PHILIP CURRIE TRACES HIS VOCATION back to the age of 6, when he dug out a plastic dinosaur from a cereal box. It wasn't until he turned 11, however, that the Brampton, Ont., native announced that he intended to become a dinosaur paleontologist. His mother, he recalls, was immediately supportive, his father much less enthused. "He was more practical," says the 49-year-old Currie, flashing a boyish smile. "My father was a factory worker and thought I should get a real job."
Over the years, Currie's father became much more comfortable with his son's career choice—and with good reason. Today, Currie is one of only 30 paleontologists worldwide who explore the enduring mysteries of the creatures that dominated the planet for 160 million years—roughly 50 times longer than man has been around—before dying out 65 million years ago. Until recently, Currie was best known as curator of the Royal Tyrrell Museum, a stunning, $30-million exhibit hall near Drumheller In the heart of Alberta's fossil-rich Badlands. But his public profile took a quantum leap this summer after he co-authored a report in the prestigious London-based journal Nature, which answered in the affirmative a question that has perplexed paleontologists for more than a century: did birds evolve from dinosaurs?
The Nature report stemmed from recent discoveries in China, where Currie has been one of the driving forces behind the Canada-China Dinosaur Project, a scientific exchange that gives him access to some of the world's most coveted dinosaur digs. Among the specimens discovered last year in the northern province of Liaoning were two dinosaur fossils, each sporting clear impressions of feathers on their forearms and tails. For Currie, those findings cemented the bird-dinosaur link: feathers are too complex, he explains, to evolve more than once and so are going to appear only in related species.
In a stellar fossil-hunting career that has taken him from Ellesmere Island to Argentina, Currie says the discovery of feathered dinosaurs stands out as "an incredible high." He is now much in demand on the international lecture circuit, with an average of three talks per month slated for 1999. He must fit those in between annual expeditions to China and South America, not to mention the three months he spends each summer happily digging away at Dinosaur Provincial Park, 150 km east of Drumheller, home to millions of prehistoric bones.
Currie is accompanied on most of his travels by his wife, Eva Koppelhus, a paleobotanist he met at a 1993 conference in Denmark (the couple have five grown children from previous marriages). Back in Drumheller, Currie and Koppelhus like to cocoon: he brews beer, she bakes bread. They both enjoy skiing in the Rockies, a two-hour drive to the west.
In addition to his research, Currie oversees the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which he helped found in 1985, nine years after moving to Alberta to take a job at the Provincial Museum in Edmonton. When showing visitors the Tyrrell—which attracts about 400,000 people annually—Currie's pride and enthusiasm are palpable. He is especially gratified by the delight of the children as they stare in awe at the two imposing models of Tyrannosaurus rex.
In fact, in Currie's easygoing, unpretentious manner, there is a strong hint of the man living out the child's dream. "It's the nature of the game," he says. "It doesn't let you lose interest or your excitement. It's like having a career of going out and finding buried treasure."
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.