Last June, Leslie Noe, a British paleontologist, flew from his home in Bogotá, Colombia, to UC Berkeley. He was intent on finding out more about a 125-million-year-old marine reptile, Callawayasaurus colombiensis, and had received a grant to visit the school’s museum, examine several plesiosaur fossils, and try to answer why the animal might have developed such a long neck. Little did he know he was about to help solve a nearly 70-year-old scientific whodunit.
Noe, who has spent some of his professional life in museums, makes archival research part of his investigations whenever he visits fossil collections. So on his second day in Berkeley, he sat sifting through folders in filing cabinets. That was when he stumbled on an old field notebook from an American scientist’s trip to Villa de Leyva, Colombia, under the aegis of the Tropical Oil Company. One page included the note, “Plesiosaur, 19 Jan. 1945”—which piqued Noe’s interest, since it is the group that includes the Callawayasaurus.
Then the museum’s associate director led Noe to a four-drawer cabinet. “We’ve never sorted through this,” Noe recalled him saying. Noe soon found notes and letters between Colombian and U.S. scientists spanning more than a decade, from 1945 to 1956, including several agreements about loaning a skull fossil from a long-necked reptile named for the country where it was discovered—the very Callawayasaurus colombiensis Noe had been researching.