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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Federico Fanti Decoding the Death (and Life) of the Dinosaurs

Federico Fanti in the field. Photo by Luigi “Jerri” Cantelli

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Paleontologist and geologist Federico Fanti is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.

When Federico was growing up in Bologna, Italy, his family would hike and enjoy the dramatic landscapes of the Dolomites, and that’s where he spent most of his family time. You can see it now: the towering, snow-capped peaks, a young boy running through the flower-filled meadows, surrounded by visions of … dinosaurs. When we spoke, I suggested that he was basically the male, Italian Heidi, and that I’d say as much in this post. “You’re the boss,” he said with a smile.

After majoring in geology, he started volunteering at other researchers’ digs. About 14 years ago he was finally was able to run some fieldwork of his own, opening up quarries, digging up prehistoric beasts, and setting the stage for his impressive work recreating the environments of the distant past.

Photo courtesy Federico Fanti

How did you get into this?

The short story is that as with many, many, many kids I just fell in love with fossils when I was 3 or 4. Usually this kind of passion mitigates or vanishes as you get older and older. Quite the reverse for my life.

Were there a lot of places to look for fossils when you were a kid?

Not many. Italy has found its own dinosaur fossils only in the last 10-15 years, but I was captivated by books and the old National Geographic TV show showing the Gobi Desert or the Badlands of Canada, or Argentina—I can’t remember. But I was very curious to see these things in person, and to get my own fossils out of the ground.

My first true passion was the atlas. The atlas has been my favorite book since Day 1. And so I thought, “How is it to be … here?” Unfortunately when you do my job, you have to forget about the atlas, because being in a place doesn’t mean it’s the same as it was 50 million years ago, or 200 million years ago.

So we’re here in Washington, D.C. This land was different back then, but some other place would have had characteristics similar to how it is here today?

Everything we have today on Earth has been there, somehow, somewhere in a time before. Knowing this is a big help for understanding the past, but also for managing the present. Something like Washington, D.C. (obviously not the city, just the landscape and ecosystems) was there, on Earth, during the last, I don’t know, 600 million years? And of course the animals that lived there had to face the same problems and take advantage of the same opportunities. Similar temperature, similar distance from the sea, similar freshwater abundance, etc.

Does it help you to physically travel to other places to better understand your site in the past?

Yes, absolutely. Collecting data in the field does make the difference as you need much more than bones to comprehend an ancient ecosystem. A perfect example is  Tunisia where we got a big sauropod, an animal that was like 15-18m long when it was alive. The geology of the locality and other fossils collected nearby revealed an extreme, bone-dry ecosystem with salty water instead of freshwater and no vegetation. It’s like, ok … I’m missing something here. I can think that maybe the ecosystem was like this, but then what was this guy really doing?

Same story for polar dinosaurs that inhabited Alaska or Australia millions of years ago—the planet could have been warmer, but still within the polar circle, six months out of the year you’re in total darkness whether you like it or not.

So when animals face the same issue, they come sooner or later to the same adaptation. If you can see the same environment today, it clicks faster in your head.

Photo courtesy Federico Fanti

You also do a lot of science education. What are some of the key things you try to do to engage the public?

Dinosaurs are fascinating creatures and they easily capture the imagination of all audiences. In particular, dinosaurs work very well when you want to communicate science to kids, and kids bring their parents to the museum or if they cannot they bring grandma and grandpa, over and over.

What I learned is that we need captivating stories to talk about science in general: What do we do? Why do we do what we do? What are we trying to figure out from the past?

What are some of the aspects of being in the field that really stick out to you?

First of all, nobody can reach you. That’s the big thing. It’s like the most complicated version of camping you can figure out. Because you can arrange it your best—travelling, food, lodging. It’s something I really enjoy—being outside, no email, no phone, nobody bothers you.

The other side is facing different cultures and different people. Wildlife, wars, permits, and logistics.

In Tunisia, it’s very hot, and we stopped working there because of ISIS. In Alaska, you can just book a flight and arrive somewhere, but you bring a gun because you never know what the grizzly bears are up to in that part of the year.

Are there times where you just don’t find anything?

I mean statistically that happens most of the time. For every three weeks you spend in the field, you have one good day and the rest is checking, walking—it takes time. It really takes time. But in the end it always pays back.

Photo by Luigi “Jerri” Cantelli

What are some of your best field memories?

Something personal, and something scientific here. Personal is when I found a nesting dinosaur in the Gobi. It was my first time in the Gobi and I ended up finding a dinosaur squatting in the center of a nest, with all the eggs laying underneath it. It was a lucky strike. It was amazing, a very powerful memory I have in my mind.

Scientifically speaking, I don’t know. Let’s put it this way: I’m happy to provide my colleagues with new information. Whether they are important or not, they are data. Solid data. To me it could be “Wow, that’s so cool,” and then for my buddies it’s nothing new. But at least it’s something from places that very few people have the privilege of visiting: Tunisia, the middle of nowhere of Alaska, Turkmenistan, who knows. So this is my contribution. I have the privilege to be here and this is what I can see.

So any new information is good information?

The reality is that we do not know as much as we think we know.

We know about 1200 dinosaur species. That’s quite a lot, but it’s not even a tenth of the bird species alive in a single day today. So we’re doing a great job, we’re very proud of what we do, but we know very little. So we need to get on a flight, get our visas, get our camping gear, and keep doing what we’re doing.

Photo by Luigi “Jerri” Cantelli

Some of your discoveries fit into a bigger question about how extinctions actually play out. That it’s not necessarily Boom! one day there’s an asteroid strike and everything goes extinct. 

The big question for me is, when something big happens, like climate change today, how does life react to that?

So take the giant crocodile we found at the margin of the Sahara. This type of crocodile was supposed to be long dead because its ecosystem was long gone. This was 100 percent true in Europe, but just across the sea, the ecosystem remained absolutely identical for millions of years. And guess what: this animal that was supposed to be extinct was absolutely fine there.

So again, if you extend this to millions of years, it gives you an idea that we should be a little more cautious and careful when we think about extinction, climate change, surviving, and these kinds of things. Life always finds a way and studying the different ecosystems through time gives me an idea of what happened.

It turns out that (this is called scientific improvement) maybe 40 percent of what we knew about dinosaurs 20 years ago turned out to be wrong or partial at best. So we are reshaping day after day what we know. And studying the past is the only way we have to understand what’s going on today.

So with that much that we’ve learned recently, what are the standard ideas now that you think we might be wrong about?

Personally, I was always fascinated by extinction but I was never that convinced about the magic wand, “you guys are gone, open the door to the next ones.” Recent studies are documenting that change needs time, adaptation needs time. And throughout the story of dinosaurs, they evolved so many times and so many different ways, that even now we are not even sure about what was changing into what and how long it took.

So we are reshaping the story of the evolution of life basically. Stop assuming you know, and just check what is true and what is not. That’s how we can make a difference. Do your job.

 

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