Interview with Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.
Jean: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for “Buzzy Magazine.” With me today is Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Junior, the principal lecturer in vertebrate paleontology at the University of Maryland and author of many popular books on dinosaurs, including “Jurassic World Dinosaur Field Guide” and “Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-date Encyclopedia for Dinosaur Lovers of All Ages.” Welcome, Tom.
Dr. Thomas: Hi.
Jean: We’re so glad to have you here today. Everybody I know grew up loving dinosaurs, playing with dinosaur models and wanting to dig up dinosaurs in their backyards. Were dinosaurs, specifically carnivorous dinosaurs your childhood passion too?
Dr. Thomas: Oh, definitely. Yeah, I was… And these are stories my parents tell me. This was before I have memory that when I was a really little kid, probably about three or so, I got plastic toys, and I and my brothers. And one of them got a farm animal, one of them got a zoo animal of some sort, and I got a dinosaur and it was either a Brontosaurus or a Tyrannosaurus. And I can’t remember which one was first, but then a few weeks later we got another set. And one got another farm animal, one got another zoo animal and I got the other one. And I asked my mom what they were and she said they were dinosaurs.
And apparently I was very skeptical because how could these two animals that look so different from each other be called the same thing? Well, we don’t call a horse and a cow the same thing, and they look practically the same. So I said, “How could they be the same thing?” Or at least as a three-year-old would say that. And my mom didn’t know, but she had a background in education. So she said, “We’ll get a book.” And so she got the “How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs” and started to read to me from it. And at that point I decided, yes, I was going to grow up to be a dinosaur specifically Tyrannosaurus Rex, because if you’re getting a dinosaur, you might as well be the king. And I have the same first two initials, Tyrannosaurus Rex and Thomas Richardson. But when I found out that wasn’t going to happen I decided I would study them instead. So yes, most people don’t stick with decisions they make when they were three, but I happened to.
Jean: How did you translate, you know, your three-year-old love into becoming a paleontologist? How do you make dinosaurs a career?
Dr. Thomas: Sure. Yeah. Well, along the way, you know, as a kid, I would still be you know, obviously obsessed with dinosaurs, but…so I could try to find how to connect things with dinosaurs. So science in general and appreciating nature and even drawing and so forth. So I was able to keep that going all as a thread throughout education. And then…so that had been…then comes around time to start looking for a college, finding out where you could go to be a paleontologist because not that many universities have paleontology courses much less…well, there are no paleontology majors really in America or actually most countries. You’re typically either a geology major who takes a lot of biology or a biology major who takes a lot of geology.
And so when I got around time to looking for a university to go to we looked for places where there were paleontology classes and so forth, and I actually wound up going to Johns Hopkins up in Baltimore which incidentally turned out really well for me for multiple ways. One, I met my wife there, the most important aspect. And then the other thing is I sort of entered the world of science fiction conventioning through Balticon there. I had gotten to a few before that, but in any case, so focusing on paleontology, I went and got my earth and planetary sciences degree with an interest in paleontology. And even then most people, when they get into paleontology, they might be drawn in by dinosaurs. They get to college, and they’re somehow seduced by the power of brachiopods or graptolites, or multituberculate mammals or something.
Jean: What does this mean?
Dr. Thomas: Exactly. So you know, all these other sorts of things because the vast majority of ancient things weren’t dinosaurs. And there’s a lot more specimens of some of these other organisms. And so you can crunch those numbers much…more finely when you got good sample sizes, but no, I stuck with it. I was going to do dinosaurs. And then continuing from that, went off to a grad school where I could do specifically dinosaur research. And I was lucky enough to get in to Yale University and work with John Ostrom, a key figure in dinosaur paleontology in the 20th century.
And from there just then to sort of look for jobs after I got out of grad school, where I could keep on doing paleontology. And in the short term, I wound up working for four years for the U.S. government, the U.S. Geological Survey, not on dinosaurs, but on microfossils because microfossils can give us a lot of information about past environments. And even back then in the early 1990s, people were concerned about the environmental effects of global warming. And so I was part of a larger research team looking at the last time it was fairly warm and trying to model what weather and climate conditions were around the planet at the time.
And then partway through that, I happened to get contacted by a faculty member who was at the University of Maryland. And they said they wanted me to come out there and do the weekly departmental colloquium. Most university departments will have a weekly colloquium where some speaker from outside presents their work. And then he talked with my boss after I had left. He says, “You know, actually this is a…it’s sort of a trial interview because they were thinking of having a dinosaurs class and they wanted to see if I was any good at presenting.” So they had me come out there and they liked what they saw. So since that time, since the spring of 1994, I’ve been teaching in some context or other at the University of Maryland. And so that’s really where I got the sort of job stability to continue to do dinosaur research is actually to be teaching and then get the research done when I can, around that.
Jean: You’ve helped a lot of science fiction and fantasy writers build their concept of otherworldly creatures or creatures from our own past. What’s the one thing you wish science fiction and fantasy writers knew about dinosaurs or about paleontology?
Dr. Thomas: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think one thing that we’re… It would be nice to see more people use when they’re talking about the ancient world is in some ways how mundane it is that you know, to think of it, like…to picture of something like the Savage Land of Marvel Comics, where you got dinosaurs fighting all the time and so forth, and all the plants look weird. In fact, most of the time it would be like walking around in the wilderness, in the modern world.
There are big and spectacular animals, but they’re rare. You don’t encounter them all the time. And most of the time it’s plants…and by the end of the age of dinosaurs, plants that wouldn’t look dramatically different from at least some parts of the world today, like Japan or the…Louisiana or the north coast of Australia and you know, small animals and so forth. And then occasionally this giant creature comes walking by.
Jean: A bear?
Dr. Thomas: A bear. It might be around here nowadays, a bear. Back then, something a lot bigger. So that’s one thing. Also that not everything that was in the age of dinosaurs, that there’s a whole spectrum of fossil world to choose from. And yeah, I know dinosaurs are the coolest, that’s an objective fact, but there are other aspects of the ancient world that actually would be nice to see explored. To be fair, science fiction is a huge genre, and there’s a lot of clever people. And a lot of those other time periods are explored from Stephen Utley’s stories set in the Silurian, so when the land was just first getting colonized, through Julian May’s the “Saga Pliocene Exile,” so set about 6 million years ago in Europe. And it…so you see the environments at that time, that it ties in aliens and Celtic and dramatic mythology and all sorts of other stuff, psionic powers. But there is this huge spectrum of possibilities to choose from. And I think that would be the biggest one to sample more and more of this world. And I absolutely understand why people are drawn to do stories in the kingdom of T-Rex because it is again the most awesome, but…
Jean: Your favorite dinosaur [inaudible 00:09:14.615]
Dr. Thomas: It’s my favorite dinosaur, absolutely. But there are so many things to choose from.
Jean: Why should people…you know, there are a lot of us who still care passionately about dinosaurs, but why should the rest of the world care about animals that have been dead for hundreds of millions of years?
Dr. Thomas: Dinosaurs, in particular, are sort of the gateway drug of science, in that, they are a way to hook people and draw people in to learn about other aspects of science, things like basic anatomy, evolution, and how evolution works, functional morphology, how we understand how bodies work as mechanisms, ecology, extinction, that’s a big one to understand. It’s a reality, mass extinction. And these sorts of topics, you can engage a public via the medium of dinosaurs in ways that they might not approach it. If you just told them, “We want to talk about, you know, the living organisms of the American Southeast,” they might not be as interested. But if you’ve got these giant monsters in there, but then also can teach the same sort of things.
So that’s one…at one level. Paleontology more broadly it’s really important because it does document a lot of important things that have relevance to our modern world and our near future. It is the record of environmental change that the environmental changes we will have this century are unprecedented in the realm of human history, but they’re not unprecedented in the realm of geologic time. And so the geologic record and the fossil record are our keys to understanding what changes occur in things like temperatures in the polar regions, distribution of organisms, patterns of precipitation and so forth so we can better prepare for them as they show up. And sort of more…on a more dire level, but it’s important, without the fossil record, we wouldn’t know about mass extinctions. You know, within human history, we have not seen mass extinction.
So we’ve seen animals go extinct on islands and, you know, or even on continents, this being the cucullatus, the symbol here is the dodo. The dodo clearly went extinct as Europeans were witnessing it. And therefore they could realize an animal that lived on an island could go extinct, but without the fossil record, there was no appreciation that entire ecosystems can collapse. And although every mass extinction is different in its own way, it always boils down to rapid environmental change too intense and too quick for organisms to adapt to. And that’s what causes the ecosystems to crash.
It’s like, you know, “The Game of Thrones,” you either win or you die. You either make it through and you are the ancestors of the next generation of diversification or your group that dies out. And the fossil record can show us the different ways environments can come to an end and also give us a clue of what it is you need to…in order to survive, which you know, better to keep it from happening. But if it is in the midst of happening, it can help guide conservation biologists, and agronomists, and so forth to be aware of possibilities.
Jean: Yes. Okay. What are your current projects?
Dr. Thomas: Okay. Let’s see. Current projects, I have a kids’ book on Tyrannosaurus Rex that I am wrapping up. And then the Dinosaurs: The Most Complete, Up-to-date Guide came out in 2007. So that’s not so up-to-date. So my next big popular audience project is to work on that. Although, additionally, I’m in the midst of the early stages of writing and editing a multi-author volume, the latest edition of the complete dinosaur.
I’m also working with a crew of scientists from the Burpee Museum, which is in Rockford, Illinois on specimens we’ve been collecting over the last eight years or so out in Southeastern Montana. And in particular, there’s a member of the feathered dinosaur group called the oviraptorosaurs. It’s a specimen of a dinosaur genus called Anzu. The nickname of this individual is Pearl because the guys who initially found the first bones were from Pearl City.
In any case, I’m going to be describing this specimen. It includes bones that the previous discovered specimens of Anzu did not have. So first we’ll do a brief description of this new specimen and then our team and the folks from the Smithsonian and the Carnegie who originally described Anzu are going to work together to sort of create a monograph of the entire skeleton of this unusual looking chicken from hell [inaudible 00:14:21]
Jean: Well, we have, unfortunately, come to the end of our time, and we really appreciated having you. Thank you, Tom. And thank you for “Buzzy Magazine.”