Dr. Don Brinkman began working for the Royal Tyrrell Museum as Curator of Vertebrates in 1982. He was the Museum’s Director of Preservation and Research for a decade leading up to his retirement in November 2018. As Curator Emeritus, Dr. Brinkman continues to study how ancient animals lived in their environments during the Age of Dinosaurs, with a focus on turtles.
We interviewed Dr. Brinkman about his career, and some of the highlights of his 36 years with the Museum.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a farm about a 45-minute drive from Drumheller, in Craigmyle. My graduating class had 14 people in it. I went away for education and got my Ph.D. at McGill University. Then I worked at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University for three years. I came back to Alberta when the Royal Tyrrell Museum hired me in 1982.
What got you into palaeontology?
Collecting fossils was my introduction to palaeontology. Growing up, we’d do family outings going fishing. The places we went were places where there was exposure of the Bearpaw Formation, which contains marine invertebrates. I got more interested in finding nodules with marine invertebrate fossils than actually fishing.
I knew I wanted to go to university in Edmonton at the University of Alberta because my siblings had gone there and I was familiar with the university. I was thinking of geology, and in their catalogue, they had a program; a double major in geology and zoology for people interested in palaeontology. So I thought, “Oh I’m interested in palaeontology, I’ll do that.”
Why research fossil turtles?
Turtles are ripe for research for a couple of reasons. One is because of the kind of work I wanted to do. The other is because of the material we had in collections that was relevant to some questions that had been raised in some of the recent research.
Before I came to the Museum, I was working on a project in which closely related taxa differed in size. I was looking at aspects of growth. I wanted to do the same kind of thing, look at a group where there are closely related taxa with lots of specimens of different sizes – both different sized taxa present, and different aged individuals. Turtles fit the bill.
So I ended up working on turtles because they were a good subject for the kind of research question I wanted to look at, rather than being particularly interested in turtles themselves.
What was your favourite experience in the field?
One of the big things, both for the Museum and me personally, was the exchange we had with China. The Canada-China Dinosaur Project started in 1986 with a group of people from China coming here and joining us for fieldwork. The following year, we went to China and did fieldwork for three months. I really found it fascinating, both from a research point of view in terms of the material we were collecting, and from a personal point of view: experiencing the culture, meeting people, and seeing something that was very different. That had a huge impact, both on the research and some of the fieldwork I did later.
The fieldwork part of that exchange went on for four years and each year was exceptional in some way. One year in particular, one of the technicians and I joined a field party in western China for several weeks, then drove across China to join up with the other group. We saw parts of China that were very much closed at the time. That was a big highlight of my research here.
Another highlight was the field experience program that we had running here for a number of years in the mid-1990s to early 2000s. We worked with members of the public who joined us for fieldwork, and I had great experiences in that.
Do you have a favourite fossil?
There are two that stand out.
One is a turtle that we collected in China, Sinemys gamera. It was unusual because it has a shell that is very flat, and has two spikes out the back of the shell. That was one that I described and named.
My other favourite fossil would be a dinosaur that was named after me, Coronosaurus brinkmani. It was named by Dr. Michael J. Ryan, who worked at the Museum while he was a student, and as part of the field experience program that I was involved in.
What are your other interests or hobbies? Do you have any plans after retirement?
For the core of retirement, I want to keep involved in ongoing research projects. I anticipate being at the Museum most days when I’m not travelling.
Outside of that, I’ve taken up painting and want to continue that. I play fiddle in a band. We get together once a week to practice and do gigs every once in a while. I’ve started doing some genealogical research and that’s proved interesting. A while ago, I was involved in the restoration of old cars, and I’ve got a couple of old cars that need fine tuning to get them on the road. So I hope to do that sometime in the next few years.
We congratulate Dr. Brinkman on his amazing career and his retirement, and wish him all the best in his next adventures!