BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A U.S. National Park Service paleontologist and Grateful Dead fan credited with identifying an extinct species of otter found in south-central Idaho has named it after the band’s guitarist.
Self-described Deadhead Kari Prassack says traveling the country to see Bob Weir and the band gave her the sense of adventure and confidence to pursue her career.
So when fellow scientists earlier this year credited her with properly identifying the new species from a mislabeled jawbone found in the late 1980s at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, she named it Lontra weiri. Lontra is the genus and weiri the species.
“It was a really important part of my life,” said Prassack on Thursday about the 100-plus Grateful Dead concerts she saw starting in 1990 at age 15, when her mother first gave her permission, to 1995 when the band’s run ended with the death of frontman Jerry Garcia.
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“I really became an adventurous person, much more so than ever before,” she said, noting she visited multiple fossil sites during her travels following the band. “I decided if I wanted to do something, I could go and do it.”
During those five years, Prassack had made an attempt at art school, but she dropped out and spent more time following the band. After Garcia’s death, she decided to pursue her childhood dream of becoming a paleontologist.
She earned a doctorate and in 2012 landed at the national monument famous for its wide variety of fossils that span from 3 million to 4.2 million years ago.
In 2014 she stopped at the Idaho Museum of Natural History in Pocatello to examine fossils collected at the national monument decades earlier and found the jawbone of the otter that had been wrongly identified as another species.
She submitted a paper and other scientists confirmed her work, with the paper appearing in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in April.
“This one is the biggest find, especially recently,” said JoAnn Blalack, integrated resource manager at the monument.
Blalack noted that she also is a Grateful Dead fan. “But not as much as Kari.”
Scientists say the otter lived 3.8 million years ago and is the earliest known example of modern North American river otters, but about half their size and weighing about 10 pounds.
Prassack said she never expected to have the opportunity to name a new species, and the Grateful Dead’s Weir was an easy choice.
“It was a great opportunity to say ‘Thank you,’ for such a great experience,” she said.
Prassack said she never got to meet any of the Grateful Dead band members, and she has attended countless concerts by the remaining members of the band that have continued on in other iterations. Weir continues to perform and is touring this summer with Dead & Company.
After Garcia’s death, though, Prassack said she found herself at something of a crossroads with no more concerts on the calendar.
“Sometimes I wonder if he hadn’t died, if he was still alive and playing today, would I have gone back to school and become a paleontologist?” Prassack said. “I think I would have eventually. But that is a question I have once in a while.”