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Meet the Witte curator helping to tell Texas' dinohistory

Twenty-nine years ago, 25-year-old Thomas Adams watched a little movie called "Jurassic Park." It helped set him on the path he travels now.

SAN ANTONIO — Much in the same way a blockbuster film series helps tell the story of how Thomas Adams came to help build the Witte Museum’s permanent dinosaur gallery, that gallery helps tell the story of Texas’ ecological history—a history of transition measured in the tens of millions of years, of large oceans submerging areas where downtown skylines now loom large. 

It’s also a history that continues to be deepened with every new discovery. As of late, that includes the blooming of paleobiology, allowing researchers not just to piece together the puzzle of what dinosaurs may have looked like, but how their bodies functioned.

“We are discovering that dinosaurs are much more complex as a group,” said Adams, chief curator of paleontology and geology at the Witte. “It's allowing for us to go back and make new interpretations on some of the older fossils.”

Speaking with KENS 5 through Zoom from an off-site collections facility, a trio of cast-fossil specimens visible behind him, Adams said he fell in love with dinosaurs and museum exhibits about dinosaurs when he was as young as 7. It was some years later, when he was 25, that he says he saw “Jurassic Park” – “Such an amazing movie” – three times in theaters. 

That, coupled with the burgeoning trend of documentary shows that gave paleontologists a bigger TV spotlight than they ever had, took a young Adams’ interest to another level. 

“I got excited about that. I started reading books. I realized, 'I love this, I want to do this.'”

By 1995, he was digging for dinosaurs with renowned paleontologist Robert Bakker. By the end of the century, he was studying paleontology in school, fully embarking on his new path of researching what lies beneath our feet. 

Texas, a paleontological oasis

Adams eventually arrived in the Lone Star State, by way of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. It was during his time teaching at San Antonio College in 2013 that he was enlisted by the Witte at a pivotal point in the museum’s own history. 

Preparing for renovation and expansion, the north-side facility was planning its first space dedicated to the wonder of dinosaurs. 

Specifically, keeping in line with the Witte’s mission, the gallery was to focus on the role the Lone Star State has played in the advancement of researchers’ knowledge about dinosaurs—a footprint that’s bigger than some may realize.

“Texas has actually been a very important piece of paleontological science and history,” Adams said. “People have been coming to Texas to look for fossils for about 150, 160 years. It's from the beginning of paleontology, really.”

Credit: Courtesy: Witte Museum

Texas has persisted as a destination for paleontologists over the years, having found everything from preserved plans to “the first recognized fossil that we associated with the Tyrannosaurus Rex. The fossil-fertile ground has brought teams from Washington and New York and Chicago, said Adams, who on Saturday will be heading back to north Texas himself, hoping to unearth even more. 

The wide-brimmed hat of a paleontologist digging under a hot Texas sun is far from the only one Adams wears these days, however. As the Witte’s chief curator of paleontology and geology, he also oversees certain collections, leads cataloging efforts, helps plan new Witte exhibits, pitches in on educational programs and meets with donors. 

At the same time, he knows dinosaur exhibits are still a hot commodity for museums like the Witte. 

“Turns out dinosaurs are really popular, and people want to see them,” he said. “And so one of the biggest requests we get are (for) more dinosaurs.”

The value of fiction

Three decades after Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking 1993 adventure awakened a passion for paleontology inside Adams and many others, he still credits the series with helping to get young moviegoers interested in the world of dinosaurs and science at large. 

Even if he’s also routinely correcting some misconceptions about some of the movies’ most iconic monsters. For one thing: The T-Rex’s vision wasn’t limited to movement, so standing still in front of one wouldn’t do much to save your skin. 

“I do have to tell people the velociraptor is not a big carnivorous dinosaur like they portray,” Adams adds. “It's actually small, it's probably about the size of a collie. It would have been fully covered with long feathers off of its arms that would look like wings, even though it probably couldn't fly. So it's a very different looking animal than what you see in the movies. That's usually a shock for most people.”

But the way he sees it, correcting the record on Hollywood’s artistic license is a small price to pay for the next generation of diggers to dig into the field. 

“To be honest, there's nothing accurate about any of the dinosaurs that are in any of the 'Jurassic Park' movies, but that doesn't mean we don't love them. I owe everything to them. And what they do instead is they create excitement. That's what benefits me; it also benefits the museums and other institutions.”

Having caught a sneak preview of “Jurassic World: Dominion” – the sixth entry in the franchise that releases in theaters Friday – Adams is optimistic about a renewed wave of excitement. One of the featured dinos stalking the movie’s characters, he says, is the Quetzalcoatlus, which, while “too big, but that’s OK,” ruled the skies over what we now call home. 

Along with the “amazing” Acrocanthosaurus, the “magnificent” Alamosaurus and the “giant” Deinosuchus, Quetzalcoatlus is one of several representations of dinosaurs believed to have lived in Texas that Witte visitors can explore in the museum’s galleries right now. 

“It's the largest animal to ever fly ever, (and it) was discovered in Texas first.”

Just as important to Adams as showcasing the largest animals to have roamed North America is establishing a context to the age of the dinosaurs—the changing environmental conditions that resulted in the land as it exists today, and the kinds of species who could and would rule it. 

Meanwhile, the research continues for Adams, as well as his mission of sharing his own passion that sparked with a trip to the movies in 1993. In a constantly evolving field, he says, there’s no shortage of the possibilities when it comes to imagining how dinosaurs roamed where the Witte now stands millions and millions of years ago. 

“The potential to do more is there,” he said, citing new developments helping researchers determine things like the color of dinosaurs’ feathers and which were cold-blooded versus warm-blooded. “We're going to have great more discoveries coming out of the field of paleontology.”

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