Honors College Lecture to Focus on Dinosaurs and Climate Change

Honors College Lecture focusing on dinosaurs and climate change

Courtesy of Brian Engh

The legacy of dinosaurs is often marked by their mass extinction, but it’s important to note that they roamed the earth for 164 million years.

“They are probably one of the most successful organisms that have ever walked the earth,” says Celina Suarez, associate professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of A -Spaces, from Air to Land to Sea. They swim, they walk, they run, they fly.”

Because dinosaurs have inhabited our planet for so long, they have experienced drastic environmental changes. Studying these changes can provide insight into our current changing climate.

Suarez will discuss dinosaur research and its relevance in her public talk, “The Science, Politics and Culture of Dinosaurs,” available via Zoom on Tuesday, October 4 at 5:15 p.m.

Suarez’s talk provides a preview of her Spring 2023 Honors College signature seminar, The Science, Politics and Culture of Dinosaurs. Please fill out this online interest form to gain access to the lecture.

Evidence of a changing climate

Although they haven’t walked the earth for millions of years, dinosaurs can still teach us a lot about our present and future world. Suarez notes that prehistoric temperature shifts are particularly relevant now.

“For most of dinosaur history, the climate was in the greenhouse state,” she explains. “But during this period there were also short-term hyperthermal events where we went into a greenhouse state with really very high global temperatures of around 36 degrees Celsius [96.8 degrees Fahrenheit].”

These temperature fluctuations allow us to study dinosaurs to see how animals change before, during, and after hyperthermic periods. Suarez reports that we could link prehistoric climate change to climate change today. The impact of this change, she explains, is literally set in stone.

“There is so much information contained in a single specimen or a series of specimens that you can see through a rock record what is essentially time,” says Suarez, whose own research is looking at dinosaur bone and dental chemistry for clues analyzed for their climate. “We can use these organisms to tell us what they ate and drank and how that changed over time.”

Deep time, new tools

In order to study organisms that live over such a long period of time, Suarez’s talk will touch on several interdisciplinary topics. She encourages participants to consider areas related to their areas of expertise.

“An engineer can easily delve into how paleontologists study dinosaur biomechanics,” she explains, noting that modern paleontology encompasses diverse sciences such as chemistry, 3D modeling, and artificial intelligence.

These modern techniques may help answer a burning question for dinosaur lovers: what did they look like. Suarez says techniques like synchrotron spectroscopy and geochemical analysis of keratin could help identify the color and iridescence of dinosaur feathers.

“There’s a chance we know what color some dinosaurs were…[but] for some we have no feathers, no skin, nothing.” Still, Suarez embraces the unknown because it spurs further investigation. “The more we don’t know, the more things we can research, the more opportunities for students to get into research.”

Beyond the science, the lecture will also examine important historical perspectives, particularly the relationship of paleontology to native populations. She will examine how Manifest Destiny has affected specimens in the native lands. “[The U.S. Geological Survey] scientists sent out to find resources, and one of those resources ended up being fossils, regardless of what was taken,” reports Suarez, who will discuss the issue of returning extracted materials.

Suarez hopes the talk will highlight different aspects of dinosaur research and arouse people’s curiosity. Her own passion persists after years of study. “When you’re out there working with some paleontologists and you see some really cool fossils, you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s my job, I like that – it’s fun!'”

About Celina Suarez

Suarez is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. Her research focuses on using the geochemistry of trace elements and stable isotopes of fossil vertebrates, invertebrates, and paleosols to understand fossil preservation, past greenhouse climates, large-scale climate changes, and their impact on continental ecosystems.

Her research took her to the USA, China, South Africa and Lesotho. She also has a passion for diversity in earth sciences, accessibility of fieldwork to diverse populations, and science work. Suarez has received multiple National Science Foundation awards and is an active member of the Geological Society of America, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the American Geophysical Union, and the Society of the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science.

She received her BS in Earth Sciences from Trinity University, an MS in Geology from Temple University and a Ph.D. in geology from the University of Kansas. She was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at Boise State University.

Signature seminars explore various topics

The Science, Politics and Culture of Dinosaurs is one of three Honors College signature seminars planned for Spring 2023. Other subjects to explore include death and the arts, taught by Lynn Jacobs, a distinguished professor at the School of Art, and football, taught by Todd Cleveland, vice chair and director of graduate studies in the history department.

Deans of each college may nominate professors to participate in this program and those selected to teach become Dean’s Fellows in the Honors College.

Honors students must apply to attend and those selected will be made Dean-signed Scholars. Course registration is posted online on the Signature Seminars website. The closing date for applications is Monday 31 October.

About Honors College: Founded in 2002, the University of Arkansas Honors College brings together high-performing students and the university’s top professors to share transformative learning experiences. Each year, the Honors College awards up to 90 undergraduate scholarships that provide $80,000 and more than $1 million in research and study abroad grants over a four-year period. Honors College is nationally recognized for the high standard of admissions undergraduates and graduates. Honors students enjoy small, in-depth courses, and programs are offered in all disciplines tailored to students’ academic interests while encouraging interdisciplinary collaboration.

About the University of Arkansas: As the flagship Arkansas institution, the U of A offers internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to the Arkansas economy by imparting new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and workplace development, discovery through research and creative pursuits, while providing training in professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation ranks the U of A among the top US colleges and universities with the highest research activity. u.S. News & World Report ranks the U of A among the best public universities in the country. See how the U of A works to create a better world at Arkansas Research News.