July 09, 1998
University Gazette


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Fossil Finder

Schaff brings knack for finding fossils to field -- and Harvard

By Alvin Powell

Contributing Writer

Charles Schaff found his first fossils on Bear Mountain near New York City. He was a city youth collecting ancient seabed creatures from a modern mountain top.

Today, he hunts fossils for Harvard.

Schaff's official job description isn't "fossil hunter," though. He is a curatorial associate at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Schaff, along with several others in the department, makes regular trips to look for fossils in places as far-flung as Arizona's deserts, Africa's Great Rift Valley, South America's jungles, and Greenland's tundra.

"To me, the exhilarating thing is when you find something you've never found before," Schaff said.

Though the trips provide high points of excitement, most of Schaff's time is spent watching over Harvard's fossil collection. As curatorial associate, Schaff keeps track of Harvard's fossils, cataloging and storing them in drawers inside rows of gray cabinets that fill four large rooms at the Museum.

Schaff describes the collection as a sort of fossil library and says the specimens are not just used by Harvard professors, undergraduates, and graduate students, but by scientists all over the world.

Fossils have to be excavated before they can be catalogued, though, and colleagues say Schaff has a knack for finding them.

One co-worker, William Amaral, the Museum's preparation facility manager, tells of their 1988 trip to northeast Greenland, a region of remote tundra with no roads. Amaral and another person on the trip hiked for three days to reach an outcropping that had looked like it might hold fossils.

When they arrived, the site seemed promising enough to send for the others, who arrived via helicopter. After searching for a while, Amaral sat down to rest and looked at Schaff, several hundred yards away.

"He was squatting down and I said, 'Oh, he's got something,' " Amaral said. "He had the first vertebrate fossil we found in Greenland."

Schaff's find showed the Harvard crew that fossils were to be found in that part of Greenland, which has been the focus of several trips since then.

A Busy Year

This year is a busy one for fossil-hunting expeditions. Schaff visited the Blue Nile Gorge in Ethiopia in January and this past spring he was in Arizona. He left for Greenland last week and is slated for Argentina in October.

The target of Schaff's searches are fossils from the Mesozoic Era, which lasted from 245 million to 65 million years ago. The Mesozoic is commonly known as the age of dinosaurs and is made up of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods. Schaff and other Harvard paleontologists are particularly concerned about the rise of mammals and about archaic forms of mammals, similar to today's monotremes -- echidnas and platypuses -- which are warm-blooded and have fur, but lay eggs.

Before going out into the field, fossil hunters pore over satellite maps, geologic data, and other reports about the area in which they're interested, looking for outcroppings and rock layers that are the right age to hold fossils.

Once at the site, the paleontologists set off on foot, examining the surroundings. When the scientists find a promising spot, they converge on it and scour the area more closely.

In the field, Schaff said, one is basically looking for bones exposed by wind and rain that has worn away the surrounding earth and rock. Teeth, with their distinctive shape and sometimes even a shine, are the easiest to spot, he said.

Fossils are chipped out and jacketed in plaster to protect them during the trip back to the lab, where they are cleaned and any remaining rock is removed. They are then prepared for exhibition or storage.

Schaff's colleagues describe the lean and dark-haired fossil sleuth as gregarious and friendly. Talking with ease and pleasure about his work, Schaff describes not just digs and old bones, but the cultures and people encountered on trips.

Schaff works in a large office that he shares with part of the Museum of Comparative Zoology's paleontological collection. A bank of windows fills an entire wall. The office isn't his alone, however. He shares it with a row of fierce-looking skulls lining the top of the bookshelves along the windows, and with several rows of cabinets holding trays of fossilized dinosaur and mammal remains.

At times, he also shares the office with students working at a nearby array of microscopes, wielding super-hard metal picks and probes, soft brushes, and tools that jet compressed air onto the dirt or rock clinging to precious bone.

On the walls are sketches and drawings of prehistoric animals, including a three-piece series of the Gobi Conodon -- a rare prehistoric mammal that shares some characteristics of reptiles. Schaff found one in Montana in the mid-1970s. The series depicts the skeleton in one frame, the musculature in a second, and a guess of what the full-furred creature would look like in the last. A bulletin board below the Gobi Conodon is nearly filled with pictures from different fossil hunting trips.

Inspired by Bones

Schaff became interested in fossils as a child. He grew up in New York City -- not exactly a spot known for its fossil deposits. But New York is known for its museums. Schaff used to haunt the American Museum of Natural History, fascinated by the fossils.

"I sort of fell in love with the exhibits on fossils, especially fossil mammals and dinosaurs," Schaff said. "It opened up a whole new world of intrigue and adventure. I thought, 'Wow! That'd make a great job.' "

As a youth, Schaff hunted for fossils on New York's Bear Mountain, a state park overlooking the Hudson River. He headed west to fossil country, entering West Texas State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in biology and geology.

From college, Schaff applied for a job at the American Museum, where he had worked during college summers. He was disappointed to find there were no openings.

Schaff wound up working at Princeton University. From there, he jumped over to Yale, where he worked with Alfred Crompton. A few years later Crompton moved to Harvard, where he became the Fisher Professor of Natural History, a member of the faculty of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, and curator of mammalogy at the Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Crompton asked Schaff to come with him. That was in 1970. In the 28 years since, Schaff has taken many trips, found many fossils, and catalogued many more.

"It's been sort of funny. Everything clicked," he said. "I was very fortunate. I'm doing what I wanted to do."

Overall, the intrigue of his work is what keeps Schaff interested. He cites the trips to Ethiopia, where his team has collected a lot of material, but all of it fragmentary, broken bits of bone and teeth, jumbled in ancient stream beds.

"It's tantalizing because it's fragmentary," Schaff said. "It's a foggy picture. Now you want to go back out and find out more."

The trips to Greenland, including the current one, are aimed at finding the precursors of major categories of modern creatures such as frogs, birds, and turtles.

"All those originated 200 million years ago," Schaff said. "There's a spot out there that's going to yield that creature. And sooner or later we're going to find it."


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College