Mark Norell

Photo of Mark Norell

For almost three decades, Dr. Mark Norell was one of the team leaders of the joint American Museum of Natural History/Mongolian Academy of Sciences expeditions to the Gobi Desert. With the discovery of extraordinarily well-preserved fossils in Mongolia, Norell and the team generated new ideas about bird origins and the groups of dinosaurs to which modern birds are most closely related. Norell was one of the Gobi Desert Expedition team members who discovered Ukhaa Tolgod, an exceptionally fertile site, in 1993. Among the discoveries made there were the first embryo of a meat-eating dinosaur; the theropod dinosaurs Shuvuuia, Tsaagan, and Khaan; and Citipati specimens sitting on top of their eggs in brooding positions. In addition to field work in the Gobi, Patagonia, the Chilean Andes, the Carpathian mountains of Romania, and the Sahara, Norell was part of the team that in 1998 announced the discovery in northeastern China of two 120-million-year-old dinosaur species, both of which show unequivocal evidence of true feathers. He has named new dinosaurs like Kol, Shanag, and Almas; has developed new ways of looking at fossils using CT scans and imaging; and has led and inspired continuing work on the evolutionary relationships of dinosaurs and modern birds. 

Norell was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and his family moved to southern California when he was in second grade. As a child, he collected bugs, rocks, and fossils and made museum-style displays in his room, including the reassembled skeleton of a coyote. His school offered the option to take science courses on weekends at the Los Angeles County Museum (LACM), an opportunity he jumped at. The museum scientists invited him to volunteer in the paleo lab, which he did for several years. “Then when I was in high school, they started asking me to go on expeditions,” he recalls.

He joined several fossil-collecting trips to the Mojave Desert as well as several closer to home. The Los Angeles area is rich in marine fossils, which are occasionally unearthed at construction sites. When this happens, the LACM is given an opportunity to do “salvage work,” hurriedly removing fossils before they are destroyed. Norell says this is how some valuable fossils, including specimens of ancient whales and other marine mammals, were retrieved. Norell and another student at the LACM, Jim Clark, took trips into the desert on their own as soon as they got their driver's licenses. “We’d explore mountains and canyons, sleep wherever we felt like,” Norell says.

Norell stayed in southern California to earn a bachelor’s degree at Long Beach State and a master’s degree at San Diego State, which allowed him to spend most of his time in shorts and sandals and continue making treks into the desert. As an undergraduate, he made frequent trips to western Colorado to collect fossil dinosaurs, mammals, crocodiles, and lizards. In graduate school he met a young professor named Mike Novacek. The two hit it off and co-wrote a paper, Norell’s first published effort, for the journal Systematic Zoology titled “Fossils, Phylogeny, and Taxonomic Rates of Evolution.” Years later, Mike Novacek and Jim Clark remain two of Mark’s closest collaborators. The three world-renowned paleontologists—Norell, together with Clark at George Washington University in Washington, and Novacek at AMNH, where he is now curator, Division of Paleontology—spent many years reuniting annually for AMNH’s expeditions to Mongolia. Norell came to the American Museum of Natural History in 1989, after receiving his Ph.D. degree in biology from Yale University. He became chair of the Museum’s Department of Vertebrate Paleontology and then led the Division of Paleontology for 22 years, a job that provided the perfect outlet for his twin passions, science and extreme wilderness camping. His responsibilities ranged from wading through waist-high floodwaters in Mongolia to mingling with donors at black-tie fundraisers, requiring regular lifestyle transformations worthy of Clark Kent. 

Many of the Museum’s historic fossil discoveries came from expeditions to Mongolia in the 1920s. But for most of the rest of the century, Mongolia was under the influence of the Soviet Union, which closed it off to Western scientists. The collapse of the Soviet Union enabled the Museum to resume its expeditions to the Gobi Desert in 1990. Norell arrived at the Museum just in time to take part in the first of these trips.

Those first expeditions were to sites that had already been visited by other scientists and did not produce important finds. But in 1993, the Museum team discovered Ukhaa Tolgod. “There were literally skeletons lying all over the place,” Norell says. Best of all, instead of loosely strewn, squashed, or mangled bones, many skeletons at Ukhaa Tolgod were perfectly preserved, as if living animals had been suddenly turned to stone. In fact, this is not so far from what actually did happen: Sudden collapses of giant sand dunes buried the animals alive, preserving them intact.

The sandy ground in Mongolia is so soft, and the wind so harsh, that enough earth erodes each year to expose a whole new round of fossils. Of course, the constantly blowing sand quickly destroys the fossils, too. So the Museum crew regularly revisits Ukhaa Tolgod to see what new fossils have emerged after 80 million years underground. Space and time constraints mean that for every specimen removed, hundreds of museum-quality fossils must be left to weather away.

Going to one of the world’s most remote places yields frequent doses of the unexpected. Some of these sights can be enchanting. On a 1996 expedition, the scientists’ caravan encountered a vast herd of gazelles, numbering in the thousands. The gazelles raced alongside the trucks for a good half hour, dashing just inches in front of the speeding trucks. Other adventures can be enjoyed only in retrospect, as when they saw an immense sheet of white advancing down a hill toward them, which turned out to be a layer of hailstones bobbing on top of a surging flash flood. The freezing water quickly engulfed the road, covered their feet to their knees, and soon left the expedition members walking as fast as they could in deep, hail-strewn water—walking because they needed to test the depth of the puddles before risking the loss of their precious trucks. “That was pretty wild,” Norell recalls.

Norell retired in 2021 after a distinguished 32-year career at the Museum; he is now Curator Emeritus. In addition to curating seven exhibitions at the Museum, including Dinosaurs Among Us (2016) and T. rex: The Ultimate Predator (2019), he has written Discovering Dinosaurs (1995), A Nest of Dinosaurs (2000), Unearthing the Dragon (2005), the coffee-table book The Dinosaur Hunters: The Extraordinary Story of the Men and Women Who Discovered Prehistoric Life, a biography of legendary Museum dinosaur hunter Barnum Brown, with co-author Lowell Dingus (2008), and The World of Dinosaurs: An Illustrated Tour (2019).