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West Hempstead's Dino Man Digs Digs

Dr. J. Bret Bennington is West Hempstead's resident paleontologist

Paleontology, archeology and geology.

While the general public is familiar with these words, it probably doesn't know the subtle differences among them. According to Dr. J. Bret Bennington of West Hempstead, paleontology is the study of fossils and the history of life on Earth; archeology is the study of human artifacts (things that humans make) and geology is the study of the actual planet.

"I'm not an archaeologist," said Dr. Bennington. "Paleontology is a sub-discipline of geology... all paleontologist are also geologists. I'm both."

That settles that.

So what exactly does Dr. Bennington do? For starters, he's a professor of geology at Hofstra University in Hempstead, where he's been for 19 years.

An exciting part of his position is every year for the past six he's taken a group of about 14 students to the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. There, he and his students (along with another professor) observe essentially the same ecosystem Charles Darwin observed in the 1830s.

"We spend a lot of time talking about Charles Darwin and why the Galapagos were so important," he said.

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The trip has three legs. The first is a week and a half in the Galapagos Islands; the second is a few days in the Andes mountains where they visit the country's largest volcano, Cotopaxi, and the final leg is four days in the eastern Ecuadorian Amazon, where they hike through the rainforest observing the ecosystem.

"It's quite an adventure," he said.

His nine year-old grand-stepdaughter, Fiona O'Connor, and her seven year-old sister Danaan, often travel with Dr. Bennington to conventions and on field trips. They went on a field trip to Maryland a short time ago.

"We went to this beach and we found these shark teeth and we were looking for whale bones," Fiona said.

The girls have accompanied him on trips to upstate New York, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon.

Dr. Bennington describes a geology convention as "a huge, nerd-bonding festival."

Although Indiana Jones was an archaeologist, it's hard not to conjure up his image when one thinks of paleontologists and geologists.

"His look -- and his persona to some extent -- was based on a real person who was a paleontologist and not an archaeologist," said Dr. Bennington. "His name was Roy Chapman Andrews... and he had that sort of swashbuckling way about him. He carried a pistol."

Dr. Bennington carries neither a pistol nor a whip but he does have a hat. Not the Stetson Jones wore but something fairly similar.

Dr. Bennington graduated from Northport High School in 1981 and then attended the University of Rochester, where he filled his schedule with science classes. "On a whim" he took a geology class. 

Since he always had an interest in both rocks and animals, he deduced paleontology was a good way to study both. He graduated from Rochester with a Bachelor of Science in geology and biology.

He skipped over getting a Masters degree and went right to a Ph.D in paleontology, which he received from Virginia Tech in 1995. There, he studied under Dr. Richard Bambach, a noted paleontologist.

He was hired at Hofstra in 1993 (spending his summers in Virginia) and moved to West Hempstead about two years later.

 In 2009 the science department at Hofstra held a banquet in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin and Dr. Bennington was made up as the famous scientist by a professional makeup artist from the theatre department. He took on his persona and gave an overview of his life and work. (More nerd bonding.)

Dr. Bennington was invited to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. on two occasions to participate in workshops with ecologists and paleontologists.

Although most of what a paleontologist does is looking at the distant past, Dr. Bennington is looking toward the future as well.

Most people think that all the exciting discoveries have already been made, but people are discovering new things every week that shows we've just scratched the surface," he said.

For example, a team of American and Chinese paleontologists recently found evidence that proves most of the dinosaurs were covered in feathers, which no one knew before.

"You never know what somebody's going to find tomorrow. That's what makes it so exciting."

Danaan O'Connor May 31, 2012 at 07:49 PM
im danaan my dad is nice and we go on field trips
Fiona oconnor June 29, 2012 at 01:56 AM
I'm Fiona and paone is my teacher
danaan November 09, 2012 at 12:32 AM
my name is kylie and i love mommy

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