Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Harley Garbani - A Few Thoughts

I was saddened to hear about the death of Harley Garbani a couple of weeks ago. He was 88 and died from natural causes. It was good to see that his passing was marked by a number of publications and that the palaeo-world was universal in its appreciation of his amazing talents.

Harley was a man who inspired others and is another example of someone who applied himself after graduating from high school and did what so many of us aspire to, namely to become a self-taught palaeontologist. Harley’s discoveries over the years are legion and many of his discoveries are on display in such repositories such as the Museum of the Rockies, the University Of California Museum Of Palaeontology and, the institution he was mostly associated with, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

I first became aware of Harley during yet more tyrannosaur research. I was particularly looking at a specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex (LACM 23844) which was of considerable interest since the quarry had also produced a second tyrannosaur and theropod bone beds are exceptionally rare. Although I didn’t know at the time, this was actually Harley’s most memorable find.

During 1966, Harley set out to specifically locate a T.rex specimen, if it were possible, and decided very wisely, not only to go blindly prospecting in the Missouri Breaks of eastern Montana, but also to cultivate the knowledge of the local ranchers and the people of Jordan. He became a temporary “Jordanian” and got to know the locals, enjoying both a drink and their company, all the while listening out for any clues that would help in his quest.

Harley met rancher Lester Engdahl and it was this meeting that was to lead to his fist T.rex. Engdahl’s ranch was around 20 miles northwest of Jordan and Engdahl had commented that he had seen some strange bones on his land. Harley knew that this could be the break he was looking for and was soon scouring the area. On July 27th he spotted what appeared to be a massive toe bone eroding out of some mudstone. In his journal Harley recorded:

About 3 p.m. over north of the dam, I ran into what I believe is limb and tarsal and two toes of the hard to find rex”

The remains did indeed turn out to be T.rex - only the third specimen recovered from the Hell Creek Formation and was an important specimen. The remains were excavated over several field seasons and amount to about 25% of a skeleton although the skull was fairly complete and there are casts of the skull in museums all over the world.

Although LACM 23844 is Harley’s most famous find he has been instrumental in locating many other significant and important discoveries. A skull of Edmontosaurus annectens (LACM 23502) is unique because it preserves evidence of the horny sheath that covered the beak. Thescelosaurus garbanii was named after Harley and became the second named species of this dinosaur although this animals taxanomic affinities have often been subject to intense scrutiny. The specimen (LACM 33542) represents an animal some 15 feet long which is somewhat large for a hypsolophodontid.

In 1997 he discovered the disassociated remains of what appeared to be a pachycephalosaurid but when pieced together they proved to be from the smallest Triceratops skull ever discovered, about a foot long and only missing the nose and beak. A further two Tyrannosaurus specimens can be added to his impressive tally and this includes LACM 2841 which is estimated to represent an individual of only two years of age. All of these specimens and more are testimony to Harley Garbani’s astonishing ability at finding unique and important fossils.

Harley was also an accomplished preparator and was renowned for his eye to detail and his astonishing technique. He also collected mammals and other fossils as diverse as clams, snails and plants. He was a recognised expert in Native American archaeology and amassed a significant collection of artefacts.

Harley had several specimens named after him such as the aforementioned Thescelosaurus garbanii and others such as Geomys garbanii (a type of gopher) and Elomeryx garbanii – a kind of hippopotamus. In all, there are seven species that bear his name. Never was tribute more deserved. But he will always be remembered for his dinosaur discoveries and the world of palaeontology is worse off for his passing.


LACM 23845 was also discovered by Harley Garbani from the same quarry as the previously mentioned LACM 23844 and was actually discovered in the overburden that was covering the original specimen. This was the holotype of Albertosaurus megagracilis but is generally accepted to be a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex.


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