Riley Black

Riley Black

Info & Affiliations

Freelance Science Writer, Vertebrate Paleontologist

Salt Lake City, Utah

Author of Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, and Written in Stone

Riley Black

Riley is the author of some of our favorite books and articles about all things paleontology. She has written several critically-acclaimed popular science books for adults and kiddos alike (Skeleton Keys, My Beloved Brontosaurus, Written in Stone, Prehistoric Predators, The T-Rex Handbook, and more), and is also known for her thought-provoking pieces on the culture of paleontology (including It’s Time for the Heroic Male Paleontologist Trope to Go Extinct in the April 3 2019 edition of Slate, and Queer voices in Palaeontology in the July 5 2019 edition of Nature). She has authored piles of science news posts on everything from a “faux poo” coprolite auction to giraffe sex, and, as a regular on radio programs like Science Friday, All Things Considered, Take Two, and RadioWest, you have probably heard her on your favorite science radio show. She also is for real the official paleontology expert for Jurassic World, proving that it is sometimes possible to achieve your wildest childhood dreams.

Like many of us, Riley fell in love with dinosaurs as a little kid, but took an unconventional path to becoming a paleontologist. She majored in ecology in college, which cemented her interest in paleontology, but dropped out a few credits short of her BS in order to pursue opportunities as a science writer. Science communication led her to opportunities doing fieldwork and getting involved with museums and research, which resulted in her first scientific publication as a freelance scientist. She stresses open-mindedness and experimentation when it comes to forging one’s career and is living proof that there is more than one path through science and through life, and that not all paleontologists look like Indiana Jones.

In 2019, Riley came out publicly as transgender and started hormone replacement therapy. It has not always been an easy transition. Riley has dealt and continues to deal with the weight of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and she has harrowing stories about fieldwork encounters with angry, gun-and-flag-waving locals. But, for Riley, the field is also a place of healing.

Fieldwork wasn't just about science or exploration for me. Being out in the desert, usually alone, gives me time to think, decompress, and really listen to myself.

And sometimes I even find fossils.

In 2017, before I transitioned, I was with a Natural History Museum of Utah expedition to the Chinle Formation near the Canyonlands area of our state. Everyone dispersed from the truck to look for fossils. I clambered up high, to an area of blue-green strata spilling out of the Triassic rock. After a few steps, I found a couple of invertebrate traces. Not bad. But I wanted more. I took my notes, collected the specimen, and hefted my backpack to move on. I only got a few steps before seeing what looked like a hand on another slab - the hindfoot track of an armadillo-like reptile called an aetosaur. It was like the ground was giving me a high five (or a low one). I was thrilled. In the photos from that moment, I'm smiling wider than I think I ever did during those days. I wanted to find more. And I got it. I found several small dinosaur tracks, a slab of three-toed footprints, and a fossil of a palm-like tree in the same area. I'd hit the jackpot for the day, and, despite the fact that I was feeling a lot of hurt in my life back home, I was ecstatic that I'd stumbled upon a sweet spot.
Riley is currently working on a book about the K/Pg extinction, stay tuned!


Highlighted works:

(Riley previously published under the name Brian Switek)

Switek, B., 2010, Written in Stone: evolution, the fossil record, and our place in nature: New York, Bellevue Literary Press, 320 pp. ISBN: 1934137294.

Switek, B., 2013, My Beloved Brontosaurus: on the road with old bones, new science, and our favorite dinosaurs: New York, Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 273 pp. ISBN: 9781466836761.

Switek, B., 2019, Skeleton Keys: the secret life of bone: New York, Riverhead Books, 288 pp. ISBN: 9780399184901.

Switek, B., 2015, Prehistoric Predators: Kennebunkport, Cider Mill Press, 96 pp. ISBN: 9781604335521.

Switek, B., 2010, Thomas Henry Huxley and the Reptile to Bird Transition: Geological Society, London, Special Publications, v. 343, p. 251-263. doi:10.1144/SP343.15



paleontology, vertebrate paleontology, dinosaurs, science writing, science communication, LGBTQ+ geobiologists, trans geobiologists, mental health, fieldwork

Bio written by Carie Frantz, July 2020