BYU alum Dave Alderks likes to say that everything he needed to know to be a paleontologist he learned in kindergarten.
“You learn how to play in the dirt, play well with others, and color in the lines,” Alderks said.
Of course, there’s so much more to it than that, he explained; but Alderks, the chief museum preparator at the USU-Eastern Prehistoric Museum in Price, Utah, still feels like a little child on Christmas morning when he sees a fossil bone sticking out of the ground.
“Picture a five-year-old going down on Christmas morning and seeing the tree with all the presents,” he said. “It beats any day sitting in a cubicle.”
And that’s exactly how Alderks said he felt when he found what he believes could be a plesiosaur, a long-necked “swimming monster.” Alderks refers to his discovery as “the Loch Ness Monster here in Utah” because of its resemblance of the fabled Nessie in Scotland.
The closest known population of plesiosaurs from the same time period is in Kansas, so Alderks’s team is not yet sure if this is a plesiosaur or a new species; the team can’t be positive until the creature is assembled. Alderks said it can take anywhere from weeks to years to put the bones together.
“It’s like a puzzle, matching and seeing what makes a good connection. You have to think in three dimensions,” Alderks said.
Despite the lengthy process of discovering, cleaning, assembling, and then exhibiting the fossils, Alderks approaches his job with child-like enthusiasm, and sees significance in even the smallest of tasks.
“All life is connected, whether it’s gone extinct or not; and we can learn clues about the environment and how things change and adapt to change,” Alderks said. This is an important issue for us as we face the prospect of climate change in our world today.
In addition to his work at the museum, Alderks also runs a blog called Death Elevated. The blog offers a glance into discovering and assembling fossils, including the plesiosaur. Death Elevated also offers facts about prehistoric species and a forum for questions about fossils. Check it out here.