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Idaho State researcher chases clues to the truth about prehistoric life

Pocatello

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Courtesy L.J. Krumenacker

POCATELLO — Dinosaur fossils and the possibilities of what life was like in the prehistoric world fascinated L.J. Krumenacker when he was a child.

Now an affiliated researcher with the Idaho State University Department of Geosciences, Krumenacker is making discoveries that are filling in the details of our understanding of prehistoric life.

Krumenacker’s work, as well as that of his colleagues, made headlines this fall when their paper detailing findings on Oryctodromeus was published. The Oryctodromeus is a reptile about the size of a large dog and Idaho’s most common dinosaur. The paper reported Krumenacker’s discovery of an Oryctodromeus burrow, the first dinosaur burrow found in Idaho, the second such burrow found in North America and the third uncovered worldwide.

The burrow discovery was just the latest step in Krumenacker’s journey.

“I remember in kindergarten doing dinosaur stencils because I thought they were cool, and I never grew out of it,” Krumenacker told EastIdahoNews.com. “When I got into middle school, I started looking for fossils on my own when I got outside.”

Searching for fossils was something Krumenacker did for fun as a kid, but he grew to love the feeling that accompanied making little discoveries of his own.

When he reached high school, Krumenacker looked at paleontology as a career path — after a brief flirtation with astronomy, that is.

An Oryctodromeus burrow. | Courtesy Caribou-Targhee National Forest

“I remember I wanted to be an astronomer because I think outer space is pretty cool,” he said. “But when I found out there was lots of math involved, I thought ‘OK, I’m not good at math. The other thing I like is fossils.’ So in high school, I decided, ‘Let’s see if I can go to college to be a paleontologist.’”

The next big step for Krumenacker came when he was in college at Idaho State University. He secured a job at the Idaho Museum of Natural History, where he learned the finer points of working with fossils and museum operation.

Acting on suggestions from his mentor, former museum curator William Akersten, Krumenacker applied for grants to fund his undergraduate research.

“I put in a grant application at Idaho State for their undergraduate research grants,” he said. “I got — I think it was — $2,000 that paid for me to do work all summer and start looking at dinosaur-age fossils in Idaho and start doing actual research on them.”

Krumenacker’s college experiences helped get his foot in the door. Now Krumenacker’s work is giving us fascinating new insights into dinosaur behavior.

Artist’s depiction of Oryctodromeus cubicularis in its burrow. | Courtesy Michael B.H., Wikimedia Commons

“I’ve been working on these little Oryctodromeus dinosaurs here in Idaho since we found the first ones about 15 years ago,” Krumenacker said. “I think the research my colleagues and I are doing makes the dinosaurs more real and personal, and not just some crazy monsters.

“You can start to think of them more as an animal or a person, especially Oryctodromeus, knowing that they lived in families and took care of their kids,” he continued. “It makes them more personal and more real, even though they’ve been dead for a long time.”

L.J. Krumenacker. | Courtesy L.J. Krumenacker

Krumenacker said it’s important for researchers to continue to pursue paleontology to understand the diverse forms life can take, not only in the past but also in the future.

“We live in a time when the amount of animals going extinct is scary,” he said. “But (paleontology) gives us an appreciation for what life can be and what has been and maybe gives a hint of what things could be like in the future.”

Along with helping to provide knowledge and understanding to the world, it’s the thrill of discovering fossils and the new information they provide that drives Krumenacker to keep working.

“I feel a big thrill,” he said of the feeling that accompanies making a discovery. “It’s like a little non-lethal lightning strike. You’re the first person to encounter this animal ever since it’s been dead for a hundred million years. You’re the first one to see this thing for what it is and meet it, and to me, that’s super exciting.”

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