The Boca Interview: Making Prehistory with Robert de Palma

Robert De Palma

Boca paleontologist Robert de Palma uncovers evidence of the day the dinosaurs died—and how it connects to homo sapiens.

Every summer, for the past eight years, paleontologist Robert de Palma and a caravan of colleagues drive 2,257 miles from Boca Raton to the sleepy North Dakota town of Bowman. In the caravan are microscopes, micropreparation tools, conservation chemicals, camera equipment to document their discoveries, camping gear, first-aid kits, portable cooking equipment. And rum. Lots of rum.

After setting up their base camp in Bowman, they drive 30 miles on a paved road until they reach a turnoff onto a gravel road, where it’s another 15 miles until they reach a sprawling ranch—at which point they’ll drive another three to four miles on a “two-track, which is basically two ruts in a prairie,” De Palma says. Though the route is unmarked, De Palma knows where to go. Once they’ve driven as far as they can, they walk three miles to an outcropping in the Hell Creek Formation, where De Palma climbs a butte and meticulously chips away at an endless trove of unprecedented dinosaur fossils.

De Palma learned about these treasures from a group of commercial hobbyists in 2012, and his annual pilgrimages to the site—nicknamed Tanis, after the ancient Egyptian city referenced in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”—paint a vivid picture of the planet’s fifth extinction and the end of the Cretaceous era. De Palma believes his discoveries, from preserved fossil fish and prehistoric mammals to ancient plants, feathers and dinosaur bones, are the first to capture the final hours, even minutes, of the dinosaurs’ reign, which ended 66 million years ago when an asteroid slammed into what is now the Yucatan Peninsula. De Palma’s team has found preserved asteroid debris, too—spherules and other ejecta verified by radiometric dating. As De Palma likes to say, “we science the hell out of it.”

Robert De Palma

At 37, De Palma is a passionate and telegenic communicator who has appeared numerous times on National Geographic Channel and even discovered a new dinosaur species, the dakotaraptor, during a 2005 dig in South Dakota. At presentations, he wins over audiences with his exuberance, millennial lingo and insistence on always dressing the part, like his ubiquitous, weathered bush hat with the brim folded up on the left.

Though still a graduate student at the time of this writing—he’s been balancing his degree duties from the University of Kansas with adjunct professorships at FAU—his work has led to collaborations with some of paleontology’s pioneers, a 10,000- word profile in the New Yorker that broke the news of his discoveries to the public back in March, and a peer-reviewed scientific paper, refined over seven years and published in April in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Just days before embarking on his eighth trip to Tanis, De Palma sat down with Boca magazine at his laboratory in FAU to discuss the impact of his groundbreaking research.

Many longtime paleontologists had never heard of you before the New Yorker article was published. Are they aware of you now?

“Honestly, there are some that said they hadn’t heard of me up to that point, even though we had gone toe to toe about things before. It’s not about a popularity game, so I really don’t care who’s heard and who’s not heard. The ones that matter have. We’ve been doing enormous research with some of the best ones in their field. … We’ve had a hard time keeping people out of the study. Every time we wanted to consult with an outside entity, they ended up becoming an inside entity.”

Why aren’t there more fossil-rich sites like Tanis in the States?

“First, you’ve got to have the right paleo environment. For instance, here in Florida was underwater. You’re not going to get dinosaurs here. Problem No. 2, the right rocks are not always on the surface. You’ve got to go where the right deposits are. If you wanted to touch a 65 million- year-old rock here right now, you’d have to go down 6,000 feet. In northern Florida, you’d have a better chance. It’s only 3,000 feet down. You’re still not going to go that far. In the Dakotas, that age rock is right on the surface. It’s exposed. You’ve got buttes and erosional gullies, and you can walk right up to them and see what’s coming out.”

Each year you go, are you able to dig deeper than the year before?

“We dig systematically. The layer is only about 1.4 meters thick. It’s like playing Minecraft—we go back, little by little. It’s sort of like the excavation of Pompeii. There are certain areas that we reserve for later, while we develop the best techniques to preserve them.”

Do you have several more years’ worth before you see everything?

“I doubt I’ll ever see everything, and we’ve got decades of work left over there. Every single year we’ve been out there, we’ve encountered something new that no one’s ever seen before. Not necessarily a new species—we’ve already encountered many new species at the site that we will be documenting—but last season, it looks like we have parts of a Crocodilian. There are details we’re constantly trying to document and interpret. It’ll be a lot of work yet.”

Robert De Palma
Robert de Palma uncovers a 65-million-year-old fish at the Tanis site.

Is it arduous work?

“It is. It is not enjoyable work. The enjoyable aspect is the discovery of all these new things. But you’ve got a lot of difficult, painful work in harsh conditions. It is not a vacation. And people don’t realize that when they come out and try to do it. “

What is the most amazing fossil discovery from Hell Creek thus far?

“One of the ones that would most closely apply to us would be a mammal burrow. Inside this burrow are the remains of two fossil mammals. They’re both the same age and species; that alone is unprecedented. No one’s ever found a Hell Creek mammal in a burrow. No one has ever found two species of the same Hell Creek mammal together. And we’ve got multiple bones for these animals there. We’ve got almost a fully articulated arm—shoulder blades, upper arm, forearm and jaws.

But the fact that they dug those shortly after impact … what that shows us is a potential coping mechanism that these mammals adopted right after impact. And that coping mechanism is really important. Because if they did not adopt certain coping mechanisms, we would not be here. Mammals needed to survive that impact somehow. We don’t know how they did it. When you ask anybody in the field, most of them will say they probably burrowed, because that’s a common behavior. No one had any evidence of that that we’re aware of, and here we have two mammals in a burrow right after impact, and that is probably the closest you’re going to get to a coping mechanism preserved in time. And the resounding effect of those coping mechanisms are sitting here in this room.

We don’t know if those mammals had any offspring in the amount of time they occupied the burrow. If we can find evidence for that, we can have a baseline for a mammal born in the Cretaceous that died in the Paleocene.”

With time, could you identify the species of this mammal?

“We’re in the process of doing that. We’re dealing with some experts right now in the Cretaceous mammal field.”

I understand you finance your research out of pocket. Why isn’t there some billionaire with an interest in paleontology who can fund your expeditions?

“Technically there could be. I’ve gotten a little bit of outside assistance. There’s one retired engineer named Ashok Vaish, out of California, who has generously been helping out with a lot of the research recently. But largely I will do it on my own, because I’m a stubborn, half-Italian, half-Scottish person. I like to conduct the research the way it should be conducted. I like to bring out the people who should be out there.”

What does it say that we’re still uncovering so much new information about our world from millions of years ago?

“Our knowledge is incomplete. And it always will be. Every year we go out there, we try to add another piece to the puzzle, and we are trying to make the best sense possible out of that incomplete picture. A decade ago, I could have told you far less about that than I am right now. That is why every single year we go out there is critical. Every single time we get new data, we’re constantly trying to refine and revise what we knew previously. You can’t be tied too tightly to any one of your interpretations. You can’t shoehorn things to fit what you think it should look like.”

What do you believe will cause the next extinction on this planet?

“That’s one thing we would like to find out. That’s one reason this research is absolutely critical. Because people can come up with all sorts of hypotheses and simulations and theories on how our world ecologies will respond to a disaster, whether it be an asteroid impact or the warming of the atmosphere or the cooling of the atmosphere. The only way to really understand how that’s going to be affected is to look at the past, and say, how did the world respond to this sort of disaster? And we can understand that if we look at the fossil record.

We are literally the first species on the planet to be able to perceive these things, and understand them, and do something about them. Because that is the case, we are obligated to do that. We can’t just sit on our haunches.”

Are world governments prepared for an asteroid on a collision course for Earth?

“I would like to think that they are. We won’t know until one happens, quite frankly. Seeing how this impact affected the earth, there is no such thing as being too prepared. I’m disheartened every year, during hurricane season, when a simple little hurricane throws this place into a tizzy. People who have lived here their whole lives act like it’s the first hurricane they’ve ever seen. I shudder to think what would happen if an asteroid were really coming.

Why are we so fascinated by dinosaurs?

You can look at the movies and see all of these fantastical things that are concocted, which make us go wow— all these weird creatures. When you talk about dinosaurs, that is one of the only cases where you can see something that’s just as weird and think, whoa—that was actually alive at one time. As Bob Bakker said, ‘dinosaurs are nature’s special effects.'”

This story is from our November/December 2019 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine. For more Robert de Palma, check out our Web Extra from this feature.