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- May 26, 1997
- Vol. 47
- No. 20
Dig We Must
Real-Life Jurassic Park Paleontologist Philip Currie Tries to Understand a Time When T. Rex Was Living Large
As a leader of the dinosaur research team at Canada's Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Currie, 48, is a living representative of Jurassic Park's fictional dino hunters. Of course, the 15,000-acre Dinosaur Provincial Park where he conducts his research looks nothing like Spielberg's teeming jungles, and the creatures Currie hunts haven't roared in 75 million years. In fact, if he were to compare himself to a fictional character, it might be Lieutenant Columbo. "Being a paleontologist is a lot like being a detective," he says. "You look at bones, look at sediment—and try to reconstruct a story."
Proof of his success at telling those stories fills the Royal Tyrrell Museum, located 90 miles from the park in the former mining town of Drumheller (pop. 6,300), Alta. Among Currie's unique finds is the skeleton of an Ornithomimid—a previously undiscovered beaked, meat-eating dinosaur—that took months to unearth from its sandstone tomb. Using jackhammers, pickaxes and brushes to excavate the skeleton intact, Currie and his research team then encased the bones in plaster casts for shipping to the museum, where more months were spent preparing the relic for display. "Without Phil," says Wyoming paleontologist Bob Bakker, "the finest dinosaur museum in the world, the Royal Tyrrell, would not have been."
But Currie knows he is not the reason 400,000 visitors a year flock to the museum and keep Drumheller's Jurassic Inn jammed. "Jurassic Park did some amazing things," says Currie, who estimates that museum attendance has jumped 40 percent since Spielberg's film broke box office records. He says Spielberg's depiction of dinosaurs is surprisingly accurate. "When I first saw the tyrannosaurus, the hair rose on the back of my neck. There was an image I had all these years of what a tyrannosaur would look like, and there it was on the screen."
Currie is a connoisseur of prehistoric fiction as well as fact. In his museum office, plastic Godzilla toys share space with real dino skulls. At his three-bedroom Drumheller home, his library brims with the fantasy writings of Edgar Rice Burroughs, including every Tarzan novel.
Arriving home after a typical 12-hour workday, Currie fires up the barbecue—like T. rex, he prefers his meat red—cracks a bottle of his own homemade beer (labeled Phil's Fossil Fuel) and cranks up the sounds of one of his favorite dinosaur-rock bands, Rush. "I think the music is his emotional release because he's so calm by nature," says fiancée Eva Koppelhus, 43, a Danish research scientist. Currie, divorced since 1994 from Marlene, his wife of 22 years—their three sons are grown—lives with Koppelhus and her son Rasmus, 14.
Currie's fascination with dinosaurs began at age 6 when he hunted for a toy T. rex in the bottom of a Rice Krispies box. The son of a Port Credit, Ont., factory worker, Robert, and his artist wife, Esther, Currie was 11 when he announced his intention to become a paleontologist after reading Roy Chapman Andrews's 1953 book All About Dinosaurs. By 12, he was collecting fossils and preserving chicken bones in plaster casts. During studies that culminated in a 1981 doctorate from Montreal's McGill University, Currie was hired by the province of Alberta to explore its Badlands preserve.
The scientist indulges in pop-culture dinomania like Lost World because real dino hunting is so painstaking—most of the time: During a 1985 hunt, Currie dropped his camera case down a hill. Retrieving it, he made one of his best discoveries. "It had come to rest," he says, "on top of a tyrannosaur skull."
JEFF SCHNAUFER in Drumheller
- Jeff Schnaufer.
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