March 15, 2013

KU mourns death of paleontologist Larry Martin

A renowned scientist’s death usually means one branch of science becomes poorer.

A renowned scientist’s death usually means one branch of science becomes poorer.

But as Alan Feduccia put it, there are now five or six branches of paleontology mourning the death of Larry Martin of the University of Kansas.

Feduccia is one of the world’s experts on birds, the author of seven books. But when Dr. Martin died on March 9, mankind lost not only a world-class paleontologist, but a Renaissance man, Feduccia said. “I’ve been devastated, and there are a lot of us really down in the dumps,” he said, in a phone interview from North Carolina.

Most scientists stick to one branch of knowledge, and write perhaps a few dozen scientific papers over the course of a productive career. But Dr. Martin, 69, wrote 170 papers, the University of Kansas said in a statement.

Many of these papers were published in the best and most difficult journals to get published in, Feduccia said. Dr. Martin was quoted or featured many times in front-page stories about paleontology in the New York Times. He carelessly stored copies of those newspapers, crumpled up and yellowing, in file cabinet drawers in his office.

He was a world expert on ancient rodents, Ice Age mammals, Mesozoic birds and ancient marine life. Leonard Krishtalka, the director of the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center at KU, where Dr. Martin worked, said Dr. Martin’s expertise ranged from “the evolution and behavior of dinosaurs, extinct sea monsters and fossil birds, to the anatomy and history of saber-toothed cats, to the changing environments of North America during the past 30 million years and how animals adapted to those changes.”

“KU’s program in paleontology is consistently ranked among the top three in the nation,” Krishtalka said. “In no small measure due to Martin, who, for 40 years, established the university as the best of the best in research and education in paleobiology.”

He was stubborn, brilliant, gleeful, and immensely curious, Feduccia said.

Usually kind-hearted, Dr. Martin mocked what he called the “gullible majority” of paleontologists who believe birds are the descendants of dinosaurs: “Saying that dinosaurs wore feathers and that T. rex comes from the same family as Tweety Bird is just plain silly,” he said. “If someone says he believes in flying saucers, I won’t believe him even if I like him.”

In public debates over whether to teach evolution in Kansas schools, he gently mocked proponents of Creationism, but when backers of teaching evolution asked whether evolution isn’t a fact, he replied that science is about asking questions rather than about “facts.” “It’s questions that keep us alive,” he said.

“All science really is, is a bunch of people who agree that we’re going to trust our eyes rather than trust what some people tell us,” he said.

Dr. Martin said humans, including many scientists, tend to be “full of themselves,” which is ironic, he said, considering that human ancestors probably made their living eating insects. “Most unimpressive,” he said.

He traveled to China frequently. As that nation began to dominate economics, Dr. Martin explained, it spent millions to enhance culture and history by finding and preserving ancient fossils of creatures never seen before. Dr. Martin would fly to China every two to three years and help scientists, many of them his former students, identify and scientifically describe the creatures.

In 2001 Dr. Martin led a team of KU grad students and other scientists to Wyoming, where on a hilltop they discovered what amounted to a natural graveyard containing nearly intact fossilized skeletons of several species of dinosaurs preserved nearly on top of one another.

In 2002, in that spot, they dug up the nearly intact skeleton of a Brachiosaurus, the long-necked tree-top-eating dinosaur made famous in the movie “Jurassic Park.”

One afternoon in Wyoming, quitting after a long day of digging up 7-foot-long Brachiosaurus ribs, Dr. Martin saw lightning set off a forest fire, in windy conditions near several mountain homes. With a graduate student, Craig Sundell, Dr. Martin soaked his dig team’s burlap bags in drinking water, ran up the mountainside and beat out the flames just before they spread into the trees.

Sundell, worried about how Dr. Martin appeared to be gasping for air, tried to stop him from climbing toward the fire. “Take care of yourself,” Dr. Martin retorted.

Dr. Martin was born in the Sand Hills in Nebraska, the son of devout Protestants who believed, Dr. Martin said, in the literal truth of the Bible, including the Creationist story of how the world formed.

He loved Kansas, and to anyone interested he would tell stories about what Kansas looked like during the Ice Age, vivid images he would realize after he personally visited sand pits and the fossils found in many of them.

His office in Dyche Hall was often cluttered with skulls of several species of sabre-toothed cats, giant bears, giant wolves and bison hundreds of pounds larger those that roam the prairie today. Some of the bones he studied in his office he had collected himself, walking the sandbars of the Kansas River, which flows just north of his office.

He was generous with praise for other scientists. Years ago, he began urging news reporters and scientists to pay attention to the work of Mike Everhart of Derby, who Dr. Martin said was making important finds while mapping the marine history of Kansas and other states from the time when much of the central North American continent was the bottom of the Western Interior Sea.

“Larry was just the super large figure in paleontology,” Everhart said. “He was the most active paleontologist in the state and had national and international contacts. He was smack dab in the middle of the bird dinosaur debate. He was friendly. He had a memory that could go back to everything he had ever been involved in and pull it up.”

Contributing: Beccy Tanner of The Eagle

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