‘We are all walking natural history museums’: Lacovara delivers INK talk in India

‘We are all walking natural history museums’: Lacovara delivers INK talk in India

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School of Earth & Environment Dean Kenneth Lacovara delivers his talk at the 2016 INK Conference in India.

Paleontologist Kenneth Lacovara is internationally known for his discovery of the massive plant-eating dinosaur, Dreadnoughtus schrani, the largest skeleton of a land animal for which a body mass can be accurately calculated.

But since the discovery of Dreadnoughtus, Lacovara, founding dean of Rowan University’s School of Earth & Environment, has gained an international reputation of another sort—as a sought-after, inspirational speaker on environmental issues.

Earlier this fall, Lacovara gave an invited talk titled “We are all walking natural history museums” at the 2016 INK Conference in Goa, India. 

Lacovara’s spirited, 15-minute presentation earned a standing ovation from attendees of INK, which attracts, among others, international CEOs, entrepreneurs, artists, technologists and scientists who are invited to share their stories and perspectives across a number of themed sessions.

In February of this year, Lacovara delivered a prestigious TED talk at the 2016 TED conference in Vancouver. Since then, his talk has been viewed more than 1.25 million times. Lacovara was the first Rowan professor to deliver a TED talk.

Some of the world’s most inspired thinkers are invited to present at TED. Their talks strive to contribute to a deeper understanding of the world through storytelling, focusing on issues from every discipline.

Lacovara achieved the same goals with his INK talk, in which he told his standing-room-only audience that, with a teeny tiny shift here or there, humans would not exist.

“Perturb something here, delay an event there, reorder a single step in an obscure sequence, or shift a continent this way or that and Earth history forevermore changes,” Lacovara said.

'The ancestors of humans and the ancestors of dinosaurs were the same.'

“A single sunbeam causing a mutation is all that it takes,” he continued. “A space rock nudged an infinitesimal degree to the left or right could change the course of all that is left to pass. Kill off an inconspicuous wolf-like creature on the ancient shores of Pakistan…and today there are no whales. Shift the winds one way or another across northern Africa six million years ago and humans evolve—or do not evolve.”

During 92 percent of our evolutionary history, the ancestors of humans and the ancestors of dinosaurs were the same, Lacovara told his audience.

“Our lineage is shared with dinosaurs and with all other animals throughout most of Earth history,” he said, noting that the emergence of two distinctive reptilian groups—sauropsids and synapsids—meant the divergence between humans and dinosaurs.

“It was in the steamy forest of the Carboniferous (Period) 320 million years ago that the path of our ancestors and dinosaur ancestors finally diverged,” Lacovara said. “It would be another 89 million years before a single species of sauropod would go on to produce the first dinosaurs. Twenty-one million years later, synapsids would produce the first mammals.

“These two groups would go on to conquer the earth.”

The sauropsids were first, Lacovara said, until an asteroid the size of New York City wiped out the dinosaur population 65 million years ago. Homo sapiens developed a mere 200,000 years ago, he added.

“Imagine what a different planet this would be if the common ancestor of dinosaurs and humans had gone extinct before the sauropsid/synapsid split, Lacovara said. “There never would be dinosaurs. Never mosasaurs. Never penguins or any birds. Never turtles, never snakes, never crocodiles.

“If the synapsid side fails, never whales, never rodents, never lions, never camels, never bats, never humans. Never you.”

Each human, Lacovara added, “is a menagerie, a walking museum of natural history.

“We are humans. And apes. Primates. Mammals. Reptiles. And amphibians. And fish.”

In addition to his TED and INK talks this year, Lacovara also spoke earlier this month at the Ciudad de las Ideas (City of Ideas) in Puebla, Mexico, to an audience of 5,000 that included Britain’s Prince Andrew, Duke of York.

Lacovara, who joined Rowan’s faculty in 2015, is the director of the Jean & Ric Edelman Fossil Park at Rowan University. Located in Mantua Township, the park contains thousands of fossils and provides researchers with the best window, east of the Mississippi, into the Cretaceous Period—the heyday of the dinosaurs.

The Rowan team is analyzing the fossils, the sediments and the geochemistry of the site to gain a clearer picture of the period when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Lacovara discovered Dreadnoughtus schrani in Patagonia and led the excavation and analysis. More than 70 percent of the bones of Dreadnoughtus was discovered by Lacovara’s team, making it the most complete dinosaur of its size ever found. Dreadnoughtus was 85 feet long and weighed 65 tons—as much as a dozen African elephants.