Monday, November 8, 2010

Life Lines 24


If you enter the Administration Building on the Stony Brook University campus, a mounted skeleton of a dinosaur from Madagascar will greet you. For those who like jaw breaking names it is a Majungasaurus crenatissimus. It looks much like one of those dinosaurs (velociraptors) seen in science fiction films. What makes it unusual is the presence of air sacs in its cervical bones, a characteristic of birds but not of living lizards. The person who found it is a Distinguished Service Professor in the Anatomy Department at Stony Brook University. David Krause took an interest in Madagascar as a possible site to study fossils because he read an 1896 article in a French journal describing some fossil teeth that looked like they belonged to dinosaurs. He arranged an expedition and began digging at the site which is close to the Equator, hot and humid, and where living conditions were Spartan at best. Some 100 years after the French discovery, Krause and his working crew unearthed hundreds of these fossil teeth along with vertebrae of several dinosaur species. He brought back an embedded skull and it took six months to remove the rock around the fossilized bone. Madagascar is rich in dinosaur fossils many of them relating dinosaurs to birds and Krause and his students hope to continue their studies in the years to come.

Krause was both puzzled and pleased to see lots of local children watching the excavations. He learned they were illiterate because there were no funds for schools in this remote rural area. He was fortunate that President Kenny took an interest and through her family the Joel Strum Kenny school was built, dedicated to the memory of her son. Funds for the teachers (paid $500 per year) and school supplies ($300 per year) are raised mostly by donations of change collected by students in public schools on Long Island. Krause liked the idea of a children helping children program that teaches philanthropy at an early age.

Krause now employs local people in Madagascar and teaches them to be paleontologists. Stony Brook dental and medical students volunteer to come down for a summer to treat the local people in a field hospital they set up and with donated equipment and medical supplies. Most of the people of Madagascar are largely of Malaysian ancestry and they speak Malagasy. Madagascar is an immense island off the East coast of Africa. Its fossil animals are similar to those in India, South America, and Antarctica to which Madagascar was attached about 100 million years ago. They are not similar to African fossil reptiles. Africa at that time was separate from these other connected continents. Madagascar today is an impoverished country with many endangered species. Some 99 percent of its land vertebrates are found only in Madagascar. As the population increases, forests are burned or cut down to make way for agriculture and the natural beauty of the country is disappearing. Krause hopes that tourism will be the best way to shift local people from farming to working in tourist programs that are more profitable. About half the population is Christian, the rest practice ancestor worship. Donations may be made to the Madagascar Ankizy Fund/284300 to Dr. Krause at Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY 11794-8081

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