Featured Professional: Robert W. Boessenecker

Editor’s Note: Our featured professional this issue is Robert (Bobby) Boessenecker, a paleontologist at the College of Charleston in Charleston, South Carolina.

by Robert Boessenecker

Bobby standing on an outcrop of Pleistocene marine rocks in coastal Oregon
Bobby standing on an outcrop of Pleistocene marine rocks in coastal Oregon

In my experience, budding paleontologists essentially come from two backgrounds: college students who discovered paleontology in college or children who have wanted to be paleontologists since they were three years old. I’m in the latter category – and I’m not passing judgement on either background: some of my best friends and sharpest minds in the field strayed into paleontology seemingly by accident. Growing up with the desire to study fossils for a living, it was inevitable that I started collecting them as an amateur before I made it into college. However, as most young dinosaur aficionados in coastal California learn by the age of ten, there aren’t really many opportunities for finding dinosaur fossils close by. So it wasn’t until I matured a little bit during my high school years and asked myself “Okay, there are other fossils besides dinosaurs. So what do we have?” and I quickly found the answer: “Shark teeth, ice age mammals, and marine mammals – that could be pretty cool.” During my sophomore year of high school, my dad started humoring me by taking me to various local fossil sites in Santa Cruz, California, and the “East Bay” (Oakland, California), and one great trip down to the famed Sharktooth Hill near Bakersfield, California – the holy grail of west coast fossil sites. Senior year of high school rolled around and I got out early one day a week, so I kept a field bag full of tools permanently in my car and I’d leave directly from high school and go exploring.

In Fall 2003 I started as a freshmen at Montana State University, and within a few months, my undergraduate adviser Dave Varricchio encouraged me – despite my grades – to think about a field-based research project. I had a few suggestions, but the answer didn’t hit me in the face until I got a phone call from my uncle while I was on vacation up at Lake Tahoe, who had heard from a surfer friend about a skeleton in a cliff out on the coast. I left the annual Tahoe vacation early, called the surfer, and got directions to the site; with my friend Tim Palladino, we drove out and began exploring. We spotted great white shark teeth and several bonebeds full of bones sticking out of the cliffs which represented a newly-discovered vertebrate fossil locality unknown to amateurs and professional paleontologists alike. I was sure, based on the location, that it was the Purisima Formation – a late Miocene-Pliocene aged marine sandstone unit that is exposed further south in Santa Cruz county and further north near Half Moon Bay. Upon returning to MSU in Fall 2004, Dave and I sat down and began crafting a permit application and got in touch with California State Parks and an undergraduate scholarship program at MSU. I received a small grant and my first paleontological collections permit at the age of 19 – and much of this early research background was responsible for getting me into graduate school at MSU, and eventually a doctoral program in New Zealand.

In parallel, a separate Purisima Formation locality frequented by amateurs, known as Capitola in Santa Cruz County, was in danger of being covered up by a seawall. Being a bit bored of non-geology classes like freshmen level English and Chemistry, I participated in a letter-writing campaign against the seawall proposal and put together the “Help Save Capitola” petition to raise awareness of the loss of the fossil site. The seawall proponents actually said that the seawall would protect the fossils! I was flabbergasted. Fortunately, the Sierra Club and Surfriders distributed the petition, and it was read aloud at the City Council meeting that would ultimately block the seawall – and all future seawalls within city limits. Admittedly, I had selfish reasons for doing so – it was my favorite fossil locality – but the campaign’s success had the added side effect of enabling amateur paleontologists to continue visiting the cliffs in search of beautiful Pliocene mollusks. Five years later, the Capitola cliffs became one of my key localities for my master’s thesis on the preservation of fossil vertebrates in marine shelf deposits, using the Purisima Formation as a model. After my master’s program, I continued on to do doctoral research at the University of Otago in New Zealand with Ewan Fordyce, studying Oligocene baleen whales, and have since graduated and gotten a job at the College of Charleston in South Carolina teaching introductory geology and studying Oligocene whales and dolphins.

Excavating Paleocene sea turtle and penguin bones with a Pionjar rock drill in New Zealand
Excavating Paleocene sea turtle and penguin bones with a Pionjar rock drill in New Zealand

I didn’t do much of this alone. In my early years I learned most of what I knew from other amateur paleontologists. The very spirit of my field studies have rarely approached the archetypal dinosaur dig on TV: an army of volunteers and graduate students toiling over a white plaster monolith under the blistering Montana sun. Rather, just like my undergraduate fieldwork, I’m often with a small crew (typically consisting of my wife Sarah, a fellow paleontologist who loves the coast and has a keen eye for tiny fossils), tramping through the fog up and down isolated driftwood-strewn beaches in search of bones. If I need help collecting something big, my extra field hands are more often than not friends of mine who are amateur paleontologists. Two of my favorite amateur collaborators are Chris Pirrone, an attorney in Redwood City, California (who has helped me collect several important whale and dolphin skulls and skeletons, and several of his own), and undergraduate student Forrest Sheperd (who found a complete Pliocene walrus skull in Santa Cruz at age 13, which he donated to UC Berkeley).

Amateur paleontologist Chris Pirrone and Bobby with a small Pliocene baleen whale skull in a plaster jacket, Santa Cruz, CA
Amateur paleontologist Chris Pirrone and Bobby with a small Pliocene baleen whale skull in a plaster jacket, Santa Cruz, CA

As my studies and employment have migrated further and further away from my favorite fossil localities in California, I’ve maintained positive relationships with local amateurs like Chris and Forrest, who continue to find spectacular treasures – and generously offer them to science. I hadn’t seen either Chris or Forrest in a couple of years during my Ph.D. down under, so one of the first things I did upon returning was to schedule some joint collecting trips last summer. There are far more amateur paleontologists than there ever will be professionals, and they get far more opportunities than we do to make it into the field (and for that, we are jealous!). Cultivating strong, positive relationships with amateur collectors should be a priority for all paleontologists who care about growing fossil collections in museums. As I write this, my mind wanders to my next task: writing labels and planning out a new display for our museum at the College of Charleston showcasing and celebrating local fossil discoveries donated by amateurs to our museum. With the possible exception of grant agencies, amateur paleontologists are our greatest allies.

To learn more:

Read about Bobby (in his student days) and fossil hunting at Capitola in this 2005 article

View some Capitola fossil finds on the Fossil Forum

Boessenecker RW, Churchill M (2013) A Reevaluation of the Morphology, Paleoecology, and Phylogenetic Relationships of the Enigmatic Walrus Pelagiarctos. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54311. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054311

Boessenecker RW, Perry FA, Schmitt JG (2014) Comparative Taphonomy, Taphofacies, and Bonebeds of the Mio-Pliocene Purisima Formation, Central California: Strong Physical Control on Marine Vertebrate Preservation in Shallow Marine Settings. PLoS ONE 9(3): e91419. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0091419

Boessenecker, R. W., Fordyce, R. E. (2015), A new Eomysticetid (Mammalia: Cetacea) from the Late Oligocene of New Zealand and a re-evaluation of ‘Mauicetuswaitakiensis. Papers in Palaeontology, 1: 107–140. doi: 10.1002/spp2.1005

You can also follow Bobby on Twitter @CoastalPaleo and read his blog at http://coastalpaleo.blogspot.com/