Next week’s New Yorker will feature an article by Douglas Preston entitled, The Day the Dinosaurs Died. This piece describes the work of Robert DePalma and the discoveries that he has unearth at Hell Creek, South Dakota. DePalma is a relatively unknown paleontologist, a University of Kansas doctoral candidate, who may have discovered the moment of one of the most significant events in the history of life on Earth.
Sixty-five million years ago the Cretaceous period or the age of the dinosaurs ended and the Paleogene period or the age of the mammals began. The culprit for this catechismic change is believed to be an asteroid that came crashing to earth in what is now the Yucatan peninsula. Evidence for this event can be found worldwide in what is called the KT layer. The Paleogene was originally called the Tertiary and the term KT persists, below KT dinosaurs, above none.
In Hell Creek, DePalma has discovered a primordial soup, a mix of mammal and dinosaur fossils, along with fish, plants and insects, all within this site’s KT layer. Some specimens have been burnt, while others are so perfectly preserved that they must have been encased in mud at the moment of death. Also common at his dig are tektites, ejecta of super heated rock turned to glass, possibly from the hypothesized asteroid strike. At that time, the Dakotas were part of an inland sea and the idea of a tsunami washing over everything there fits well with some of these finds, like fresh and salt water fish on top of each other.
According to Preston, DePalma is a bit eccentric, a standout as such in a field with more than its fair share of unusual characters. Combine this trait with his penchant for secrecy and his relatively low scientific stature and you have a recipe for simply being dismissed. DePalma has had some impact though. He once unearthed a hadrosaur and noticed that there was a nodule on one of its bones. A CT scan showed a T-Rex tooth embedded. This find helped to refute the theory that the T-Rex was solely a scavenger.
Slowly and little-by-little DePalma’s work is being disseminated. His lack of transparency and the dramatic nature of the findings will receive their first real test, when next month he publishes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If even a tenth of what he purports is true, it should rock the world.