Hans Larsson

Hans Larsson McGill University

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McGill Reporter
February 13, 2003 - Volume 35 Number 10
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Hans Larsson

Photo of Hans Larsson Photo: Claudio Calligaris

Hans Larsson's childhood enthrallment with dinosaurs has never waned. If anything, his passion for prehistoric reptiles has only grown with age.

"I've known since I was five that I wanted to be a paleontologist," recalls Larsson, 26 years later.

His dream is now reality. Since January, he's been hired by McGill's Department of Biology as a paleontologist, professor and globetrotting researcher. Sitting in his new, sun-drenched office in the Redpath Museum, Larsson recalls the journey that's brought him to McGill, where he earned his BSc in 1994.

After heading south to earn his master's and PhD at the University of Chicago, as well as completing postdoctoral research at Yale University, the Alberta and Ontario native was itching to return to Canada.

"Just because it's Canada," he says, enthusiastically. "I wanted to come back because more PhDs are leaving Canada than coming in."

That American brain drain, Larsson stresses, means this country doesn't possess enough qualified paleontologists. The U.S. lures the reptile researchers with wads of money, while Canadian researchers in his field receive maximum grants of $80,000 per year.

"In the U.S., a paleontologist can obtain yearly grants of $1.5 million," he despairs. "It's quite a different game."

"It's kind of a sacrifice to come back to Canada."

Then again, Canada and McGill offered the young professor possibilities he wouldn't have found across the border. "It's very rare that a university will also have a [natural resources] museum as does McGill with the Redpath," he says, noting he's got great labs to work with. "I could not be at a better place."

"And rather than working in a small U.S. college where I'd have to fight my way to the top, at McGill," he continues, "I was given an opportunity to replace my mentor [Redpath vertebrate curator, Robert Carroll]."

The opportunity to fill Carroll's boots came to Larsson after he gained considerable field experience and renown. Over the past 10 years, he's been on expeditions to Argentina (twice), Brazil (twice), Morocco (once), and Niger (three times).

In the African country of Niger, expeditions assisted by Larsson led to the discovery of eight unknown species of dinosaurs and five new types of crocodiles. Among his co-discoveries was a dog-sized dinosaur, baptized "deltadromeus," and a 40-tonne afroventor.

"Niger is a very unexplored country," he says. "Almost everything we find there is completely new to science."

Niger, however, isn't easy to navigate. Research teams must travel by Hummer caravans using a Global Positioning System. Arabic-to-English translators are hired to help locate dinosaur bone-beds, which many locals misinterpret as being camel graveyards. Civil wars have made expeditions treacherous. Researchers also worry about snakes and scorpions.

After final scientific missions to Argentina and Niger, Larsson will soon watch out for polar bears. He plans on visiting Canada's Arctic for the next five years, beginning this spring. "There are lots of things that can kill you," he says of his work.

For safety's sake, all team members must have gun permits and doctors are invited on all research tours. "We're usually a two-day drive from the nearest hospital," he stresses.

Larsson's ultimate goal is to explore reptilian morphological evolution that took place up to 250 million years ago. Most of Larsson's work has concentrated on archosaurian reptiles -- a large group of crocodiles, birds and dinosaurs. He wishes to track one species back to its origin.

"I'd like to get an explicit record of how [a species] has been changing since the beginning of their family tree," he says.

His fossil explorations in Canada's Arctic will examine how various species evolved through the area's climate shift, which passed from hot and arid deserts, to tropical forests and ended with freezing climates.

"Changes to paleo-communities across this climate shift may have relevance to modern ecosystems," he says.

In between trips, Larsson looks forward to helping the Redpath Museum fulfill its mission of educating the general public. He plans on eventually giving weeknight talks on his Arctic explorations.

"I'm excited to have an opportunity to present my research to the public," he says. "After all, it's taxpayers who fund grants and universities. It's only fair that people have access to our research and be able to follow our progress."

Academics, he says, have a tremendous amount of intellectual freedom and research possibilities. "That's why we owe it to general society, not just students, to give something back," he says.

Considering recent debates about creationism versus evolution, he's also keen on sharing his findings with Redpath visitors. "Everyone should be exposed to evolution theory," he says. "To avoid evolution theory is to demand ignorance."

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