World-renowned paleontologist Dr. Kenneth Lacovara joins Rowan faculty

World-renowned paleontologist Dr. Kenneth Lacovara joins Rowan faculty

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Will develop new School of Earth & Environment as founding dean

Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara, Ph.D., who is world renowned for his discovery of the giant plant-eating dinosaur Dreadnoughtus schrani --and known locally for uncovering scientifically significant Cretaceous-age fossils in Mantua Township—has joined the Rowan University faculty.

Lacovara, of Swedesboro, will develop the new School of the Earth & Environment at Rowan as founding dean. He will work with the University Senate during the 2015-’16 academic year to develop new majors and curricula for the school.

Previously a professor of paleontology and geology at Drexel University, Lacovara joined Rowan on Sept. 1. He also will serve as director of the Rowan University Fossil Quarry, where, for 13 years, he has conducted globally significant scientific research at the location--a former marl (sand mining) pit formerly owned by the Inversand Company.

“Rowan is a dynamic, exciting university,” says Lacovara, who earned his bachelor’s degree in geography (with minors in biology and anthropology) from the University in 1984.

“I have deep roots in South Jersey and I’ve always believed the area deserved a great university. I couldn’t be more proud of my alma mater. It’s moving rapidly. I’m excited to come home and participate in the University’s growth and help establish the School of Earth & Environment.”

Discovering Dreadnoughtus

In 2005, Lacovara and his team discovered Dreadnoughtus schrani in Patagonia, Argentina. The massive plant eater—belonging to a group of dinosaurs known as the titanosaurs--was 85 feet long, weighed about 65 tons and roamed the southern tip of South America approximately 77 million years ago.

“It is,” Lacovara says,” the most massive land animal for which was can reliably calculate a weight.”

Seventy percent of the dinosaur’s skeleton was recovered from 2005-2009 by Lacovara and his team, making Dreadnoughtus the most complete skeleton of its type ever found. The extraordinary discovery, reported in the journal Scientific Reports exactly a year ago this month, “is by far the best example we have of any of the largest creatures ever to walk the planet,” Lacovara notes.

Rowan University Fossil Quarry

While Lacovara is internationally known for his discovery of Dreadnoughtus, he is extraordinarily proud of—and equally excited about—his work at the fossil quarry, which he considers to be of world-class quality.

The 65-acre quarry, which was a sea floor during the Cretaceous age, contains exquisitely preserved fossils of marine animals from the heyday of the dinosaur period. Lacovara and his researchers have uncovered numerous articulated skeletons, leading the team to hypothesize that the animals were part of a mass die-off—linked perhaps to the asteroid-induced calamity that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

“It’s a great story,” Lacovara says, “that evidence pertaining to one of the enduring mysteries of science—the extinction of dinosaurs—might be found in a quarry behind a Lowe’s in southern New Jersey.”

He’s also thrilled that the site has generated so much excitement about “citizen science.” Working with the Township of Mantua and Rowan University, Lacovara will host the Fourth Annual Community Dig Day at the site on Saturday, Sept. 26.

“After we opened online registration, 1,500 guests registered in three hours,” Lacovara says. “This shows the incredible thirst people have for hands-on discovery. It’s important to show kids that science is a process, done by regular people. Demystifying that process is the best way to encourage young explorers to follow a pathway into the STEM (Science, Engineering, Technology and Math) disciplines.”

The quarry was owned and operated by the Inversand Company for nearly 100 years. Rowan University’s Board of Trustees voted on Sept. 16 to purchase the site and to develop it as a center for science education with Mantua Township and Gloucester County.

As director of the quarry, Lacovara and Rowan will work to raise funds to preserve the location for generations, perhaps establishing a museum, laboratories and classrooms.

“It’s going to live on for centuries. It’s going to become globally treasured—and it’s going to do unimaginable good,” Lacovara says.

About Dr. Kenneth Lacovara

Committed to the discovery and characterization of extinct forms of life, Lacovara conducts exploratory fieldwork in pursuit of species that contribute to our understanding of life on Earth. 

His research focuses on the Mesozoic Era paleo environments, which contain the remains of dinosaurs and other vertebrates. The study of those biomes helps him and other scientists to understand the global response to human-induced climate change.

Lacovara’s research has taken him around the globe. In western China, he and his colleagues discovered multiple remains of a 115-million-year-old bird, Gansus, which filled a vital link in bird evolution. In the Gobi Desert, he was a member of the team that discovered the strange plant-eater Suzhousaurus, a large plant-eater that resembled a ground sloth.

In Egypt, Lacovara co-led a series of expeditions to the ancient and isolated Bahariya Oasis, located deep within the Sahara Desert. The team made the first new dinosaur discovery in Egypt in nearly a century, the giant plant-eater Paralititan stromeri, which garnered worldwide attention.

Lacovara is applying the latest technology to the study of huge dinosaurs, including 3D laser scanning, CT scanning, 3D printing, robotics, and techniques from medical modeling and molecular biology.

His work is helping to shift our perspective of giant herbivores from their historic portrayal as “dim-witted, swamp-pound prey” to that of “fearsome, hulking, eating machines, whose evolutionary innovations are awe-inspiring,” Lacovara says.

The publication of Dreadnoughtus was reported on the front pages of thousands of newspapers around the world. His research and discoveries have landed him three times in Discovery magazine’s list of the 100 Top Science Stories of the Year. Lacovara was featured in Men’s Journal as a member of The Next Generation of Explorers. He is co-author of the book The Lost Dinosaurs of Egypt.

Lacovara has been featured in numerous television documentaries on The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, the A&E Network, and The Travel Channel. National Geographic’s “Top 10 Biggest Animals,” currently on the air, features Lacovara and Dreadnoughtus. He was the co-star of “Born to Explore: The Great New York Fossil Hunt,” an award-winning family show on ABC. This October, another “Born to Explore” episode will feature Lacovara and the fossil quarry.

Lacovara’s research has been profiled in numerous leading scientific journals, as well as all major media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, National Public Radio, and the CBS Evening News.

Recipient of numerous honors, including Rowan’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2002, he is an elected fellow of the prestigious Explorers Club. He has given more than 300 invited talks and is frequently called on by media for scientific comment on a broad range of issues.

Lacovara earned his master’s degree in coastal geomorphology from the University of Maryland College Park in 1986 and his doctorate in geology from the University of Delaware in 1998.

A graduate of Mainland Regional High School, he grew up in Linwood, NJ, and attributes a geology presentation to his Cub Scout pack in second grade—and his older brother’s rock collection—with igniting his interest in fossils.