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Paleontology: ‘It’s Like Christmas Everyday’

BYU professor Brooks Britt has been digging up dinosaur fossils since he was fourteen years old.
Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

Fourteen-year-old Brooks Britt and his cousin—armed with paleontology books and canteens full of water—decided to mount their own expedition to dig for dinosaurs.

“My aunt drove my cousin and I to Vernal, dropped us off with some relatives we didn’t know, and we rode our bikes out into the desert,” Dr. Britt said. “On the first day, we found dinosaurs.”

Ever since his summers spent in eastern Utah digging for dinosaurs, Britt has been fascinated with our prehistoric friends. Now, as a paleontology professor at BYU, Britt works hard to share his love of the earth’s history with a new generation of scientists.

However, Britt recognizes that geology isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. At the beginning of each semester in his Geology 100 course, he asks members of his class to raise their hands if they only took the course because they thought it would be easy.

“They all raise their hands. They’re all honest with me. I go, ‘That’s fine. I know you hate science. I’m here to show you that science is fun and get you excited about it,’” Britt said. “Most everyone has had some interest somewhere in their life about dinosaurs.”

The purpose of Britt’s class is to help explain the science behind dinosaurs—the science that has fueled the imaginations of five-year-olds across the world.

“Basically, you’re doing genealogy with animals that have been gone for up to hundreds of millions of years,” Britt said.

Britt has discovered and researched a plethora of dinosaurs throughout his career. He recently discovered and named the long-necked Moabosaurus utahensis after the area in Utah where it was discovered. According to Britt, the process of discovery is surprisingly simple at first.

“You’re just digging blind in the rock until you start seeing patterns,” Britt said.

Understanding these patterns helps scientists identify which rocks and areas are most likely to contain fossils. However, once the bones have been discovered, there are many more questions that need to be answered.

“What caused their death? After their demise, what happened to their bones? How were they buried? Were they chewed on? Were they eaten by insects? Why are they broken?” Britt said.

Britt loves digging into the heart of these questions with his students and colleagues. His students work in the lab to expose the fossils—usually small ones—hidden in rock.

“It’s like Christmas every day. You walk into the lab and students have got some new bones out of these big sandstone blocks,” Britt said. “And then you work on describing those with your colleagues and figure out the relationship to these animals to other animals that have been previously discovered. It’s just fun. It’s a blast.”

According to Britt, it shouldn’t be hard to convince students to study geology. It should feel natural.

“Some people pray about what they should major in. I always tell these guys… ‘If you’re worrying and fretting about it this much, maybe you shouldn’t be a geologist.’ Because to me, it’s just so self-evident,” Britt said. “That’s why we try to get them fired up in class. They start realize that ‘Wait, the earth has a history and life has a history. I can be a part of discovering earth’s and life’s history.’”

And once their interest is piqued, there’s one sure way for Britt to truly help them develop a love for paleontology.

For Britt and his students, it’s hands-on research that works the best.

“The simplest thing you do is get students involved in a research project,” Britt said. “Once they get a little interested and they show you they’re interested, you bring them into the lab and turn them loose on a new project. It really gets them fired up.”