I'm Kirk Johnson, paleontologist and Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. AMA!
I’m Dr. Kirk Johnson, the Sant Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Here, I oversee the nation’s natural history collection: more than 146 million specimens and artifacts that together comprise the largest collection of its kind in the world. Each year, the museum hosts more than 5 million visitors and its scientists publish more than 800 scientific research papers and name more than 300 new species.
On June 8, 2019, we opened The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils-Deep Time, a 31,000 square-foot exhibition that interprets the history of life on Earth and its relevance to the future of humanity. The exhibit is packed with real fossils and skeletons including a Tyrannosaurus rex from Montana, an elephant-sized EremotheriumGround Sloth from Panama, a Diplodocus from Utah, a Stegosaurus from Colorado, a 50-million-year-old palm frond from Alaska and hundreds more. The museum also houses a 52-foot-long model of the extinct Carcharocles megalodon shark.
Before my arrival to the Smithsonian in 2012, I worked as a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science where I led expeditions in 18 states and 11 countries. My research focuses on fossil plants and the extinction of the dinosaurs, and has taken me from the polar regions to the equatorial rainforests. In 2011, I led an ice age excavation near Snowmass Village in Colorado that recovered parts of more than 50 mastodon skeletons.
I’m known for my scientific articles, popular books, museum exhibitions, documentaries, and collaborations with artists. My recent documentaries include Ice Age Death Trap (2012), Making North America (2015), The Great Yellowstone Thaw (2017), and The Day the Dinosaurs Died (2017). My current show, NOVA’S Polar Extremes, which premiered on PBS on Feb. 5, uses the fossil record from the Arctic and the Antarctic to show that the polar regions were ice-free and forested for much of Earth’s history.
My recent book, Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline, The Travels of an Artist and a Scientist along the Shores of the Prehistoric Pacific (2018) explores the deep history of the West Coast from California to Alaska. And my upcoming book, Trees are made of Gas, The Story of Carbon and Climate, will be published this fall.
I’m originally from Bellevue, Washington and have a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College, a master’s from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in geology and paleobotany from Yale. Ask me anything!