What It’s Really Like To Dig Up Dinos—*Spoiler Alert* It’s Pretty Cool

In our 9–5 series, we ask women how they made it. This week, paleontologist Victoria Arbour give us the scoop on her super cool gig—and talks to us about how she named a new dino after a Ghostbusters villain

Ishani Nath
A portrait of paleontologist Victoria Arbour.

Victoria Arbour with the skull of Zuul crurivastator in the Royal Ontario Museum palaeontology collections (Photo: Danielle Dufault)

Age: 33

Education: Bachelor of science in geological and earth sciences from Dalhousie University, master of science and doctorate of philosophy in paleontology from the University of Alberta 

Length of time as a professional paleontologist: If you consider being a professional as being when you finished your PhD, then I’ve been a professional for about 3 years

A lot of people may think they know what a paleontologist does, but how would you describe your job?

What I really like about my job is that it’s a big mix of things from day to day and at different times of the year. In the summertime, you get to go out and be adventurous in the field. A lot of the time, that means I’m going out into the desserts and the badlands, hiking around and digging in the dirt. The winter is when we do research on the things we’ve dug up that summer so I do a lot of writing, math, illustrating of the specimens and talking to the public about my work.

Is paleontology primarily the study of dinosaurs?

That’s actually a common misconception. I’m lucky because I work on dinosaurs, but paleontology is the study of any ancient life. I have friends who study fossilized mammals, fish or other reptiles. It’s really the whole gamut. Anything that’s ever lived can fall under paleontology.

A portrait of paleontologist Victoria Arbour.

(Photo: Lindsay Zanno)

You specialize in dinosaurs specifically, so what fascinates you about them so much?

I was just one of those kids who really liked dinosaurs when I was little. I didn’t really grow out of that phase. I’ve been really lucky to be able to work on them since then.

How did you decide to take that passion and make a career of it?

I was really lucky because growing up, my mom was a math teacher and my dad was doing his PhD in soil science so I was in a family that supported science and helped facilitate me learning those things. I knew paleontology was something I wanted to work towards, but I also knew that it would be tricky and it might not be guaranteed. I studied science and I liked biology and learning how life works. I also took courses in geology because I wanted to understand what the earth is telling you when you’re walking around outside. As I pursued my studies in science, and I worked really hard to make them line up with paleontology specifically.

Now that you’ve made it into the field, what does your typical day look like?

The last few weeks have been a lot of preparation for announcing the new Zuul crurivastator dinosaur, which we named after the villain from Ghostbusters. I’ve been writing web content and working closely with a paleo illustrator, who helps create the reconstructions of the dinosaur. Together, we talk about how to bring the dinosaur to life. Besides that, I’ve been working on other research projects, writing papers and learning new statistical techniques.

A portrait of paleontologist Victoria Arbour.

Victoria Arbour and coauthor David Evans discussing the tail of the new dinosaur, Zuul crurivastator (Photo: Brian Boyle/Royal Ontario Museum)

The Ghostbusters-inspired naming of the new dinosaur made international headlines. How did you pick that name?

It reminded me of Zuul and when I name things, I want to pick something that tells people about what it will look like or that brings it to life a bit through its name. This dinosaur resembles Zuul from Ghostbusters and for people who have seen the movies, that will create a connection for them. I wanted the name to be evocative for people.

Speaking of movies, are the digs you do similar to what we see in the movies?

In some really special cases, we can camp right next to the fossils but usually there’s a long, hard hike involved. Very rarely do we just brush away the dust and reveal a fossil like you see at the beginning of Jurassic Park. Most of the time, it involves a lot more heavy-duty machinery. I’ve used jackhammers, rock hammers, chisels, sometimes we use rock saws and then the closer you get to the bone, the smaller the tool we use. When we’re really close, we’ll switch to dental tools and picks.

That seems like it would be a lot of manual labour!

The first couple days in the field area always a bit of a shock when you’ve been indoors all winter and then you suddenly have to hike around and start using hammers a lot. It’s good, it keeps you honest. I feel like I could easily have a PhD in shovelling.

You didn’t discover the Zuul crurivastator, but how does it feel when you make discoveries in the field?

It feels really, really cool. Even in places where dinosaur fossils are pretty common, like in Alberta, they’re still really rare. It always feel special to find a fossil. Some are more common than others, like small teeth or backbones, but it’s always great to find something because that’s a piece that belonged to an animal that is millions of years old. It feels really cool to find a little hint of something sticking out and start unveiling it. Most of the things I’ve found have been smaller pieces or parts of other dinosaurs, but I’m still waiting to find my big skeleton one day.

A portrait of paleontologist Victoria Arbour.

Victoria Arbour working at a field site in Colorado (Photo: Lindsay Zanno)

Zuul was found in Montana. Do you get to travel a lot as a paleontologist?

That is a really fun part of this job. I did my grad school out in Alberta and we traveled all around the province for digs. I’ve also gotten to travel to places like New Mexico, Utah, Argentina and the Gobi Desert in Mongolia.

What kinds of hours do you keep in this job?

In the wintertime, it can be a relatively 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. type job. In the summertime, when we go out into the field, it’s totally different. Most of the time, we get up around 7 a.m., and since we’re often camping together, we’ll make breakfast and then we’re out the door—although I guess you can’t really say that since we’re already outdoors. We get going by around 8 a.m. and we don’t finish until 6 or even 8 p.m. when we lose the light, so it can be long days.

Do you find there’s a lot of women in this field?

It’s increasing. When I was doing my graduate degrees, a lot of times the labs I was in were around 50 percent women. There’s a lot of women who are being trained in paleontology, but we’re still moving towards having more women stay in the field as professors. That doesn’t seem to be changing quite as quickly.

As a woman in this field, have you faced any challenges along the way?

People are more just surprised that I’m a paleontologist at all, because it is a bit of an unusual profession. Other than that, it’s been pretty great. I know that’s not the case for everyone, some of my colleagues do face sexism, but I’ve been pretty lucky and haven’t had to deal with overt sexism in my job. It’s slowly shifting to be a bit more equal.

What is something that people don’t know about dinosaurs, but they should?

All of the birds around us are living dinosaurs. They’re not close relatives of dinosaurs, they’re actual dinosaurs themselves, descended from their meat-eating ancestors. So when we talk about all the dinosaurs going totally extinct, that’s not actually true because this one group made it.

Speaking of things people don’t know, are there other misconceptions about what it’s like to be a paleontologist?

That it’s like Ross from Friends. Usually you just see him in his office with a skull on his desk, and it’s not like that because most of us are pretty busy every day. Also, people sometimes think the entire job is the digging and camping. That’s a big part of it, but that’s just the first step for the research that happens afterwards.

What attributes does someone need in order to be a paleontologist?

Be really interested in all aspects of science. We use a bit of biology, chemistry, physics and geology. It’s fun to be really well-rounded as a scientist that way. The other things that will help are being able to write and communicate well because that’s what I spend a lot of my time doing. Also, enjoy going outside because of that physical outdoor part of the job.

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