Written by Hank Woolley.
As we suffer through yet another day of grueling fieldwork in southwestern Madagascar, more than six weeks into another fantastically successful season on the island ‘continent’ more than 600 miles off the southeastern coast of Africa, a question pops into my head. It is the question I have been asked countless times since arriving in Denver. You live in the Rocky Mountain west, surrounded by the best dinosaur fossil record in the world, why would Denver Paleontology travel to the opposite side of the world to dig for dinosaurs?
It is a reasonable question. Fieldwork in Colorado, Wyoming, or Utah would be infinitely simpler logistically, and a two month season would undoubtedly produce spectacular fossils of dinosaurs and other bizarre Mesozoic creatures. The answer is simple. First, the dinosaurs of Madagascar, especially those from the Cretaceous Maevarano Formation, are among the best preserved and significant in the world. The Maevarano fauna of dinosaurs, crocodiles, birds, amphibians, fish, and mammals is arguably the best-known Mesozoic assemblage from the entire southern half of the world. Discoveries over the past 22 years have recovered amazing, and often complete, skeletons that have influenced the way paleontologists think about evolution and biogeography on the southern continents of Gondwana. Second, investigations into broader questions of evolution, biogeography, and climate change require a global perspective. Many of the fossil sites we are actively digging in North America are the same age as the fossil sites we are investigating in Madagascar. Finally, and perhaps the most fun aspect of the work, is the adventure of the unknown. The Cretaceous beds of southwestern Madagascar have never before been targeted intensively for fossil vertebrates like dinosaurs. The risk is high and there is a chance we will find nothing, but the reward is potentially greater. Much like the explorer paleontologists of the American West more than 100 years ago, we have the opportunity to discover new localities that could influence paleontology for years to come.
It’s a long way to travel but well worth the trouble. We will be back to the productive dinosaur beds of southern Utah this fall, but for now it is back out into the field here in Madagascar!