University of Calgary

Q&A with Darla Zelenitsky, lead researcher behind ‘Best Recent Dinosaur Discovery’

UToday HomeMay 15, 2013

By Marie-Helene Thibeault

Darla Zelenitsky, assistant professor for the Department of GeoscienceDarla Zelenitsky, assistant professor for the Department of Geoscience: “I’m motivated by a drive to discover and learn, and to bring these discoveries to science.” Photos courtesy Darla ZelenitskyDarla Zelenitsky is an assistant professor for the Department of Geoscience. Her research passion revolves around dinosaur paleontology.

Recently, she published research on the discovery of fossils of first feathered dinosaurs from North America. This significant finding has now been selected as one of the 10 best recent dinosaur discoveries by WIRED Magazine.

We caught up with her to learn more about her passion for dinosaurs and her research.

Q. What's your first dinosaur memory?
A. My earliest memories of dinosaurs are from books and visits to the Manitoba Museum. Although no dinosaurs have been found in Manitoba where I grew up, I was collecting fossil seashells from limestone rocks at an early age. By age 4, I was fascinated by dinosaurs and other prehistoric life and I decided that I was going to be a paleontologist.

Q. What led you to studying dinosaurs?
A. I had a lifelong interest in dinosaurs and paleontology, and had great mentors from a relatively early age. As a teenager, I had contacted a paleontologist who helped to guide me in pursuing a career path in paleontology.

Q. How meaningful was the feathered dinosaur research to you?
A. This was one of the most important fossil discoveries that I have had the opportunity to work on. I knew the contribution to science would be great, but also realized that completion of the project would take a significant amount of time and effort.

Q. Why do you think this discovery got this much traction?
A. I suspected it would because feathered dinosaurs and their link to birds have been a hot topic in the past several years, and here we had feathers preserved on a type of dinosaur previously unknown to have feathers.

Q. What does it mean to you that your research made the WIRED Top 10 list?
A. I think an acknowledgement like this makes me feel that my investment in time, energy and creativity was definitely worthwhile. It's like being acknowledged for receiving one of the highest GPAs in your class after a considerable amount of effort during your program.

Q. What are the most gratifying aspects of your work?
A. The discovery of something entirely new and unknown to science, and the ability to bring such discoveries to science, to students, and to the general public. In the past several years, I have been fortunate enough to be involved in several first-time discoveries in paleontology that have been reported in books, documentaries, magazines, and the news. I’m motivated by a drive to discover and learn, and to bring these discoveries to science.

Q. What do you hope to achieve in your career going forward?
A. I would like to work more with students that have similar motivations or passions in order to help develop their early careers in paleontology.

Q. Is there another key area of research you really want to explore?
A. Recently I have been particularly focused on studying the evolutionary changes that occurred in the dinosaurs leading to birds, which I have tackled from a couple different angles. For now, I plan to continue along this line of research.

Zelenitsky focuses her research on studying the evolutionary changes that occurred in dinosaurs leading to birds.Zelenitsky focuses her research on studying the evolutionary changes that occurred in dinosaurs leading to birds.Q. Are you most fascinated with studying dinosaurs as a gateway to comprehend the past or as an avenue to better understand our present? (or both!)
A. I am more curious about understanding past life, but am naturally interested in the present to help reconstruct the past. A knowledge of the closest living relatives of extinct animals, which for dinosaurs is birds and crocodiles, can help us reconstruct what these prehistoric creatures looked like and how they behaved.

Q. If you could go back in time and see a live dinosaur, which one would it be and why?
A. This is an easy one. I'd love to see the ostrich dinosaurs that we described in the Science paper because I want to know if they are anything like I've imagined them to be.

To learn more about assistant Professor Zelenitsky and her research projects, visit: http://www.ucalgary.ca/drg/

 

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