Brennan Martens, Director of the Vancouver Paleontological Society
At Dinosaur Trips, we’re not just interested in dinosaurs and prehistoric life, we’re also interested in the history of paleontology, the paleontologists across generations who have shaped our understanding and appreciation for prehistoric life, and the incredible adventures that are tied to some of the most exciting discoveries in paleontology history.
Which begs the question: How do you become a paleontologist?
And; where can I find people with like-minded interests in dinosaurs and paleontology? And; where can I go to school to become a paleontologist? And; m I too old to become a paleontologist?
To learn more, Dinosaur Trips founder & director Zach Vanasse is chatting with people from all across the paleontology spectrum to learn more about what it’s like becoming and working as a paleontologist.
For this edition of ‘How to Become a Paleontologist,’ Zach got to talk to Brennan Martens, director of the Vancouver Paleontology Society. He’s been documenting his journey on his path to becoming a paleontologist, his fossil field work, and his fossil displays on Instagram. Be sure to follow him on Instagram at @brennanthepaleodude and read the most recent new species publication Brennan was involved in about the Hainosaurus boubker.
Zach Vanasse: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into dinosaurs?
Brennan Martens: Basically it goes all the way back to when I was about two. I was living in Edmonton at the time and my parents took me down to the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Seeing dinosaurs for the first time as a two-year-old, I was just in shock. Knowing that these animals had existed in the past and now could only exist in my imagination really sparked an interest, even at that young age.
Ever since they took me to the museum I couldn’t stop searching for more information. I’d ask [my parents] for dinosaur books, toys, anything to fuel that desire to learn more about dinosaurs. As I grew up,my parents would buy me more and more books and toys, and took me back to the museum.
Every year I’d be like; “Please take me back. I wanna go see them again.” From there, it really sent me on this [path of wanting] to be a paleontologist. I needed to become a paleontologist. I knew this was what I wanna do with the rest of my life. So I really dedicated all of my time, all of my free time, to studying and learning as a kid.
And eventually, through school, I was like, “Oh, there’s no kids that understand what I’m saying.” Where could I go to find people like me? We moved from Alberta to British Columbia when I was about five or six. And my parents were looking into clubs or places that I could go to find like-minded people to chat about dinosaurs with.
They found the Vancouver Paleontological Society and they sent them an email, because I was a kid and they were like’ “Hey, he’s kind of young. Is this something that is for kids?”. And they got back to my mom and said: “Yeah, totally, bring him here!”
They were really open to any age. So I joined the Vancouver Paleontological Society and they were really nice. They accepted me into the group and they kind of mentored me into paleontology. Even at that young age, they were really hands-on. I felt included and like I wasn’t being treated like a kid or anything.
I totally fit in there. And as I grew up through the years, being a hardcore member of this Society, we went out on fossil trips and, at a young age, I learned about field techniques and where to find fossils. And every month they’d have a presentation by different local paleontologists.
I really networked and got to know the local paleontologists. And through fossil collecting I dove into more avenues, like collecting online and buying fossils, buying models. I started building this massive collection. Huge. And that’s really how I channeled a lot of my passion for paleontology; through collecting models, toys, fossils, books, and seeking more knowledge and information.
From there, I started doing fossil shows and presentations. Every year the Vancouver Paleontological Society would put on a little fossil show in Richmond Nature Park. It was just for the public to come in and be exposed to fossils from British Columbia, because there aren’t many museums in the lower mainland [of British Columbia] that had fossils or anything paleontology related.
Brennan’s first ever fossil table
It was outreach to show lower mainlanders that hey, there’s fossils here in BC, not just Alberta. I was seven or eight at the time, and I had my little fossil display table with all the fossils laid out. That day I really realized educating is something I wanted to go into.
I found that I was really fluent in presenting information in this formal setting; being really hands-on with the fossils and [effectively communicating] with the public. From that event I met school teachers and museum curators that came to the event and chatted [with me].
They saw how passionate I was and how great I was at presenting, so they invited me to come to their events. Then, through their events, I met more people and more people [who were interested in paleontology] and I formed this network by volunteering at these events with a fossil display table.
Through the years, my collection grew and I upgraded the display. So I’ve been invited to different events at Britannia Mine Museum, at Science World, and at a bunch of the small museums on Vancouver Island. For all sorts of groups and then the rock and gem shows started inviting me out to come do educational events. I just formed this huge community in British Columbia from my paleontological passion.
I recently moved back out to Alberta. I graduated high school and I got into my dream school; the University of Alberta. So now I’m here in Edmonton doing my studies as an undergrad and, hopefully, I’ll move on to my Master’s and PhD. My passion really took me all the way from when I was two years old to now.
It seems like it was so helpful that you found this community of other people of all ages who were also enthusiastic about paleontology. I can’t say I had the same experience, but I’m having fun getting back into it, but certainly not at a highly informed level like yourself. But it is really fun to dive back in as an adult.
So what’s it like studying to become a paleontologist?
I’m actually doing a lot of independent studies as an undergrad. A lot of the time my classes are [only loosely] geared towards paleontology; like the base classes where you learn biology, zoology, geology, all that stuff.
You don’t really get into writing papers or doing research until you’re a graduate student or in the Master’s program. But I actually started research early on. I think in my second year of university I met some friends online, on Instagram actually, who were doing research on paleontology, like publications and what not, and I joined their group. So outside of school I started working on publications and research.
A friend of mine I met in the States, he’s a cancer researcher, and he mentored me into the field of research and publications and how to study fossils and bring that into a paper and then publish it.
So he was kind of like my mentor and teacher for researching and paleontology. Then recently, we were working for about a year or two on a new species publication. That was my first paper in paleontology, which was huge to me. I was never expecting to write papers as an undergrad, let alone publish on a new species so early. It was incredible. That’s kind of how I got into the research aspect. Previous to university I’ve just been collecting and I’ve been doing personal studies. But now I could really bring my skills from the field into the lab and apply it to publications and research.
That’s awesome! So, from a very simple question standpoint; what’s your favourite part of becoming a paleontologist?
Oh, man. As much as I love writing and publications, I belong out in the field. I think my favourite part of paleontology is going out and discovering the material and finding the new stuff, because being the first person to actually see these fossils after millions of years of being buried in the rock is such an incredible feeling. That’s, frankly, why I love fossil hunting so much. You’re out there and you’re the first person to see these things. It’s truly incredible. It’s like I’m addicted to the feeling. So that’s my favorite part about paleontology, the discovery and, and finding these new things.
How many digs have you been on over the years?
Oh my goodness. Countless, I’m going to have to say at least 200.
And eventually I started leading expeditions out to these sites. I’d be going down to Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver, which has plant fossils from the Eocene. No one in Vancouver really knows that they’re right on top of this massive fossil formation. It’s just right there on the beach.
I’m actually doing a grander scale expedition to Cranbrook, BC. There’s a Cambrian site that I want work on for a publication. And I’m working with the museum and a local paleontologist to excavate this site and publish on the diversity of fossils there, because there’s been a severe lack of publications in that local area.
So I’m renting an excavator. I’ve been filling out all the digging forms, and I’m getting a group of volunteers from the museum and from the University of Alberta to come out and help with that. It’s going to be a big thing. It’s been fun planning it for sure.
When is that happening?
This summer. It’s probably going to take a week or two to do.
Can people join?
Oh yeah, anyone can. I’ve been sending out emails and fishing around for anyone who’s interested in volunteering and wants to come out. It’s just been through word of mouth, like with other students at the university, I’ve been informing them that, hey, I’m doing this excavation if you guys want volunteer.
Be sure to keep us in the, in the loop. I’d love to let our audience know about it.
Brennan with Titanites, one of the largest ammonites found in Fernie, BC
(If you’re interested in volunteering with Brennan’s dig this summer, message him on Instagram or email email@example.com for introductions)
The more volunteers, the better! We’ve gotta dig through like two metres of topsoil. It’s just completely buried soil and shale from years of collecting. The ROM [Royal Ontario Museum] actually went up to the site in 2015 and they conducted a big collecting survey as well, but they had to fill the site back in because that’s part of the regulations in BC; if you dig a big hole, you gotta fill it back in again.
Local fossil hunters frequent that site and back before the ROM came in, they were digging up the bedrock and collecting fresh material. But now that bedrock is buried and collectors can’t get at it, and paleontologists can’t get at it. So it needs to be re-dug up to access that formation again.
Sounds like a lot of work, but fun! Finally, one question that I like to ask everybody as we’re plotting out the future of Dinosaur Trips and determining where we want to go in the world;, if you could travel anywhere through the lens of paleontology, where would you want to go?
Oh, man. Well, if I was a kid approaching this question it would be some crazy place like Mongolia or Australia, because watching documentaries of all these foreign fossil expeditions, they really cemented in my mind the fact that paleontology isn’t like a centralized thing. It is worldwide.
There’s so many different sites that you could visit. And, of course, one of my main drivers of getting a PhD is so I could travel and go to these sites that you could only access if you were a paleontologist.
Anything in particular about those two destinations that really speaks to you?
Yeah, just how famous the dinosaurs from those areas are. Reading books about that famous fossil of the Velociraptor and Protoceratops locked in combat. Seeing the pictures of the Flaming Cliffs (in Mongolia) and the fossil sites where they came from. [The idea of travelling] on camel back to these locations, it really sparked that sense of adventure and exploration
And the same for Australia. There’s so many dinosaur track sites that are just vast. Filled with dinosaur trackways and therapod hunting trackways. All that cool stuff.