Aughts: Dig it

Joe Sertich
Joe Sertich, a renowned vertebrate paleontologist and dinosaur expert at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, leads hunts for buried bones at sites around the world. Colorado State students joined a dig at the Sandy Site in the well-known Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota, where Sertich is pictured. The team found a giant prehistoric turtle and other fossils. Photo by Joe A. Mendoza

Dinosaur devotee becomes world-renowned paleontologist

Not many people can say they’re living their childhood dreams. Joe Sertich can.

His early fascination with dinosaurs didn’t fade; it intensified. Sertich is curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science the institution’s resident dinosaur scientist and is immersed in public education and field research that takes him around the globe for several months a year to unearth secrets from the fossil record. In his work as a vertebrate paleontologist, Sertich has discovered about a dozen previously unknown reptile species, including a carnivorous dinosaur found in Africa that he’s in the process of christening with an official name. Through these efforts, Sertich contributes to scientific understanding of life on Earth and its evolution during the Mesozoic Era, which spanned roughly 250 million to 65 million years ago.

There’s no greater rush than being the first human to overturn some dirt and unveil an 80-million-year-old bone, Sertich said. And when interacting with schoolchildren at the museum, he’s quick to dispel the misconception that “we’ve found all the dinosaurs.”

“I tell students, ‘Don’t worry, there will be plenty left for you to find,’” Sertich said. In fact, he noted, the pace of discovery is accelerating understandable, given that dinosaurs ruled the Earth for 164 million years, leaving behind generations upon generations of remains, along with clues about prehistoric ecosystems and climactic conditions.

To prepare for his career, Sertich was the rare CSU undergraduate to simultaneously earn degrees in three disciplines: geology, zoology, and biological science. After graduating in 2004, he completed a master’s degree in geology and a Ph.D. in human anatomy. Sertich has held his dream job at the museum for eight years and has ongoing field projects in Kenya, Egypt, Madagascar, and the Western United States.

During fossil-gathering expeditions, Sertich is accompanied by museum staff and an army of volunteers, who range from undergraduates to retirees and flock from around the country to dig for dinosaurs. The best volunteer groups range in age, he said. Eager, able-bodied college students bring energy to sites and haul heavy loads of water and plaster, needed for excavating and transporting fossils; more methodical retirees plop down for hours with pickaxes and help spot precious shards of reptile remains. In Spring 2017, a group of CSU students joined a dig in South Dakota and helped close out excavation of a site paleontologists had studied for several years.

While fossil hunting has its thrills, it’s not all glamour living in a tent for eight weeks at a time. “It’s not what people think it is,” said Sertich, who hikes with a pack weighing up to 100 pounds. “It rains. People get sick. You have to worry about running out of food and water. It’s anxiety-inducing and physically challenging.”

Dinosaur fossils pop up everywhere take the rare Torosaurus found in 2017 by construction workers in Thornton, Colo. But dig sites are often far from civilization, where “the closest people are in airplanes above,” Sertich said. The remote badlands of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, in southern Utah, are among his most rugged worksites. But the area is a treasure-trove, producing shelf upon shelf of carefully stacked fossils in the Denver museum’s collections.

A tour of these collections can render Sertich giddy, as he points to Tyrannosaurus rex toes, duck-billed dinosaur spinal columns, and the three-spiked skull of a Nasutoceratops. Yet, as much as he loves understanding dinosaurs as individual animals, Sertich is most intrigued by dinosaur ecosystems and fleshing out the full picture of plants, rocks, turtles, snakes, birds, and “small, squiggly animals” that lived alongside prehistoric beasts. Much of his published research examines the effects of global changes, such as climate and shifting continents, on the evolution of dinosaurs and crocodiles.

“Here’s a dinosaur ecosystem,” Sertich said, grabbing a jar on his desk that looked to contain dirt and debris. The mishmash actually comprises 73-million-year-old tidbits of fish bones, lizard jaws, and mammal teeth excavated from Big Bend National Park in Texas.

When not in the field, Sertich lectures, hosts schoolkids at the museum, and visits college campuses to discuss vertebrate paleontology. He regularly visits the CSU Department of Geosciences as a guest speaker for historical geology classes taught by Sara Rathburn, an associate professor of geosciences, for whom Sertich was a teaching assistant.

Rathburn remembered her former student’s insatiable curiosity and singular devotion to paleontology. “He was just so driven,” Rathburn said. “Joe would come to me and say, ‘What can I help you with?’ That was what stood out so dramatically about him his interest in all things geology, and his willingness to help out.”

Foreshadowing his museum work, Sertich helped Rathburn plan paleontology lessons for elementary and middle-school students. “The kids were drawn to him,” she recalled. “Everyone always wanted to be at Joe’s table.”

Joe Sertich is among the CSU alumni featured in the University’s “Proud to Be” advertising campaign.