Anthony Fiorillo is set to leave his footprint at NMMNHS

Meet the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science’s new executive director

New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science’s new executive director Anthony Fiorillo holds a dinosaur jaw cast. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

bright spotPaleontologist and researcher Anthony Fiorillo is leaving his footprint on New Mexico.

Fiorillo is the new executive director at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. His tenure started Sept. 19 and with him comes a vast amount of field experience and resources.

Though he hasn’t finished unpacking all the books in his office quite yet, he still has made time to explore New Mexico – now as a resident rather than a visitor.

“As much as I thought I knew the area and museum in New Mexico, this place has just smoked any expectation I have,” he said. “This is a world famous place to do the kinds of work that I do.”

Fiorillo has a great admiration for the outdoors, and not just because he travels the globe researching the Earth and climate. He is an avid photographer, focusing his shots mostly on birds.

“The outdoor opportunities here are one of the huge selling points for me because I’m happy to go down to the river, which I have with my telephoto camera, and take pictures of cranes,” he explained. “I just like being outdoors.”

He added that his interest in birds, though they are considered living dinosaurs, is independent from his engrossment in paleontology. The respective fascinations occurred at two different phases of his youth while growing up in the Northeast.

Birding was influenced by his fourth grade teacher, and his love for dinosaurs started when he was 2 or 3 years old, he said. He credits his parents and grandmother for taking him to the Yale Peabody Museum when he was a boy.

“There were always two things I ever thought I wanted to do in life; one is to start center field for the New York Yankees, and the second is to do exactly what I’m doing. So, much to the detriment of my parents’ retirement plans, I do what I do instead of playing baseball,” he said. “I’m a paleontologist by training, but I’m a natural historian at heart.”

Fiorillo explained that NMMNHS had been on his radar for some time and when the opportunity for the executive director position presented itself, he didn’t hesitate.

His paleontology accomplishments are extensive and he’s a well-established figure in the field, recently being featured in both the WaPo and National Public Radio (NPR) for his work in Alaska involving dinosaurs and climate change.

New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science’s new executive director Anthony Fiorillo. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Prior to joining NMMNHS, Fiorillo worked as a senior fellow and adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University for 27 years, and was the vice president of research & collections and chief curator of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas from 1995-2020.

His research is multidisciplinary, but primarily focuses on ancient arctic ecosystems. He has published or co-published around 130 papers, co-edited five scholarly volumes on paleontology and has written a book, “Alaska Dinosaurs: An Ancient Arctic World,” that will soon be stocked in the museum’s gift shop.

He has also helped name two fossil mammals, five non-avian dinosaurs and four avian dinosaurs, including the oldest fossil bird from North America. Fiorillo’s designations stretch internationally, as well.

“I can lay claim to having described 30% of all the dinosaurs from Japan, which means three out of 10,” he joked.

Though he acknowledges that every time a paper is published is a high point, naming the Alaska horned dinosaur, Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum, triggered a special memory from his youth.

“I actually did what I wanted to do when I was little. … That’s probably one of the cooler moments,” he said.

Fiorillo still loves to work in the field; his last trip was this past August. He said the combined time he’s spent sleeping in a tent can be measured in years.

“There’s a scholarly interest, but also, when we go into some place, we’re surrounded by Mother Nature. I’ve used that to model some of my paleontological interpretations, but also just appreciate what’s around me,” he said.

He does admit that even during his recreational time outdoors, he’s thinking about paleontology and history.

Due to the state’s vast landscape and footprint in the natural history domain, New Mexico appears to be a natural fit for the researcher.

“New Mexico has a great history of contribution to the fossil record,” he said. “That’s actually one of the things I particularly like about being here is the work that they’ve done here in New Mexico helps me frame some of the work we’ve done in Alaska.”

He hopes to broaden the museum’s community engagement as executive director, but also add more storytelling to science by exposing the public to cultural perspectives of natural history.

“One of the things I would like to explore is: Are there alternative explanations for some of these things we’re studying?” he said. “Looking at it not necessarily through the highly-structured scientific interpretation which I value, but I’m interested in seeing what some of these other possibilities are.”

Anthony Fiorillo is set to make a lasting impression in New Mexico’s already impressive contribution to natural history through sharing historical stories he’s absorbed, the stories shaped from personal experience, and the stories he hopes to bring to the museum.

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