Jurassic JSU: Paleontologist Creating Dino-sized Footprints


By Katie Cline

Jacksonville State University’s biology department’s newest assistant professor, Dr. Michael Burns, is digging up some big things—literally! From Canada to Alabama, Burns puts the “dino” in dynamite! Burns will begin his second year at JSU this fall, and he has already helped uncover a massive fossilized skeleton and acquired a top-of-the-line saw for use in the lab!

Burns is originally from Scranton, PA. His undergraduate degree is from Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA.

“I’ve always been interested in dinosaurs and paleontology,” Burns said, “but, like every little kid, I also wanted to be a fighter pilot. So, I didn’t choose to study dinosaurs; it kind of fell upon me. I’ve always sort of done what I found interesting.”

Burns’ interests progressed from fossil bryozoans, a coral-like invertebrate, to vertebrate animals, and finally to dinosaurs. As an undergraduate, he was given the opportunity to work with Pennsylvania’s state paleontologist and a wealth of fossilized specimens from the southwestern United States. Burns became particularly interested in an armored dinosaur specimen, and he’s been “the Dino Doc” ever since. He especially enjoys armored dinosaurs and cites Ankylosaurus as his favorite.

Burns followed his prehistoric passion to the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where he received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees. Alberta is home to Dinosaur Provincial Park, one of the richest sites for dinosaur fossil beds in the world.

“It really spoils you when you’re up there, because you’re basically walking on dinosaur bones,” Burns said.

And it was here that Burns worked with a team to excavate what could be the largest duck-billed dinosaur skeleton ever discovered in the park. Another student originally discovered the skeleton three years ago, and paleontologists have spent the last two years unearthing it. The skull alone is over three feet long, and the entire skeleton could measure upwards of 40 feet long.

 “I do somewhat envy other people in biology who can go out and collect a few specimens a day,” Burns admitted. “Things don’t quite work the way they do in ‘Jurassic Park’ where you have this beautiful skeleton and all you have to do is take a paintbrush and brush away the sand. That skeleton will probably take several years before it looks like an actual skeleton.”

In the mean time, the skeleton will be transported back to the University of Alberta, and Burns will start work on his own projects at JSU.

Burns has been teaching at JSU since the fall of 2015. Just this summer, the biology department purchased a Buehler Isomet 1000 high-precision saw. The saw cost $8000, but the hefty bill was footed entirely by donations to the department from the JSU Foundation. It will allow Burns to look at fossils histologically, meaning that he can analyze bones on a microscopic level.

Buehler Isomet Saw

“It gives us tons of information about fossil organisms that even ten years ago we wouldn’t have really known about,” explained Burns, “things like their physiology, their growth dynamics, and different aspects of their biology.”

Only a few labs in the country have this kind of capability, and, despite the large collections of fossils in both Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, neither of those curators offer students this opportunity. So, for paleontology students, JSU is the only option for hands-on, cutting edge experience.

“Initially, there are two projects I want to start working on,” Burns said. “One is looking at a juvenile armored dinosaur from Alabama. It’s a young individual from a group that we just don’t have a lot of young individuals from. It could potentially give us a lot of information about how this group of animals grew. The second project is looking at marine reptiles called mosasaurs, which are very common in Alabama. Alabama, as far as the fossil record, is really good at looking for marine or ocean-dwelling vertebrates.”

The juvenile armored dinosaur is a nodosaur, and this is the second smallest individual ever discovered. Mosasaurs, according to Burns, are “giant Komodo dragons with fins,” and he hopes to use the new saw to determine why many individuals experienced a fusion of bones in their spine.

“This is a destructive process,” said Burns. “The good news is that this is a low speed saw with an automated blade, so it’s extremely precise, so although you will lose material, with this method you lose the absolute minimum amount of material to get the data you want. That’s a bit of an issue, but the amount of information you gain from sampling a fossil this way usually far outweighs losing one or two millimeters of bone.”

And though it won’t be ready for student use this fall, Burns hopes to get students involved with the saw in the future and also plans to have them analyze fossilized shark teeth and fossilized footprints, some of which are 300 million years old.

 “My favorite part about being at JSU is that I get to interact with students a lot,” Burns said. “At the university I’m coming from, we have intro classes with four or five hundred people, and you basically need binoculars to see your professor. I’ve already got one or two students lined up to work on projects in the fall, so that’s what I’ve enjoyed the most.”

Thanks to Dr. Burns, JSU is well on its way to becoming the preeminent institution for prospective paleontologists in the state, and we know he’ll leave his own dino-sized footprint on the biology department and the university!

Top Right: Dr. Mike Burns. Middle Left: An Alabama nodosaur. Image courtesy of the Encyclopedia of Alabama. Bottom Right: Buehler Isomet Saw.