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The dinosaur hunter

U of T paleontologist scours the Earth to find fossils of these age-old creatures.

BY DAVID MEFFE | JAN 09 2013

There’s nothing quite like discovering a new species of dinosaur, says David Evans. He calls it “exhilarating,” and he should know. He and his colleagues have found or identified three new dinosaurs, including recently Xenoceratops, a horned dinosaur about the size of a rhino. Eight more species are waiting to be validated by the scientific community.

Dr. Evans is an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum. He has spent the last 10 years scouring the globe in search of the fossil remains of the ancient world’s most enormous and elusive beasts. His finds, he says, are just another piece of the evolutionary puzzle waiting to be put into place.

Dr. Evans says he understands dinosaurs’ capacity to instil wonder – his own passion for the giant reptiles started at the age of four, when his uncle took him to a natural history exhibit. Dinosaurs may “look like mythological creatures but they actually were living breathing evolving animals that ruled the planet, quite successfully,” he says. They occupy “a special place” in our consciousness and “because of that interest they are a gateway to science for the general public, particularly for children,” he says.

“I think that’s what’s so special about my position. I’m not only on the front lines of science, but I have this amazing venue to communicate the wonders and joys of scientific discovery.”

These days, Dr. Evans splits his time between the university and the ROM, where he is curating a new exhibit called Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana. The exhibit showcases massive skeletons found on the Earth’s Southern continents, and it relates dinosaur evolution to plate tectonics and the breakup of Earth’s supercontinents hundreds of millions of years ago. The fossils demonstrate how dinosaurs were “passengers” of continental drift and how the history of life is directly related to the history of the planet.

Dr. Evans’ passion for dinosaur digging has taken him to far-flung places like the High Arctic, the Gobi Desert and the Sahara. But his favourite location to dig is still Southern Alberta, whose Dinosaur Provincial Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most fruitful sites for fossil discovery in the world. “The more I travel the more I realize what an amazing place Alberta is for unravelling the evolution of dinosaurs,” he says. “It’s so extremely rich, and most Canadians don’t even know it.”

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