Scott D. Sampson
Specialist in ceratopsid and theropod dinosaurs, with a strong interest in the ecology and evolution of Mesozoic terrestrial ecosystems
1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
Dinosaurs and paleontology have been a lifelong interest, beginning about age 4. It’s fair to say that I was geek from Day 1, with “paleontology” being one of the first words I learned how to spell. I blame it all on my mother, who initiated and encouraged this dino-obsession.
2. What is your favourite piece of research?
I was fortunate enough to find the first skull of Majungasaurus, a mid-sized theropod dinosaur known only from the island of Madagascar. This discovery demonstrated that a “domed” theropod — rather than a pachycephalosaur, as previously thought — lived on Madagascar. And Majungasaurus has been pivotal in range of subsequent studies, from details of dinosaur head anatomy to the break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana.
3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
For me, the most interesting discovery is the presence of dinosaur “provinces” on the isolated landmass of Laramidia (western North America) during the Late Cretaceous (Campanian). The occurrence of distinct communities of coeval dinosaurs on a diminutive landmass suggests that the ecology and evolution of large-bodied dinosaurs may have differed in fundamental ways from that of more recent big-bodied mammals. How were dinosaurs able to fit so many giant species on such a small piece of real estate? The answer may point to differences in dinosaur physiology and/or ecological dynamics in a hothouse world. Either way, profound discoveries are likely to emanate from this discovery.
4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Of course there are many big questions that remain unanswered. For example, no one can yet state with confidence how dinosaurs were able to achieve sizes that were often well in excess of land animals before or since. In short, we’ve only just begun to understand the world of dinosaurs. To my mind, however, the biggest, most pressing question is this: How do ecology and evolution function in a hothouse world? Thanks to the recent acceleration in human greenhouse gas emissions, we’re heading toward a much warmer global climate, with global effects that will impact the entire biosphere, including us. Yet our firsthand experience as a species is restricted to icehouse climates. By examining Mesozoic and early Cenozoic hothouse worlds, together with their constituent floras and faunas, we will undoubtedly make major insights that will inform our future.
5. What advice would you give to students about research?
The best advice I can give students of paleontology can be summed in a single word: diversity. Learn as much as you can about as many different paleo-related fields as possible: the list includes stratigraphy, sedimentology, anatomy, phylogeny, ecology, evolution, climate, and isotopic studies. Also learn early how to collaborate with researchers in other specialties (not as intuitive as you might think). Whatever you end up doing, you will benefit from the ability to juggle and intermingle big ideas, and to work with others in testing those ideas. A diverse skillset will also put you in a stronger position to get a job, and to make major contributions to the field.