Sherman Mohler is a citizen scientist, thanks to his son, Ben, a future paleontologist.
Every year, Mohler makes the pilgrimage from his Phoenix home to the Tucson gem showcase with his son, now 14. They have been coming together since Ben was 8, taking the opportunity to visit family in Tucson and to barbecue with visiting paleontology enthusiasts.
“(Ben) usually saves every single dime all year long to the point where, by the time it’s in Tucson, he has a couple hundred dollars,” Mohler, 48, said. “His whole room is a massive collection.”
As a kid, Mohler did some rock collecting, but when he took 8-year-old Ben on his first paleontology dig, his own interest peaked.
Now, as the president of the Southwest Paleontological Society, a club connected with the Arizona Museum of Natural History, Mohler helps to manage both amateur and seasoned dino buffs who do volunteer field work around the state. Most people will not make a living on paleontology. Many volunteer. For Mohler, it is a time-filling hobby.
When Mohler comes to Tucson for the gem showcase, the hunt continues. He and Ben keep their eyes peeled for low-grade fossils that the museum can use in lab work.
“Within the world of paleontology, you’re going to get the people who love going out to do this amazing Easter egg hunt,” Mohler said. “A lot of people are attracted to the field thing, even though it’s nasty and ugly and hot and you wouldn’t believe the bugs that come out and eat you. It’s not for the faint of heart.”
Volunteers, or citizen scientists, have to go through wilderness survival training to work at certain digs — but that does not make age a restriction. The younger club members can also go through the training, learning about treacherous landscapes befitting of prehistoric eras.
They carry ropes, travel in pairs and learn how to react to crises that may require them to haul an adult from a sinkhole 30 feet deep.
“There’s this aspect of the hunt, of getting out there and knowing you may be the first person to turn a corner and see a new bone that represents a new species of a new dinosaur,” Mohler said. “You’re part of that science.”