A passion for plesiosaurs
JUNE 2013 - Danielle Serratos has two passions, Mesozoic marine reptiles and public education. There are only a handful of university professors in the nation who study the marine reptiles that lived 250 to 65 million years ago, and Earth Sciences Curator Pat Druckenmiller is one of them.
Danielle emailed the Earth Sciences curator for the UA Museum of the North after finding research papers he published on Mesozoic marine reptiles. Pat offered her one of three graduate projects, and while they all sounded interesting, there was one that blended seamlessly with Danielle’s undergraduate experience. While at Texas A&M, she was part of a team that extracted a plesiosaur from the banks of the Missouri River. The head was missing, so she jumped at Pat's offer to extract a plesiosaur head from the surrounding rock.
If we go back 75 million years ago, just 10 million years before the mass extinction of dinosaurs and marine reptiles, we might find Danielle’s plesiosaur swimming around a sea located in the Montana and Canada of today. The sea stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Ocean, effectively splitting North America in two. The earth was warmer then and the expanded oceans allowed giant marine reptiles to swim where we now walk.
The plesiosaur looked like a creature that doesn’t exist but is quite photogenic, the Loch Ness Monster. with the same small head, long neck, torpedo-shaped body, short tail, and four paddles for arms and legs that acted like oars. Its total length was probably around 20 feet. The reptile was a fierce predator - active and warm-blooded.
Danielle’s plesiosaur died in a place that became the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge in Montana. In 2010, a hunter named David Bradt was hiking the refuge looking for elk but found a plesiosaur instead. He stumbled across 13 neck vertebrae arcing across a creek like a bridge. Bookending the vertebrae were two blocks of rock, one containing the head and the other, the body.
The refuge put the plesiosaur in the care of the Museum of the Rockies, which has one of the largest collections of dinosaurs in the world. But plesiosaurs are not dinosaurs. Dinosaurs roamed the land while marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs swam the oceans. The museum’s one-time marine reptile expert, Pat Druckenmiller, had left for a job in Fairbanks, but a scientist at the museum ran into Pat at a conference and showed him a picture of the plesiosaur on a cell phone. Pat could tell the find was big. Plesiosaurs had different neck lengths and were generally grouped as short-necked and long-necked, but Pat said this might be the first “short-necked, long-necked” plesiosaur ever found.
Pat signed on to help out with the plesiosaur and organized a team of volunteers to remove it from the refuge and bring it to the UA Museum of the North. The marine reptile will eventually return to the Museum of Rockies, but not before Pat makes a cast of it.
With so much work to do, Pat needed graduate and undergraduate help and offered Danielle the opportunity to work on the piece of rock that contained the skull and several neck vertebrae. After extracting it, she could write and publish a paper describing all the bones.
“Most professors wouldn’t give graduate students an opportunity this spectacular,” Danielle said. Yet Pat saw in Danielle something absolutely necessary of anybody who goes into the work – dedication and patience. She began the slow and painstakingly detailed process of removing rock away from the similarly colored skull and neck vertebrae. “You hope as you take away the rock, you’re not taking away bone with it,” she said.
Pat was there to guide Danielle through the process, but he also wanted to give her the freedom to learn. “You want to give students structured chaos,” Pat said. “They wade into this process and it’s a lot to take in. I give them parameters and guidelines and then set them free to explore.”
After six months of hard work, Danielle has restored an impressive looking skull. It has large, pointed teeth befitting of a large underwater carnivore that managed to survive as a species for almost 130 million years.
Last summer, Danielle joined the ranks of GK-12 Fellows which is a CNSM outreach program that brings undergraduate and graduate students to elementary and secondary schools. She said, “It’s our job as fellows to go into the classrooms and connect teachers and students to science resources they may not have access to.”
As part of this program, Danielle organized a free science festival called the Science Expo at Ft. Wainwright, and 271 people from the base attended. She will organize another one for August 2013.
Danielle’s dream job would be to work at the confluence of research, Mesozoic marine reptiles and education, somewhere like a museum. She’s getting a taste of it now, working with Pat at the UA Museum of the North, but says she will pursue a PhD before settling down. “I have so much to learn,” she says.
Story by Meghan Murphy, UAF College of Natural Science and Mathematics Public Information Officer