In New Mexico, Fossil Hunting Is A Family Affair

Ryan Williamson crouches down looking for fossils while his brother Taylor prospects behind him. (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Ryan Williamson crouches down looking for fossils while his brother Taylor prospects behind him. (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

It’s early summer after their sophomore year at the University of New Mexico, time for a brief break before their seasonal jobs at Cliff’s Amusement Park begin, but Ryan and Taylor Williamson have decided to unwind in a way most 20 year olds wouldn’t typically chose—coming into the field to go fossil hunting with their dad.

Ryan and Taylor are twins who bear only a small resemblance physically, but as they start their playful banter and joking, it is clear they share DNA and the exact same sense of humor. Most of their conversations are made up of movie quotes and jokes, sometimes difficult for an outsider to break in to. They are fairly typical college-going 20 year olds—except for the part where they spend weeks each summer accompanying their father hunting for fossils in the deserts of New Mexico.

Their father, Tom Williamson, has been a curator at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science since 1994. He took up this post after he obtained his PhD at the University of New Mexico in 1993. Tom, an expert on Paleocene mammals, has amassed a vast collection of fossils from the San Juan Basin of New Mexico with the help of his sons.

Tom Williamson examines a fossil find (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Tom Williamson examines a fossil find (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

Both Ryan and Taylor have a level of knowledge about the outdoors that can only come from practically being raised in the desert. “The first time dad took us into the field we were 5 years old,” Taylor remembers. “It took us years to get good at climbing and spotting fossil localities.” When I asked them what continues to motivate them to find fossils, they look at each other and laugh “It’s always sibling rivalry.”

Ryan Williamson (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Ryan Williamson (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

Sitting on the outcrop one afternoon chatting and tossing rocks, Tom and Ryan reminiscence about a time when Ryan was much younger—probably only 8 or 9 years old—and he found an important fossil on a loosely consolidated hill and ran over to show his dad: “I asked Ryan where he got it and he pointed to the hill that now had a giant skid mark from where he slid down right over where the fossil came from!” Now a decade later, Ryan and his brother are expert fossil collectors who have an unbelievably keen eye and keep more copious field notes than most career academics.

Taylor Williamson (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Taylor Williamson (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

“I don’t feel like an academic,” Ryan says, as he talks about why he has decided to get a BFA in film from the University of New Mexico instead of pursuing science. Not only do they have a keen eye for fossils, but an artistic eye too, as both Taylor and Ryan are extremely talented photographers, which they often practice in the field.

“In the beginning, I was more obsessed with dinosaurs than Taylor,” Ryan remembers, but now it seems their roles are reversed.

While Ryan isn’t majoring in science, Taylor on the other hand was frustrated when he started finding so many fossils and couldn’t identify them. This interest has lead him to a dual major in biology and evolutionary anthropology. A real aficionado of anatomy, Taylor often talks about animals he has come across in the desert, talking excitedly about a dead horse he found in the field one year the way only a real natural historian would. “I came back the next year to pick it up…then I spent time boiling it, cleaning it off…now it is in my backyard.”

Taylor Williamson searches for fossils (Photo by Stefan Batista)
Taylor Williamson searches for fossils (Photo by Stefan Jennings Batista)

Back on the outcrop, Taylor finds some pieces of a partial mammal skeleton. They all jokingly argue about who will get out their GPS first to mark a new fossil site, and who will get the credit for finding the fossil. Tom and his sons frequently reminisce about fossil skeletons they have found in years past. Moments like this it is apparent why they come out to the field for reasons beyond the fossils—to spend time together. “It’s a great time to spend with our dad, since we don’t usually see him a lot,” says Ryan.

Often professional paleontologists are asked who is allowed to look for fossils —the answer is anyone. Collectors like Ryan and Taylor show that curiosity is the primary driving force that makes a great paleontologist. As they get older and take on their own identities and embark on new paths in life, it doesn’t seem like either one of them wants to give up a chance to head out into the New Mexico desert, as Taylor told me, “we’ll keep coming to the field as long as we can.”

This post originally appeared on forbes.com/science 

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