USING MODERN TECHNOLOGY, Gabe Bever (BS ’96) is helping the world to see dinosaurs in ways they have never been seen before and connecting the dots that link ancient dinosaurs to current life on Earth.
Bever, a paleontologist and a research scientist at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, uses non-destructive, high-resolution computed tomography (CT) to examine internal anatomical structures hidden inside delicate dinosaur bones.
“Computed tomography and other advanced imaging technologies (e.g., synchrotron scans) allow me to look inside extremely rare and delicate fossils in a non-destructive way,” Bever said. “This ability really represents a paradigm shift in paleontology and evolutionary biology and is a major part of my own research program. CT allows me to not only look inside the cranial cavities of extinct relatives of birds within Dinosauria, but to digitally reconstruct in surprising anatomical detail what their brains looked like.”
In a quest to unlock some of the mysteries of evolution, Bever is one of a number of scientists who have integrated studies of living reptiles (including birds) with the fossil record of dinosaurs. These comparisons are helping researchers better understand the development of dinosaurs and how that compares to their living relatives today. In a paper published this year in “Nature,” Bever and other researchers reveal amazing similarities between the skulls of modern birds and those of juvenile dinosaurs.
“One of the big trends in evolutionary biology has been our rapid understanding over the past 10 years about development and how we actually are built from an embryo to an adult,” Bever said. “One of the primary questions my research addresses has to do with the evolutionary and developmental pathway that produced the remarkably large brain of modern birds and how it is different from the pathways that produced the mammalian brain. You look at the DNA code of a reptile vs. the DNA code of a mammal, and they’re surprisingly similar. And yet, the process of development produces such varied body plans. One of the things I do as part of my research is integrating the fossil record with emerging developmental data to understand how (that happens).”
Bever said the keys to these evolutionary mysteries are locked away in ancient stone in places like Mongolia and South Africa.
“In the origin of birds, we’re looking at rocks that are about 80 to 150 million years old. For the originof turtles, we’re looking at rocks that are well over 200 million years old. These are really old, really old,” Bever said. “So you have to follow the rock. You figure out what problems you’re interested in. We have an idea of where those problems might be revealed in the rocks. And then you literally pull a map out and you ask, ‘Where are rocks of that age, exposed on the surface of the Earth?’
“Following the rock” has taken Bever to some exciting and interesting places.
“In the Asian localities, we were looking at rocks that are around 80 million years old, because we’re interested in finding early representative mammals as well as dinosaurs,” Bever said. “In all of these international cases, we’re working closely with scientists that are in those countries. We’re going out in the field with those scientists – with people from those countries. So it’s not only scientifically very engaging and rewarding, but culturally as well. I’ve learned a lot everywhere I’ve been.”
Bever’s journey to a spot on the research staff at the American Museum began on the farms and fields of southeast Kansas near Farlington.
“Unlike most of the people who I work with, I don’t ever remember being into dinosaurs or fossils as a kid,” Bever said. “I’m sure I liked them, but I was into animals and I was particularly interested in mammals of Kansas. I spent a lot of time outdoors and grew up in a rural area, so the animals were very much a part of my interest growing up.”
As a junior biology major at PSU, Bever took a comparative anatomy class from Professor Steve Ford. In the class, Bever spent hours dissecting and learning how the animal structures told the story of evolution. He knew that he had found his real passion. He just didn’t know how to make a career of it.
“I knew I was interested in this (comparative anatomy), but using anatomy to understand what? I didn’t know,” Bever said.
“Most people take comparative anatomy as a primer going into medical school, but I was actually interested in comparing the anatomy of these animals and trying to learn something new.”
Bever posed those questions to his professor, who urged him to look into the field of paleontology.
“So I went to the library and I checked out a book on paleontology,” Bever said. “This is when I was a junior. So it’s not like I’m even early on in my biology career. That’s how it started.”
After earning his biology degree from PSU, Bever went on to earn a master’s degree in geology at Fort Hays State University and then a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Texas at Austin in 2006. For his dissertation, Bever wrote on the relationship between population level evolutionary processes and broad evolutionary patterns of morphological change as interpreted from the vertebrate fossil record.
After earning his Ph.D., Bever accepted a highly prized post-doctoral research fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“It was a great day when I found out that I had that,” Bever recalled.
After nearly three years of postdoctoral research with the American Museum, Bever accepted an interdepartmental research fellowship at Yale University in the Departments of Geology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.
In 2011, Bever retu rned to the American Museum in New York as a research associate in the Division of Paleontology. He is also an assistant professor of anatomy at the New York Institute of Technology.
These days, Bever is busy with his research, teaching and writing. His research has been published in “Nature,” “Science,” “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” and other top scientific journals. His wife, Amy, whom he met at the University of Texas, is also a scientist. She holds a Ph.D. in geology from Columbia and also works at the Natural History Museum.
Although teaching and research at the museum have occupied most of his time, recently, Bever said he has some places where he would like to do more field work.
“I would really like to work in Argentina and to expand my research into other parts of Central Asia,” Bever said. “I also have colleagues who are beginning to work in Antarctica. It’s a very narrow window when you can go and logistically, it’s a nightmare, but what’s great about it is there are very important rocks there, scientifically, and they haven’t been worked very much for obvious reasons. So I would like to try and work there. I would also like to work in the Sahara.”
Wherever the trail leads, Bever will be one of a number of scientists who are using modern technology to unlock some of the world’s oldest secrets.