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Gabriel Santos

Alf Museum Paleontologist Named to National Geographic Fellowship

Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology Outreach Coordinator Gabriel-Philip Santos was named a 2021 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow by National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions on Feb. 9 for his work as an informal science educator, including his creative use of cosplay and pop-up museums to engage diverse communities in science education.

Photo of Gabriel Santos (Filipino Male) posing next to a brick wall. The Alf Museum, based at The Webb Schools of California in Claremont, is the nation’s only accredited paleontology museum on a high school campus.

The prestigious fellowship is named for Gilbert M. Grosvenor, chairman emeritus of the National Geographic Society. Santos is one of 50 pre-K-12 educators from across the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico selected for the fellowship’s 14th cohort – an announcement delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship selects exemplary educators to embark on a life-changing voyage to one of the many remote and extraordinary environments the Lindblad fleet explores around the world. Given the ongoing pandemic and travel restrictions, field-based experiences are currently on hold.

Once conditions allow, Santos and his peers will embark on a Lindblad Expeditions’ voyage to experience natural wonders alongside an expedition team that will include marine biologists, geologists, historians, scientists, undersea specialists and National Geographic photographers. They will return home to incorporate discoveries into re-imagined curriculum, as well as to serve as program ambassadors for two years.

“I’m just tremendously honored by this selection,” said Santos, who also serves as the Alf’s collections manager. “The Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship will allow me to grow as an educator and help me to expand my efforts to connect the sciences to people of all backgrounds and to show students that there’s a place for everyone in the sciences.”

In his six years with the Alf Museum, Santos has focused outreach efforts on expanding understanding of equity and access to the sciences, including the Alf’s Discovery Days program that invites guests to meet paleontologists at the museum.

Santos is a cofounder of Cosplay for Science, a group of scientists and educators that brings science to the community at such events as Los Angeles Comic Con, where he built a program inspired by the science of Star Wars. He creates pop-up museums at community events, recognizing that not everyone can travel to a museum.

“A lot of what I do is really based in storytelling,” said Santos, who holds a Master of Science in geology. “Storytelling is a powerful tool for education that allows us to go beyond conveying facts. With storytelling, we inspire people to use critical thinking to question the world around them. Science, politics, pop culture – it all connects.”

Santos’ passion for science education is evident in his drive to pursue outreach even after the pandemic closed the Alf Museum to visitors in March 2020. Since then, he has hosted more than 1,000 virtual school tours and launched a talk show entitled Fossil Friday Chats in collaboration with the Western Science Center.

The show – now celebrating more than 40 episodes – invites paleontologists from diverse backgrounds often underrepresented in scientific fields to share stories about themselves and their research.

In the National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions announcement, Santos was singled out for receiving a grant from the COVID-19 Remote Learning Fund for Educators, which provides educations with funding for devising innovative instructional resources that assist other educations in teaching via remote and hybrid learning environments.

Alf Museum Director Dr. Don Lofgren said the grant and fellowship both recognize what museum operators have long known: Santos is a powerful educator who elevates those with whom he works.

“It all goes back to museum founder Ray Alf’s challenge for us to make the most of our moment in time,” Lofgren said. “Gabe Santos is using his moment to make a difference in so many lives, inspiring the next generation of scientists.”

National Geographic has not announced where the Grosvenor Teacher Fellows will travel as it awaits the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions.

“No matter where I get to go, I’m very excited,” Santos said.

Paleontologist & Educator Greg Wilson Honored by Alf Museum

On October 12, the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology recognized Dr. Greg Wilson with the Alf Award for Excellence in Paleontological Research and Education at the annual Peccary Society dinner. The award honors a paleontologist who demonstrates exceptional achievement both in original scientific research, as well as in education and outreach at the primary and secondary school (K-12) levels.

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Rare tooth find reveals horned dinosaurs in eastern North America

Close up of the ceratopsid (horned dinosaur) tooth. This is the first evidence of horned dinosaurs in eastern North America. Credit: Photo by George Phillips, MDWFP Museum of Natural Science.

New research from Augustyn Family Curator, Dr. Andy Farke

A chance discovery in Mississippi provides the first evidence of an animal closely related to Triceratops in eastern North America. The fossil, a tooth from rocks that were between 68 and 66 million years old, shows that two halves of the continent previously thought to be separated by seaway were probably connected before the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.

“The fossil is small, only the size of a quarter, but it packs a ton of information,” said Andrew Farke, a paleontologist at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at The Webb Schools in Claremont, California, and one of the authors on the paper announcing the discovery. “The shape of this tooth, with its distinctive split root, is absolutely unique among dinosaurs,” Farke continued. “We only have the one fossil, but it’s more than enough to show that an animal very similar to Triceratops–perhaps even Triceratops itselfmade it into eastern North America.”

Horned dinosaurs, or ceratopsids, had previously only been found in western North America and Asia. A seaway down the middle of North America, which linked the Arctic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, split the continent into eastern and western halves during much of the Late Cretaceous (around 95 to 66 million years ago). This means that animals that evolved in western North America after the splitincluding ceratopsidswere prevented from traveling east. Due to a lack of preserved rock and fossils, scientists weren’t sure precisely when the seaway disappeared and animals could once again walk freely across North America. The newly described fossil strongly suggests that this happened when large dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops were still around, before the major global extinction 66 million years ago.

 

Tooth of a ceratopsid horned dinosaur from Mississippi, held next to a left lower jaw half of Triceratops from Montana. Credit: Photo by Jeremy Copley, MDWFP Museum of Natural Science

 

George Phillips, paleontology curator at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks’ Museum of Natural Science and discoverer of the fossil, was also an author on the paper. He described the moment of discovery: “I was excited because I knew it was a dinosaur tooth. I called my volunteer, Michael Estes, over to share in the discovery, and he was beside me in seconds. I knew it wasn’t a duck-billed dinosaur, and within 30 minutes of having found it, I posted on Facebook that I’d collected some rare plant-eating dinosaur tooth. It was none other than my colleague Lynn Harrell who made the suggestion, within minutes of my post, that it looked like a ceratopsian tooth.”Although previously known fragments indicated horned dinosaurs in Maryland and North Carolina, those fossils were of more “primitive” species that likely lived in the area well before it was separated from western North America. “The discovery is shocking because fossils of ceratopsid horned dinosaurs had never been discovered previously from eastern North America. It’s certainly the most unique and important vertebrate fossil discovery I’ve ever made,” said Phillips.

The ceratopsid tooth, from the lower jaw of the animal, was found in the Owl Creek Formation in northern Mississippi. Although that part of the state was under water at the time, it was fairly close to land. Farke and Phillips speculate that the tooth probably washed out to sea from a horned dinosaur living along the coastline in that area.

The fossil is housed at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences, and published in the journal PeerJ. The open access article can be downloaded here.

 

The discovery site of the tooth from a ceratopsid horned dinosaur in Mississippi. Credit: Photo by Andrew Smith, Mississippi State University Center for Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts