Dr Matthew Carrano, Curator of Dinosauria, Smithsonian Institution
Specialist in predatory dinosaur evolution, dinosaur functional morphology, and the dinosaur fossil record.
1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
I first got interested in dinosaurs in the second grade, after reading the (1970s version) National Geographic Book, “Dinosaurs,” with its wonderful illustrations by Jay Matternes. Dinosaurs and paleontology became a lifelong interest after that, through college and into graduate school. My research interests developed in college at Brown University, working with my advisor Christine Janis (functional morphology), and in graduate school at the University of Chicago, working with a large cohort of fellow students with enormously wide interests of their own.
2. What is your favourite piece of research?
I think my favorite piece of research is still a study I did as part of my dissertation work, where I found that dinosaurs and mammals had almost identically proportioned limbs, quite unlike birds or other reptiles. I did some experimental work that allowed me to suggest that dinosaurs and mammals may therefore have had very broadly similar locomotor styles. I remember the “aha!” moment when it all came together for me, and it was quite gratifying to hear people in the audience say the same thing when I delivered a talk on it at SVP in 1997.
3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
I think that the most important general development in dinosaur paleontology has been the increasing interest in trying to use the dinosaur fossil record to answer questions of broader paleontological interest. It’s not always successful, and many times we overreach, but I think it’s been a very healthy development in the field and a real change in direction. More specifically, in my own areas of research, I think the most important new discoveries in recent years are all the new taxa from new areas of the world (such as Concavenator in Spain or Ichthyovenator in Laos). These have provided important new data for both evolutionary studies and filled in big temporal and geographic gaps in the fossil record.
4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
I think the biggest unanswered question in my field is exactly how good the dinosaur fossil record really is, and what sorts of scientific questions it can (and cannot) be fruitfully employed toward. We are working hard on this problem, but it is quite difficult and parts of it might be intractable, but the availability of more powerful databases and more people with this research interest give me hope that significant progress is not far away.
5. What advice would you give to students about research?
I’d give a few key pieces of advice to students regarding their research (some of which will no doubt be at odds with advice given by some of my colleagues). First, get used to reading actual research papers, thinking about them thoroughly, and waiting to respond to them. Be careful and thorough, publish your results when they’re ready, and don’t worry about how many papers you have under your belt. The number of papers published annually in paleontology has increased substantially in the last few years, but in my opinion the number of good, lasting, and intellectually robust papers has not. We need more wheat, not more chaff.