The professor, who teaches vertebrate paleontology at Appalachian State University, is collaborating with researchers at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to search for fossils stemming from around the same time that dinosaurs walked the Earth. Earlier this year, they made a major discovery in the Triangle area.
Heckert and his team unearthed two partial aetosaur specimens from the Triassic period, an era about 200 million years ago. Aetosaur, an early vertebrate, resembled a crocodile and was equipped with spikes and armored plates.
“The key to vertebrate paleontology is that what we’re doing is discovery-driven science — the animals that we’re going to study depends, in part, on what we’re going to find,” Heckert said.
Heckert began his paleontological research in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico until accepting a position at ASU and moving to North Carolina.
“I’ve been interested in paleontology since I was a little kid,” Heckert said. “When I came back to work in the east, Vince invited me to work on some projects with them — they had rocks from the right era, but the bones were all disarticulated and jumbled and still encased in rock.”
The team’s research has primarily dealt with the Triassic basin, the geographic region stretching from Durham to just east of Charlotte, said Vince Schneider, curator of paleontology at the Museum of Natural Sciences.
“These are sediments that were deposited over 230 million years ago when North Carolina was part of Pangea — when all the continents were together in one supercontinent — until a whole series of rift basins opened up in eastern North America,” Schneider said.
“In this rift valley is where all these animals were living, buried and became fossilized.”
The Triangle region is rich in Triassic fossils, with several notable discoveries in the last 20 years.
“The deposits were laid down early in the age of dinosaurs. The most interesting finds have been protodinosaurs, the really early specimens,” said Allen Glazner, a UNC geology professor.
Other major discoveries have included microfossils and microfauna, a pre-mammalian jaw, and even specimens from the Cretaceous period, including duckbill dinosaurs and small carnivores, Schneider said.
“Looking at the paleontological record, we find out how animal species basically survive — evolution drives our life on this planet, but that results in extinctions and new evolutions,” he said.
“How do we fit into an ecosystem where extinction is part of the process of evolving? That’s what paleontology helps us better understand.”