Paleontologist, Archaeologist, Explorer
“I see paleontology as adventure with a purpose. How else to describe a scientific discipline that allows you to romp in remote corners of the globe, resurrecting gargantuan creatures that have never been seen? The trick to big fossil finds? You’ve got to be able to go where no one has gone before—while learning to enjoy 125 °F heat.”
Paul Sereno grew up in Naperville, a suburb of Chicago, and studied art and biology as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. A behind-the-scenes museum tour opened his eyes to a life of science, art, and adventure: “I never recovered from that visit, because in paleontology I saw an irresistible combination of travel, adventure, art, biology and geology.”
Sereno has studied dinosaur fossils in far-flung collections in China and Mongolia, while earning a doctorate at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1987 he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he teaches paleontology and evolution. Sereno co-founded Project Exploration, a nonprofit organization dedicated to bringing the wonders of science to the public and providing opportunities in science for city kids. Discoverer of dinosaurs on five continents and leader of dozens of expeditions, Sereno is a National Geographic Society esteemed Explorer-in-Residence.
His field work began in the late 1980’s in the foothills of the Andes in Argentina, where his team discovered the first dinosaurs to roam the Earth some 230 million years ago, such as the dog-sized Eoraptor (“dawn raptor”).
In the early 1990’s his expeditions shifted to the Sahara—to unearth Africa’s lost world of dinosaurs. As the continents drifted apart during the dinosaur era, Africa’s dinosaurs evolved into species never seen before. On intrepid expeditions into the heart of the Sahara, Sereno’s teams have excavated 100 tons of dinosaur fossils, bringing to light a menagerie of new species including ponderous long-necked plant-eaters like Nigersaurus (“Niger reptile”), meat-eaters like Afrovenator (“African hunter”), and Rugops (“rough face”), and a bizarre huge-clawed fish-eater Suchomimus (“crocodile mimic”). Other discoveries include the world’s largest crocodile, the 40-foot-long “SuperCroc” (Sarcosuchus), the triple-fanged, horned “BoarCroc” (Kaprosuchus), and Africa’s first pterosaur (winged reptile) with a 15-foot wingspan.
After 2000, Sereno led a series of expeditions to Asia. His team discovered the first dinosaur skull from India, the new meat-eater Rajasaurus (“princely reptile”). In a remote corner of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia, he discovered a herd of 25 plant-eating dinosaurs that died in their tracks, mired in a sinkhole some 90 million years ago. On another expedition that crossed Tibet, Sereno’s team discovered a new, as yet unnamed, dinosaur an elevation of 13,000 feet.
Back in Africa in the heart of the Sahara, Sereno’s latest discovery is a stunning archaeological site preserving hundreds of human burials and thousands of artifacts. Dating back to a time before the pyramids some 10,000 years ago, these people inhabited a “Green Sahara” that was home to 6-foot long perch, crocodiles and hippos. The intertwined skeletons of a mother and two children, dubbed the “Stone Age Embrace”, ranks as one of the most spectacular prehistoric burials ever discovered.
The author of books and stories in National Geographic and Natural History and subject of scores of documentaries, Sereno’s recognition includes Chicago Tribune’s Teacher of the Year award (1993), Chicago magazine’s Chicagoan of the Year (1996), Newsweek’s The Century Club (1997), People’s 50 Most Beautiful People (1997), Esquire’s 100 Best People in the World (1997), Boston Museum of Science’s Walker Prize for extraordinary contributions in paleontology (1997), Columbia University’s University Medal for Excellence (1999), the Roy Chapman Andrews Society’s Distinguished Explorer (2009), and the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (2009).
In 2016 he founded the major engagement organizations Chicago Science Works and NigerHeritage.