Dinosaur Dream

By Mary Jo Curtis / November / December 2005
April 27th, 2007

After two years as curator of dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Institution Museum of Natural History, Matthew Carrano is still pinching himself. “It’s exciting being someplace that has such visibility and reputation,” he says. “Being a paleontologist can be like working in a cubbyhole, so it’s nice to be where you’re connected to people.”

Carrano, who earned his ScB in geology and biology at Brown and a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1998, oversees the Smithsonian’s collection of dinosaur, reptile, and amphibian fossils. He describes his job as “the museum equivalent of a professor.” Instead of teaching in the classroom, “we work with exhibits, give talks and tours, and, as in a university, do a lot of research,” he explains.

Through summer expeditions to research sites around the globe, Carrano aims to “fill the holes” in the museum’s fossil collection and to further understanding of “the evolution of dinosaurs over the long term—that is, how they evolved to be such enormous animals and how they came to be distributed throughout the continents.” International fieldwork, he says, “gives you the best chance of finding something new.” While paleontologists in England, France, and the United States have searched for fossils for some 150 years now, Argentina and China are now yielding the most productive digs, he says. Fieldwork is relatively new in Madagascar and other remote areas.

One of his most interesting finds to date was “a very bizarre little dinosaur from Madagascar called the Masiakasaurus, a predatory dinosaur about five feet long, with a strange set of teeth that stick straight out like pincers—probably for grabbing food.”

“It’s hard to pick a favorite find. There’s a component of excitement every time, and every one is different,” he adds. “The first time I brushed off a bone and saw pointed teeth sticking out, it was thrilling.”

Paleontology jobs are few and far between, says Carrano, who believes landing a position like his is a matter of being in “the right place at right time, the right time of your career and when someone is looking.”

“It’s a real luxury doing what I do,” he confesses. “I don’t have to convince people that dinosaurs are interesting; they’re already interested, so talking to the public is always a pleasure.

“We’re the shepherds of the national collection. This is the people’s museum, and we do this for them. That’s a nice privilege.”

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November / December 2005