card
305

John Flynn

OLogy Series
ologist
card
305

John Flynn

OLogy Series
ologist

As a kid, John Flynn had a rock collection and made lots of trips with his family and school to the American Museum of Natural History. Today, he's a paleontologist who travels around the world to study geology and fossils of living and extinct mammals. In South America, his team discovered many mammal fossils. These fossils are changing the way paleontologists think about how mammals evolve and what ancient ecosystems were like.

Unusual Mammals of
South America
Since 1988, John Flynn has led many expeditions to the Andes Mountains of Chile. His team has discovered over 2,000 fossils! They include many unusual mammals found only in South America.

The continent was an isolated island for millions of years, so a unique and diverse group of mammals evolved there. Fossils discovered by many scientists over the past 150 years have revealed armadillos with spiked tail clubs, elephant-sized ground sloths, and tiny hopping marsupials. There was once an array of native hoofed plant-eaters that ranged in size from a rat to a hippo. But
all of these are now extinct.

One of their most thrilling finds was the oldest, best-preserved monkey skull from South America. It helped answer a long-standing mystery: whether monkeys in the Americas originated in Asia or Africa. The skull and teeth share many features with African primates. This suggests that its ancestors traveled from Africa to the island of South America, possibly on huge floating "rafts" of vegetation.

What key fossils did John's team discover in Chile's Andes Mountains, indicating that the first grasslands appeared in South America?

grass fossils

horns

teeth

Are you right?

Correct!

Fossils of high-crowned teeth set deep into the jawbones indicate that mammals fed on tough grasses. This adaptation appeared more than 30 million years ago in South America--15 million years earlier than on any other continent!

John researches the evolution of mammals in a group called Carnivora. Which of the following is true about this group?

all animals in this group are carnivores or meat-eaters

all carnivores, or meat-eaters, are in this group

both meat-eaters and plant-eaters are in this group

Are you right?

Correct!

Most animals in this group eat other animals, and so are carnivores, but not all of them. For example, bears eat both animals and plants (omnivores) and giant pandas eat only plants (vegetarian). All animals in the group Carnivora descended from carnivores, but some evolved to eat plants.

John Flynn, paleontologist

Growing up, I liked reading Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mysteries. I got a sense of the fun and mystery of exploring and making discoveries. And that's the perfect kind of skill to have as a scientist!

John Flynn, paleontologist

My favorite place in the Museum is a beautiful skeleton of Smilodon, a saber-toothed cat. It went extinct 10,000 years ago. It has gigantic canines and you can see what a fierce predator it must have been!

Flying far above in a helicopter in the Andes, John and his colleagues can spot rocks that are likely to hold fossils.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fact

They've become experts at identifying the rare volcanic rocks that preserve fossil mammals. Helicopters allow them to cover a lot of ground very quickly.

Elephants are the largest mammals to ever live on land.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

Indricotherium, an extinct relative of rhinoceroses, weighed at least three to four times as much as today's elephants!

Hometown: Hartsdale, New York
Job: Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals
Education: PhD, Columbia Univ.; BS, Yale Univ.
Focus of Work: Studies both living and fossil species to understand how mammals evolved
Expeditions: Chile, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Madagascar, India, the U.S. Rocky Mountains
Cool Fact: John curated the "Extreme Mammals" exhibition, showing the biggest, smallest, and most amazing mammals of all time!

Image credits: courtesty of AMNH / D. Finnin; John Flynn: courtesty of AMNH / D. Finnin; John Flynn: courtesty of AMNH / D. Finnin.