Tyler Lyson ’06, on Dinosaurs, Digs, and Careers

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Swarthmore graduate Tyler Lyson ’06 first made headlines, when he was 17, for the discovery of a mummified hadrosaur, a sixty-seven million year old dinosaur. Lyson, currently working on his doctorate at Yale University, reflected on some his past experiences.

Lyson’s personal favorite dinosaur is the pachycephalosaurus, a head-butting and, “bizarre looking animal,” according to Lyson. Lyson had been working on the digs for several years before discovering the hadrosaur on his uncle’s ranch in North Dakota.

When asked how long he has been digging, he explains, “Basically my entire life… North Dakota is one of the best places to find dinosaurs.” The fossil rich region draws many researchers and while Lyson was still in grade school, he became interested in participating in their projects and working with experts in the field.

Though Lyson may have found paleontology early in his life, he was still interested in pursuing a liberal arts experience. He came to Swarthmore as an Evans Scholar and graduated as an Honors Biology major with a Philosophy minor. “I really enjoyed Swarthmore, it’s a great place,” he reflects. “Gives you that well-rounded education; it’s a clichéd thing to say but it’s true.” His experiences in the Biology Department in particular taught him “how to formulate a question,” which is crucial to all good research.

While at Swarthmore, Lyson co-founded the Marmarth Research Foundation located in his hometown of Marmarth, North Dakota. The goals of the organization, as described by Lyson, are scientific research, public education and the curation of the fossils found in the area by creating a museum. Lyson is particularly grateful to Professor Scott Gilbert of the Swarthmore Biology department for his support as a member of the board of directors. The Marmarth Research Foundation is also supported by volunteers who join in excavations throughout the year. More information on their excavation projects and other work can be found at .

At the moment, Lyson is pursuing multiple projects at Yale University while pursuing his doctorate. One focuses on understanding the conditions that preserved the hadrosaur mummy, which includes reconstructing what the dinosaur would have looked like, and drawing conclusions about its paleobiological implications.

Lyson is also pursuing work on turtles, having begun to look at these remarkably ancient organisms while at Swarthmore with Scott Gilbert. Of particular interest to Lyson is investigating the theory that turtles, as small aquatic organisms, were able to survive the meteorite’s impact that caused the extinction of dinosaurs and many plants. Using the strong fossil record of turtles, Lyson’s preliminary work contradicts this theory, revealing a significant rate of extinction among turtles as well.

Given the opportunity to witness any period in earth’s history, Lyson would select the Permian “when mammals, turtled, and lizards started to emerge as well as the ancestor of the turtle.” Lyson would love to be able to answer the “biggest question of amniote evolution: where do turtles go in the amniote tree.” He further explains that tracing the closest evolutionary relatives of turtles is complicated as evidence from their morphology, or physical form, contradicts the evidence at the mitochondrial level.

In addition, Lyson continues to “work on whatever I find in my field area. It’s a very rich area and there are many dinosaurs in addition to the one that has received the most media attention.” He encourages students interested in Paleontology to get involved as soon as possible. There are multiple ways to begin, including taking Evolution courses at Swarthmore, going into the field, or to museum collections. “Go on a dig or go to museums and think about what it is you want to try to answer, what do you want to solve,” said Lyson.

Lyson feels lucky that he has found a career path that matches his intellectual passion. He advises students to choose paths where they can “make a lot of money and be able to vacation and have a good time,” or “find a job that you’re really going to enjoy and look forward to getting up every morning,” he said. “I really do enjoy what I’m doing.”

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