Geosciences postdoc Celina Suarez is one of only a handful of people in history to have her name attached to a dinosaur. Geminiraptor suarezarum, a raptor-like species that walked the Earth about 125 million years ago, was discovered by Suarez and her identical twin Marina.
The dinosaur’s fossilized upper jawbone was found near Green River, Utah, in 2004, when the Suarez sisters were Temple University master’s students working on a summer excavation project for the Utah Geological Survey. While investigating the sediment profile above the dig site, they spotted a gully where dinosaur bones were sticking out of the rock. Three species have been recovered from the site thus far, including Geminiraptor — now the oldest known member of the dinosaur family Troodontidae and the only one ever found to be present in North America during the Early Cretaceous period (about 145 to 98 million years ago).
Utah Geological Survey state paleontologist Jim Kirkland told the sisters the great news soon after the bones were analyzed. But they didn’t know until late last year that the scientific classification of the ancient creature would bear their family name and refer to Gemini, which is Latin for “twins.”
“It was just so exciting. When we were kids, Marina and I thought we’d find a dinosaur in our backyard,” said Suarez, who is conducting postdoctoral research at Boise State while her sister does the same at Johns Hopkins University. “When we first found the Utah site we knew it was significant, but we had no idea we would become part of history.”
Suarez now specializes in geochemical paleontology, analyzing the chemical makeup of ancient bones as it relates to the original biology of the animal and the geology of the environment that became its tomb. Funded through a two-year, $170,000 National Science Foundation fellowship, her work at Boise State is expected to contribute to scholarly publications and research results in the Department of Geosciences.
“Boise State’s research programs continue to attract some of the best and brightest scholars across the country and the world,” said Boise State Vice President for Research Mark Rudin. “Postdoctoral fellows like Celina Suarez strengthen and deepen the impact of these programs, and the growing number working on our campus is an indication of our evolution as a research institution.”
Using bone specimens from nearby Hagerman and from the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Suarez will examine the chemical and physical processes of fossilization — an area of paleontology that is not well understood. In addition to contributing to a fuller understanding of biogeography throughout time, she said the study of fossils teaches us about past climates and how they may reference current and future environments on Earth.
Suarez is working with mentor Matt Kohn, a Boise State geochemistry professor and expert on stable isotopes and trace elements, which are crucial to unlocking the mysteries of vertebrate fossils.
“I had read a lot of Dr. Kohn’s papers and used them in my master’s and Ph.D. research, and I was excited about the prospect of working with him and learning some new tools,” Suarez said of her decision to come to Boise State. “Once you find these bones they often sit in a drawer in a museum collection, but advances in equipment and technology are allowing us to do a lot more with them.”
Since she started consulting with Boise State’s Department of Geosciences in the fall of 2010, Suarez has been impressed with the high level of scholarship and collaboration. While she and Kohn investigate chemical changes that occur in bone through the process of fossilization, Suarez also will collaborate with associate professor Kris Campbell in Boise State’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering to explore physical changes using a laser light technique called Raman spectroscopy.
In addition to her work in Boise over the next two years, Suarez is preparing for a summer trip to China, where she will examine dig sites with scientists from the Chinese Geological Academy of Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania. She also has done research on fossils in Alaska and plans to continue looking for undiscovered species that may give us clues to our own survival.
“There are about 700 named species of dinosaur. There are probably way more than that, but we haven’t found them — yet,” said Suarez. “Contributing to the discovery of the Geminiraptor was really exciting, but more than that, it made me want to go back to the field and discover more.”