Whales on Mountaintops

A great fossil find high in the Chilean Andes began with a delayed flight in New York City and ended with a horseback ride from hell

Paleontologist Michael Novacek, who has discovered important fossils on virtually every continent and is provost of science and curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, has written Time Traveler: In Search of Dinosaurs and Ancient Fossils from Montana to Mongolia, to be published in February 2002 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. In an exclusive excerpt Novacek paints a vivid behind-the-scenes picture of the vicissitudes of paleontological fieldwork, in this case his 1986 and 1987 expeditions in the southern Chilean Andes, a region until then little explored.

After writing Dinosaurs of the Flaming Cliffs (1996), which covered Novacek's work in the Gobi Desert, he says, "I wanted to look back to my earlier expeditions." In the new book Novacek writes about growing up in Los Angeles in the 1950s and '60s. A curious kid, he had run-ins with his Catholic school nuns for reading concealed science books in class. But his studies, culminating in a PhD in paleontology from UC-Berkeley, turned what he calls his "childhood of dinosaur dreams into a paleontological career." Of his fossil finds on his expeditions to Chile, Novacek says they "represented, at the time of their discovery, the first diverse ancient mammal assemblage from the region and helped geologists estimate the rate of the rise of the Patagonian Andes. Because the fossils are only 15 or 16 million years old, they demonstrate that a shallow seaway extended all the way from the Atlantic to eastern Chile." Nearly as important, he adds, "Chile taught me to leave no stone unturned. We found fossil treasures there in the most unlikely and isolated spots."

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