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Paleontologist achieved immortality thanks to a few prehistoric jaws

  • PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE
                                Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s curator of vertebrate paleontology David S. Berman, center, flanked by colleagues Albert D. Kollar, left, and Amy C. Henrici, holds the fossil of a trematopid temnospondyl amphibian — a new genus and species of carnivorous amphibian.

    PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE

    Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s curator of vertebrate paleontology David S. Berman, center, flanked by colleagues Albert D. Kollar, left, and Amy C. Henrici, holds the fossil of a trematopid temnospondyl amphibian — a new genus and species of carnivorous amphibian.

PITTSBURGH >> In 1989 David Berman was bouncing around in a Jeep as it roamed through the wilds of southeast Utah. He asked the driver to stop when he saw a distinctive earth formation: stream bed deposits. That may not excite everyone, but to a vehicle full of graduate students studying vertebrate paleontology, the promise of a “bone bed” is the best roadside attraction.

Several years later, Berman, Ph.D., and a new set of colleagues drove past the same spot. When he mentioned the collection he made there years earlier, the group got out to take a look around. Nothing caught their interest until they turned to leave — they were parked right on top of the richest part of the bed.

“The first thing you do when you get out of a Jeep and are looking for fossils, you pick out some distant location where the exposures are good, and you rush out there before anyone else beats you to it,” Berman said. “But never have I experienced where a part of a car was on a major bone bed.”

So when a group of scientists set out to explore the same bed in 2015 — and one of them unearthed the jaw of a previously unknown early mammal-like reptile — there was only one thing to do: Name it after Berman, the longtime Carnegie Museum of Natural History curator of vertebrate paleontology and current curator emeritus.

Discoveries of the new species, named Shashajaia bermani, were made in May 2015 and April 2019, the findings of which were published in the journal Royal Society Open Science in December.

“Dave’s passion for fossil hunting has inspired generations of paleontologists working in the southwestern U.S.,” said University of Southern California professor Adam Huttenlocker, who was the paper’s lead author and discoverer of the newly named species, via the museum’s news release. “And I’m grateful for his mentorship and collegial support over the years.”

Huttenlocker isn’t the only one. Amy Henrici, collection manager for the section of vertebrate paleontology at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, was at the Utah site when those discoveries were made and has plenty of reasons to support the new species’ namesake.

“His influence on me affected my whole life,” she said, prompting Berman to chime in, “I’m sorry about that.” Everyone laughed.

Henrici had a hard time getting a job with her biology degree amid 1979’s recession. A job teaching a children’s class at the museum was all she could find, but it put her in the same room with Berman when he announced that his fossil preparator (the person who scrapes away at rock and debris until only the fossil is left) resigned.

Henrici was an obvious choice for the job, which led to a lifetime in the field and at the museum, never too far from Berman and the generations of scientists he influenced.

“He always did field work and often took students of other professors out in the field with him because those professors didn’t have a field program,” she said. “Dave introduced a number of people to field work, which helped to develop their interest in paleontology.”

Berman and Henrici are brainstorming about how to introduce Shashajaia bermani to the lay person, because its significance is nichey. The new fossil, which is made up of two jaws, belongs to a category of early mammal-like reptiles called synapsids. It’s an ancestor of Dimetrodon, the sail-backed reptile often included in bags of plastic dinosaurs for kids. Scientists knew that the teeth of these creatures differentiated to incisors, canines and cheek teeth — similar to humans and many other living species — but this fossil pushes back the timeline of that differentiation to about 300 million years ago.

In the more recent past, collections made at the bone bed discovered by Berman helped to identify the scientific importance of southeast Utah. In 2016, President Barack Obama protected it by establishing Bears Ears National Monument. The move sought to protect 2,000 square miles of tribal land as well as the area’s fossils, “revealing new insights into the transition of vertebrate life from reptiles to mammals and from sea to land.”

As one might expect, Berman has fascinating stories to tell, from searching for feldspar crystals and aquatic fossils in the Mohave Desert just for fun, to the goats of Navajo tribespeople nibbling at his gear. Ironically, he only hesitated when asked about his age: “What am I, 83 or something? Eighty-four, maybe?” He’s 82.

In those years, he’s influenced numerous young vertebrate paleontologists and will influence many more.

“Being a vertebrate paleontologist is a rather romantic pursuit,” he said. “It’s going into these remote areas and walking for days over barren slopes, looking for signs of past life, fossils. When you do that, you’re almost assured that, eventually, you’ll find something.

“Very seldom was I not rewarded in terms of discoveries,” he said. That is why Shashajaia bermani will belong to scientific nomenclature forever.

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