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Faculty Spotlight

Digging Up Dinosaurs with Dr. Ken Lacovara
Associate Professor of Biology and Director of the Paleontology and Geology Program in Drexel University's College of Arts and Sciences

Dr. Ken LacovaraWhen Dr. Ken Lacovara was in second grade he wrote an essay stating his opinion on why sedimentary rocks are the best. Other kids were playing with their baseball card collections while he was content with his collection of dirt.

"I just wanted to dig holes," he laughed.

Over the years, not much has changed. Ken is still going out into the world, finding places to dig holes.

He explained that if you go to an area with a dry, arid environment and sedimentary rocks of the right age, you can not only dig holes, but you can find dinosaurs.

And that's what Ken does; he finds dinosaurs, and ancient birds, and 65 million year-old crocodiles.

The most notable of his discoveries was made in the remote badlands of Southern Patagonia when he uncovered the second-most massive dinosaur to ever exist. Not yet named, this dinosaur is estimated to have weighed about 60 tons. To put things into perspective, that's seven and a half times larger than your average Tyrannosaurus Rex.

"Patagonia is really big, and while the northern part is very well studied, I knew that paleontologists really hadn't ventured into the southern part of the region," he said.

And for good reason. The part of Patagonia that Ken wanted to explore was so remote, it required a four hour drive on dirt roads, rafting down a glacial river and climbing up a mountain just to get to it.

"In 2004, I went there and walked around and literally couldn't walk for more than two minutes without finding little pieces of dinosaur bones."

However it wasn't until his second venture back to that same area a year later, that he discovered the first whole bone belonging to this massive creature. It was a 7 foot femur bone attached to a tibia and a fibula. By the end of that day, ten bones had been uncovered.

"I knew immediately that we had uncovered something really special," he said.

Ken noted that not only was their discovery the second-most massive dinosaur, but it was also the most complete collection of bones belonging to an extremely massive dinosaur. "In terms of types of bones, this dinosaur is about 90% complete."

Ken and his teams of students from Drexel University, the University of Buenos Aires and the University of Patagonia returned to that same quarry once a year for the next three years. In field seasons lasting two months, they lived in tents by the quarry and uncovered approximately 300 more bones belonging to the same super-massive dinosaur.

One particular bone took three tries over the course of three years in order to be able to remove it from the ground.

"I broke three different front-end loaders trying to lift it," Ken recalled.

Between field seasons, the team would leave the quarry for up to a year, but not without preserving all their hard work by covering the bones left in the ground with plaster and filling the quarry with sediment.

"That broke my heart because when we went back the next year we spent the whole first week digging up the sediment," he said. "But it was necessary to protect the bones from the elements."

Ken explained that while bones may stay preserved in the earth for hundreds of millions of years, once they are exposed to the surface their lifespan decreases drastically.

"The bones begin to expand and crack even after just a few days," Ken explained, noting that he has gone through hundreds of bags of plaster and thousands of yards of burlap to protect his fossils.

For three and a half years, the bones sat in Patagonia, wrapped in their plaster and burlap "winter jackets", in the chicken yard of a friend's ranch. Eventually they were put on a boat and arrived in America on May 5, 2009.

Ken discussed the impact that a discovery such as this has on the field of paleontology.

"When you hit a deposit like this, you can work it for generations," said Ken. "The data that we collect for this dinosaur will be used by dozens and dozens of other researchers as well, because it's such a unique opportunity to see an almost-complete animal of this size."

Currently the bones reside in labs on Drexel's campus, at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, and at Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences. Ken's research on the fossils continues, and his findings will be published in a major scientific journal.