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Sleuthing for answers with palaeontologist Jordan Mallon

Jordan Mallon at CMN

Research Scientist Jordan Mallon and fossilized companion at the Canadian Museum of Nature

Jordan Mallon has a thing about teeth and how they wear but you won’t find him peering into someone’s mouth.

While you may hear the whir of a dentist’s drill somewhere in his Ottawa workplace, its bit will be trained on remnants of a long-extinct creature — like the one-tonne rock-encased skull of a chasmosaur, a horned dinosaur transported last year from Alberta to join a vast collection of fossils at the Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN).

A research scientist, Dr. Jordan Mallon is especially interested in the palaeoecology of herbivorous (plant-munching) dinosaurs and the evolution of horned dinosaurs, particularly those factors that influenced dinosaur diversity leading up to the end-Cretaceous mass extinction (about 65 million years ago).

Up close and personal

By carefully examining feeding posture, skull and beak shape, jaw function and tooth wear, he has shown that diverse plant-eating dinosaurs living in Alberta 75 million years ago —“multi-ton, plant-pulverizing titans” as a National Geographic article calls them — were able to coexist as a result of their varied dietary specializations.

And at our March 6 meeting, Mallon will share How we know what we know about dinosaur ecology.

Mallon’s talk will present recent advances in dinosaur ecology (where they lived, what they ate, when they were active, etc.), with a focus on the new technologies and fossil finds that have combined to inform our understanding. He’ll also show how the past can inform the present: e.g. how studying mammal fossils and the changes undergone over their timelines can help predict how living mammals might respond to global change.

This is a rare opportunity to hear firsthand from a palaeontologist — there are only a dozen in Canada and some 100 in the world — one who grew up in Ottawa no less!

Sleuthing for answers

Mallon describes how his interest in palaeontology was sparked as a kid in a theatre watching the original Jurassic Park movie. In a 2015 CMN blog post, he recounts:

“It’s June 1993 and I just graduated from Grade 5. My dad takes me to see Jurassic Park in the theatre as a sort of graduation reward. I’m awed and amazed by the realistic dinosaurs on screen—so much so that I spill my popcorn when the T. rex bursts through the electrified fence. I go home that evening and tell my mom that I’m going to be a palaeontologist when I grow up.”

Mallon curates fossils and digs for answers at the CMN, as well as spending time at Carleton University (where he is an Adjunct Research Professor) or in the field in Alberta and Montana and most recently, China.

While unearthing discoveries in the field can be exciting, hours spent bent over under a hot sun can be challenging — one day on Twitter, Mallon reports encountering a total of four rattlesnakes.

Data collection and analysis is a key component in determining the answers to questions of science.

One of Mallon’s 2017 projects employed dead armadillos* and computer simulators as he tested three hypotheses to explain a puzzling trend of why ankylosaurs (armoured, top-heavy dinosaurs) tend to be found belly-up in water. *dead armadillos follow the same upside-down patterns.

The three tests explored carnivore activity, bloating and flipping on land, and bloating and flipping in the water.

The “bloat, float, flip and sink” process emerged as the answer.