A curator at Seattle's Burke Museum looks deep into the past to see what might lie ahead
Christian Sidor, curator of vertebrate paleontology at Seattle's Burke Museum, specializes in the Permian and Triassic periods to study everything from extinction and recovery to global warming.
For more about Christian Sidor's research and the Burke Museum:
We're all agog at Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old skeleton of a human ancestor on exhibit now at Pacific Science Center. So well-preserved for her age, so — charming, from her Beatles-inspired name to her dainty, 3 ½-foot frame. Seeking a further fossil fix, we called on Christian Sidor, the Burke Museum's curator of vertebrate paleontology. He digs way deeper into the past than Lucy's time.
Q: Your research, which takes you from Antarctica to Tanzania, focuses on when and how mammals evolved?
A: Broadly, I'm interested in what's happening in the Permian and Triassic periods (300 to 200 million years ago), both effectively pre-dinosaur and so by a longshot pre-anything-that-is-a-true-mammal.
Q: Why's that compelling to you?
A: Between those two time periods is when the largest extinction on the planet ever happened; there are estimates of 95 percent species extinction. So it's hugely important to study in terms of what causes extinction and what allows for recovery. It's also a time of incredible global warming. Earth is going from glaciers, at least at the South Pole, to the Triassic, when there are no glaciers at all. The Permian-Triassic also bounds the time period of Pangaea, when all the continents were together . . . which can help us interpret why certain animals and plants today are in the places they are.
Q: What is it with the folks who study hominids (humanlike creatures)? From descriptions in (Lucy discoverer) Donald Johanson's book, "colorful" would be a polite characterization. There's a lot of ego?
A: Oh, yes. I think part of it is there are so few fossils relative to how many people who are working on it, so people become highly territorial.
Q: What's been your most exciting find?
A: As a grad student in 2000 I was with a team in Niger looking for dinosaurs. When we found the first human skeleton (of at least 200 eventually found in the Stone Age graveyard), we said, "Oh-h-h, we're not in the Cretaceous anymore."
Q: You were handed a mess to clean up at the Burke. (Sidor's predecessor was accused of fossil digging without permits and improper documenting, charges he rejected.) How's that going?
A: It's still an ongoing investigation; we have a special federal agent assigned to us. (But) every fossil in the collection — 50,000, from 1,500 different places — now is 100 percent documented.
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