Digging up Evidence of Mass Extinction
For David Fastovsky ’77, trekking to the remote Gobi Desert has been the pinnacle of a career in the trenches of dinosaur hunting. As a child, he was enthralled by the Roy Chapman Andrews book, All About Dinosaurs, which detailed the author’s adventures collecting fossils in that exotic Mongolian land in the 1920s. As a professional paleontologist, Fastovsky has been able to live the stories that had previously existed only in his imagination.
“It never got better than it did in Bugin-tsav,” Fastovsky says. “In a godforsaken swath of sand in the Gobi Desert, waiting patiently for 80 or so million years, was a clutch of dinosaur eggs with the embryos still tucked inside.”
The road to the Gobi has been a long one, literally and figuratively. Getting there is no easy task: from the University of Rhode Island (where Fastovsky teaches geosciences), he flies to Japan, catches the once-weekly Mongol Air flight to Ulan Baatar, then treks off-road through the desert for four days to reach the dig. The path to Fastovsky’s little corner of paleontology has also been roundabout. Once upon a time, he confesses, he thought geology was the most boring subject in the world.
Fastovsky has traveled across the world digging up dinosaurs and making discoveries. During one dig in Mexico, Fastovsky’s group unearthed a large collection of dinosaur fossils, stopped in time 189 million years ago and preserved Pompeii-style in the pyroclastic desposits of a volcano. A Mongolian trip led Fastovsky to disprove a Russian hypothesis that what had been believed to be ancient lakebeds, had actually been sand dunes and desert.
To hear him talk, it would seem Fastovsky spent as much time in his first two years at Reed doing practical jokes as he did studying biology. He and his brother, Robert Foster ’74, entered into a prank war as roommates in Winch, secretly wiring a dorm neighbor’s lights so they could be controlled from a switch in their closet. “My brother was very insistent that it be up to code,” Fastovsky remembers.
After taking a year off to travel and play music in Australia (Fastovsky still plays viola, even on paleontological expeditions), he completed Reed with what he calls a “superb science training.”
He went on to a master’s in paleontology at UC Berkeley and a Ph.D. in geology at the University of Wisconsin. He returned to Reed last fall to give a biology talk sponsored by the Ellis Fund, “Catastrophic Extinction of the Dinosaurs at the Cretaceous-Tertiary Boundary, 65 Million Years Ago.”
Fastovsky says he started out resistant to geology as a field—he nearly flunked a graduate course in the subject—until he realized that fossils were essential to studying animal evolution, and it was rocks that often held the keys to understanding the nature of the environment where ancient animals lived and died. “I became more convinced that geology actually held the answer to a lot of questions that we were trying to ask,” he explains.
These days, Fastovsky is busy studying 208-million-year-old paleo-environments, as well as the asteroid-impact scenario that he believes led to the dinosaurs’ ultimate extinction. “We find dinosaurs somewhere, and I’m hauled out to try to reconstruct the place where they were living,” Fastovsky explains. “I usually call myself a historian more than a scientist. I have a landscape in my head by the time I’m done studying a place—I love that. I’m actually visiting whole, ancient worlds.”
—Josey Duncan ’06