An Interview with Alton Dooley

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with Alton Dooley, a paleontologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. View his project, called “Saving fossil whales in Virginia.”

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research.

I’m a geologist and vertebrate paleontologist by training, and much of my work has centered around fossil whales. I’m especially interested in how the marine faunas in the North Atlantic Ocean have changes over the last 25 million years, and the reasons for those changes. When the Calvert Formation was being deposited around 14 million years ago, whale diversity was very high; there are more species of baleen whale in the Calvert Formation than there are in the entire world today. But it appears that baleen whale diversity plummeted between 14 and 7 million years ago. I’d like to find out why.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?

I’ve wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. I was already interested in dinosaurs when I started school. When I was around 5 years old and found out they were extinct, it occurred to me that they might still be living on other planets so I started reading books on astronomy to find out. For years I read every book I could find in the public library on both geology/paleontology and astronomy, and didn’t choose between them until I took my first geology class in college. At least I can now answer my 5-year-old self; dinosaurs didn’t escape to another planet!

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found in your research so far? 

When we did our first excavation at Carmel Church back in the 1990′s we thought we would only find a single whale, and that it would be a very fast and straightforward excavation. We pretty quickly discovered there were more remains there than we had originally thought, but it was several years before we fully realized that we were dealing with a unique bonebed. So far we’ve collected tens of thousands of bones and teeth, yet we’ve only excavated an area of about 300 square meters. To date we’ve found remains of over 50 different species, and we find new ones almost every time we go back to the site. We now have at least 17 different species of whales, some of which are only known from Carmel Church, and more than half of all the Miocene land mammals ever found in Virginia came from there.  We actually once found a pile of camel teeth sitting in the middle of a baleen whale skull! Yet we still haven’t come up with a good explanation for how this bonebed formed. We’ve rejected lots of hypotheses, and each specimen we collect gets us a little closer to the answer. 

Q: Why did you decide to post a project on Petridish?

I think crowdfunding has a lot of potential in science, especially as grant funds become harder and harder to obtain. A lot of important science can be accomplished with relatively modest funding. I like that Petridish focuses exclusively on science, as that makes it easier for donors to find projects to support.

Q: What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you in the field? 

A few years ago I was working with several volunteers to excavate a whale skeleton from the cliffs along the Potomac River. We had to use a boat to get to the location, and after removing the whale from the cliff we had to load it into the boat for the return trip. The whale weighed around 1,500 pounds, which was probably far too heavy for our boat, but we loaded it up anyway. We were so overloaded that, even with a 90-hp motor, canoes were passing us. It took us over a half and hour to make the 1-mile trip back to the boat ramp.

To read more about Alton’s research, ask questions or back his work, view the project page:

 Saving Fossil Whales in Virginia

The sediments at Virginia’s Carmel Church Quarry have yielded over 50 fossil species, including whales, sharks, turtles, crocodiles, sea cows, and land animals. We are trying to save these remains before they’re lost to erosion.

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