June 27, 2007

Dinosaur Answers Sought in Old Teeth


Scientist claims looking at dinosaur teeth will answer age-old questions

SEYMOUR, Texas -- Robert T. Bakker picks out a 275 million-year- old tooth from the red-colored dirt on this massive northwest Texas ranch, examines it with a trained eye and promptly sticks it in his mouth.

"It feels like silt mixed with peanut butter," says Bakker, as he tastes the tooth from a Dimetrodon, a 500-pound, finned reptile that predated dinosaurs. "It has a smooth, creamy texture from the clays."

The visiting curator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science revolutionized the paleontological world three decades ago with research that suggested dinosaurs were warm-blooded, fast-moving creatures, not sluggish lizards.

Now, Bakker, a Yale-trained paleontologist, is stirring controversy again among dinosaur hunters with an approach he created that looks at fossils in the same way forensic scientists comb through crime scenes.

"Traditionally, paleontologists haven't paid much attention to a shed tooth. It's a little item. However, from a criminological point of a view, it's the most important thing you can find," Bakker said. "It's proof of who ate whom and where."

Colleagues dismiss many of Bakker's ideas as unworthy hype, calling him a heretic, a nut and worse.

"That's what any paleontologist already does, a CSI-type look at fossils. It's nothing new," said Michael K. Brett-Surman, museum specialist for dinosaurs at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

But Bakker, a 62-year-old former Pentecostal preacher with a scruffy white beard and a worn cowboy hat, disagrees. He says his method of looking at previously unheralded fossils, such as teeth, could yield fascinating new insights about the ecological evolution of the Texas red beds -- red earth full of fossils.

"This is like an episode of 'Law & Order' where, before the first commercial break, you find out who the victim is and how he or she died," Bakker said.

Researchers from the Houston museum are banking on Bakker's theories.

They hope a few choice excavations will produce some new skeletons for display, provide a clearer, three-dimensional picture of what Texas looked like millions of years ago and answer lingering questions about where dinosaurs came from.

Since the early 1900s, paleontologists and archaeologists have scoured the red beds of northwest Texas in search of the "missing link" between the pre-dinosaur reptiles of the Permian period and the dinosaurs often associated with those in the movie "Jurassic Park."

The mad dash to northwest Texas picked up a frenzied pace in 1917, when paleontologist Charles H. Sternberg and his two sons found Dimetrodon skeletons at the Craddock Ranch in Seymour.

But the Sternbergs missed a few things, experts say.

"There are lots of little things the Sternbergs left behind. They said, for example, that they couldn't find the Dimetrodon toes. But they weren't really looking for toes," said David Temple, the Houston museum's associate curator of paleontology. "They were looking for the big stuff."

So over the past year, Bakker has brought teams of geologists, educators and museum curators to the tiny town.

Here, they search for evidence of the world as it was roughly 275 million years ago, before most of the earth's life was wiped out by mass extinction.

Bakker's team so far has collected 1,000 bones from the early Permian period, including partial skeletons of a Diplocaulus, a large amphibian also known as a "Boomerhead" for its boomerang- shaped skull.

The fossils are identified, bagged and taken back to Houston to be cleaned and cataloged.

Bakker said his work is bound to provoke some questions from scientists.

The truth, he says, is in the teeth.

"A lot of the questions have all been answered by theories and hypotheses," he said. "We didn't have the smoking jaw. That's where the answers are."