Milestones in Geology and Paleontology Research at MNA: A Brief History

Geological studies at MNA began with the founding of the museum in 1929. Museum founder and Director Dr. Harold S. Colton championed all research in natural history, including geology. Colton and his friend Lionel F. “Major” Brady established the tradition of geological research that continues today. Colton worked tirelessly on Sunset Crater and its preservation while Brady focused on the paleontology of the southern Colorado Plateau. Among other notable accomplishments, Brady collected the remarkable skeleton of a ground sloth that became a central item in the early exhibits maintained by the museum.

Dr. Edwin “Eddie” McKee became Assistant Director of MNA in 1941 and began a long-term research program on stratigraphy and structural geology of northern Arizona, including the Grand Canyon. McKee’s research became the foundation for modern studies on Grand Canyon geology that continue with vigor and controversy today. McKee officially resigned his position in 1953, and was replaced by Dr. John Lance, who also worked closely with Major Brady. Together they mapped and studied important dinosaur tracks from the Navajo Reservation near Page, Arizona. Lance eventually moved to the Washington, D.C. area and became a program director at the National Science Foundation.

Soon thereafter Dr. Richard “Dick” Wilson began a long-term association with MNA, supporting graduate students and conducting stratigraphic research on the Mesozoic rocks of the Colorado Plateau. In 1960 Wilson became Coordinator of Geology Research at MNA as the museum became prominent in contract science. In the same year, William J. Breed was appointed Curator of Geology at MNA and mentored geology students and interns including Bruce Babbitt, who later became a prominent public figure in state- and national government. Dr. Stanley Beus, Professor of Geology at NAU, also came to MNA as part-time Curator of Paleontology as an invertebrate paleontologist. His later work with George Billingsley in the Grand Canyon established a new Mississippian Period formation called the Surprise Canyon Formation, with an abundance of fossils.

Bill Breed later went to Antarctica with world-famous dinosaur paleontologist Edwin H “Ned” Colbert, who retired from a distinguished career at the American Museum of Natural History to become Honorary Curator at MNA. The Colbert team discovered the fossilized remains of the small land-dwelling Lystrosaurus in Antarctica. This odd reptile had already been described from other southern continents; finding it in Antarctica was a critical piece of the puzzle that confirmed continental drift.  Colbert, one of the most prominent paleontologists of the twentieth century, continued his work at MNA to the age of 96 young years, well preserved and sharp right up to the end of his illustrious life.  Breed stayed at MNA for twenty years, and later returned as Curator Emeritus in the Geology Department. Bill Breed and George Billingsley published a popular geologic map of the Grand Canyon.

Artist Margaret Colbert, Ned Colbert’s wife and collaborator for his many books, continued her amazing career at MNA with important mural paintings of Mesozoic landscapes of the Colorado Plateau. One remarkable mural, painted in the Brady Building work room for the newly established New Mexico Museum of Natural History opening in 1986, measures 7 feet high and 21 feet wide. Another was produced for Ghost Ranch to celebrate the opening of the new Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology and the famous Coelophysis dinosaur quarry that Ned discovered in 1947. New Mexico Museum of Natural History Curator David D. Gillette sponsored both of those murals and planned diorama exhibits for both of them.

During the Breed-Colbert years, applied geology at MNA expanded rapidly with the support of contracts from federal agencies, but pure research flourished as well, setting the stage for the next five decades. Many geologists and paleontologists gained valuable field and lab experience here, a veritable all-star list of scientists that can be found in Irby (1994). The Symposium on Southwestern Geology at MNA became an annual event, attended by distinguished paleontologists and geologists from around the world.

In addition, Dr. Malcolm McKenna, Curator of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and close friend of the Colberts, contributed a significant donation to MNA to fund the Colbert Endowment, established for the endowed chair now occupied by Dr. David Gillette, the first Colbert Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology. Increasing value from investments and additional gifts to MNA dedicated to the endowment eventually accumulated to a level that allowed MNA to inaugurate that position in 1998.

In the 1970s and 1980s the MNA paleontology collections grew substantially, with the addition of thousands of fossil bones and teeth from mammals and other small vertebrates from the extraordinary succession of Cretaceous rocks in the vicinity of the area now contained by the boundaries of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This collection of dinosaur-era mammals ranks among the most significant in the world, amassed largely by Rich Cifelli, Jeffrey Eaton, and Jim Kirkland and associates.

Dr. Timothy Rowe became Curator of Paleontology at MNA in 1980, and coordinated the excavation of a large block from the Ghost Ranch Coelophysis quarry in New Mexico. That block is in the Geology Department today, the subject of many research investigations by paleontologists from around the world. Michael Morales succeeded Rowe in 1982 as Curator of Paleontology until the middle 1990s. Morales continued the tradition of sponsorship of the Annual Symposium that eventually faltered due to competing meetings and budget constraints. Morales maintained research interests in Mesozoic reptiles, especially the giant amphibians called metoposaurs from the Moenkopi Formation of northern Arizona.

By 1998 the Colbert Endowment had grown sufficiently to fund the Colbert Chair. With Ned Colbert’s guidance, MNA selected Dr. David Gillette, then State Paleontologist of Utah, to fill this position. In addition, Dr. Barry Albright was hired as Curator of Paleontology to fill the vacancy left by Morales several years earlier, and MNA established a preparator position to support the two curators. Dave immediately established new research activities, mainly in southern Utah and the new Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. There he and Albright excavated the rear half of a large duckbill dinosaur now on display at the GSENM Visitor Center in Big Water, Utah, a partial skeleton of a ceratopsian dinosaur, and other fossils in the Kaiparowits Formation. The excavation of the hadrosaur and work in the MNA geology laboratory were featured in a live feed to schools throughout the US including Alaska and Hawaii. That program reached more than a million students, according to some estimates.

About the same time Merle Graffam, a hiker from Big Water, Utah, called Dave and described fossils in his possession that he thought were from a plesiosaur from rocks near Lake Powell in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Dave visited Merle, confirmed his identifications, and asked to see the sites where Merle had found fossils in the Tropic Shale sediments, laid down in the Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway 90 million years ago. This visit led to 15 years of research on plesiosaurs from the Tropic Shale, in addition to a therizinosaur dinosaur, fish, sharks, and sea turtles. The therisinosaur dinosaur, a plant-eating member of the carnivorous dinosaurs was named from Merle, Nothronychus graffami.  Two major paleontology exhibits at MNA resulted from this research, Plesiosaur, Terror of the Cretaceous Sea, and Therizinosaur, Mystery of the Sickle-Claw Dinosaur. Dave’s research in southern Utah continues, with the recent excavation of another fine plesiosaur skull with Research Associate Dr. Rebecca McKean. In addition, Dave has conducted a variety of other research projects including a major description of the early sauropod dinosaur, Barapasaurus tagorei from India, ongoing taxonomy and description of North American glyptodonts which are giant relatives of armadillos from the Ice Age, and other faunal studies of Quaternary age.

In recent years, the Geology Department has sponsored several MNA bulletins and became home to Honorary Curator Michael Woodburne and the Research Associates listed above. These colleagues have broadened the scope of research MNA and have provided a welcome collegiality to the department. We continue to have a vital, active research program that continues the traditions established by Harold Colton more than eight decades ago.

The present home of the Geology Department was built in 1967, designed by Bill Breed and funded from private sources and the National Science Foundation, and named for Major Brady, now known as the Brady Building. This remarkable building houses researchers, work areas, and the MNA geology and paleontology collections.

Reference:

Irby, Grace V., 1994. History of Research in the Department of Geology, Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff. In Fossils of Arizona, volume 2, pages 1-21, Proceedings 1994 Southwest Paleontological Society and Mesa Southwest Museum, Mesa. Az 85201.