Business & Tech

ON THE JOB

Harvard paleontologist Stephanie Pierce really digs her work

Stephanie Pierce is curator of vertebrate paleontology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Stephanie Pierce is curator of vertebrate paleontology at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Dinosaur hunter Stephanie Pierce isn’t anything like Dr. Ross Geller, the goofy paleontologist from the TV show “Friends,” who works for the redundantly named “Museum of Prehistoric History.”

She doesn’t spend her days digging up extinct animals, wearing a big hat, or wielding a rock hammer. But that idea isn’t completely off base. In fact, Pierce is headed to Nova Scotia this summer to hunt for evidence of early tetrapods — four-limbed animals with fingers and toes — in a continuing quest to figure out how they transitioned from water to land. She says that there’s no thrill like being the first person to see a fossil that has been buried for millions of years. But Pierce, a curator of vertebrate paleontology for the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, is more fascinated by the big picture: how the fossils lead to a better understanding of our evolutionary journey. “Today’s living biota is only a snapshot of what it used to be. The fossil record is the only physical resource we have that documents Earth’s historical past,” she says. “Learning more about it leads to a better understanding of the world around us.”

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The Globe spoke with Pierce to dig deeper into finding out what she does as a paleontologist.

“I grew up as a kid in Alberta, Canada, and fossils were easy pickings in the Badlands. When you find them easily, it keeps your enthusiasm up. I was always curious about the world around me — especially how today’s animals came to be. My dad, a university professor, answered my never-ending stream of questions. Why do horses only have one toe? How did birds acquire their flexible necks? Why does a dog look the way it does? The answer to these questions lies in the fossil records.

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“Dinosaurs are actually in your backyard every day — not T. rex or Triceratops, but in the form of ordinary birds who evolved from a group of two-legged dinosaurs. In fact, looking out the window at all the different plants and animals gives clues to the grand scheme of life.

“My office is below the Museum of Comparative Zoology. In our labs, you can trace back almost to the beginning of life, all in one giant room. There are fossils that could be 480 million years old, all the way to the present day. Even specimens collected in the 1950s or earlier are still very relevant today as we have so many technologies to answer new questions.

“One of my major discoveries was taking out a 360-million-year-old fossil and fitting it together like a giant puzzle, from the tip of the snout to the tail. We tested a hypothesis about how this animal might be moving and built a high-res 3-D model, manipulating the limbs as if it were swimming or walking on land. We showed that this animal, an early tetrapod, wasn’t able to stand but was hauling itself forward with its forelimbs. This gave clues about how early animals might have transitioned onto land.

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“I started studying over two decades ago and was one of the first female vertebrate paleontologists here. This is traditionally a white man’s science, and now it’s a very diverse international field.

“Fossils are hard to find. It takes lots of time and energy to prospect for new localities that yield important fossil material. This is most often done in very hot and dry conditions, like my expedition across West Virginian mountains and gorges for two and a half hot and humid weeks. You can spend weeks searching and may not find anything — it just depends if a fossil wants to erode out of the rock at the right time. Even when a fossil is discovered, removing it from the rock can take a very long time — with the use of hand dental to pneumatic tools — and require a lot of strategic planning. But new fossils are still being found, almost at an exponential rate.

“And here’s an interesting fact: If you’re in the field, what’s one of the best ways to determine if something is a fossil? It’s to lick it, which clears away the dirt and reveals the bone’s texture and pores.”

Cindy Atoji Keene can be reached at cindy@cindyatoji.com.
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