FOR NINE YEARS Kenneth Lacovara, a paleontologist and professor at Drexel University, has kept a big secret - a really big secret. In the southernmost reaches of Patagonia, Lacovara and his team, made up mostly of Drexel graduate students, unearthed a new species of dinosaur: Dreadnoughtus schrani, a 65-ton, 85-foot sauropod who lived 77 million years ago.
Lacovara released his findings earlier this month in the journal Scientific Reports and Dreadnoughtus quickly became the subject of news articles, late-night talk show monologues, Mad Magazine jokes and Photoshop contests.
Dreadnoughtus, whose name means "fears nothing," is the largest land animal ever discovered whose body mass can be accurately measured. But what's really important is that it's the most complete skeleton of a supermassive dinosaur that's ever been found.
Lacovara and his team unearthed 70 percent of the bones below the dino's neck - a really big number given that the most complete skeleton of a supermassive dinosaur before Dreadnoughtus only had 26.8 percent of its bones.
Today, the Academy of Natural Sciences hosts Dreadnoughtus Day, with pieces of the Dreadnoughtus skeleton on display (they go back to Argentina next year) and talks by members of the expedition. Lacovara speaks at 11 a.m.
He talked with Stephanie Farr earlier this week about his big find, his favorite fossil and his other career in rock - as a drummer.
Q Did you want to be a paleontologist when you were a little kid?
I did. When I was in second grade, a woman came into our Cub Scout troop meeting and she had a big box of rocks and fossils. I grew up in Linwood, N.J., and down there you basically have mud and sand. I had really never seen rocks before. I'd certainly never seen anything like these objects. I didn't know these things were in the world. So that was when it started, in second grade.
In high school I found out I was pretty good at playing the drums. I took a little detour there in drumland. I played with a lot of different bands. I was the house drummer at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City for a year. And I still play. About once a month I sit in at the 23rd Street Cafe, they have a jam session.
Q You initially discovered Dreadnoughtus in 2005 but didn't publish your findings until this month. How did you keep a secret like that for nine years?
It's not easy. Paleontologists live in fear that somebody else has dug up the same species and they're going to publish it two weeks before you do. It's been stressful, there's no lie about that. This has been like the giant family project in my house. I have a 6-year-old son and we'd be out to dinner at a restaurant and I'd say "Dreadnoughtus" and he'd say "Shhh!"
About a month ago we were having dinner guests, and when they came into the front door he races into the kitchen and erases this chalk drawing of Dreadnoughtus. He said "This is embargoed."
Q Were there other names you considered for Dreadnoughtus?
Yeah, there were. It was maybe two winters ago we had a really bad blizzard here and I was stuck at home and couldn't go to work. So I sat on the couch that day with a cup of hot chocolate and I started making out possible dinosaur names. I had a list of about 30 names and then the very last name I thought of was Dreadnoughtus.
So I had this list hanging on my refrigerator for a couple years. It's still there. And when people would come over, I would basically market-test the names. I would say, "Check your three favorite names," and Dreadnoughtus was the runaway winner.
Q Is there a fossil that really moved you when you saw it in person?
There's a fossil at the American Museum of Natural History of an Oviraptor. It's a good size feathered dinosaur, and this mother Oviraptor was brooding a clutch of eggs. And she's sitting on the nest with her wings over it. She had such fidelity to this clutch of eggs that she allowed herself to be buried by a sandstorm. It's an amazing fossil, but it's also this amazing moment that occurred.
Q Will you be sad when Dreadnoughtus has to go back to Argentina next year?
Yeah. In a way, it will be good to move on. I kind of have a love-hate relationship with this dinosaur sometimes. But I know I'm going to be really sad when I watch the boat pull out of the port of Philadelphia and head down the Delaware Bay.
I already know I'm going to be having a drink at the outdoor deck at Crabby Dick's in Delaware which overlooks the bay and I'm going to watch the dinosaur go by as that happens.