About KU Vertebrate Paleontology

From its storied beginnings to modern day discoveries that illuminate the deep evolutionary history of anthropoid primates and the predatory behavior of Tyrannosaurus rex, the KU vertebrate paleontology program stands among the most important centers of paleontology research in the world.

The KU Vertebrate Paleontology graduate program ranks number one in the nation for public universities (US News & World Report, 2024 rankings). 

Its early history began with Samuel Williston, who eventually became the first dean of the School of Medicine. Williston taught many notable researchers. His students took influential positions all over the country (one of them even founded the Field Museum in Chicago). In particular, though, he mentored a man who would go on to became one of the world’s most celebrated paleontologists: Barnum Brown.

Brown is credited with discovering the fossil remains of the first Tyrannosaurus rex ever found, in the Hell’s Creek Formation in Montana.

Today, the staff and students of the vertebrate paleontology program continue to make great discoveries. Many of these are derived from the heavily used collections of the division, which now number 150,000 cataloged specimens. About 400 publications related to the collections have been published in the last 35 years.

During that same period its staff and students have published their results in such prestigious journals as Science, Nature, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Articles based largely on their research have been cited among the 100 most important scientific discoveries of the year on three separate occasions by Discovery Magazine and as featured cover articles in Discovery and Science News. Multiple educational television programs (NOVA, Paleoworld, etc.) have been based on work undertaken by staff from the vertebrate paleontology research program.

The program’s preparator, David Burnham, was the first to describe Bambiraptor, a small birdlike dinosaur. And together with alumnus Robert DePalma and the late Larry D. Martin, vertebrate paleontology curator, the group made a major new discovery about Tyrannosaurus rex. At a site in South Dakota, using meticulous techniques borrowed from archaeology, DePalma recovered two hadrosaur vertebrae that had healed and fused around the tooth of a T. rex. Their resulting paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences settles a centuries-old debate by proving that T. rex was a predator, not a scavenger.