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Monsters in the House

STORIES BY JOHN DEVILBISS
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DONNA BARRY 'O6 MFA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ken Carpenter Leaves Godzilla in the Dark
to Brighten the Paleontologic World


He was just 5-years-old sitting in a darkened room when the monster entered his life. What happened next changed him forever. The monster was Godzilla. The darkened room was a small theater showing the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters. The young boy was Kenneth Carpenter, born in Tokyo, Japan, in 1949, “a few years before the Big Guy ravaged that city,” he said.


What he saw that thrilling day on the silver screen sparked a flame for those terrible lizards that still burns brightly and started him down a life-long path in the study of dinosaurs. Today he is the director and curator of paleontology at Utah State University-College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum in Price, and he has never forgotten who helped him to get there.

 

Yes, his mom was the one who took him to the show that day, but it was the king, Godzilla, who captured his imagination. And if you have any doubts about the great impact the reptilian movie star had on this young boy, look no further than Gojirasaurus quayi, a very large 225-million-year-old dinosaur from New Mexico that he named after Godzilla 43 years later.

 

Carpenter got christening rights because he discovered the bones. He said the genus name, Gojirasaurus, is based on the Japanese name for Godzilla. The species name quayi is for Quay County, New Mexico, where he found the bones in 1981.

 

“It is exciting to know that when I uncover a bone it has not seen the light of day for tens of millions of years and that I am the first person to see it,” he said. “There is the excitement of the possibility that the bone will be part of a skeleton and that the skeleton will be something new to science. Or if it is something better than previously found.”

 

Even before becoming a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he eventually earned a doctorate in geology, Carpenter seemed to have a knack for finding bones. He was still in high school when he and his fossil hunting friend from elementary school days noticed a freshly dug drainage ditch outside their town of Security, Colo. They had learned that construction sites could unearth treasures that they as boys with picks and shovels could never hope to uncover. As they explored through the freshly turned soil, they spotted bones. Their hearts raced as they carefully uncovered something large – very large. They did not know it then, but what they were looking at was the pelvic bone of a giant ground sloth.

 

These young, amateur paleontologists found something that was truly once-in-a-lifetime. They uncovered a 30,000-year- old prehistoric monster that eventually found its way to the Museum of Natural History in Denver.

 

“I knew when I found it that it was scientifically important and not a cow bone as my father thought,” he said.

 

There is nothing novel about doubting a dad when you’re a teenager, but what is noteworthy is that this adolescent happened to be right. He armed himself early with knowledge and the no-nonsense methodology of science that gave him the confidence and drive to keep on digging. Two years later as an undergraduate at CU, his enthusiasm caught the attention of some discerning professors. They saw aptitude in this young scholar. 

 

“I was very fortunate in that the two faculty in the geology section of our school’s museum saw great promise in me,” he said.

 

They gave the young Indiana Jones of bones an unheated room in the loft of the museum that contained a 2-by-3-foot desk with a single center drawer. But most important, they gave him keys to a pickup, $100, and the freedom to roam to his heart’s content.

 

“I was never told where or what to collect,” he said. “I would stay in the field until the truck was full or the money ran out. I literally have thousands of specimens with me listed as a collector. I doubt any university would grant such a privilege to an undergraduate these days.”

 

It was the incubator in which this prodigy of paleontology developed and thrived. It allowed him to continue doing what he started even prior to entering college: discover, document and publish. From the tender age of 18 when he was first published in the National Geographic School Bulletin, he has gone on to publish 233 scientific papers ranging from the plates and spikes of Stegosaurus to dinosaur reproduction myths and facts, and with no sign of slowing down. 

 

After graduating in 1980, the young Carpenter, still thinking about the semester apprenticeship he spent in the fossil preparation laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution museum, went to work in a variety of museums across the country before ending up in Price.

 

It’s here in a place where you are surrounded by the bones and specimens of the grandest of fossils that you find a rather unassuming but very much at home Dr. Carpenter. The museum is his passion and its rural setting suits him fine, but he’s far from isolated.

 

He is currently a consultant for “Planet Dinosaur” and a bit of a media darling with more than 30 television appearances, including the Discovery Channel and A&E. Just hang around him long enough and you’ll soon see why he’s the go-to guy for all things dinosaur and why he has come to love the area around Price where dinosaurs, of all things, really took a shine to Utah a few million years ago.

 

Great dinosaur graveyards, conveniently close to the museum, give Carpenter the chance to continue to research and publish findings that are gaining worldwide attention.

 

This year he received the UniBio Press Award for paleontological research. The international award is given each year to authors who produce the most frequently accessed paper among all the journal papers published the previous year. His award-winning research focused on his study of the Allosaurus whose bones came from the nearby Cleveland-Lloyd Quarry. He apparently struck a chord with his colleagues when he weighed in on the longstanding struggle of how to determine a species from bones alone.

 

In very simple terms, he developed a method to determine whether one species, such as Alberta Tyrannosaurus, is distinct from another, such as the Colorado Tyrannosaurus, through a relative baseline. His assertion is significant if it proves to speed the drawn-out process of species identification by making meticulous comparisons instead of painstaking measurements as required through the more traditional morphometics approach.

 

But getting to the point of finally publishing those findings was lengthy in itself. He actually collected the first data in the early 1990s but put it aside. It was not until three years ago that he decided to re-photograph the material, now housed at the University of Utah, and proceed with the project.

 

“It almost did not get published,” he said.

 

Not that he’s a slacker. Carpenter typically starts his day between 4 and 5 a.m. and spends about three to four hours working on manuscripts and even longer on weekends. Occasionally, if he’s lucky, he can squeeze in a few hours at work, but 80 percent or more of his writing is done on his own time, he said.

 

He knows he doesn’t have a lot of time to waste. It’s a perspective he’s gained from thinking about life in millions of years compared to the relatively short span of human existence. It’s the long view that keeps him motivated, he said.

 

He recently completed a monograph on the burial processes, called taphonomy, of the entombed bones found at the dinosaur quarry at Dinosaur National Monument. The colossal collection is self-evident but just how it was formed still eludes scientists. His study was submitted to the Annals of the Carnegie Museum. Over the summer, he also submitted a coauthored manuscript to The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. It names and describes a new genus of giant marine reptile from rocks in Kansas 90 million years ago. It is known from a 5-foot long, toothy skull, making it the killer whale of its day.

 

In addition to that, he is also writing a book on armored dinosaurs for Hopkins Press and another Dinosaurs of Colorado for the University of Colorado Press. As well, he is editing with a colleague from Mexico on Mesozoic reptiles of Mexico that will be submitted to Indiana University Press. The list goes on with plenty of work left to do.

 

In truth, he works as if Godzilla is standing behind him blowing fire down his neck. But he’s not complaining.

 

His passion is not only to uncover new bones but to help others make their own discoveries and ignite their imaginations in the same way his was sparked as a 5-year-old boy sitting with his mom in a darkened theater enthralled by a terrifying and wonderful monster. 


— John DeVilbiss