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Meet a Paleontologist
Bruce in his office with the shoulder blade of an Apatosaurus.
Bruce in the field on the Comanche National Grassland looking at Cretaceous marine limestone and marl layers (Greenhorn Limestone) with a 6th grade class. They are using the cyclic bedding in the limestone and the fossil record to learn about climate change.
Bruce in the lab at the Sternberg museum (Kansas) measuring the tail vertebrae of a mosasaur (marine reptile), to learn about the shape of their tails.
Bruce A. Schumacher
Rocky Mountain Region South Zone Paleontologist
USDA Forest Service
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What is your job, and what do you study?
I publish on fossils I work with, so I always have a research emphasis in mind. This also includes the work of many paleontologists who research of fossils on public lands; when I assist them in getting permits for collecting fossils, I always keep the research interests and needs of the scientists in mind.
I do a good amount of collecting fossils in the field. Some of this is with volunteer groups for paleontology projects that I conduct, and other times I'm lucky enough to be able to help/participate with other researchers working on public land through permits.
I do not deal directly with the curation of fossils, but maintain close relationships with many curators in museums, both for the fossils I collect, and so I can keep track of the fossils other paleontologists collect from Federal lands.
I do occasionally get to prepare fossils. The one that comes to mind is 8-foot long shoulder blade of an Apatosaurus. This big shoulder blade (picture) and the rest of the bones from this animal all are now in the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. But I prepared this bone first and it was put on display for about 3 years in a Forest Service office before going to the museum.
I teach by giving public lectures about fossil collecting and research. And I teach volunteers who help me in the field learn about geology and fossils and the history of life on Earth. Also we educate other employees in the Forest Service to know about fossils, how to identify them, and the ways that we manage them. We also do our best to teach the public about fossils on public lands through web sites and brochures.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a whole host of things, but today specifically I'm helping to plan a meeting for Forest Service people who work on National Grasslands. The US Forest Service has 20 National Grasslands spread all across the western United States, and every so often the managers meet to talk about ways to make Grasslands management better for the public. This is one of the places where I sometimes talk about fossils to educate other employees and scientists in our workforce.
One of my favorite things I'm working on right now is writing a scientific paper about a new kind of fossil fish found on Forest Service land in Colorado. I was lucky enough to find this, prepare it, and now write about it for a scientific journal.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I went to high school and college in central Kansas, and earned a Ph.D. in geology at South Dakota School of Mines.
In high school, my favorite classes were drama, vocal, and band.
In early college my favorite classes were all history, until I took a Geology course. Then I rediscovered my fascination with dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.
My favorite course of all is Historical Geology. .
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
I remember fishing at small pond when I was a kid, about 10 years old, and realizing that the impression of a clam I could see in a small stone looked just like so many others I had seen. I remember it clearly, how well the fossil stood out in the stone, wetted by water along the edge of the pond. I began to think that I had seen those clam impressions in rocks at many places where I lived – in parking lot gravels, stones in creeks, always the same shapes and in the same pale yellow limestone. But until that time, I had never made the connection that all of these strange shapes I was used to seeing in the rock were actually once living animals, and that the place I lived was once the bottom of an ancient ocean. I was fascinated. I wish I had an inspirational earth science person in my life at that time; I wouldn't begin to really explore this fascination until 10 years later in college. Ironically, I went on to discover a plesiosaur skeleton (marine reptile) about 5 miles from where I was fishing that day.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
That's a hard question, because I have a lot of fond memories. I guess my most memorable experience is ongoing; but simply stated is - contemplating "deep time". Trying to imagine the longevity of the earth compared to my brief experience on the planet as a human being. And trying to ponder how it all came to be and where it started. When I first began to make these connections as a young child the thoughts were a little scary, and absolutely fascinating. Call it self-awareness at the deepest level, this is my most memorable experience in working with fossils.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
Absolutely. My advice is "Go For It"! Use your passion for paleontology as a way to do well in all school subjects, because they are all useful to a paleontologist. The modern world is a wonderful place where anyone can aspire to anything they would like to be. Follow what you are passionate about. Paleontologists are some of the best rounded professionals there are, and can do well at many things since we explore a little of all the sciences (astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, mathematics, physics).