"I don't even know how many dinosaurs I've discovered—more than a dozen": A Q&A with ROM paleontologist David Evans

Lizard Brain

As a new T. Rex exhibit roars into town, ROM paleontologist David Evans dishes on the carnivore’s undying appeal, fossil smugglers and whether dinosaurs ever lived in Toronto

By Tina Knezevic| Photography by Daniel Neuhaus
| March 10, 2023
"I don't even know how many dinosaurs I've discovered—more than a dozen": A Q&A with ROM paleontologist David Evans

The ROM’s new exhibit, T. rex: The Ultimate Predator, just opened. What is it about this particular dinosaur that people love so much? T. Rex remains the largest carnivore ever to walk the earth. It’s the king of the monsters, and it actually lived. This amazing animal adapted to various environments and sea levels over time, before being lost to extinction. T. Rex is fascinating because, if we look at the effects that those changes had on its ecosystem, along with the asteroid impact, we can maybe predict how things like climate change will affect us going forward and gain perspective on our current extinction crisis.

The show is part of a travelling exhibit from the American Museum of Natural History. Did your team at the ROM add anything for its Toronto stop? We’re showing an almost-complete skull of a T. Rex cousin called Daspletosaurus, which my crew and I dug up in Alberta last summer. And we’re borrowing another skull from Alberta—the nicest T. Rex skull I’ve ever seen. 

Doesn’t the ROM already have a T. Rex? We do have one in the gallery, but it’s a cast, and it belongs to the Smithsonian. Most of the dinosaurs that you see in museums are casts. For the first time ever, you can come to the ROM and meet a real fossil of a T. Rex.   


Related: A behind-the-scenes look at Kent Monkman’s brilliant exhibit, Being Legendary


How big of a deal is it to find a pristine Tyrannosaurus skeleton? It’s pretty rare. You almost never find a complete skeleton in the wild. The habitat that these animals lived in was like the swamps of Florida: hot and wet. When a T. Rex died, it would rot quickly and get scavenged by other animals, so the bones often ended up scattered, as if the animal had been put into a tumble dryer and then spat out across the landscape. That’s the worst thing about the dig scene in Jurassic Park, where they just brush away a bit of dirt and find a full skeleton. 

That’s how I always imagined finding one. What did Jurassic Park get right? Quite a lot, actually—too many things to name. When the original came out, in 1993, it was the most accurate movie about dinosaurs ever made. The T. Rex was correctly proportioned, and the ostrich-like dinosaurs really did live in flocks. But that dig scene is pretty bad. With our exhibit, we want to dispel myths about how dinosaurs are found and collected, to show the massive effort that goes into it. It can take two to five years to prepare a skeleton from the field because the bones are so brittle. We bring them back to the lab encased in rock and then extract them with very fine tools. The technicians who do this work are the unsung heroes of paleontology.

What’s been your most exciting find in the field? It was probably the oldest known dinosaur nest, in South Africa. We learned that even the earliest dinosaurs would revisit the same nest sites each year to lay their eggs, like some birds do today.

How many dinosaurs have you discovered to date? I don’t even know the exact number, but more than a dozen. In 2013, I got to name a raptor.

What did you call it? A commercial collector found it in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. We purchased it with funds from the Temerty family, so we named it the Acheroraptor temertyorum.

Wait, there are dinosaur mongers? There are in the US. There is no buying and selling fossils in Canada because they’re considered the property of the province in which they’re found. But, in America, they belong to the landowner. This has created a global market for fossils, and it’s been amplified by the popularity of T. Rex. The problem is that US sales create a black market in places like Mongolia, where bones are illegally excavated and sold. The scientific community loses really important specimens this way. 

What dinosaur discovery is your Holy Grail? Science is incremental, so I try not to think about it that way, but I would love to find the first-ever Ontario dinosaur. There’s a spot up north with rocks of the right age and type, but it’s hard to access. If I ever did find a raptor from Ontario, I would be very tempted to name it the Toronto Raptor. I’m a big fan of the team.

Were there ever dinosaurs in Toronto? I’d have to check the paleo­geographic maps, but I’m almost certain that the answer is yes.


The T. Rex skull Evans calls the “best I’ve ever seen,” on loan to the ROM from the Royal Tyrell Museum

 

The tyranosaur skull that Evans and his crew discovered in Alberta this past summer. The ROM is leaving the fossil partially encased in rock to highlight the intensive process of excavation and reconstruction

 

"I don't even know how many dinosaurs I've discovered—more than a dozen": A Q&A with ROM paleontologist David Evans
A technician unwraps a cast of newly arrived jaw bones from Alberta

 

"I don't even know how many dinosaurs I've discovered—more than a dozen": A Q&A with ROM paleontologist David Evans
Here’s a tyranosaur tooth. The dinosaur would use its serrated teeth like steak knives to consume prey. Today, most meat-eating animals use sharply pointed teeth to tear through food

 

Ian Morrison, a paleontology technician, uses an air chisel to detail the tyranosaur skull fossil

 

Tyranosaur skull fragments, which will be sent to Research Casting International, in Trenton, to be scanned and 3-D printed into models. Evans and his experts will then reassemble the bones like a giant puzzle

 

A 3-D print being mounted for display

 

The newly discovered tyranosaur skull being 3-D printed

 

Inside RCI’s dinosaur factory. The company actually crafted the T. Rex skeleton seen in Jurassic Park’s famous climax

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

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