Donning white cotton gloves, Richard Hebda carefully plucks a fossil from its sterile foam nest. Inside the rock is the jaw of a flying reptile found here on Vancouver Island not long ago. This fossil is one of many exciting new discoveries in B.C. as more and more of the province is explored by professional and amateur paleontologists alike.
As the curator of botany and earth history at the Royal B.C. Museum, Hebda spends much of his days researching objects from the ancient world, and in particular, B.C.’s prehistoric environment.
Along with his colleagues, he is occupied with the final preparations for a new exhibition that opens May 17 at the Royal BC Museum called Dinosaurs: Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries. This exhibition, which is on loan from the American Museum of Natural History, fuses modern research techniques with prehistoric life. It is not just a showcase of impressive dinosaur remains, but an examination of their habitats and how they moved. According to Hebda, the interdisciplinary nature of the exhibition should be of particular interest to students in the region. His desire to attract students to the exhibit comes as no surprise given his other career as an adjunct professor at the School of Earth and Ocean Sciences and in the Department of Biology here at UVic.
“It’s an opportunity for students to learn about the diversity and complexity of [the] research that goes into studying the lives of dinosaurs and the world they lived in. This is the kind of stuff [students] learn in earth science, biology, physics or chemistry. We can bring these seemingly lifeless [fossils] to life using biomechanics and computer modeling. It’s modern science being applied to ancient objects.”
Hebda first became involved with the Royal B.C. Museum when he was a graduate student at UBC studying lake sediments, peat deposits and other plant life. He is a doctor of botany and mainly researches fossil plants and ecosystems here on the West Coast. Most people do not associate museums with research, given the publicity that surrounds exhibitions, but through partnerships with schools like UVic, the Museum contributes to scientific research, especially in B.C.
“It’s important for people to understand that we do a lot of good research in this institution, especially in natural history,” says Hebda. “The critical role that museums play is that we have the specimens that people work on. It’s my experience since I work in both worlds . . . that people who work on fossils in universities may make very good collections for the projects they’re working on, but those collections have to go somewhere when they’re done working with them so they can be taken care of forever.”
In addition to emphasizing research, Hebda is also interested in putting the study of the past into a more modern context.
“This exhibition has a lot to do with the adaptations to the sudden environmental changes at the end of the Cretaceous [Period]. That change brought about a drastic realignment of the . . . biology of the earth. We face that kind of change today due to climate change. We are currently going through, some would argue, one of the greatest extinction events of the history of the earth. So the past is an excellent teacher about what might happen in the future, and that’s why exhibits on paleontology and fossils are so important for people to visit and appreciate and understand.”
May 17 – September 16
10 a.m – 5 p.m.
The Royal B.C. Museum
$15.75 (students with ID)