Digging for the Truth -- Gallagher Says Fossils Are Key to Our Future

Saturday, November 15, 2008

In folklore, as well as along the various boardwalks that separate sand from streets along the Jersey Shore, the crystal ball has long been regarded as the most accurate portal into the future. Though its precision is certainly debatable, the appeal of the crystal ball remains grounded in our age-old desire for a glimpse into what the world has in store for us.

But what if there were a way to predict our fate, a means completely rooted in science and research as opposed to a carnival novelty booth? What if it turned out that the best way to gauge the future turned out to be … an examination of the past?

For Dr. William B. Gallagher, paleontology beats palm-reading. The visiting assistant professor in the Department of Geological, Environmental, and Marine Sciences says that the close of the Mesozoic Era – the Age of Dinosaurs – is identified by a mass extinction that occurred across a wide range of organisms, all at about the same time. This sweeping demise of life, Gallagher says, that was triggered by a global climate crisis – perhaps the Greenhouse Effect?

“So what we’ve got is a major biological crisis,” he explained. “Something happened about 65 million years ago that ended the reign of the dinosaurs and affected a wide range of organisms in the ocean as well.”

Paleontology, Gallagher says, is often maligned as a purely academic discipline with no practical applications. “It’s actually a kind of study that is very relevant to our ongoing concerns about our ever-changing environmental conditions today,” he said. “We’re able to learn a great deal about these changes and their potential effect on the animal and plant populations.”

Even though Gallagher’s study of the ancient Earth involves research covering hundreds of millions of years, his original interest arose from nothing more than a childhood interest in dinosaurs. “I’m one of those kids who never grew up past 8 years old,” he quipped. “All my friends wanted to become paleontologists, but I was the only one who remained emotionally arrested.”

Nevertheless, the young Gallagher parlayed his interest in the prehistoric into the opportunity to study under the noted paleontologist Peter Dodson at the University of Pennsylvania. There, the focus on Gallagher’s research shifted to how and why major groups of animals became extinct, and what enables certain species to survive.

“It turns out that the meek really do inherit the Earth,” Gallagher said. “Historically, it’s been the smaller animals that breed more often, have bigger broods and require less of a habitat and food reserves that have survived shifts in global dynamics.”

These stand in contrast to the dinosaurs, who tended to be large, in need of a large habitat, slow to reproduce and with smaller brood sizes. Gallagher points to the some modern, ground-dwelling birds such as the ostrich or the Andean condor as recent species that have struggled to adapt. “The dinosaurs were the same way,” he said. “Generally speaking, when the environment changes in such a way to affect reproduction, animals that have these characteristics have a harder time bouncing back from disturbances.”

Gallagher says that one such disturbance could well have been a spate of volcanic activity that caused a spike in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This would have heated the planet to temperatures that rendered it uninhabitable to the large reptiles of the Cretaceous period, which ended about 65.5 million years ago.

“The number of SUVs running today could be just as effective in creating this effect as a bunch of big volcanoes erupting at once,” he said, drawing the link to our more modern threat.

Ironically, the carbon dioxide that affects us today is the result of fossils that inhabited the earth even earlier than the dinosaurs – as many as 300 million years ago. “We are almost entirely dependent on these fossils today as a source of fuel,” explained Gallagher. “The cheap, easy availability of fossils – as coal, natural gas, oil – caused us to build our entire energy structure upon them. We can’t so much as use a computer, which uses electricity, which comes from coal being burned, so all this carbon that has been sequestered since the age of dinosaurs is being reinjected into the atmosphere.”

While the changing dynamics of the climate have always been cyclical – the last ice age ended just 12,000 years ago, a fraction of a second in the history of the Earth – Gallagher says that what already looks like a natural trend is only accelerated by our consumption of fossil fuels. What’s the harm? He says that scientists point to Venus as a model for the troubles that could await the Earth if the presence of carbon dioxide continues to escalate at levels never before seen by man.

“Carbon dioxide is opaque to longer wavelengths” including infrared radiation, whose wavelengths are longer than visible light, Gallagher said. “So when you have high levels of carbon dioxide, it traps infrared heat. Venus is closer to the sun than Earth, but it has an atmosphere much higher in carbon dioxide, and its surface temperature is approximately 800 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Gallagher earned his Ph.D. in Geology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1990. There, his doctoral dissertation investigated the Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary – the point in time at which a rather sudden and severe climate crisis produced the period’s associated mass extinction event. He has traveled the world during the course of his field studies on dinosaurs and other vertebrate species, including stops in Iran, Egypt, China, Russia, Argentina, Ireland, England, the Netherlands, Italy, and Switzerland, as well as much of eastern North America and most of the American west.

Until his retirement in 2008, Gallagher was the assistant curator of Natural History, Collections and Exhibits of the Natural History Bureau for the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton. He was recently featured on a special that aired on The History Channel detailing New Jersey in the age of dinosaurs and the effects of the Ice Age on the land that would become New York.

The author of the popular book When Dinosaurs Roamed New Jersey, Gallagher will be at Rider for the 2008-2009 academic year to teach classes in Marine Life Through Time and Mesozoic Ruling Reptiles, as well as an Earth Materials and Processes Lab and Introduction to Environmental Sciences.

Gallagher also presented a talk to the Haddonfield (N.J.) Historical Society in September entitled “The Historical Importance of Hadrosaurus foulkii, the Dinosaur from Haddonfield,” in an event celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the creature’s discovery. He points to the discovery of the Hadrosaurus foulkii skeleton in 1858 as one of the turning points in paleontology, and also offers it as an example of how scientific knowledge continues to advance.

“As recently as then, we were just beginning to think of history in terms of millions of years, rather than thousands,” Gallagher said. “Today, there is a new dinosaur species named in scientific literature approximately every six weeks.” 

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