Digging History: Paleontologist Helps Students Enjoy Research Success

     From Focus magazine, Spring 2010 >>

By Greg Muraski

As a child growing up in New York City, David Schwimmer was fascinated with the mystery behind a "huge, and unbelievably scary" alligator-like skull displayed by the American Museum of Natural History.

The display's background — a mural — depicted dinosaurs cowering in the presence of a giant, ancient relative of the alligator represented by the skull.

Schwimmer says he knew then he wanted to be a paleontologist.

Today, he is recognized worldwide as an expert on life in the Late Cretaceous Period (75-86 million years ago) in the region that's now the southeast U.S. He also is noted for research that has helped piece together a compelling story behind the subject of the skull display that sparked his childhood imagination — Deinosuchus.

Schwimmer's accomplishments have drawn notice from widely respected experts such as paleontologist Paul Sereno, a professor and National Geographic explorer-in-residence at the University of Chicago.

"Pursuing its fossil bones and clues to its ancient biology and lifestyle, David has been tireless and exacting in his efforts to bring the 'terrible croc' Deinosuchus back to life," Sereno said.

Moreover, Schwimmer's work during 32 years as a Columbus State University professor has provided a foundation for undergraduates to take advantage of high-level and, at times, groundbreaking research. Samantha Harrell is the latest example.

This year, Schwimmer and Harrell, right, a senior, drew international attention for documenting fossilized dung, or coprolites, and dinosaur-bone bite marks from Deinosuchus. Harrell, who plans to pursue a graduate degree in geology, led the coprolite study and ended up being interviewed, along with Schwimmer, by reporters from National Geographic and Georgia Public Radio. She also published her findings as lead author, with Schwimmer, in a special symposium volume of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin, a publication with an international reputation.

The coprolites, found near Columbus, are the first droppings of Deinosuchus to be documented and reveal clues of its preferred diet of sea turtles and shallow marine habitat.

Meanwhile, the bite marks studied by Schwimmer were on dinosaur bones earlier discovered around the country.

The markings reaffirmed a previous assertion that the crocodylian, typically the size of a stretch limo, preyed on dinosaurs its size and larger. Schwimmer detailed such predatory habits in his 2002 book King of the Crocodylians: The Paleobiology of Deinosuchus. The book was an Amazon.com top-seller in its category for several weeks and a popular "book of the month" selection by science-oriented reading clubs, such as one organized by the Discovery (channel) Educator Network.

In the book, Schwimmer, once a ghostwriter of Jacques Cousteau's popular books, describes how a Deinosuchus attack on a dinosaur likely unfolded:

..."Suddenly, an enormous mass explodes from the bottom of the salt marsh, covering the 10 (meter) distance to the theropod in three seconds. Jaws nearly a meter long open wide and close on the lower back of the theropod, which lies close to the swamp's surface ... An elongate, huge thrashing back, covered with lumpy, bony projections, emerges from the swamp ... Short, powerful limbs steady the huge animal on the marsh bottom, and its enormous, laterally flattened tail thrashes back and forth to provide more force for the attack and to enhance the bite forces ..."

Also in the book, Schwimmer describes a seaway splitting North America from the Arctic, leaving a western environment conducive to a larger variety of Deinosuchus that grew to 40-plus feet in length and up to 8.5 tons, while east of the waterway the crocodylian reached about 29 feet and 2.3 tons.

Remains of the Late-Cretaceous life that washed up on seaway shores preserved particularly well around west Georgia and east Alabama — part of the ancient eastern shoreline. The setting has been ideal for Schwimmer, who found his first Deinosuchus remains in 1979, a year after taking his first faculty position with what was then Columbus College. Among numerous subsequent milestones, he and a pair of colleagues pieced together the remains of a dinosaur discovery they named Appalachiosaurus montgomeriensis, a smaller relative of T. Rex — and likely a victim of Deinosuchus.

A commercial geologist before arriving in Columbus, he worked with early GIS technology in remote monitoring of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. At one point, he testified before Congress about such Arctic pipelines and stayed at the Watergate Hotel in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. This followed two years as a ghostwriter for Cousteau, the famed explorer, who inadvertently influenced Schwimmer to pursue a less-glamorous career mixing paleontology and teaching.

"One thing (Cousteau) convinced me of was not to become famous," Schwimmer said. "He had no privacy or freedom to go anywhere or do anything spontaneously. I remember being part of what seemed to be one of his typical outings — to an exclusive Japanese restaurant in New York City that included Kabuki actors and a $1,000 dinner check that, for the early '70s, was incredible to me."

"I can say I had some very interesting experiences before joining CSU," he said

Subsequently, Schwimmer has provided CSU students with career-shaping experiences.

Tracy Hall ('02 and '05), credits Schwimmer for preparing her for teaching. "Although I haven't pursued a career directly related to research or paleontology, Dr. Schwimmer's mentorship provided me with a significant advantage in my professional life," she said.

Hall, an assistant professor of geology at Georgia Highlands College, said Schwimmer challenged her with projects requiring "significant research and critical interpretation" of information. ... I developed and refined analytic and problem-solving skills that have proved invaluable in my work since graduation," she said.

Sean Bingham ('04), who worked with Schwimmer and Professor Bill Frazier in discovering a horde of 85 million-year-old marine and terrestrial fossils, said Schwimmer instilled in him a guiding philosophy to "take risks, challenge yourself and live outside your comfort zone."

Schwimmer also helped Bingham meet his colleague, renowned paleontologist Jack Horner, technical adviser to the Jurassic Park movies and model for the Dr. Grant character. "As a kid, I loved Jurassic Park and dreamed of being Dr. Grant and, one day in 2003, I found myself standing inside the ribcage of a duck-billed dinosaur in Montana, having a conversation with Dr. Horner," said Bingham, who also hunted fossils with one of the Jurassic Park producers.

Later, Schwimmer inspired Bingham to successfully pursue a Conoco Phillips internship that Bingham initially assumed he had little chance of landing.

"I was very fortunate to have studied under Dr. Schwimmer," said Bingham, now a geologist for Oklahoma-based Devon Energy, an independent oil and gas company. "He helped me see opportunities where I thought none existed."