I’ve been interviewing scientists for my next book, tentatively entitled The Search for Adam. Last week I was in Bozeman, Montana, to talk to Mary Schweitzer. I’ve met some very interesting people through these interviews, but none more fascinating than Schweitzer. She’s a living embodiment of “never say never.”
She was in her thirties, married and with three children, when she started taking classes at Montana State University, aiming at personal enrichment. A class on paleontology got her interested in dinosaurs. She volunteered to work at the Museum of the Rockies and then had so many questions that her mentor Jack Horner, dino consultant for Jurassic Park, told her to get a PhD.
While a PhD candidate she made one of the most amazing discoveries in paleontological history. Making thin sections of a T. Rex leg bone, she recognized small, red circles with darker nuclei embedded in the channels where blood vessels once ran. They looked like red blood cells. That’s still the best guess as to what they are, though proving it is difficult. The discovery made her famous.
A few years later, she was setting up her new lab at North Carolina State when she opened a box of bones chips from a new T Rex skeleton. She pulled one out, looked it over, and said, “It’s a girl, and she’s pregnant!” She had recognized medullary bone, which birds form to store up calcium before they produce eggs. It’s a short-lived phenomenon with a unique structure–only in birds, only when they are pregnant. This was the first (and so far only) time it was found in a dino fossil, and the first time paleontologists were able to identify a dinosaur’s gender.
Shortly thereafter she was experimenting with acid on the bones, trying to etch their surface layer to reveal structure, when the acid went too fast and dissolved the entire bone. Only it didn’t. There was a translucent, stretchy material left behind–collagen, apparently, preserved through ninety million years. It seemed impossible, and many scientists refused to believe it. Her discovery has thrown into question previous understandings of how fossils form. Three times in a decade Schweitzer made discoveries that sent paleontologists into a tizzy.
Schweitzer is a very passionate Christian. (In fact, she was a young earth creationist when she first went back to school.) For her, the world of dinosaurs is testimony to the richness and beauty of God’s creation. I’m looking forward to writing up her story.