When the Friends of the Royal Alberta Museum Society (FRAMS) launched 35 years ago, Philip Currie was still making a name for himself. The 33-year-old recently completed his PhD and was curator of earth sciences at the Provincial Museum of Alberta.
While a group of engaged citizens formed FRAMS in 1982 to organize public support for the museum, Currie was rapidly collecting an immense treasure trove of dinosaur fossils that helped establish Drumheller’s Tyrrell Museum of palaeontology in 1985.
As FRAMS gathers for their 35th anniversary annual general meeting on June 28, Currie will address the public as an internationally acclaimed figure who has helped advance and popularize our knowledge of dinosaurs. In his free lecture, Exploring Alberta’s Lost Worlds, Currie hopes to underscore his belief that there has never been such an exciting and optimistic time in his field.
“I want to leave people with the impression that Alberta is an absolutely incredible place for people working on dinosaurs,” Currie said in a phone interview from Dinosaur Provincial Park, immersed in his last Drumheller dig of the season before jetting off for missions in Greenland and Mongolia.
“It’s great to share what we’re doing with the public. Maybe it can encourage someone donate to a university palaeontology program, or better yet, in 10 years, somebody will say that it inspired them to become a palaeontologist.”
Currie says there may have been half-a-dozen palaeontologists working in dinosaur research when he began his career. Now, there is more than 120 around the world who are using technology to expand our knowledge of dinosaur species, biology and what the Earth was like in the Mesozoic Era 250 million years ago.
“Everyone loves dinosaurs and sometimes they get so excited you can’t actually contain them. A 40 minute talk can result in 40 more minutes of questions and answers,” Currie said. “It’s great to find out what people are interested in and how they react to your own ideas. Sometimes, we get bizarre questions where people think about it in a slightly different way, and they become research questions.”
Currie estimates that in the 150-million year history of dinosaurs, scientists have discovered between 1,000 to 1,500 species of dinosaurs.
“It sounds like a lot, but consider that we have 4,000 living species of mammals, 10,000 species of birds, 6,000 species of reptiles and amphibians and thousands upon thousands of insects,” Currie said. “It makes you realize that we don’t know that much about dinosaurs. I doubt that one per cent of one per cent (0.001%) of all the dinosaurs that lived have been discovered yet!”
The popularity of dinosaurs through books, movies, toys and art has made palaeontology a popular “gateway” field of study for scientists. Currie says that many people discover their passion for science through dinosaurs, and move into biology, chemistry or physics.
“There’s a great connection with a lot of people. For me, it came through reading a book called All About Dinosaurs, which was really a book about what it’s like to be a scientist,” Currie said.
“Dinosaurs teach us about evolution, the history of the earth and how it changes over time. Dinosaurs in Alberta are an important natural resource and we still have a tremendous amount of work to do.”