FOSSIL FUELED Dinosaurs are the stuff of prehistoric legend, beasts from a long bygone era. But for one professor of geology, the study of the Jurassic giants is the jumping point from which to celebrate the beauty of the natural world.

by Amanda Kerr | imagery by Diana Deaver

An odd-shaped hump pokes out just above the horizon. If you didn’t know what you were looking at, you would think it’s just part of the rocky, rugged terrain of this part of northwest Wyoming. It’s not.

Braving bitterly frigid December temperatures, a trio of geologists trudge across the treeless, icy landscape of the Morrison Formation with tools and tarps in hand, determined to inspect the uneven mass of land. As they make their way across this lonely, bleak landscape, a biting wind washes across their faces. It’s cold. Really cold.

Despite his physical misery, Phil Manning is like a “kid in a sweet shop.” Sure, these are long days of digging, measuring, studying and planning. It’s all worth it, though, because of the promise of what lies within the dirt.

“This is one of the most pristine, beautiful, desolate, remote, wonderful places on the planet,” says Manning.

The geology professor, his wife and colleague, Victoria Egerton, and College of Charleston alumna Lauren Humphreys ’13 are there to assess this square-mile site, which holds the secrets of the past, present and future. The treasures they’re there to protect are dinosaur bones, which in Manning’s mind can unlock the mysteries of the world for children and college students alike.

“This new dig site is going to have a stack of stegosaurus material,” Manning says, his British accent inflecting with excitement. “There’s already a big stegosaur pelvis slap bang next to one of the sauropod dinosaurs.”

In these early days of winter in the American West, the doggedly persistent professor is dreaming of the endless possibilities these ancient reptile fossils can offer his students. But before the gigantic bones can be unearthed the following summer, Manning has to cover them up one more time. Even old bones need protection from the wrath of Mother Nature.

Top: Manning dismantles "Bucky" the T. rex ahead of the dinosaur's move to the College's library. Bottom Left: Manning inspects a fossil during a summer dig at the Wyoming site. Bottom Right: In his CofC office, the professor shows off some of his prized specimens in his fossil collection.

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A little boy runs along the banks of a stream bed at the bottom of his mother’s garden. Hunting for frogs and newts to examine and release, the child’s eyes suddenly dart to a rock jutting out of the ground outside his home in the rural English countryside.

Bright-eyed and curious, the boy abandons his pursuit of the amphibians and makes a beeline for the rock. Crouching down, he meticulously examines a stony shell, turning it over and over in his hands. A slight glint in the earthen formation catches his eye as he brings the baseball-sized hunk close to his ruddy face. The shiny shape within the mineral enraptures the boy, sending his imagination into overdrive.

Years later, Phil Manning would learn that what he had discovered tucked in the dirt outside his Somerset home was a fossilized gastropod (a giant marine snail) forever preserved in mudstone and sparry calcite.

“It’s pretty,” he says, adding “it stays with me.”

As a child, he didn’t dream of traveling the globe and unearthing behemoth beasts from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. He didn’t envision leading groundbreaking research using synchrotron light to reveal new details of the biochemistry of long extinct animals. And, he hadn’t yet developed a taste for storytelling that would land him on the likes of the BBC and the National Geographic Channel. He just wanted to play outside.

“I don’t know what I really wanted to do as a kid,” he says, his voice lilting slightly. “I think I was just inquisitive. I loved being outside. I loved the environment. I used to love just traipsing up river beds, looking for stuff and hunting for fossils. I just loved getting out there and exploring the world.”

That pretty much sums up Phil Manning: a student of the world who is always on a quest to see something new, unearth a new detail of life’s long history and celebrate those wonders with whoever will listen.

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Students slowly trickle into a classroom in the School of Sciences and Mathematics Building on a cool November morning.

Buzzing about a paper due that day, one student proclaims, “Is today the day?”

Not dwelling on the much-anticipated assignment, students chat with geology professor Phil Manning about their weekend adventures and their growing stress as the semester inches to a close. One student jokingly inquires why Manning is “so scruffy today,” noting the professor’s unshaven face.

“The reason I’m scruffy today is to feel at one with all of you who are also scruffy today,” Manning quips before clarifying that he’s preparing to do fieldwork in the frigid Bighorn Basin of Wyoming. “The air temperature at the moment is in the low twenties. So, to put it in British, that’s minus 10 to minus 15 Celsius I’ll be working in. So, I’m going to grow any facial hair I can since I’ve got no hope of growing any on top of my head.”

Then, it’s down to business as Manning delves into the day’s lecture, working through the dinosauria (that’s the scientific term for dinosaurs) based on their key physical characteristics. The centerpiece of the day’s discussion explores the armored dinosaurs, including “two major groups we all know and love,” says Manning, “stegosaurs and ankylosaurs.”

Manning describes ankylosaurs as “dumpy-sized beasties with their origins in the late Jurassic Period.” But the Stegosaurus needs no introduction, with the profile of the creature’s iconic armored plates extending up along its spine well known to anyone who’s seen such dino movie classics as Jurassic Park or The Land Before Time.

“They’re a curious group – the stegs,” Manning notes, before launching into a geography lesson on where various types of stegosaurs have been found throughout the world, what period they come from and the importance of assessing the evolution of dinosaurs with a paleobiogeographic approach. “It’s all about why these animals are where they are when they are in time.”

That’s the thing about Manning’s GEOL 333 class. Although his specialty is dinosaurs, this class, which focuses on paleobiology, is an investigation of the record of all past life on Earth. Its aim is to help students connect the evidence of previous life in the fossil record with patterns of evolution. Heady stuff.

An intersection of multiple disciplines, geoscience and paleobiology is an amalgamation of chemistry, physics, biology, art, engineering, computer science and mathematics – to name but a few of the fields that intersect within the earth sciences.

Manning’s expertise in paleontology, the study of the fossil remains of plants and animals (particularly dinosaurs), seamlessly dovetails with what geology and environmental geosciences department chair Tim Callahan sees as the goals of the program, mainly to educate students and the public on the importance of earth science and how the planet’s systems affect us every day.

“From the amazing landscapes around the world that continue to change and affect human civilization, to our place in the spectrum of evolution of life and how things have come to be, we stand humbly in wonder of the universe and strive to understand our place in it,” says Callahan. “We nurture that mindset in our students, who then carry forward their knowledge and excitement for science.”

And, in Manning’s class, the students are up to the challenge. They love learning how fossils can reveal clues about the world of long-extinct creatures. And more to the point, what that says about our environment today.

“You can tell, for instance, from the chemistry of some specimens if the atmosphere was oxygenated or what the temperature was like,” says Michel Cuvillier, a senior majoring in geology.

Senior Laura Schramm, who is also a geology major, says the course paints a great picture of uniformitarianism, the theory that changes in the Earth’s crust over geological history have resulted in continuous and uniform processes.

“The present is the key to the past,” Schramm says, “especially right now when there is so much misunderstanding about climate change. The ability to understand and have evidence for how our earth has changed over time is, I think, of key importance.”

Manning thinks so, too.

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A rich voice, thick with the flourishes of a Shakespearean actor, floats across the living room of a home in rural Somerset, England. Describing, in exciting detail, the behavior of this episode’s creatures, a young David Attenborough enthralls audiences with up-close encounters of monkeys in South American rain forests, jelly fish in southern Australia and single-cell organisms in a backyard pond.

Attenborough proclaims: “There are some four million different kinds of animals and plants in the world; four million different solutions to the problems of staying alive. This is the story of how a few of them came to be as they are.”

That is the opening monologue to Attenborough’s ground-breaking 1979 television series Life on Earth.

Growing up in a tiny village of just a few hundred people, Manning had a limited view of the world. Documentarians, like the famed Sir David Attenborough, gave the dewy-eyed child a window to a world much bigger than the one he knew.

“He was my hero,” says Manning. “I remember as a kid watching documentaries and them giving me this broad love of the natural world.”

So, when the opportunity for Manning to be on camera in an educational documentary about geology knocked, he answered. At the time an assistant curator at the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology on Isle of Wight (after a year of working in the print industry just out of college), he jumped at the chance to unleash his inner Attenborough when a crew from London showed up wanting to add some “texture” for their program on the natural world.

“Having been inspired by Attenborough, I took my first tentative steps into the world of television,” says Manning, who, along with his older brother, was one of the first in his family to graduate from college. “I thought it would be great fun. I got the go-ahead from the boss and so I filmed this thing with kids from London who had never been to the seaside before, talking about geology, talking about the history of the earth, talking about how coastal processes had changed the shape of the Isle of Wight through time.”

And, something clicked. Media crews kept contacting the budding natural historian and geologist to do spots on their shows and documentaries as he pursued his career in academia, first earning his master’s in paleontology from the University of Manchester in 1993 and then his doctorate in paleontology from the University of Sheffield in 1999. In 2002, he shot an episode of Horizon, the U.K.’s equivalent of Nova, and his demand in the natural history entertainment sphere exploded. He started doing educational science shorts for the BBC, and later the series Fossil Detective. In 2011, he signed on to do the series Jurassic CSI for the National Geographic Channel.

Then in 2013 Manning contributed to Dinosaur 13, the Emmy award–winning documentary about the battle between scientists at the Black Hills Institute, the United States government and Native American tribes (among a host of others) over ownership rights of the largest, most complete T. rex skeleton ever found.

“I’ll never forget the first time I met him,” recalls Dinosaur 13 director Todd Miller. Miller was doing research at the Black Hills Institute when a dusty car rolled up, a bunch of pelican cases precariously stacked on the vehicle’s roof. As if in a Muppets movie, a flood of dirty grad students began pouring out of the sedan. Eventually Manning made his way out of the packed car, too. “I just remember him barking orders at all the grad students, trying to get the specimens under lock and key. It was weird to see a British guy just barking orders at everybody in the middle of South Dakota.”

Struck by Manning’s ability to effectively and succinctly communicate the universe of paleontology, Miller later asked the then University of Manchester professor of natural history to share his knowledge of the Hell Creek Formation where “Sue,” the T. rex, was found for the documentary.

The pair are now in the process of developing a science-based series with a major American television network that would feature Manning as the host of the show.

“Our goal is to try to make educational and entertaining pieces of media (about the natural world) and there’s nobody better than Phil at doing that,” says Miller, whose independent film production company, Statement Pictures, would produce the new science series. “I’ve never seen him say the same thing twice. He’s always thinking of a different way of communicating what he does to as many different, diverse groups of people as possible. And I think that’s what separates him from the rest.”

Manning says his hope for every science documentary he does is simple: “If we can recreate something that inspired a kid in Somerset to sit down for an hour and be utterly gobsmacked about how wonderful this world is, both past and present, then it’s effort well spent.”

“If we can recreate something that inspired a kid in Somerset to sit down for an hour and be utterly gobsmacked about how wonderful this world is, both past and present, then it’s effort well spent.”

– Phil Manning

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After more than 20 years climbing the academic ladder of paleontology and natural history in the United Kingdom’s higher education system, Manning was ready for a change. He and his wife, Victoria Egerton (who is also a geology and paleontology professor), wanted to be closer to their beloved dinosaur fossils in the Badlands and Hell Creek Formation of South Dakota and Wyoming. They wanted to be closer to the synchrotron light at Stanford University, where they work with colleagues on deciphering the chemical properties of fossils, including mapping melanin within ancient bird feathers and dinosaur bones (research that offers a roadmap to understanding the biochemistry of human ailments like melanoma). And they wanted to be closer to Egerton’s family (she’s American) who live in Mississippi.

The pair settled on opening the next chapter of their lives on the East Coast because it was about halfway between the dinosaurs in the Midwest and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (in Indiana), where they are both Extraordinary Scientists-in-Residence, and the U.K., where they continue to serve in various capacities at the University of Manchester, the institution where Manning spent the bulk of his academic career.

The College of Charleston, however, wasn’t really on Manning’s radar. He’d heard of the renowned Southern city, but had never visited. Then in the wee hours of the morning on a spring day in 2015, he turned on the television to a show featuring an English fisherman fishing his way through North America. And, on this particular episode, he was casting his reel in Charleston, S.C.

“And literally an hour before, when I was going through higher-ed jobs, I’d spotted the position at Charleston, and I thought aww, that’s weird,” Manning recalls. “So I went and had a chat with my wife, woke her up actually, and said, ‘What do you think of Charleston?’ and she said, ‘Oh, it’s really nice.’”

As an undergraduate at Mississippi State University in the early 2000s, Egerton had encountered longtime CofC geology professor Jim Carew and a group of his students during a research trip to San Salvador Island in the Bahamas.

“The students really loved the program, and I remembered that, even after so many years,” Egerton recalls. “So, when Phil mentioned the College of Charleston, I looked into it again and said, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.’”

By November of that year, the couple had purchased a comfortable home in Mt. Pleasant, packed up their lives in England, reassured their miniature schnauzer, Plumbum (Latin for lead), that a trans-Atlantic flight would be a grand adventure, and told Manning’s two college-age daughters that trips to see dear-old dad would take a new and fun twist.

When January 2016 arrived, Manning was settling into his new job as a geology professor and director of the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College. He quickly ensconced himself in his second-floor office within the School of Sciences and Mathematics Building on Calhoun Street, packing the room’s bookshelves with nearly every dinosaur book imaginable – from Make Your Own Dinosaur Out of Chicken Bones and A Practical Guide to Vertebrate Mechanics (both by his good friend, zoologist Chris McGowan), to his own title, Grave Secrets of Dinosaurs.

A variety of odds and ends of fossils dot Manning’s office shelves, too, including the gastropod fossil he found as a boy in the garden of his childhood home. And what would a paleontologist’s office be without the requisite two-foot-tall plastic dinosaur foot sitting in a corner of the floor?

Coming from the world of a large research university in the U.K. to that of a smaller liberal arts and sciences college in the Southern United States has been a bit of an adjustment, says Egerton, who also secured a position as an adjunct professor in the College’s geology department. But the couple both wanted to spend more time in the classroom, working to empower and excite undergraduate students.

“When you’re an undergraduate, you’re more enthusiastic, you’re ready, you’re curious, and as teachers, you just want to grab onto their curiosity early on and make them reconsider what they had always thought,” Egerton says.

If you’re in Manning’s class, that might mean holding a fossilized dinosaur skull, watching a video of a cassowary and pondering how the anatomy of that bird relates to its dinosaur ancestors or watching a BBC video of Manning and some of his paleontology buds playing “turkey tennis” with a mechanical ankylosaur tail designed to test the function and power of the clubbed appendage.

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On a chilly January afternoon, a gaggle of students and professors bob around the base of “Bucky,” the 37-foot Tyrannosaurus rex, which has spent the last year standing guard at the entrance to the School of Sciences and Mathematics Building. Swarming like flustered ants, the students dart around wrapping four-foot ribs and hauling off sections of the T. rex cast’s spine as one student cracks a joke about “chasing tail.”

A research student, clad in a lab coat and purple latex gloves, pushing a cart stocked with lab supplies, pauses to gape at the spectacle. “It’s a decapitated dino,” she says, noting the absence of the tyrannosaur’s skull, before continuing on her way. Even the College’s fire marshal, Capt. Tim Agee, has come by to witness the dismantling of the Jurassic beast.

As passersby mournfully inquire if Bucky is departing the College, geology student Kylie Beard hints that he won’t be gone for long, saying mysteriously, “It’s kind of like hide-and-seek with a dinosaur.” Indeed, Bucky would reemerge a month later at the Marlene & Nathan Addlestone Library, complete with his own informational display urging the curious masses to stop by the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History across the street.

At both the dismantling and reconstruction of Bucky, geology professors Norman Levine and Mitchell Colgan worked alongside Manning and Egerton to take Bucky apart and put him back together again. In between dismantling bone segments and unhinging the beast’s head, Colgan takes the opportunity to chat with onlookers, pointing to skeletal structures of the massive dinosaur that are similar to that of its modern bird relatives. Later, as Levine helped put the final pieces of Bucky together in the library, he whistled the theme song to Jurassic Park while hauling a piece of clavicle across the library’s first floor, joking that the bone looks like a Klingon sword from Star Trek.

“Dr. Manning has integrated himself into the department, bringing a seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm that is only surpassed by his breadth and depth of knowledge in paleontology, geology, chemistry and physics,” says Levine, an associate professor of geology and environmental geosciences as well as the director of the Santee Cooper GIS Laboratory, the Lowcountry Hazards Center and the S.C. Earthquake Education and Preparedness Program. “Phil understands that excellence in teaching requires excellence in research and that translating his passion for the research and science into the classroom is key to developing students in our discipline. He works to develop opportunities not just for himself and our students, but for his colleagues as well creating interdisciplinary teams of researchers working at the highest level.”

Sometimes those opportunities mean backbreaking work dismantling and hauling a dinosaur skeleton across campus and putting it up again. It’s hard work, but it’s hands-on work that generates goodwill and camaraderie between students and professors (and the community at large).

And Bucky has indeed done his job, garnering new interest for the Mace Brown Museum by getting kids and grown-ups alike primed and ready for learning about the facility’s 1,000 plus fossil specimens on display (not to mention the 20,000 lurking in the museum’s collections).

“Many families who had visited the museum before returned to see Bucky,” says Sarah Boessenecker, collections manager for the Mace Brown Museum. “And he’s a fun stopping point for tour groups. We had people who had never visited the museum before or didn’t know about it come take a tour because of Bucky.”

Everyone, it seems, loves dinosaurs.

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Teaching and paleontology are what he lives for. So, it’s no surprise that Manning brings excitement and energy wherever he goes.

“Some people have a work-life balance, and you have a work-life balance if you work for a living,” he says. “We don’t work for a living. We live for work. That’s the difference.”

Egerton agrees that theirs is a “lifestyle” that wraps work, play and personal time all into one. “Genuinely we love our work and we live it,” she says. And she means it. The couple deferred their honeymoon when they got married in 2013 and instead went on a research trip with four colleagues to scour the hot and humid island caves of Cayman Brac for fossils. Hardly romantic, but these two wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I don’t know many people, male or female, who would be like, ‘yes, our honeymoon is going to be a group trip for research,’” Egerton laughs. “But, I couldn’t imagine, honestly, a better one because we got to hang out with friends.”

That kind of passion and dedication is why, after only a year, Manning is already adding his brand of excitement to the geology department. In addition to securing Bucky on loan from the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the always ambitious professor is building upon his relationship with that museum, which controls the new site in Wyoming, to provide field opportunities for CofC students. Starting in summer 2017, undergraduate students will have the opportunity to dig up dinosaurs in Wyoming through two new summer courses: GEOL 395, dinosaur paleontology for geology majors, and GEOL 240, dinosaur hunting for nongeology majors. By Manning’s estimation, the site will offer students the opportunity to discover dinosaur fossils for the next 15–20 years.

Egerton says the opportunities the Wyoming site will provide students extends beyond just digging in the summer, as Manning and his team begin to bring fossils back for preparation within the labs of the College’s Mace Brown Museum. The specimens are destined for a diplay at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

“Even if (students) can’t go out with us, they can have the experience of working on dinosaur bones in the future,” says Egerton.

And Manning is developing a science communications course aimed at offering passionate science students the tools for effectively sharing the stories of the natural world to the masses through documentaries. In his mind, Earth’s future hinges upon communicating a better understanding and appreciation for the wonders of the planet.

“The Earth is beautiful, and it will continue to be beautiful, but we all need to see that beauty,” he says.

The opportunities, resources and expertise Manning offers students and the geology department as a whole, Callahan says, are wide and far reaching. “In geology, we strive to communicate the importance of science and scientific discovery,” the department chair says. “Manning and his colleagues do this through the curation of materials and working with private, public and nonprofit groups, by focusing on the most amazing of all ancient animals, the dinosaur. We’re always happy to offer a wider variety of opportunities to our students, taking advantage of the diverse talents, specialties and interests of our faculty.”

And for a professor like Phil Manning, who aims to inspire those around him, shining a light on fossils isn’t just about digging up interesting facts from the past. It’s about opening the door to understanding the present and maybe even the future. That perpetual intrigue is what keeps Manning searching for bones.

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