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Dr. Chickenosaurus

Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bones

It was sometime in my last year of high school when I encountered a news story about Jack Horner and Hans Larsson, paleontologists at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana and the Redpath Museum at McGill, respectively, working on a project nicknamed the “chickenosaurus.” The basic concept was to reverse-engineer a recognizably dinosaur-like creature by manipulating the existing genetic materials in dinosaurs we have today – that is, birds. Hopefully this sounds as exciting as it does far-fetched, because if it does, you have an idea of the fantastical images lingering in the back of my mind when I packed up most of my earthly possessions and moved to Montreal two years ago.

On some bored weekday night in my first semester, I attended a public talk in the Redpath Museum and, on my way out, spotted a poster calling for volunteers in a lab researching vertebrate evolution. At that point I hadn’t decided what exactly I was at school for, but ‘evolutionary biologist’ had a nice ring to it, and this opportunity seemed to fall somewhere in line with that.

After exchanging a couple of emails with my soon-to-be lab supervisor wherein I explained my lack of practical experience, I was nonetheless invited to “come by the museum and meet Hans.” Slowly, something clicked in my head: Hans… Larsson? The dinosaur-maker? After a few Google searches I was thrilled to find Larsson’s body of work not only included turning chickens into dinosaurs, but what seemed like a picture-perfect image of paleontology in the field – digging up dinosaurs, crocodiles, and other bits of prehistory in badlands and deserts across the world. I wondered if I would end up cleaning or categorizing some of those fossils the way my ten-year-old self had always imagined.

As it turned out, my position was in the wet lab and simply entailed the extraction of chick embryos from their eggs – a relatively easy (and, after the initial squeamishness, boring) task that involved picking bits of shell apart until a sizable window formed, followed by some careful tweezer-and-spoon handling. Eventually I was ‘promoted’ to an all-around gopher in the lab, trying out various protocols from running DNA gels, to making stock solutions, to showing new volunteer arrivals the limited and particularly uninteresting tricks of the trade as I walked them through the methods of handling the embryos.

During my first summer in Montreal, I piloted a method of installing Teflon ‘windows’ into chick eggs. This was done to facilitate observation without needing to disrupt or extract the embryo, with the ultimate goal of creating a few-seconds-long timelapse video of the embryo developing in ovo, which was never quite realized.

Considering my experiences, the Jurassic Park-esque mental image of people in lab coats examining chick DNA in a dimly lit fumehood, or using a fine-toothed brush to clean off fossilized Tyrannosaurus teeth both seemed a bit far off, but some parts of the research in the lab veered farther in that direction than others. Some of the students in the lab were trying to create a living model of the fin-to-limb transition; that is, ‘training’ live fish out of water to see if they could be induced to crawl more efficiently on land.

My project, on the other hand, ostensibly involved tracking patterns of tissue movement in the developing chick limb, with the use of fluorescent dyes – at least, that’s what I told other people. It actually largely involved hunting through literature for protocols, permanently staining my clothes with fluorescent dyes, accidentally breaking hair-thin needles (usually with my hand), and wrangling with a makeshift microscope stage fashioned – in all seriousness – out of an old spoon. In the end, I weaved some (statistically) insignificant results into some eye-catching but uninformative figures, and was rewarded with the first A grade I’d achieved during my time at McGill.

I felt a little cheated, having contributed, in theory, to the chickenosaurus project for two years and never having seen so much as a mosquito in amber. Of course, if science worked the way media described it, we probably would have slapped some lizard legs onto a plucked chicken and called it a day.

Unlike the way I had to reassess my expectations of working in the lab, I found the hand-dirtying, elbow-greasy paleontological side of things more or less what I expected. This summer, I spent two weeks on a field course led by Larsson, living out of a one-person tent alongside a dozen or so other students in southern Saskatchewan. We went on day-long hiking expeditions into arid valleys, learning to identify dirt qualities by taste, uncovering and collecting millennia-old teeth and bones by the sackful. The childlike thrill of spending an afternoon on a crumbly shore using awls and brushes to uncover a dinosaurian jawbone the size of my face was as much as I could have possibly hoped for.

After a week and a half of collecting, we also spent some time in the T. rex Discovery Centre in Eastend, Saskatchewan, cataloguing, cleaning, and gluing together the dusty shards we hauled out. Working on the job, we learned to identify crocodile ribs, gar scales, and raptor teeth, while museum visitors peered into the research lab through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Though the objects of study were rather different, working under the fluorescent lights in the T. rex Discovery Centre brought a certain reminiscence of hunching over a lab bench in the  Stewart Biology Building. While in hindsight, the monotony of collecting data for my project was not especially inspiring, watching it go from numbers in a spreadsheet to an informative contribution to a much bigger picture was reaffirming. As for working with fossils and fitting together more literal pieces of a puzzle, I found it incredibly satisfying. After I handed in my field book at the end of the summer, I was able to tell my mother during the car ride home that I had finally decided to be a paleontologist.