This page is designed especially for kids. For more, return to the KID STUFF homepage
Meet a Paleontologist
This is a picture of me at the site where we found the rhino at Wind Cave. Here is the link to the park web site on it, in case you might want to link this picture to the park.
Greg as a boy at Petrified Forest National Park, in August of 1960.
A more recent version of the previous image.
H. Gregory McDonald
Senior Curator of Natural History
U.S. National Park Service
NFD Kid's Page Interview...
What is your job, and what do you study?
Currently I am the Senior Curator of Natural History in the park service's Museum Management Program. I work with all of the park curators that care for natural history specimens, whether biology, geology or paleontology. Prior to my current position I was the paleontology program coordinator with the Geologic Resource Division and I started with the park service as the paleontologist at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho. My research interests include the extinct ground sloths and their relatives of South and North American and the Pliocene-Pleistocene mammals of North America.
What are you working on now?
I recently published a paper describing a new ground sloth from Venezuela, Megistonyx, with a Venezuelan colleague, Ascanio Rincon and another sloth worker in the United States, Tim Gaudin. I am in the process of finishing up a book on the paleontology and geology of Badlands National Park in South Dakota with the park paleontologist, Rachel Benton and two geologists who have worked in the park, Dennis Terry and Emmett Evanoff. At the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology this fall I will be a co-moderator of a symposium on the paleontology of tar pits around the world, which will become an edited volume published by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Where did you go to school? What were some of your favorite classes that you took?
I did my undergraduate work at Idaho State University where I had a major in zoology and a minor in geology. I was very fortunate that I was able to work in the natural history museum on campus which gave me first-hand experience working with fossils, doing preparation and curation as well as field work, and this really strengthened my knowledge of what it was like to work in museum work as a paleontologist. It was while I was in Idaho that I developed my interest in ground sloths, since I was given the task of preparing a partial skeleton of one found nearby at American Falls Reservoir. I went to the University of Florida to work on my Masters and again had the opportunity to work in the paleontology collections of the Florida Museum of Natural History which is on campus. I did my doctorate at the University of Toronto and my professor was a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, so once again I had a chance to gain more experience working in a museum.
It is hard to pick one favorite class, whether in zoology or geology, as both areas are important parts of one's training as a paleontologist. I think a big part of my training as a paleontologist was my "informal" education, the opportunity to work with, and handle the fossils in those museum collections that was especially important. I guess I have always believed in the saying, "The best paleontologist is the one that has seen the most fossils." While reading is a critical way of building up your knowledge of paleontology, it only really makes sense when you have seen and handled the real fossils.
Was there an experience you had that made you realize you wanted to be a paleontologist?
I was very fortunate that as a child my parents took the family to national parks as part of family vacations. One of the places we visited was Dinosaur National Monument when I was 7 and seeing the bones preserved in place on the wall, like a lot of kids I got the "Dinosaur Bug". I never lost my interest in paleontology after that, although the more I learned about paleontology, the more I realized there is much more to the science than just dinosaurs and there is a fascinating and huge diversity of extinct animals and plants out there just waiting to be studied. But since you canâ€™t work on everything, I find that working with the ground sloths and their relatives, gives me a good intellectual challenge.
What is your most memorable experience working with fossils?
When I was in high school I had the opportunity to volunteer in the paleontology department of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County on weekends. As a young student who had only read about working in museums to actually get behind the scenes and interact with professional paleontologists was quite an experience. Being a weekend volunteer also gave me an opportunity to participate as a team member of a crew excavating dinosaurs for the museum in Montana. Our crew excavated what at the time was only the fourth known skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus. While news reports of new finds of Tyrannosaurus are pretty common today, back when I was in high school, it was still a very rare animal, so being on the team that excavated the specimens was a very memorable experience.
Do you have any advice for aspiring paleontologists?
Keep in mind that paleontology is a very interdisciplinary science and you never know what type of background and information will be important in helping you understand the fossil record. While biology and geology will always be fundamental, new technologies such as ancient DNA, stable isotopes to determine diet, or rare earth elements to help understand the depositional environment in which a fossil is preserved, means chemistry has become increasingly important as well. Our ability to better understand the fossil record has improved every time someone thinks of a new way to apply a method from another scientific discipline to the study of fossils, like using CAT scans to look inside skulls and bones. Don't be afraid to look at what is being done in other sciences and then use your imagination to see how that might help you better understand the fossil record.