The University of Chicago News Office
November 12, 1998 Press Contact: Steve Koppes
(773) 702-8366

University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno

Paul Sereno’s interest in collecting fossils and studying nature dates back to his childhood, when for Christmas one year, his parents gave him a butterfly-collecting kit. Sereno, his brother and four sisters proceeded to turn the family basement into an insect lab, collecting, breeding and hatching giant moths and roving the neighborhood in round-the-clock insect patrols.

It was a formative experience in natural history that helped prepare Sereno, 41, to later make a series of highly significant discoveries, including the world’s oldest and most primitive dinosaurs.

Sereno has studied dinosaur fossils in South America, Asia, Australia and Africa in his effort to reconstruct the dinosaur family tree and understand how the movement of the continents affected dinosaur evolution. By doing so, he hopes 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 discovery process.

Sereno’s educational outreach activities in 1998 included a summer trip to Big Bend State Park in Texas. He and his wife, Gabrielle Lyon, an educator from the University of Illinois at Chicago, took college students and a small group of high school students to Big Bend to learn about geology and fossils and to excavate dinosaur bones.

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, pelvis and tail. 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 the world’s most primitive dinosaur, 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.

Expeditions to Niger and Morocco in 1993 and 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 Morocco, Sereno unearthed the skull of a giant predator, Carcharodontosaurus, which is among the largest meat-eating dinosaurs ever found.

Sereno returned to Niger’s Ténéré Desert in 1997, where his international research team discovered the remains of a new species of predatory, sail-backed dinosaur with a crocodile-like skull. Named Suchomimus tenerensis (“crocodile mimic from the Ténéré”), it lived during the early Cretaceous Period, about 100 million years ago.

Suchomimus measures 36 feet long and 12 feet high at the hip, with a long neck and skull that are superbly adapted for catching and eating fish. The creature belongs to the spinosaurid family, which was known previously from rather sparse remains. The discovery permits paleontologists to conduct a more detailed analysis of spinosaurid evolution. Because it more closely resembles spinosaurid relatives in England than those in Africa, Suchomimus suggests that the family dispersed from Europe into Africa.

In other work, Sereno made headlines in 1991, announcing with Chinese colleagues the discovery of the world’s second-oldest fossil bird, the new species Sinornis (“Chinese bird”). The sparrow-sized, 135-million-year-old bird is the oldest known creature that could fly and perch like modern birds.

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 has been named the Chicago Tribune’s Teacher of the Year (1993), and one of Crain’s Chicago Business’ “40 Under 40” most promising young professionals in Chicago (1993). In 1997, he was named one of People magazine’s “Fifty Most Beautiful People” and Newsweek’s “100 People to Watch for the Next Millennium.”

As an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University (B.S. ’79), Sereno majored in both art and biology and began assembling a portfolio of artwork for a professional career as an artist.

But a class in comparative anatomy and a field trip to the American Museum of Natural History in New York 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 Professor in the Department of Organismal Biology & Anatomy. He teaches paleontology and evolution to graduate and undergraduate students and human anatomy to medical students.

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    Last modified at 03:51 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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