Editor’s Note: This issue we feature George Phillips, Curator of Paleontology at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science in Jackson, Mississippi. George was kind enough to respond to questions submitted by newsletter editor Shari Ellis.
I read an article in The Clarion-Ledger that your interest in paleontology came about when you were about 12 years old and one of your family’s farm hands found a variety of artifacts and fossils in a creek near where you lived. Can you talk a little more about that?
His name was Charles James, but everyone who knew him well called him “Soul.” He excelled at finding things in general—from misplaced wrenches to the best shade tree for lunch (during field work) to ancient objects lying out in the furrows or in creek beds. Once I was told the antiquity and significance of what Soul was finding, it didn’t take long to spur my interest, and searching for artifacts and fossils during intermittent work breaks soon became a way to occupy ‘idle time’—opportunities for which my brother and I might otherwise find mischief.
The article also suggests that you went to college to pursue an undergraduate science degree after a few years of other kinds of work. I’m thinking this means that you might have been a little older than the typical undergraduate student? What advice would you give anyone interested in pursuing a career in paleontology?
And more mature—let’s not forget that. My family had a diversified enterprise that centered around grain farming and food service, but when it went belly-up in the early 1990s, the family dispersed, almost all of us headed ‘back to school’ in one form or another. With few obvious exceptions, I don’t think it’s ever too late to change careers, although this often involves an academic commitment. I often jokingly tell people that I decided to become a paleontologist when I failed at everything else. However, I learned a lot about life and other jobs prior to finding my ‘path’ in paleontology. I suppose I never took it seriously, at least not initially. “People get paid to do that?” I suppose I am now living the dream of that dinosaur-obsessed 4-8 year old demographic, but also trying to answer questions about the past, particularly as it pertains to where I grew up here in Mississippi.
I understand that you grew up in Mississippi and now you are a curator at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science working on the same fossil material that first got you interested in paleontology. Is that unusual—for someone to be able to return back to their “stomping grounds?”
Although I had originally planned to pursue a PhD in the classical stratigraphic section of the Western Interior, I was getting older and poorer after the MS, and the family and friendly ties to my home state, familiar and comforting surroundings, and my research interests in the geology of the Gulf Coastal Plain (which is loaded with fossils) were substantial, plus a rare job opening made my return to Mississippi inexorably logical.
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?
One cannot overemphasize the importance of avocational groups, or individuals, to the natural sciences. From astronomy to biology to geology, the realm of the life sciences and physical sciences is populated with inventors, innovators, and discoverers who have made substantial contributions to their respective interest, and, as amateurs, they didn’t get paid for doing it, but actually incurred expenses, privately funding their inventions and discoveries—often for the betterment of collective knowledge and public good. The MMNS Paleontology program could not have accomplished what it has in terms of collections and research without the assistance of amateurs and volunteers contributing their time, resources, and discoveries to furthering the documentation of extinct organisms and ancient ecosystems. In addition, many individuals and civic groups (e.g. rock & gem clubs) involved in avocational pursuits in the natural sciences are also active in extracurricular education, disseminating knowledge to the otherwise uninformed by giving presentations at schools and providing activities or demonstrations at events. I would gather there are lot of self-taught adults or fossil club members who know more about the local prehistoric life than your average 6th grade teacher, thus the former becomes an additional, or supplemental, source of scientific information.
Many of our Fossil Clubs and Societies are very committed to education and work hard to engage youth. I read that you were mentored as a teen by a professional paleontologist you befriended and his wife. Based on your experience, do you have any advice to share about effective ways to get children and teens interested in paleontology and collections?
I was lucky, and access to mentors and organized mentoring programs for kids is uncommon. Museums (and academic extension offices) are always thinking of ways to assist the public with educational programming and events, including more one-on-one activities. The forces working against this process are, these days, perennial and too numerous to mention, but boil down to operating budgets. When funding is poor, the schools always cut travel (e.g. to museums) first; many parents work full time (and then some); and museums, who serve to assist the schools with interactive learning, are often dependent on scarce and competitive grants to accomplish such ends, not to mention always understaffed.
One of our many annually occurring events here at MMNS is NatureFEST, which consists of a single ‘open house’ day in early April (although it takes a week or two of prep time), where the public is allowed access to the Research & Collections wing. Our biologists, and yours truly, interact with families, individually and in larger groups, showing them what it is we do in our respective programs. There is also the university-directed BioBlitz event, as well as the junior naturalist program. MMNS also accommodates shadowing and, for older kids, the student intern program—albeit when time and staffing allow. We also have several field trips each year available to juniors 13 years of age and up. There is nothing like actually finding a fossil to stimulate an interest in paleontology beyond the fascination first kindled in a children’s book or Nat Geo program on dinosaurs.
What is a typical work day like for you? What are some of your favorite parts of your job? Your least favorite?
The day begins with attention to administrative requests and policy issues, which, although not significant in number, must be addressed first thing. Then on to answering e-mails and social media queries, which are often populated with requests for fossil identifications. After that, I address any correspondence having to do with the many research- and collections-related projects I have going on at the moment. After that, if there are no visitors or educational programs on the schedule, the day becomes a three-way struggle between my obligations to collections maintenance, official duties (meetings, admin orders, etc.), and research writing—the last item almost invariably losing to the other two. But, it is the nature of the beast! As with any job that is enjoyable, which this one most certainly is, the stuff you don’t like to do is the price you pay for the stuff you love to do, and one of the greatest rewards being the occasional trip to the field!
Your discovery of the tooth of a ceratopsid horned dinosaur in the Owl Creek Formation made the news! Can you describe that day?
One of my favorite subjects, one for which there is decent exposure in Mississippi and much research interest globally, is the study of the lattermost part of the Cretaceous Period, specifically the sediments, and their fossiliferous contents, deposited just before the K-Pg boundary and shortly thereafter during what is known as the ‘recovery period’ of the early Paleocene. Although my graduate research was on Pleistocene freshwater turtle communities, my principal research efforts these days are focused on the composition of benthic (bottom-dwelling) marine macroinvertebrate communities of the uppermost Cretaceous and what they were replaced with in the ensuing Paleocene. The Owl Creek Formation and superjacent Clayton Formation contain much information regarding this story in northeast Mississippi.
That particular day in July of last year, I was on the hunt for Cretaceous crabs, showing a new volunteer—a local rockhound—how to spot the small, mostly partial carapaces in modern stream deposits. We were in a creek bed where I’d made a couple of previous but unsuccessful attempts to also find the K-Pg boundary in the muddy, vegetated walls of the channel. An adventure that began with just the two of us became a small, impromptu outreach program when we encountered two boys and their dad and uncle rockhounding the creek bed from the other direction. The men were out treasure-hunting, primarily for ‘arrowheads,’ not knowing much about what it was they were looking for but determined nonetheless. The kids were just along enjoying the outdoor adventure. We decided to engage the juniors, who we soon discovered were considerably more garrulous and eager to learn than the men, who barely offered eye contact at first. After less than an hour of explaining a variety of the stream-eroded fossils we were finding all around us, we left the grateful family outing and headed in the direction of my work truck. We hadn’t progressed more than 100 feet or so, when stopping just below a waterfall, where we’d looked only briefly on our way to better exposure, my eyes locked on to a curiously shaped object at the very top of the first point bar below the fall.
I knew right away it was a herbivorous dinosaur tooth, but my lack of expertise in distinguishing among the various ornithischian tooth types was limited to having some working familiarity (at that point) with only two groups—hadrosaurs (duck-billed dinosaurs) and ankylosaurs (nodosaurs, specifically). Upon making it back to the vehicle, I posted pictures on social media advertising it as an “ornithopod” tooth, although not a hadrosaur. Within the time I took for us to satisfy our thirst and load up the truck, a social media alert came across my phone. Checking the phone one more time before we proceeded, a colleague from the University of Alabama—Dr. Lynn Harrell—had chimed in with sufficiently greater knowledge about dinosaurs than I. Within a half hour, not long after we arrived at our next collecting opportunity, he had connected me with ceratopsian expert Dr. Andrew Farke at the Raymond M. Alf Museum. After briefly discussing the obvious significance of the discovery with Andrew, and after my sidekick and I finished sampling the last station for the day, I headed home with the unwritten portion to my contribution to the ceratopsian paper slowly taking form in my head. And the rest, as they say, is history—or paleontology, in this case.
Is the tooth your favorite fossil discovery or do you have others?
Grinning, I can modestly say, “It’s alright.” It certainly has garnered quite a bit of attention. Although I do not consider dinosaurs my particular area of interest or expertise, my role here at MMNS, as curator of the state fossil collection, requires that I know at least a little bit about every macrofossil group—vertebrate, invertebrate, and plant—within our state’s borders. This general knowledge about a diversity of groups is necessary in order to address issues like significance, rarity, conservation, research potential, availability, educational potential, etc. for each fossil discovery reported to our offices. I work and publish on a variety of organisms with my only restriction being that the topics somehow relate to Mississippi’s past—a requirement for funding. I’ve published very little on the subject (two full-length papers thus far), but I am especially fond of a family of Late Cretaceous lamp urchins (Cassiduloida: Faujasiidae) that are, although not restricted to Mississippi, preserved in greater diversity and abundance here in the Gulf Coastal Plain than anywhere else in the world. Most species inhabited environments, like beaches and carbonate banks, now occupied by modern sand dollars and sea biscuits (respectively), which didn’t appear in any form until 6-9 million years after shore- and bank-dwelling lamp urchins became extinct.
To learn more:
Farke, A., Phillips, G. 2017. The first reported ceratopsid dinosaur from eastern North America (Owl Creek Formation, Upper Cretaceous, Mississippi, USA). PeerJ. doi: 10.7717/peerj.3342
Read Brian Switek’s Scientific American article on the discovery of the dinosaur tooth.