Alexander Kellner

Alexander Wilhelm Armin Kellner: On the wings of the past

Paleontologist talks about pterosaurs—the first flying reptiles, collaborations with the Chinese, and the difficulties of doing research in his field

Entrevista Kellner_08LÉO RAMOSThe first stones that 53-year-old geologist and paleontologist Alexander Wilhelm Armin Kellner encountered along life’s path were precious ones. His father had a jewelry business in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s. At the age of 12, Kellner—who was born prematurely in the tiny European principality of Liechtenstein, and whose German father and Austrian mother immigrated to Brazil in the post-war period—was serving coffee and sweeping the floor in the family store. Since that time, rocks of a different kind—holding the remains of vertebrates preserved in fossil form—have paved the way in his professional life.

A naturalized Brazilian since 1997, Alex Kellner, as he is better known, is one of the world’s leading experts on pterosaurs, a rare group of flying reptiles that, like the dinosaurs, emerged in the late Triassic period about 230 million years ago and mysteriously went extinct in the late Cretaceous period 66 million years ago. Although there have been specimens the size of a sparrow, pterosaurs—the first vertebrates to take flight—are popularly associated with large animals whose open wings could reach a span of more than 10 meters. They were the masters of the skies for over 160 million years.

Kellner, who is a professor at the National Museum of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), has published more than 200 papers in scientific journals, and has described nearly 60 new species of vertebrates. “But there’s a little of everything there—dinosaurs and crocodilians, among other fauna. Among the pterosaurs, I’ve described 29 species,” says the paleontologist, who is also a research associate of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing. From April 2014 to January 2015, the AMNH in New York hosted an exhibition of these winged reptiles, for which Kellner and Mark Norell, an American colleague, served as co-curators.

With its rich deposits of Cretaceous fossils dating back 115 million to 110 million years, Brazil’s Araripe Basin, which spans parts of the states of Ceará, Piauí and Pernambuco, has been one of Kellner’s most abundant sources of pterosaur remains. In recent years, China has become another major source of material for his studies.  “The Chinese have decided to invest in paleontology. Now they don’t let any fossils leave there,” he notes. “We should do the same.” During our interview, Kellner spoke a little about his family history, and about the occasionally winding path that his research has taken.

How did you end up in Brazil?
My father was German, and was born in 1926. Where was he around 1945? You know those guys in Downfall, the movie about Hitler, who never left Berlin and were completely clueless? I can imagine my father being one of them. Things went badly for him during the war. He lost his whole family and was taken prisoner by the Russians, but he escaped and was later captured by the Americans. He was freed by a Jewish official, because he was a poor wretched soul. After that, my father started working on buying and selling land, and he stayed on in Austria and Switzerland. He came to Brazil in the 1960s with my mother, who was Austrian. She passed away last year. She had me at the age of 17, when she happened to be passing through Liechtenstein. I stayed with my grandfather in Austria for the first four years of my life, until my parents got established here. In 1965, my mother came and brought me back, and I’ve been in Brazil ever since. At that time everyone was talking about the miracle of Brasília, the future capital. When my father came here, there was a lot of talk about land sales. He came, and he saw there was nothing interesting in this area, but he made up his mind to settle in Brazil. He went to Brasília first, and traveled through Minas Gerais and then Rio, where he found an interesting economic pathway in precious stones.

Undergraduate and Master’s degrees in Geology from UFRJ, PhD from Columbia University in partnership with the American Museum of Natural History
National Museum/UFRJ
Scientific Production:
Over 200 scientific articles and nearly 60 species of vertebrates discovered, including 29 pterosaurs

Your first language was German, then?
When I got here I spoke only German. I studied at Corcovado, a trilingual German school that at the time was in Rio’s Urca neighborhood and is now located in the Botafogo neighborhood. You learn Portuguese, German and English there. I started working at my father’s store when I was 12. He was a hardliner sort of guy. Nothing comes free; you have to work for things, he used to say. I served coffee, cleaned all the glass, swept the floor. It was great. That was the start of my education.

Did your passion for paleontology begin in childhood?
I wanted to be everything—an astronaut, a diplomat, and I thought about getting into management in order to tend to my father’s businesses. But what happened in the meantime? I was playing soccer, I was a goalie, and my school team had a wonderful opportunity to play against a team in the junior ranks of the Flamengo Soccer Club. Even though I was a huge fan of the Fluminense Club, to us it was an honor. We just wanted to win, and we called in a few older students who had just passed the university entrance exam, to strengthen our team. We tied 2 to 2. I was the star of the game and even blocked a penalty kick. I was 15 or 16. I remember it was two years before the entrance exam. There was a celebration after the game. One of the older guys told me he had just passed the entrance exam in geology. I didn’t know what that was. He said it was the study of rocks and asked me what I was going to do. At first I said management, and then I said I wanted to study those animals you find in stones—fossils. Later on I learned that the correct thing to call it is rock. Calling it stone is heresy to a geologist. Then he said to me, “If you want to be a paleontologist, you have to study geology.” I took the bus right home and told my mother I was going to study geology. “Geo what?” she asked. That gives you an idea of how educated we were.

Was it easy to get into the geology program at UFRJ?
You had to score 5,534 on the entrance exam to get in. And that’s what I did. I got the last of the 40 openings. Geology was highly competitive. While I was still an undergraduate, I started working with Diogenes de Almeida Campos, a paleontologist in the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM). [See interview with Almeida Campos in Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 108]. That partnership continues to this day. I subsequently got an undergraduate research scholarship. I left home and went to live with a friend, depending partly on the scholarship, and partly on working with my father. I finished my undergraduate studies during a complicated time at UFRJ. One professor flunked the whole class in the last year, and we filed a lawsuit against him. Some other students and I completed the course, but a few students didn’t pass. I was upset about the whole thing and wanted to leave academia. I was working with my father, earning some good money and thinking about moving on with my life. But I liked paleontology, so I continued to go to the DNPM. One day, Diogenes asked me if I was going to continue doing research. I said yes, and in response he said I’d have to get a master’s degree. The following year, I went into the master’s program at UFRJ. I took the top spot, got a scholarship and got into a disagreement with my father—another one, because he didn’t want me to become a paleontologist. He wanted me to stay in business with him. Then I got an opportunity that changed my life. It was 1989, at the meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, held in Austin, Texas.

What happened at the meeting?
The first thing I noticed was that this meeting of paleontologists from around the world who specialize in fossil vertebrates was being held in a five-star hotel. In Brazil, we held events in small venues, sometimes in places that didn’t even have a bathroom. The first presentation I saw at the meeting was on paleopathology, the study of diseases in fossils. I was in the middle of my master’s program and had never heard anyone talk about that. That event had an entire session devoted to the subject. Then came papers on isotopes, and on cladism, which is the phylogenetic relationship between organisms. I knew nothing about it. I remember that, after the fourth or fifth presentation, I left the meeting determined to become a researcher.

The paleontologist in the field in China in 2005

Personal archive The paleontologist in the field in China in 2005Personal archive

How did you end up doing your PhD at Columbia University in a program connected with the AMNH?
While working on my master’s, I went to Europe and saw several collections, including in Germany, at the Bavarian Institute of Paleontology and Geology. There was a researcher there by the name of Peter Wellnhofer, who had several published papers, and I went to talk to him. Wellnhofer took me to a cabinet in his room, opened a drawer and showed me a complete pterosaur wing. He opened another drawer and there was a complete skull there, full of other, smaller bones. Every fossil I saw over the course of a few seconds was from Brazil. He said he was finishing a paper and he thought the AMNH was likely to have more material. He suggested I talk with John Maisey, who is currently curator of the Paleontology Division at the New York-based museum. I came back to Brazil frustrated. I was working here with a pile of broken pterosaur detritus, while over in Germany they had the complete animal. I decided to write a letter to Maisey. I said I was doing my master’s on pterosaurs and asked if he had any material I could study. I sent the letter with no expectation of a reply. But Maisey said he knew my work—I don’t know where he knew it from, although I’d published quite a lot since my student days. To make a long story short, I ended up being accepted into Columbia and I moved to New York with my wife and two small children. I was there from 1991 to 1996. I started with the National Museum in 1997, when I came back to Brazil.

How did you get interested in pterosaurs?
It was in large part because I loved “The Herculoids,” a cartoon TV series created in the US in the late 1960s that later was shown in Brazil. It had dragons, and it all fascinated me.

How do you describe a pterosaur to a layperson?
To put it simply, they are reptiles with huge wings and a very small body. The more basic types had a long tail and a short neck. The more derivative types had a short tail, a long neck and a head that was even more oversized in relation to the body. In evolutionary terms, it’s best to say that pterosaurs are neither birds nor dinosaurs. Although there is still some discussion about exactly where these winged animals belong in the evolutionary chain of reptiles, most authors, including myself, support the notion that pterosaurs are a close relative of the dinosaurs—a dinosaur sister-group. That means that the two groups come from a recent shared ancestor, and each group later followed its own evolutionary path independently. While the dinosaurs dominated terra firma, the pterosaurs became the masters of the skies. There are, however, paleontologists who believe the pterosaurs are closer to the evolutionary line that led to lizards.

Aren’t the recorded fossil finds of dinosaurs a little older than the pterosaur finds?
The oldest dinosaurs are over 230 million years old, while pterosaurs date back around 215 or 200 million years. This only has to do with the question of fossil preservation. In numerical terms, there are eight or nine times more known species of dinosaurs than of pterosaurs. About 215 pterosaur species have been described. Of those, approximately 150 are considered scientifically valid. Of the 2,000 described dinosaur species, a little over 1,000 are considered valid, depending on the reference source used.

Kellner with his children in Washington, DC, in 1993: PhD studies at the American Museum of Natural History

Personal archive Kellner with his children in Washington, DC, in 1993: PhD studies at the American Museum of Natural HistoryPersonal archive

Why can’t a pterosaur be considered a bird?
There are three groups that have developed active flight: birds, bats and pterosaurs. The rest are gliders. Each group has a different evolutionary history. We know that a pterosaur is not a bird by its anatomy, by studying the bones. Pterosaurs had an elongated fourth finger—the ring finger—that supported a wing membrane. That configuration is very different from the one in bats, which have four fingers that are integrated into the wing, and birds, which have feathers and proportionately more-developed bones of the forearm.

Is it possible to have an idea of how pterosaurs and dinosaurs coexisted?
There are records of pterosaurs that were preyed upon by dinosaurs. For example, they’ve found the tooth of a spinosaurus—a carnivorous dinosaur—inside a set of pterosaur vertebrae. Generally speaking, we can say that they lived together but, with the exception of the avian dinosaurs, from which birds were derived, they inhabited separate environments. All the pterosaur records indicate that they flew. This meant that they could get away from the earthbound dinosaurs. Only the avian dinosaurs competed with the pterosaurs.

Why did the Araripe Basin preserve so many vertebrate fossils?
Araripe is a marvelous region in terms of Cretaceous fossil preservation. I like to say that this is so because God is Brazilian. But all jokes aside, agnostic that I am, there is a scientific explanation for the abundance of fossils in that region. Araripe was a gigantic lake bottom, but it was anoxic (having no oxygen), so anything that fell into the lake was neither destroyed nor decomposed. That feature preserved fossils, and it also enabled the formation of calcareous nodules that enveloped the organic remains, functioning like a jacket that protected the bones from the compressive weight of the sedimentary layers. The most well-preserved fossils today, other than those encased in amber, are found in calcareous nodules. Some pterosaurs from Araripe are very particular. The ones from the subfamily Thalassodrominae, with enormous crests, have been found only in Brazil. The Tapejarinae, which have smaller crests, were first found here in Brazil, and only later in China and elsewhere. Not to mention the Anhangueridae, which had well-developed teeth and were first recorded in Brazil, and later in other parts of the world.

With nearly 30 described species of pterosaurs, what are your principal contributions to our understanding of these winged reptiles?
I have a theory, proposed in 1994, about the competition between birds and pterosaurs. I did a global analysis and saw that there is an absurdly large concentration of pterosaurs in four fossil deposits: Solnhofen, in southern Germany; Cambridge Greensand, in England; Araripe, in the Brazilian Northeast; and the Niobrara Formation, in the United States. These deposits represent areas that were once close to the sea. If you compare their fossil content, there are many more pterosaurs than birds. Even though both groups have fragile bones, that is not a phenomenon that can be explained by preservation. So I can say that during the Cretaceous and much of the Jurassic, the coastal areas were dominated by the pterosaurs, which greatly predominated over birds. In continental interiors, we don’t know which was dominant. We don’t have enough data. China may be the only place in the world where you can weigh the question of competition between pterosaurs and birds outside coastal regions. They have fossil deposits in parts of their ancient continental landmass.

Can it be said that, even though pterosaurs were reptiles, some were able to control their body temperature?
Diogenes and I did a physiological study, published in Science in 2002, which addresses that question. I showed that a pterosaur with a large crest displayed imprints, interpreted as blood vessels that indicated some form of thermal regulation. This reptile had a metabolism closer to that of a homeotherm. Another interesting contribution, which touches on that question, was something I did with my Chinese colleagues. It involves a reevaluation of the presence of hair in pterosaurs. A paleontologist had found a material that appeared to be pterosaur hair in a fossil from Kazakhstan. But everyone said that was not what it was. We recovered that history and, on the basis of Jeholopterus ningchengensis, a species from China, we showed that pterosaurs had hair. That was a paper from 2009. We call those dense filaments pycnofibers. Another important paper was one I published in Nature in 1999. I showed that we had found fossilized soft tissue, muscle fibers and blood vessels in a 110-million-year-old dinosaur, which I named Santanaraptor placidus soon afterwards. My dream, though, would be to find someone in Brazil from the field of molecular biology to carry out a research study on biomolecules in soft tissue. I have some wonderful material, but I can’t change the focus of my research.

In recent decades, China has gained global prominence in paleontology. Is this because they have a larger concentration of dinosaur and pterosaur fossils in that part of the world?
No. There are pterosaurs on every continent, probably even Antarctica. The problem is that about 50% of pterosaur diversity and over 90% of the specimens are from the four regions I’ve mentioned, plus the fossil deposits in the Yixian and Jiufotang formations in China, which were discovered recently. We’ve tried to fit together some of the pieces of that jigsaw puzzle, but we don’t know if they’re properly arranged. The information is scattered, and every time we find a new deposit, things change. That’s what happened with China. Do you know when the first pterosaur from those deposits in China was described? In 1997.

With his team in the Araripe Basin in 2011: region rich in fossils from the Cretacean period

Personal Archive With his team in the Araripe Basin in 2011: region rich in fossils from the Cretacean periodPersonal Archive

You have done a lot of research studies with the Chinese. How is the partnership going?
It’s something I am proud of. This is the twelfth year in a row that I’m going to China, and I’ve now published more than a dozen papers with them. At least 50% of my research these days is funded by the Chinese. They have deposits that are rich in fossils and they have investment. In Brazil we have deposits too, but there are no resources. My colleagues over there have $1 million to work with to carry out their research. Do you know when I’ll get that much money to study fossils in our own country? I’ve never gotten even 10% of that amount. The Chinese government says that paleontology is important, and it invests in it.

Why do they think it’s important to promote paleontology?
They are interested in developing all areas of basic science. That includes paleontology. They publish a lot of papers in Science and Nature on different types of fossils, and not just dinosaurs, and they use science communication to attract young people to their natural history museums. Brazilian science once tried to compete on an equal footing with China. But we didn’t give it enough resources to even begin. Brazil is now going to lose ground to India. We haven’t lost ground yet in paleontology, but it’s going to happen soon unless some changes are made.

What is the status with regard to paleontology in Brazil?
It’s a horrible state of affairs. Most of my colleagues understand my position, but they don’t like it when I say this. Our scientific output is extremely weak compared to our potential. Many countries are passing Brazil by. There are islands of exception, as is happening in other areas of Brazilian science. But in general, paleontology in Brazil is a far cry from what a country with so many extremely rich fossil deposits can offer to science around the world. And this is not because my colleagues and I don’t want to work. We are losing out by 10 to 1 to Argentina, for example. Even with the whole crisis, they continue to invest in this field. Of course, the Argentines have things that give them advantages, such as desert areas with fossils and a longer-running tradition in paleontology. But that is no excuse for Brazil to be in such a shaky position.

What is the objective of the SOS Dinosaurs movement you launched in January?
We want more funding for Brazilian paleontology. We want the support agencies to establish a specific area for paleontology. Right now we are not being heard. They’re killing off a generation of new researchers. We are seen as a specialty within geology, zoology, or even botany on project award committees that usually do not include paleontologists. You can put it in writing: with investment, a number of extremely important fossils will be found in the state of Bahia. Of course, if I knew exactly where, I’d be there this minute. There is a need for systematic searches in the numerous Cretacean deposits in that state, which has all the conditions for us to find interesting things. But you have to invest. I often hear researchers from other countries say that we aren’t exploring our fossil deposits, and therefore Brazil can’t complain about its specimens leaving the country.

How big a problem is fossil contraband in Brazil today?
From the 1960s to the 1980s, Brazilian fossils were all over the place. Anyone could get them on beaches or in airports. That has now changed, partly through the efforts of a number of researchers in the previous generation and mine to build awareness about the scientific value of this material. Some European countries allow the sale of fossils. Not here. But contraband is still a serious problem. Restricting their sale is a positive move, but there needs to be some incentive to enable researchers to collect samples. In China, people collect fossils and turn them over to institutions. Brazil isn’t doing its homework. The Chinese used to have the same problem we do. They invested in paleontology, and today you can’t take a fossil out of there without running into problems with the authorities or it being frowned upon by professional colleagues. It is always worth remembering that a good fossil collection attracts good researchers, who do good work and get more funding. And for what purpose? To collect more, and in this way to contribute to our understanding of the evolution of life on our planet! A good collection is the foundation for everything. Another blemish for our country is the situation of our natural history museums. With a few exceptions, most are in a difficult situation, with antiquated exhibits and zero attraction. Early this year, for example, the National Museum, the oldest in Brazil, closed its doors for a time because it couldn’t pay for cleaning and security services.

You were arrested by the Federal Police in 2012 at the Juazeiro do Norte airport in Ceará State, accused of illegally transporting fossils, and you spent a night in jail. Could you talk about that episode?
That story has a little of everything. I don’t mind if some parts of it are made public. But others I prefer not to disclose. I’m suing the DNPM—the very same place where I began my work—because of the jail time, and I’m asking for $R1 million in damages. A French colleague who was with me and was also arrested is doing likewise. I can say that I promoted a research project in which a local research group in Ceará would collect material in Araripe, and that there was a dispute with the local DNPM. We were arrested at the airport with fish fossils that we were taking to Rio de Janeiro. It was perfectly legal, as I’ve always done. I’ve brought fossils from Araripe to Rio all my life. I owe a lot to Araripe. I would not have studied at Columbia University if it had not been my guiding light and enabled me to do research on material from the Northeast. I believed it was right, and good for the development of local research, for there to be a local group that collected material from those deposits. More recently they’ve been trying to get me to agree to withdraw the suit. But I’m going through with it, and it’s in the hands of the courts.