southern Utah
Rebecca Hunt-Foster with dinosaur track in southern Utah


I understand a site in southern Utah that includes some amazing dinosaur tracks is going to be open for the public. When do you anticipate that happening?

Southeastern Utah is a great area for tracks! We have the right age and type of rocks exposed over great distances. In the Moab area we currently have four publicly interpreted sites that you can hike to and visit. In 2015 we are planning on adding more hiking trails to visit tracksites—one in the Moab area and one near Blanding. One of the tracksites in Moab is special due to the abundance of tracks available to view at the site – a minimum diversity of at least 10 named ichnotaxa representing dinosaurian and crocodilian trackmakers. Several of these tracks are either new to North America, or from animals not currently known to science from body fossils in this area, making this the most significant Early Cretaceous tracksite in the world. This site is a short distance from the highway, and from the parking lot there will be an information kiosk with information about the short hike (less than a quarter of a mile). A trail that leads to a series of boardwalks will guide you around the site, with interpretative panels explaining about the various tracks and how they were made. A shade structure will also be on site to keep visitors out of the elements and give them a nice overview location for viewing the tracks. We hope to have the site opened in the spring of 2015, with a public celebration planned for the future as well. Stay tuned for future details and announcements!

Many of our Fossil Clubs and Societies are very committed to education and work hard to engage youth. Do you have any advice to share about effective ways to get children and teens interested in paleontology and collections?

I think giving youth the opportunity to join you in the field or the museum can really help spark their interest. It is one thing to visit their schools and tell them about what it is like, but having the opportunity to actually go out and do the real work, even for a few hours, can be priceless and change lives. Showing all aspects of the work, from the fun and amazing moments, like finding a fossil in situ or doing prep work, to the mundane everyday task, such as data management, labeling or inventorying, can give a better understanding of what the job as a whole is like.

Further reading:

Read about how amateur and professional paleontologists are working to excavate dinosaur tracks in southern Utah. Moab Times Independent. View video here.

2014 scientific paper on the excavation of the Mill Canyon Dinosaur Track Site. pdf.

A description of John Foster and Rebecca Hunt-Foster’s research involving dinosaur skin fossils is here.

An interesting story about the only dinosaur remains found in Arkansas, and the focus of Rebecca’s graduate research.

More on Rebecca Hunt-Foster on the National Fossil Day website.