Tech UPTechnologyWho are the fossil hunters of our time?

Who are the fossil hunters of our time?

Do you remember the impressive fossil fight between a Velociraptor and a Protoceratops ? It is the fight to the death between a young Velociraptor mongoliensis that is digging its claws into the neck of a Protoceratops andrewsi that defends itself by placing itself on top of its aggressor and biting its right arm. These fossils are so famous that they are known as the “fighting dinosaurs” and were discovered in Mongolia in 1971.

The specimens are so fascinating that the processes that caused the fossils to have been kept together over millions of years are still debated today. Some hypotheses propose that the dinosaurs could have drowned in water , either in a swamp or by falling into the quicksand of a lake. Others maintain, however, that the animals were surprised by a sandstorm or the collapse of a dune that quickly buried them, without giving them time to react.

Fossil hunters: who are the adventurers of the 20th century?

More unknown is the exciting life of the discoverer of this paleontological finding, the Polish paleontologist and zoologist, Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska (Sokołów Podlaski, Poland, 1925 – Warsaw, Poland, 2015). She was an expert on trilobites from the Ordovician (period that ranges from 485 million years to 443 million years) and Devonian (between 419 and 358 million years), although without a doubt she has gone down in posterity as an eminence in the study of Mesozoic vertebrates (252 to 66 million years). Studying groups as varied as crocodiles, turtles, dinosaurs, birds and multitubercular mammals.

His life was not easy since from a very young age he was marked by the cold war. His adolescence was spent attending clandestine high school and university classes, as the occupation by German forces had closed schools and universities. In 1944 he helped in the resistance by caring for and transporting war-wounded , as well as helping to organize the Warsaw uprising.

After the devastation of World War II, in 1948, Zofia began teaching biology and geology at the university, which she combined with the completion of her doctoral thesis on trilobites, and her subsequent studies on these fossil arthropods.

In the 1960s, when he was already head of the Institute of Paleobiology in Warsaw, belonging to the Polish Academy of Sciences, he decided to turn his studies around and focus on vertebrates, which were his true childhood passion. For this, he carried out a series of paleontological expeditions in Mongolia , in the Gobi desert, thanks to a cooperation agreement between Mongolia and Poland.

For eight years (from 1963 to 1971), Zofia was a trailblazer who led her team through the wilderness breaking down barriers and fighting gender stereotypes . On his way he discovered thousands of new specimens of dinosaurs and primitive mammals. In one of the campaigns he discovered more than 20 tons of fossils!

One of the most impressive fossils discovered during these campaigns was the dinosaur Deinocheirus , which would have measured 11 meters long and weighed more than six tons! Its upper extremities were 2.4 meters long and consisted of three fingers crowned by large claws! !

Her great work of collaboration and cooperation with different researchers from all over the world, led her to become the first woman to belong to the Executive Committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences, obtain a membership in the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters, and obtaining the Romer-Simpson Medal from the Vertebrate Paleontology Society, among others.

Exploring the desert after 50

There are numerous examples of paleontologists with professional careers worthy of a Hollywood movie. One of these examples is that of the Austrian geologist and paleontologist Gudrun Daxner-Höck (Steyregg, Austria, 1941 – Present), another pioneer in her field, an expert in rodents, biochronology, biostratigraphy and climatic changes of the Cenozoic (a period that spans from 66 million years to the present).

After his studies at the University of Vienna and his doctoral thesis defense in 1966, he worked for three years at the Institute of Paleontology, associated with the University of Vienna. In 1968 he married and spent five years raising his three daughters, paralyzing his professional activity .

In 1973, she decided to take it up again and obtained a position as full professor in “Vertebrate Paleontology” at the University of Salzburg, directing and participating in various European research projects, especially in Greece and Austria.

In 1992 she moved to the “Geology and Paleontology” department of the Vienna Natural History Museum, reaching the position of Curator of “Vertebrate Paleontology”.

At the age of 54 and after attending a paleontological congress in Mongolia, where he meets the geologist Demchig Badamgarav, he decides to request an Austrian collaboration project between the Mongolian Academy of Sciences and the Vienna Natural History Museum to work in the Taatsin Gol area and Taatsiin Tsagaan Nuur, known as “The Valley of Lakes”, in Mongolia . This begins a collaboration of 20 years of field work , carried out between 1995 and 2015, which includes the preparation of geological maps, study of geological sections based on lithology (study of rock characteristics), geological structures , tectonics (structures formed by crustal deformation such as faults and folds) and fossil content. Elaborating one of the most complete and detailed stratigraphic sequences of the Oligocene (period that covers from 34 to 23 million years) and Miocene (from 23 to 5 million years), based on the evolution of mammals and the age absolute of the basalts.

Despite retiring in 2006, the tireless and tenacious Gudrun has continued to direct and coordinate field campaigns, breaking down barriers and defending the role of women in science.


Carolina Martínez Pulido, Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska: dedication to science beyond the cold war (1), (2) and (3). Women with Science, Scientific Lives.

Daxner-Höck, G., D. Badamgarav, D. Barsbold, B. Bayarmaa, M. A. Erbajeva, U. B. Göhlich, M. Harzhauser, V. Höck, N. Ichinnorov, Y. Khand, P. López-Guerrero, O. Maridet, T. A. Neubauer, A. Oliver, W. E. Piller, K. Tsogtbaatar, and R. Ziegler.2017. Oligocene Stratigraphy across the Eocene and Miocene boundaries in the Valley of Lakes (Mongolia). Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments 97(1):1-108.

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