“I am one of those dinosaur kids who never grew up,” says Owen Blomberg ’22. You know the type — the little boy or girl who can rattle off dino names well beyond T. rex and Triceratops (and does whether or not you ask them to), wearing dinosaur paraphernalia, sitting in their dino-themed bedroom, pouring over picture books of ancient reptiles. “The first thing I ever drew was a Triceratops,” he says. “I had my first kids’ dinosaur encyclopedia at the age of about four, and I always had my head tucked in dinosaur books. I loved going to the Museum of Science and the Harvard Museum of Natural History. And yes, there were a lot of dinosaur toys and clothing.” For most prehistoric-loving tikes, the fascination eventually subsides. Not so for Owen. Instead, his passion for all things dinosaurs has only grown.
“I think my classmates knew that I liked dinosaurs before they knew my name,” says Owen of his peers at Xaverian. “In Mr. Gunning’s bio course, when we got to the parts where we talked about paleontology, evolution, deep time, everything like that, he’d sometimes just hand the mic to me and let me take over.”
Mr. Sean Gunning ’11, chair of the science department, confirms. “I’d go through everything and then turn to Owen and say, ‘Did I get all of that right, Owen?’ He’d say, ‘Yes...’, and then invariably add more to the conversation. He’s honestly never short on information. Considering how many millions of years his area of interest spans, it’s incredible that he knows so much about all of it as a high school senior.”
Owen’s knowledge about the history of vertebrates comes from more than his childhood encyclopedias. This past summer, he spent two weeks working with the Bighorn Basin Paleontological Institute on dig sites around the Montana-Wyoming line (the Bighorn Basin). This wasn’t Owen’s first time there either; he had gone previously for a one-week trip with his father. For most people, it’s a bucket-list adventure to spend a brief trip living a childhood fantasy digging for dinosaurs. However, it quickly became clear to the professionals at the Paleontological Institute that Owen was more than a casual dinosaur enthusiast or adventure-seeking vacationer. His detailed knowledge and conscientious efforts were recognized and rewarded. “It got to the point where they trusted me enough to leave me at a pit and they would send people over to help me work,” says Owen. “I got to lead them and be the person running that area.”
His highlights of the trip include uncovering a tooth of an Allosaurus and finding the vertebra of a sauropod that was so well preserved the hole for the spinal cord was still intact, roughly 150 million years later. Additionally, his favorite activity, he says, was walking through untouched areas of the desert looking for “float,” or small pieces of fossil bone that have broken off of a larger fossil. “One can follow the float like following breadcrumbs to find larger fossils. If the float leads to something significant, then it could mean the establishment of a brand new dig site.” Owen hopes one discovery he made will do just that, and it looks promising. While searching out in the desert for float one day, he found what is currently believed to be the vertebra of a crocodylomorph (think ancient crocodile) from the Jurassic period. Since the vertebra was found in an untouched area of land, this discovery could lead to a brand new site if more bones are found. Owen hopes to be able to continue his search at that site when he returns to the Bighorn Basin next summer.
In the meantime, Owen is looking at colleges to find the right program in his pursuit for a career in paleontology. He notes that there are very few schools offering this specific undergraduate focus, but says that if he can find a strong program in evolutionary biology or zoology, he feels he will be well on his path. “It’s always cool to see a student who already knows what he wants to do with his life,” says Mr. Gunning. “But with Owen, it’s not just what he wants to do in the future; it’s what he’s doing right now. This is what interests him. It’s his passion.”
This passion for prehistoric knowledge boils down to a very Xaverian ideal for Owen — humility. “It’s so interesting, trying to understand what was here before us. It gives me a sense of humility, knowing that we are not the only creatures to have ruled the Earth. This was once a completely different world, and I want to better understand the intricacies of the life that once resided in it.”
Owen’s Favorite Dinosaur
What do you ask every dinosaur-loving child? “Which one is your favorite?”, of course! For Owen, it’s the Yutyrannus, the largest feathered animal thought to have roamed the earth. It’s an earlier, fuzzier relative of the T. rex. “Certain dinos had feathers,” Owen explains. “Albeit not always like the feathers that you see in birds today—normally more primitive. Some feathers, like those found on Yutyrannus, were more like filaments. I like seeing feathering on dinosaurs; it makes them feel more like real animals as opposed to the big, scaly movie monsters the media tends to portray them as. Also, Yutyrannus most likely lived in cooler environments; since I’m a person who enjoys the cold myself, I have another reason to like this dinosaur.”