The University of Chicago News Office
May 13, 1996 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
(773) 702-8366

University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno

Finding dinosaurs is nothing new for University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno. At age38, Sereno has already made several highly significant discoveries, including the world’s oldest and most primitive dinosaurs. He has studied dinosaur fossils in South America, Asia and Africa in his effort to reconstruct the dinosaur family tree and understand how the movement of the continents affected dinosaur evolution.

“I want to fill in important gaps in the dinosaur family tree,” said Sereno. “This family tree is the key to understanding how evolution works over millions of years.” Sereno’s goal is to map dinosaur descent by tracing the many evolutionary changes recorded in dinosaur skeletons.

When not teaching paleontology and evolution at the University of Chicago, Sereno is likely to be found, with his students, searching through museum collections or combing deserts to find fossil evidence important for understanding large-scale evolution during the dinosaur era. He fuses his mission of scientific research with his educational mission, engaging his students directly in the process of discovery.

Sereno’s fieldwork began in 1988 in the foothills of the Andes in Argentina, where his team unearthed the first complete skeleton of the primitive dinosaur Herrerasaurus, previously known only from bones of the hind limb. The new fossils allowed Sereno and several sculptors to reconstruct the skeleton and create a flesh model of this 12-foot-long dinosaur, now on display at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Returning to the Andes in 1991, Sereno and his team discovered a small skeleton belonging to a new species they named Eoraptor ("dawn raptor"). A primitive cousin of Herrerasaurus, Eoraptor measures only 3 feet from snout to tail tip. Ancient volcanic ash beds discovered near these early dinosaurs allowed Sereno’s team to determine their age–228 million years old–thus dating the dawn of the dinosaur era. These discoveries shed light on the roots of the dinosaur family tree and on how and when dinosaurs came to dominate the land.

In the early 1990s, Sereno’s efforts shifted to Africa–to rocks in the Sahara Desert dating to the end of the dinosaur era, 65 to 100 million years ago, when the continents were drifting apart. “I want to explore how continental drift and the isolation of land areas affected the evolution of dinosaurs,” he said.

Expeditions to Niger in 1993 and, most recently, to Morocco in 1995, led to new discoveries, including the first skulls and skeletons of dinosaurs from the Cretaceous period in Africa. From 130- million-year-old rocks in Niger came a new 27-foot-long predator Afrovenator ("African hunter") and bones of a huge, long-necked herbivore, as yet unnamed.

In other work, Sereno made headlines in 1991, announcing with Chinese colleagues the discovery of the world’s second-oldest fossil bird, Sinornis ("Chinese bird"). The sparrow-sized, 135- million-year-old bird is the oldest known creature that could fly and perch like modern birds. In a related project, Sereno is analyzing the genes from living birds to learn more about the evolutionary radiation of these dinosaur descendants.

Live teleconferences and documentaries, recording the efforts of Sereno and his students, have included the PBS documentary “Skeletons in the Sand” (New Explorers,1994) and the Learning Channel’s “African Graveyard” ("Part I: Hunting Dinosaurs” and “Part II: The Discovery,” both 1995). Sereno is the author of popular articles for National Geographic magazine ("Africa’s Dinosaur Castaways,” June 1996) and Natural History magazine ("Dinosaurs and Drifting Continents,” January 1995; “Roots of the Family Tree,” June 1995). In 1992, Sereno received the Chicago Tribune’s Teacher of the Year Award, and, in 1993, he was selected as one of Crain’s Chicago Business “40Under 40” most promising young professionals in Chicago.

Sereno said he didn’t start out wanting to study dinosaurs. In fact, as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University (B.S.’79), he majored in both art and biology and began assembling a portfolio of artwork for a professional career as an artist.

But it was a class in comparative anatomy and a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York that changed the course of his career. He enrolled the following year as a graduate student in geology at Columbia University, where he concentrated in vertebrate paleontology.

Sereno earned his Ph.D. at Columbia in 1987 and joined the University of Chicago faculty later that year. He is now Associate Professor in the Department of Organismal Biology & Anatomy. He teaches paleontology and evolution to graduate and undergraduate students, and human anatomy to medical students.

Sereno said his work now isn’t that much of a departure from the interests he had growing up. He cited a long-standing interest in collecting fossils and studying nature. “For Christmas one year, I remember my father gave me a butterfly collecting kit. My brother and I turned our basement into an insect lab, collecting, breeding and hatching giant moths,” he said. “It was an experience in natural history that really was formative.”

His work has been funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Eppley Foundation for Research, Ronald McDonald Children’s Charities, the Women’s Board of the University of Chicago, the National Geographic Society and the Pritzker Foundation.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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