Kristi Curry Rogers finally is getting a chance to show off her dinosaur.
Curry Rogers, a professor at Macalester College, was taking part in a summer archaeological dig in Madagascar in 1996 when she uncovered bones that she eventually would prove belonged to a previously unknown species.
On Saturday, that dinosaur — along with 19 others — will go on public display as part of the “Ultimate Dinosaurs” exhibit at the Science Museum of Minnesota.
“It’s come full circle,” she said of the long-neck dinosaur’s arrival at the museum.
Curry Rogers served as the museum’s curator of paleontology from 1999 to 2008, a period that included her research in proving that this dinosaur was different from every other one previously discovered. “It all took years of work,” she said.
Assembling the dinosaur in St. Paul was a lot easier. Because the dinosaur is part of a traveling exhibit and had been previously assembled, it arrived in Minnesota in prefab pieces that could be snapped together like immense Lego blocks.
Curry Rogers was on hand last week to watch her dinosaur go together. She wasn’t so much supervising the process as reveling in the excitement, an experience that kicked up a notch when the artisans assembling the skeleton stepped aside to let her attach the last piece — the skull.
Until that moment, she had seen it fully assembled only once before, at the Field Museum in Chicago.
“The poses are different,” she said, tactfully dodging the question of which one she preferred. “The Field exhibit went for more of a regal stance, with the dinosaur looking out into the distance. This is more of an action pose.”
The display has a personal connection for her beyond its location. The exhibit pairs her dinosaur with a Majungasaurus, a creature that her husband, Ray Rogers, also a Macalester professor, has been instrumental in researching.
“It was a carnivore, and he proved that it engaged in cannibalism by matching its teeth with marks on the bones of other Majungasauruses,” she said. The discovery was groundbreaking because no other dinosaur species is known to have done that.
Did hers eat others of its own kind? “No,” she insisted. “Mine was an herbivore. It was much more docile.”
Even the name she picked for it is playful. She dubbed it Rapetosaurus, pronounced rah-PAY-toe-sore-us. “It’s named after Rapeto, a mischievous giant that’s a legend in Madagascar,” she said.
The find of a lifetime
Curry Rogers downplays the importance of making scientific history with her discovery of an unreported species. “It’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time,” she said.
But others spare no superlatives when talking about her.
“She’s a jewel,” said Mike Day, the senior vice president who oversees the museum’s programming. “She’s wonderful at interacting with people, and she’s a damn good paleontologist. It’s great that we have her, and it’s great that we have her dinosaur.”
She never lacks enthusiasm, her husband said.
“I think one of the key elements in Kristi’s success as a paleontologist is that she is one of those lucky people who gets to do her dream job,” he said. “She has always wanted to be a paleontologist. She gets to live her dream, and she is always excited and eager to learn more about dinosaurs.”
That passion has produced a wealth of experience that she transports to Minnesota.
“She has traveled the world studying dinosaurs, and she has seen thousands of bones,” he said. “She knows her stuff. And she passes this enthusiasm on to her students at Macalester.”
Curry Rogers described in intricate detail what happened the day she uncovered that first dinosaur bone and realized: “This is what I have spent my whole life studying.”
The expedition was in the Mahagunga basin in the remote northwest corner of Madagascar. She excitedly called out to the rest of the researchers, and they came running to join her. They quickly discovered that she had hit the mother lode of dinosaur relics.
“Almost everything we found was something new to science,” she said.
These days, she’s still making discoveries, but of a different sort.
The stereotype of a dust-covered scientist knee-deep in a hole in the desert patiently picking away the sand in a perpetual search for a tiny bone fragment might have been fitting in the past, but it’s a small part of the modern-day paleontologist’s work.
“I love the sense of discovery, but you don’t have to be in the field to experience that,” she said. “We make a lot of our discoveries in the lab.”
Using things like CT scans and isotope ratios, scientists are finding out things that challenge many long-held presumptions about dinosaurs.
“It’s really exciting to learn more than just how the bones are put together,” she said. “For instance, we’ve gotten a lot of information on the growth rate of dinosaurs.”
Partly because the animals were so big, scientists used to think that it took decades for them to reach full size. “Now we think most of them were fully grown within 10 years,” she said.
And there’s a lot left to learn.
“Did dinosaurs have cheeks?” she wondered. “What did they hear? What did they sound like? There are so many more questions.”
End of the line
Curry Rogers believes that the Rapetosaurus she discovered was among the last of the dinosaurs. Its food supply was disappearing — or, perhaps, already had.
“We found signals of environmental stress in the bones,” she said. “We think it lived about 65 million years ago, which was the last gasp for the dinosaurs’ time on Earth. We found no plant fossils at all [at the dig site], no sign of any trees. It probably just ran out of food and water.”
Her best guess is that it was three or four years old. The Madagascar dig eventually found bones from three other partial Rapetosaurus skeletons, and from those bones, she deduced that her dinosaur was about one-fifth of adult size.
“Long-neck dinosaurs are measured at the hip,” like a horse, she said. “This one is 5-foot-3. Based on the thigh bones we found, an adult would have been about 25 feet at the hip.”
She couches many of the statements she makes about dinosaurs with “we think that” or “we believe” and adds words like “probably” and “likely.” That’s because paleontologists are never going to know everything for sure.
“That’s the exciting part,” she said. “We have to leave room for the inclusion of new ideas. We’re always testing our hypotheses — and we’re always proving ourselves wrong.”