Professor of the Department of Geology, Appalachian State University. Director of the McKinney Geology Teaching Museum. He worked extensively on vertebrate paleontology and litho and biostratigraphy of the American Southwest. Primarily focusing on the Upper Triassic strata of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Szymon Górnicki: What do you think is the most interesting/exciting in paleontology?
Andrew B. Heckert: Personally I still think the thrill of discovery, of finding/unearthing something that’s been hidden in the lithosphere for millions of years, is the most exciting thing. Every Friday have students looking through microscopes for fossils, and they volunteer to come back every week because of what they find.
Scientifically, right now I think the most interesting things are (1) using histology to get a better understanding of ontogeny (age and how things grew); and (2) how 3D scanning and printing and other visualizations are going to revolutionize the distribution of “fossils” (or at least replicas).
SG: How did your adventure with paleontology begin?
ABH: I have always collected fossils; both my father and grandfather were rockhounds, and I grew up near Cincinnati, Ohio where there are so many Ordovician fossils that if you collected them all Cincinnati would go below sea level (drop ~200+ m). We traveled a lot, so I saw dinosaur bones in the west, and we went to museums, where I feel in love with the exhibits and basically taught myself to read with dinosaur books.
SG: If paleontology didn’t exist, who would you have been instead?
ABH: I probably would’ve still been a geologist. I started taking geology classes in college to become a paleontologist and realized it was the most wonderful science—a great mix of scientific skills in real-world applications.
SG: Together with Spencer G. Lucas, you prove that Aetosaurs were the trackmakers of the ichnotaxon Brachychirotherium. Can you briefly explain what are the differences in study ichnotaxon from classical vertebrate paleontology?
ABH: Working with trace fossils is remarkably different. Visualizing the data, that is, interpreting the fossils, is much more difficult and nuanced than you would think. The most important thing to understand in ichnology is extramorphological variation—all the things that can cause the same animal’s tracks to look different. This includes behavior (speed, posture, etc) but more importantly substrate differences (grain size, amount of water/consistency) and undertracks/overprints, etc. Unraveling all of those factors to try to understand how an animal was moving hundreds of millions of years ago is really challenging.
I’m happy to stick with the bones for the most part. I think it is very important to integrate the trace fossil record with our understanding of the history of life—it has a lot to tell us. Because there are tracks in rocks that don’t have body fossils, they can really improve the record, and many important evolutionary events are detailed first by track and then by body fossils.
SG: Over the last 12 years you have worked extensively on the vertebrate paleontology and stratigraphy of the American Southwest, focusing primarily on the Upper Triassic strata. How do you imagine a “trip” to the late Triassic of southwest states of USA?
ABH: Every spring I run a “Triassic trip” field class with students to the American Southwest. We always go to New Mexico, and usually Arizona. Last year we went to Utah, too. I try to go back at least once a year on my own, too. There are so many beautiful places to look for fossils out there. I love the “high desert” country (everything over 1500m elevation).
SG: Is there a fossil from early evolution of dinosaurs, that you dream to discover?
ABH: I would love to find evidence of North America’s oldest pterosaur, or a Triassic lissamphibian. I did work to collect some material that was part of Chinlechelys, North America’s oldest turtle, but I’d like to find an older one.
And I really, really want to find a Triassic ornithischian dinosaur.
SG: How should the relationship between paleoart and paleontology look, according to your?
ABH: I love working with paleoartists like Matt Celeskey. They have skills I cannot replicate, and it is fascinating to learn how they look at and “see” fossils and the animals that have been extinct for millions of years. It’s challenging, because artists naturally like to show exciting scenes and/or a diversity of life, but, just like nature documentaries, that’s such a small part of an average animal’s life that it’s challenging to pick your “snapshots.”
SG: Have you ever been to Poland? What do you associate with Poland?
ABH: I have never been to Poland, but I would like to change that to see the aetosaur fossils. As a paleontologist I associate many things with Poland, chiefly the recent Triassic discoveries and the long history of Polish paleontology, especially Zofia Kielan-Jaworowska and the Polish-Mongolian dinosaur expeditions. I think that Poland should be proud of Acta Palaeontologica Polonica as an early open-access journal. I am old enough that Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II were some of the first Polish public figures I knew about.
I would like to thank to Andrew Heckert for the interview and to you for reading.