Daniel Ksepka is an assistant professor at N.C. State who specializes in avian paleontology and blogs at March of the Fossil Penguins ( http://fossilpenguins.wordpress.com). Follow his lab work on Twitter as @ksepkalab. Questions and answers have been edited.
Q: What sparked your interest in paleontology?
Dinosaurs captured my imagination very early in life – my grandmother is partly to blame, and also hooked me on reading every dinosaur book in sight. Seeing prehistoric animals on display in the cavernous halls of the American Museum of Natural History as a kid made me certain I wanted to be part of this field.
Q: How did prehistoric birds become the focus of your research?
There are so many unexpected and astounding extinct species of birds. Who would have expected that there were giant, spear-billed penguins more than a foot taller than the living emperor penguin? Or dreamed up a flightless predatory bird that terrorized the tiny ancestors of horses? All of these species raise big questions and offer great opportunities to work out in the desert looking for fossils or up in the lab studying them.
Q: Why penguins?
Over the past 60-plus million years, penguins somehow transitioned from the typical flying-bird body to one adapted for underwater diving. Their wings evolved into flippers, their bones went from being hollow to solid, and their body covering shifted from long, aerodynamic feathers to tiny, densely packed, scale-like feathers that help keep them warm and waterproof.
Q: What most excites you about the future of paleontology?
I am really excited about rapid prototyping. Paleontologists have been using CT scans to look inside fossil skulls for years, but the technology has advanced so far that it is now possible to make a computer model of the brain of an extinct animal from an empty skull and actually print out a life-size, 3-D prototype you can hold in your hand.