By Tim Kalinowski
Eminent paleontologist David Krause has traveled a long ways from his boyhood home 13 miles west of Hilda. The distinguished professor of vertebrate paleontology at New York’s Stony Brook University has been associated with some of the most significant recent fossil finds in Madagascar, all of which have shed light on the early Jurassic and filled out the picture of life surrounding the dinosaurs. Some of these finds include a giant prehistoric frog named Beelzebufo (“Frog from Hell”), a large, early, groundhog-like mammal that lived beside the dinosaurs and a bird-like dinosaur called Rahonavis, from the family of feathery beasts which has previously only been found in South America.
Krause’s work and finds have been featured in National Geographic magazine, and he has multiple articles on his findings published in the most respected scientific journals including Nature. Krause credits his experiences growing up on the farm as an important guidepost in his trailblazing career.
“It starts first and foremost with the serendipity of discovery,” Krause told the Courier in a telephone interview a few weeks ago. “I’ve been very fortunate being able to find some significant fossils, but beyond that I think it’s probably two things: A hard work ethic, and I think that’s something I learned very well based on how I was raised, and the second thing is team-building. I have been very fortunate to be able to gather together teams of experts that help with the projects and we work extremely well together. There is actually about 100 researchers around the world right now working on fossils we have found in Madagascar.”
Krause is the first to admit his career might not have happened at all if it weren’t for one old character named Fred Zeigler, a former elevator manager in Hilda, who took young David on his first ever fossil hunt along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River.
“Fred invited me to go along with him one day, and my Dad let me go,” remembered Krause. “When I went out with Fred it was that first leap in my mind to start thinking about these things, and it was also the thrill of discovery. I remember being fascinated to discover a part of a dinosaur. I found a tail vertebra of a Duck-billed dinosaur that day.”
From there Krause went on to study with University of Manitoba professor Richard Fox who turned him onto vertebrate and prehistoric mammal research. He made significant discoveries of this nature while working in the Crazy Mountains Basin of Montana and the Big Horn Basin in Wyoming. When he arrived as a professor at Stony Brook University, Krause cobbled together enough research dollars to mount and expedition to Madagascar for the first time in 1993.
“Going to Madagascar was a bit of a wild goose chase that ended up shaping the rest of my career,” said Krause with a chuckle.
Krause has led expeditions back to Madagascar every year since and continues to make massive discoveries which have rewritten geological and natural history as we know it, particularly of the Gondwana super-continent which was once made up of Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, the Australian continent, the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent before starting to break apart about 184 million years ago. Madagascar has turned out to be the Rosetta Stone of that period of continental break-up, and Krause and his team have become its de facto translators.
“I think we made a significant impact, and that is partly out of luck because the area we have been working at has extraordinarily well-preserved and relatively complete fossils,” explained Krause. “We have complete skulls or skeletons that are the best representatives of those major groups of vertebrate animals, and that has allowed us to determine a great deal about their phylogenetic history, where they are relative to other animals. That, in turn, has allowed us to see where they came from relative to other groups of vertebrates and therefore piece together not just the bio-geographic history of southern hemisphere, but also the plate tectonic history. It has all been incredibly rewarding, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be where I am.”
Krause has also helped create a legacy of another kind in Madagascar, the Madagascar Ankizy Fund, which has brought good dental care and education to the impoverished communities near his dig sites.
“When we first went to our dig site in 1993 we got to know the community well and we got to know the kids well. We learned about what their lives were like and when we returned the next year we found some of those kids weren’t there anymore because they had passed away. So (setting up the dental clinic, hiring a teacher) were things we could do, and with some effort have an impact.”
Krause says the research he is doing is also important for what it can teach us about adaptation and species survival in a natural world undergoing rapid change.
“The world is going through climate change right now in a pretty drastic way. Climate change has been the case in geological history as well, and that has effected past life forms in sometimes drastic ways. I think paleontology sheds light on the modern world in that sense. What our research has shown is we as humans are changing the world more radically than any other species in history and more rapidly than has typically been the case.”