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Paleontologist demystifies evolution of dinosaur feathers

Bethany Swanson / Reporter

Could it be possible that the modern day parakeet is actually the distant cousin of a dinosaur? That's what Mark A. Norell and his colleagues are trying to discover.

Although paleontology is not a field of study discussed much at Elon and is not even offered as a major, Norell, an award-winning paleontologist, is coming to speak on campus at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27 in McCrary Theater as part of the Voices of Discovery program sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences.

Norell's speech, titled "Dinosaur Feathers: How Fossils Inform Us about the Evolution of Birds," will focus on his recent and past discoveries and theories regarding the connection between birds and the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, 144 to 65 million years ago.

"Paleontology and evolution are fascinating subjects," said Nancy Harris, Voices of Discovery committee member and assistant dean of the college of Arts and Sciences. "Most of our speakers are biology speakers; they're into genetics or molecular biology but we've wanted someone in evolution and the field of paleontology."

According to his biography, Norell is recognized for his discovery of the bird-like Mononykus dinosaur, as well as his unearthing of the richest Cretaceous fossil depository in the world. He is also acclaimed for his discovery of a dinosaur nesting on eggs like a bird. He has traveled the world over, often visiting obscure and sparsely inhabited areas such as the Gobi Desert, the Chilean Andes, the Sahara and Mongolia in search of fossils and more clues into the world of dinosaurs and their diversity through time.

Norell is currently the chairman and curator of the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York and has made many published contributions in the subjects of paleontology and evolution.

A recent NY Times article followed Norell and other paleontologists on an expedition to Ukhaa Tolgod, Mongolia, the sight of the richest and most diverse sight for mammal and dinosaur remains from the Cretaceous period. It was this same place where scientists unearthed a fossilized embryo curled up inside its broken shell, something that had never before been seen, and something incredibly valuable to determining the link between modern day birds and dinosaurs.

For first year students, attending events such as this one is mandatory. Freshman Megan Lee said, "I'm required to go to these events for class, but this one sounds pretty interesting. I've never really studied dinosaurs or fossils in school, so this is something really new and different."

Contact Bethany Swanson at or 278-7247.