Geology professor Brooks B. Britt (BS ’82, MS ’87), leader of this semester-long adventure through the eons, teeters in his chair, balancing between CAT-scanned 3-D images of buried bones and racks of fossils at the BYU Museum of Paleontology. Today is his show and tell.
“When I was 14, I wanted to go find dinosaurs,” says Britt, retelling how, after reading books on collecting fossils, he rode the bus with his Schwinn bicycle all the way from his hometown of Tacoma, Wash., to Vernal, Utah, a fossil mecca, to hunt for prehistoric leftovers with his cousin. “We found a dinosaur our first day!”
Britt rummages through a box under his desk. “I’ve got it right here!” he exclaims, pulling out that first bone, a tail vertebra of a Diplodocus—a late-Jurassic longneck. The bone, heavy as a sack of potatoes, has been blackened by sediment minerals over the course of 150 million years. “By the way, that’s radioactive,” Britt adds—dino bones often are.
Britt’s quirky humor endears students to Dinosaurs, a 100-level, general-ed class that’s more of a hike up a steep geologic formation than a walk in the park (literally: they’ll hike up Triassic formations this term). He spices up dino anatomy and cladistics—think dino genealogy—with analogies between velociraptors and rubber chickens.
“Here’s a little Psittacosaurus lollipop for you guys,” says Britt, passing around a skull on a stick. Recognizing skull features is on next week’s test.
Students tour Utah’s Museum of Ancient Life with Britt, the best museum guide, says music major Logan R. Andersen (’17). “It’s really cool. . . . He’ll talk about a bone, ‘I actually dug this one up.’” Britt has found more than a dozen dinosaurs—including two new species—and has curated exhibits internationally.
And what would Dinosaurs class be without a hunt? In Spanish Fork Canyon students find fossils by rivers, in walls dissected by railroad lines, and next to the highway. Get used to the honking, Britt says: “Geologists are rock stars.”
Back in the classroom, students discuss everything from extinction to evolution, working to understand deep time. Earth has been around for a long time, says Britt. “We’re just looking at one page. I don’t want them freaking out when they hear about evolution.’” Students read Church statements on evolution and learn there’s no official stance. “We talk a lot about religion,” Katelyn A. Buys (’16) remarks.
A paleontologist, Britt tells the class, must be humble, as claims can be undercut by new discoveries. The newly christened species Dracorex hogwartsia—“What book was that guy reading when he described that dinosaur?” laughs Britt—turned out to be a juvenile of a familiar species. Britt also likes to bust dino myths. The class spends a day dissecting Jurassic Park with correctional reports from students on dinosaur speed and size, time periods, and DNA. Britt says finding dinosaurs “is not like in the movies, where there’s ground-penetrating radar or seismic searches”—it usually just starts with seeing a bone on the surface.
Britt often tosses out Jeopardy!-worthy facts. Dinosaur bones have growth rings like trees. Birds and dinosaurs were closely related, and dinos probably had feathers.
Students learn that terrifying teeth and a “Rawr!” don’t make a dino a dino. On the drive to the canyon to look for fossils, Callie D. Pope (’19) and Marilyn R. Ard (’17) spout off the foundational characteristics: upright stance, humorous crest, hip-socket gap, forward-backward–moving ankles.
“Look, we learned something!” laughs Pope.
“I’m so proud of you!” says Britt, giving her a high five.
Britt’s relish in his work is clear: “It’s great being a paleontologist—I don’t know why people do anything else,” he says. “You get to discover something no one’s ever seen, ever in Earth’s history.”