Academics on archosaurs: Jerry Harris

Dr. Jerry D. Harris, Director of Paleontology, Dixie State College of Utah
Specialist in being as much of a generalist as possible.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?

Dunno, exactly…I have very hazy memories of playing with a set of old Marx dinosaur toys in a room with gigantic paper cutouts of various dinosaurs in the early 1970s; my mom tells me I had those starting at age 2, so I have no idea what was my initial exposure. I also have (less hazy) memories as an older child poring over books such as McGowen’s Album of Dinosaurs and Craig’s Dinosaurs and More Dinosaurs in fascination. Of course, all of these books and toys are hopelessly outdated–even laughably so–by today’s standards, but they obviously piqued my interest. Somewhere amid all the baby/early childhood stuff my mom saved is something I wrote in second grade–this was on those gray, sideways, blue-lined pieces of paper on which children learn to print. The assignment clearly had been to respond to a question such as “If you could be any animal, what would you be and why?” My answer: Compsognathus. I don’t remember why. Spelled it correctly, too.


2. What is your favourite piece of research?

But…but…I love _all_ of my children equally!  In all seriousness, I have a particular fondness for some of the first papers I wrote, particularly the ones that describe the theropod track Saurexallopus, the pterosaur Kepodactylus, and a bunch of isolated dinosaur tracks from the Morrison Formation near Canon City, Colorado. Compared to what I think I could produce today, they’re not the greatest papers…in some ways, they are blatantly amateurish! But producing them having only a bachelor’s degree behind me was an extremely interesting, eye-opening process that really exposed me to what the meat of research paleontology really is, which is nothing like anything I’d ever seen in a book or TV show. Anyone seriously contemplating getting into paleontology should have this kind of experience at the undergraduate level. I have lots of fond memories of being surrounded by stacks of papers, in my apartment or a nearby coffee shop, trying to learn about so many different things, amalgamate and filter them, and apply them to resolve a problem. They’re not the greatest papers in the world, but they were the foundation of my education in how to be a research scientist and therefore are near and dear to my heart.

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?

At the risk of psittaciforming Tom Holtz, feathered dinosaurs and the cementing of the birds-are-dinosaur-descendants theory (yes, theory…no longer a hypothesis). Of course, it opens up all kinds of new questions about how far we can push inferences about dinosaurs based on extant bird physiology/anatomy/behavior/etc., but that’s also a great thing–gives us paleontologists something to do! Also, the increasing application of all kinds of technologies to resolve paleontological problems. In particular, increasingly high-resolution CT scanning has provided some really interesting insights into aspects of dinosaur paleobiology that I bet no one thought we would ever be able to tackle even a generation or two ago. (On a tangential note, the increasing prevalence of 3D digitization and rapid prototyping will, in the not-too-distant future, make possible comparing specimens in far-flung reaches of the globe easier and cheaper than traveling a lot). Lastly, I’d say that the (again increasing) realization that non-avian dinosaurs don’t really have any modern analogs in terms of anatomy, physiology, and ecology–and that dinosaurs aren’t the big, sluggish, swamp-dwelling reptiles I grew up with–makes working on them so much more fun and exciting because it allows us to see where principles we think we understand from extant organisms aren’t broad enough to encompass much of the past, and try to figure out more inclusive principles as well as all the variables that made the past unlike the present and tease out their effects.

It’s funny that I say all that because, at heart, I’m still a “let’s go dig up something new and describe it” kind of guy, which has increasing risk of obsolescence…

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?

The biggest question is: who the heck is going to employ the vast numbers of paleontologists coming out of schools these days?!? …OK, so that’s not really it. The biggest question is: when are physicists going to get off their collective gluteals and invent time machines that will allow us to go back and observe dinosaurs firsthand?!? …OK, so that’s not really it, either. Actually, I don’t know that I can answer this one–there are so many huge questions, none more important than the other! For example, why did ornithuran dinosaurs survive the K-Pg extinction event but no others did? Why don’t ornithischians show any osteological hallmarks of having pneumatic diverticula, and how did they effectively compete against saurischians without them? Why are the footprint records of many dinosauromorph groups so strangely different than the body-fossil records? When will someone reconcile opposing molecular and fossil-based phylogenies? What’s it gonna take before everyone on the planet realizes that everything tastes like basal saurischian dinosaur, not chicken, and that eggs demonstrably came first? …OK, so I’m getting off track here…

5. What advice would you give to students about research?

As a teacher of scientific writing, and as someone who learned via trial-by-fire under the tutelage of someone unafraid to rip my writing to shreds, I have a personal interest in good writing. It’s also something I consistently fail to see from students, and something I see with alarmingly decreasing frequency in the literature. Frankly, if you want anyone to take your research seriously, write it correctly: use words properly and to maximum effect, structure sentences properly, use parallel structure throughout and across paragraphs and paper sections, and perhaps above all else, learn how to explain your reasoning in a clear, logical fashion.

Beyond that pet peeve, obviously doing careful research is key. Often, that means doing detailed work, not glossing over various details that you think are unimportant, or that aren’t usually talked about in other papers. You never know what will be important in the future! Doing careful research also means examining all issues from multiple angles–these days, phylogenetics seems to be the favorite perspective, but functional morphology, paleoecology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, paleobiogeography, etc. all contribute valuable information. Be holistic, not narrowly focused…maybe not all in a single paper, but in approaching any specific problem. (Plus, this gives you ample opportunity to beef up your CVs!).

19 Responses to “Academics on archosaurs: Jerry Harris”


  1. 1 saurian 16/05/2012 at 11:27 am

    “Lastly, I’d say that the (again increasing) realization that non-avian dinosaurs don’t really have any modern analogs in terms of anatomy, physiology, and ecology–and that dinosaurs aren’t the big, sluggish, swamp-dwelling reptiles I grew up with–makes working on them so much more fun and exciting because it allows us to see where principles we think we understand from extant organisms aren’t broad enough to encompass much of the past, and try to figure out more inclusive principles as well as all the variables that made the past unlike the present and tease out their effects.”

    Non-avian dinosaurs were indeed unique. So nice to see a statement such as this since extant analogies can and do cause particular rancor amongst paleontologists. They are often subjective since one man’s analogy is another man’s antithesis. Great point Jerry.

    • 2 dinogami 16/05/2012 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks! I certainly understand why we have to use our understandings of modern organisms and ecosystems as the basis with which to try and understand dinosaurs and their ecosystems, but the more dinosaurs are shoe-horned into modern models, the more wary I get simply because dinosaurs (and, basically, all extinct archosaurs) are so very different in, as it turns out, nearly all ways. And, of course, different aspects of dinosaurs may have different degrees of similarity. For example, the air sacs and pneumatic diverticula of non-avian saurischians may have a greater degree of similarity to those of extant birds than, say, sauropods do to giraffes in terms of ecology. I am particularly wary of any “one size fits all” hypothesis/model/conclusion, or any such thing that falls into “nothing is possible that doesn’t already exist” perspectives. Nature has a long, long history of confounding all attempts by humans to be nicely and cleanly categorized, classified, or simplified!

  2. 3 Robert A. Sloan 16/05/2012 at 1:50 pm

    Thanks for describing your undergraduate experience writing those papers. I had a romanticized idea of paleontology from seeing my dad come back every winter tanned and bearded, chucking his cowboy hat across the room and sitting down in his dusty jeans after having spent the summer digging up a Triceratops head the size of a car. Eventually I started to understand more of the hard work involved. My hat’s off to you!

  3. 4 Paul W. 17/05/2012 at 1:49 am

    I was particularly struck by this line – “Why are the footprint records of many dinosauromorph groups so strangely different than the body-fossil records?” Can anybody elaborate on this fascinating fact?

    • 5 dinogami 17/05/2012 at 1:34 pm

      Here’s a few examples:

      * If tracks of dinosauromorphs go almost all the way back to the Permian-Triassic boundary, why don’t we see dinosauromorph body fossils until the Middle Triassic?

      * Why is the Cretaceous track record of birds almost exclusively of ornithuromorphs but enantiornithians are the most common birds of the Cretaceous, with not a single (recognized) track pertaining to any of these birds?

      * Why are ornithischian tracks so much less common than saurischian tracks in the Triassic and Jurassic but not in the Cretaceous? And why are tracks of some ornithischians (stegosaurs, ceratopsians, pachycephalosaurs) rare, period?

      And if you want to go even farther afield than dinosauromorphs:

      * Why does the track record of pterosaurs not begin until the Late Jurassic when pterosaurs go back at least into the Late Triassic?

  4. 6 Tim Donovan 17/05/2012 at 1:05 pm

    For one thing, T. bataar tracks are surprisingly rare considering the abundance of its skeletal remains.

    • 7 David Hone 17/05/2012 at 2:09 pm

      Well a) I’m not sure it’s that abundant – just collected more than other things and b) the track record in general for things in the Gobi are rare – there’s a lot of bones but not many tracks.

      • 8 Tim Donovan 18/05/2012 at 1:15 pm

        Tracks seem pretty common in Mongolia; besides many Nemegtian ones mentioned by Currie there are quite a few at Shar Tsav, Abdarain Nur, Yagaan Khovil etc.

  5. 9 Mark Robinson 18/05/2012 at 4:33 am

    That’s fascinating that tracks identified as dinosauromorph are found as far back as the beginning of the Early Triassic. I suspect that some of the “missing” tracks can be explained by those particular animals living in environments that were not conducive to preserving tracks, either because they were dry (as, I believe, was the case for Tarbosaurus) or the ground was hard, elevated, or inclined.

    • 10 Tim Donovan 18/05/2012 at 1:17 pm

      Sure, the Nemegtian was pretty dry. But Saurolophus tracks are fairly numerous, much more so than those of T. bataar or sauropods.

  6. 11 dinochick 21/05/2012 at 7:04 am

    Jerry – “* Why are ornithischian tracks so much less common than saurischian tracks in the Triassic and Jurassic but not in the Cretaceous? And why are tracks of some ornithischians (stegosaurs, ceratopsians, pachycephalosaurs) rare, period?”

    Preferred environment, maybe? Not a 100% answer at all, just a stab……..

  7. 12 Tim Donovan 21/05/2012 at 1:16 pm

    Sure, preferred environment. Ceratopsians and pachycephalosaurs lived farther from rivers than hadrosaurs, so the track record favored the latter. Not sure stegosaur tracks are rare; many may now be known from Spain.

    • 13 dinogami 21/05/2012 at 5:17 pm

      Certainly I agree that paleoenvironment and paleoecology play prominent roles in resolving this question. But the bigger, overarching question, then, is what happened evolutionarily (that is, what were the factors at play and all the features selected for) that created the change-over between the pre-Cretaceous Mesozoic and the Cretaceous? That’s more what I find interesting that the pure statistics (sorry if that’s how the question came across!).

      But that said, I don’t think that paleoenvironment and paleoecology explain everything. Ceratopsians, for example, are absurdly common in some environments that also produce lots of tracks, but the tracks are almost never ceratopsian (for example, _Psittacosaurus_ in the Jehol Group; _Triceratops_ in the Lance Formation). Even in these environments, theropod tracks are quite common, but non-theropod tracks rather rare. That seems true at a lot of sites: theropod tracks are much more common than theropod body fossils (and possibly over-represented if Bakkerian predator-prey ratios are correct for dinosaurs). So theropods preferred track-making environments…but why? What does that say about their behaviors? Preferred hunting techniques/foodstuffs? Those are the more interesting questions, to me!

      • 14 dinochick 22/05/2012 at 7:22 am

        Ceratopsians just did not like the feeling of mud between their toes ;)

      • 15 Kilian Hekhuis 22/05/2012 at 10:13 am

        That, or a herd of Triceratops left such a huge mess of turned up mud that there’s no way an individual track is discernable.

      • 16 Tim Donovan 22/05/2012 at 1:44 pm

        It’s common knowledge the ornithiscian heyday didn’t occur until the Cretaceous. If enantiornithians inhabited dry, inland areas, that may explain lack of their tracks, whereas shorebirds would’ve left many. Some theropods could’ve just hung out near water to prey on aquatic creatures, or ambush dinosaurs which came for a drink. There could be another factor. Many theropods tended to be small, hence vulnerable to overheating in mesozoic environments. Lakes and rivers gave them a chance to cool off, in part due to shade from more abundant vegetation.

      • 17 Kilian Hekhuis 22/05/2012 at 9:26 pm

        “If enantiornithians inhabited dry, inland areas” – but there’s no reason to assume they did. Also, this: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/2012/05/15/drowned-cretaceous-bird-colony/ (which proves at least one species did not).

  8. 18 Tim Donovan 23/05/2012 at 1:41 pm

    Well, by the LK at least, when the bulk of known tracks were formed, the Romanian type must’ve been an exception, judging by the report of 14 surviving lineages of shorebirds, which naturally excluded enantis…


  1. 1 Digital Photos Guide » The Scienceblogging Weekly (May 18, 2012) Trackback on 19/05/2012 at 2:03 am

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