Larry Martin: Digging the Past

Larry Martin is the uncle of Curt Bright.

Kansas University paleontologist Larry Martin is at home in KU's Museum of Natural History and its fossil displays.

Kansas University paleontologist Larry Martin is at home in KU’s Museum of Natural History and its fossil displays.


August 1986, Lawrence, Kansas


For paleontologist Larry Martin, the fossil past offers the constant lure of Discovery

by Nancy Smith, J-W Variety Editor

 Photos by Mike Yoder

            When Larry Martin, KU paleontologist, takes off on a field trip, whether it’s along the Kansas River north of town or 85 feet down in Wyoming’s Natural Trap Cave, he usually has students in tow.

If they’re lucky, they’ll get the prime reward of digging in the fossil past – the thrill of discovery.

Paleontology, says Martin, “…draws the explorers of yesteryear. It’s the same sort of thing. There’s an enormous psychological high, but you have to be pretty good or you don’t get enough of the highs.”

“The financial remuneration,” he says, “can’t account for it.”

As a professor and fossil curator, Martin also gives his students what may be for them a new perspective of time.

“One of the things we learn from fossils,” he said, “is the climactic and biotic situations are always changing – 12,000 years ago was practically yesterday.”

TEACHER MARTIN is a professor of systematics and ecology and a courtesy associate professor of geology. He instructs student sin comparative anatomy, higher vertebrate paleontology, which covers mammals and birds, and the evolution of vertebrate communities, which places animal in the context of when they were living.

“We can sit here in Lawrence, Kansas,” he said, “and go back a few thousand years to spruce forests, or a few million years to the tropics, or further back to sea serpents and coal forests.”

The wheat for which Kansas is so famous today is a grass, he notes, but grasses are only 40 millions years old. When they evolved, along came the temperate grazing things that eventually became the cows and horses and such that we know today.

Although he teaches mostly pre-med undergraduates in anatomy, graduate students predominate in his other courses, and some help him conduct his research.

“I personally view paleontology as a cultural thing,” he said, noting political science can’t be understood without some knowledge of history. Likewise, he said, modern biology can’t be understood without knowing “how it came to be.”

Graduate degrees in paleontology from KU are research degrees, he said, and “this is a very fertile area. Our students do very well.”

He added that the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists has ranked KU’s program fourth in the nation, after huge programs at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and the University of California at Berkeley.

KU paleontologist Larry Martin shows a 15,000-year-old dire wolf skull from the KU Museum of Natural History's fossil collection.

KU paleontologist Larry Martin shows a 15,000-year-old dire wolf skull from the KU Museum of Natural History’s fossil collection.

MARTIN HIMSELF sort of tripped by accident into paleontology. He was a chemistry major invited by a paleontologist friend to help with some fish fossils that had captured the interest of a Smithsonian scientist. The next thing he knew, the director of the Museum of Natural History in Lincoln, Nebraska, wanted to hire him. He’s been hooked ever since.

Martin shifted his undergraduate major to zoology and followed through with a master’s in geology, both from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, before coming to Kansas for his doctorate.

“KU had a great reputation,” he explained. After competing his Ph.D. in 1973, he accepted his present curator’s position at KU’s Museum of Natural History.

At KU, he added, there are a lot of paleontologists, but few who work with backboned animals like himself.

In his curator’s role, he leads countless field trips across Kansas and into western states like Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota, where major fossil deposits are being mined.

IN A MUSUEM display case, he points out an “exceptional” giant fish that was recovered in the Hill City area with the help of honors biology students.

“We let them do what they can handle,” he explained. “That’s how you learn how to do it – through experience.”

Even locally, he noted, a very extensive collecting program is continuing along the Kansas River.

In a basement collection room at the museum, Martin pulls out draw after drawer of fossils found along the Kansas River, many by students.

It’s not usual, he said, for him to talk each week with 15 to 20 people, from high school and college students to older residents, who have found fossils along the river and want to know what they are.

In 1983, a trio of KU students found a giant ground sloth jaw bone that Martin estimates is 15,000 to 20,000 years old.

In exchange for three “life-like casts of the fossil – a mantelpiece for each – the students left the real thing with Martin.

The casts, Martin explained, look so authentic that many people happily exchange genuine finds for them, which greatly benefits the museum’s collection.

FORMAL AND informal fossil searching expeditions along the river net a rich variety of fossils, Martin said. A serious searcher ought to be able to uncover a fossil treasure with one hard day’s work, he added.

On formal display to museum visitors is just such a prize – a 600 pound elephant skull that Martin said an archaeology student thought at first was just a log sticking out of the ground.

The student got about half a mile past the “log” when it occurred to him there were no trees that big in western Kansas. He went back and uncovered the skull.

Landmark work done by Martin and other KU researchers, faculty and students in Wyoming’s Natural Trap Cave has established the existence of cheetahs in North America, previously thought not to have lived here at all, he said.

In excavations there since 1974, more than 40,000 specimens have been recovered and are now in special storage on the Lawrence campus.

Another active research subject for Martin and his students is cretaceous birds – ones with teeth that existed during the age of dinosaurs.

Martin's concern, whether attending to paperwork in his office in Dyche Hall or digging a fossil site in Wyoming, is learning about new worlds that are thousands of years old.

Martin’s concern, whether attending to paperwork in his office in Dyche Hall or digging a fossil site in Wyoming, is learning about new worlds that are thousands of years old.

PART OF THIS COLLECTION, which Martin described as “probably the best in the world,” along with scholarly articles written by the professor and some of his students, also are displayed in the museum.

Scientists are attempting to determine whether the birds evolved from dinosaurs or from crocodiles, he explained. Martin, who also spent time in London studying the oldest bird, the archaeopteryx that lived in a very small area in Germany, subscribes to the crocodilian theory.

The KU museum’s own collection of cretaceous bird fossils draws scholars from all over the globe, Martin added. Right now, there are scientist on campus from China, Ethiopia, Canada, Germany and Russia, working on the birds and other research projects.

“People are intensely driven to find out new things,” he said, “and paleontologists deal with whole new worlds.”

“When you think about it, all the stories of the Middle Ages turned out to be fairy tales, but here they’re real. These skeletons were very possibly dragons.”


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