Archive for the 'Academics on Archosaurs' Category

Academics on Archosaurs: Peter Falkingham

Peter L. Falkingham, at Brown University, USA, and at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London.

Focusing on computer modelling of dinosaur tracks.

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

I’ve just had a run through past Academics on Archosaurs, and well, like pretty much everyone else I’ve been into palaeo (and not just dinosaurs) since I was, as my mother used to put it, “knee high to a grasshopper.” As to my specific field, dinosaur tracks, that came much later.  Like many other children tracks flew under my radar, with mounted skeletons and artistic reconstructions taking all my attention.  I have a fondness for computers though, and during my undergrad I started getting into the computer-based biomechanics research that was going on, and felt that would be a good way to go. I eventually got a PhD on the computer simulation of dinosaur tracks, and I’ve not looked back since.

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

The yet-to-be-published stuff I’m working on now.  If you’d asked me that 3 years ago, I’d have said the same thing, and if you ask me again in 30 years I’ll probably still respond the same way – it’s one of the great things about being a scientist – finding out what’s just around the next bend!

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

Less of a discovery, and more of a general shift in understanding, track workers are really starting to get into the mechanics of how tracks are made, and what they can tell us about the animals that made them. There have been some really insightful experiments involving emus and elephants in the past few years.  There’s also the technology being applied; in just the last 5-10 years digitisation techniques have gone nuts, from laser scanning to photogrammetry.  Where previously larger studies based on published data pretty much just had outlines and photos to work from, we’re starting to see papers published which include topographic height maps, normal mapped images (making edges clearer), and even in some cases we’re seeing papers submitted to online journals such as PLoS 1 and Palaeo Electronica where the digital models serve as appendices. The implications for repeatable studies, data sharing, and general scientific progress in the field are staggering.

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

Probably how much information is locked away in tracks.  How much can we learn from them? People have been really starting to look in a systematic way at how vertebrate tracks can vary in morphology according to substrate conditions, animal behaviour etc. I’m also a fan of the bigger picture that we can get from tracks – looking at evolutionary trends and so forth. Because tracks are always preserved in situ, they’re a really valuable resource – if they can be assigned and understood, which is where the first part of this answer comes into play.

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

Just before I started my PhD, I had been volunteering at the Yorkshire Museum where a colleague said to me “If, when doing your PhD, you ever get up in the morning and wish you were doing something else, quit.” When I recount this to my present colleagues some agree, and some grumble and say there will always be somedays when you want to be somewhere else (usually paperwork days rather than research days). They are of course correct, but I think it’s the attitude that’s important.  With the same qualifications, you can get far higher paid work outside of academia. The perks of a research career are that you get to do what you love – it’s genuinely exciting, and that excitement breeds curiosity.  With excitement and curiosity, you’ll do the reading with ease, and you’ll work late on experiments/fieldwork.  Essentially if you keep loving research, you’ll work hard.

Academics on Archosaurs: John Hutchinson

Professor John R. Hutchinson, The Royal Veterinary College, University of London
Specialist in the evolutionary biomechanics of terrestrial locomotion, with a particular focus on body size influences on posture and movement.

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

I was passionate about reptiles from an early age; “dockadile” was one of my first words; so of course dinosaurs became a natural fixation, and I went through the usual palaeontologist cycle of forgetting about dinosaurs during puberty then falling back in love with them in college. What kickstarted my more intellectual love affair with dinosaurs in college was reading and later watching Jurassic Park, taking a bunch of classes in evolution and later palaeontology, and reading Greg Paul’s “Predatory Dinosaurs of the World” book in my final undergrad year, while working as a volunteer at the University of Wisconsin Geological Museum (helping w/nice mosasaur fossils). The vivid animations in Jurassic Park (the movie) and Paul’s book, along with a class I’d taken on functional morphology/biomechanics, got me really interested in dinosaur locomotion, and that led soon enough into my PhD at Berkeley. The rest is history (infamy?).

2. What is your favourite piece of research?

From my own work, I think my favourite paper is the paper that I recently published in Science on the evolution of false sixth toes (predigits) in elephants. We integrated data from dissections, imaging, histology, fossils, biomechanics and phylogeny in a way none of my prior studies had really achieved and went in a direction that was a novel step for my research, enabled by a great collaborative team. That was an incredibly fun project and came out of left field from just dabbling around with research, as I like to do, until I stumbled across a neat story. Yet I still have a fondness for my “Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner” 2003 Nature paper, which more or less established my career and happened during a very challenging year in my life. That paper was basically what I set off to do when I started by PhD in 1995, so it was very satisfying to see the final payoff (and actually end up doing the same PhD project I originally aimed to do, which is uncommon in the USA).

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

My field encompasses both neontological and palaeontological research; I think the boundaries between these disciplines are very limiting for both; so the discoveries I value the most are those that transcend these traditional boundaries. It is hard to put a finger on just one favourite but off the cuff, I think the work that Larry Witmer’s team has done on reconstructing cranial anatomy in dinosaurs is the most important multidisciplinary work of our time – it shows how far you can get with good anatomy, and how rigorous the science can still be when reconstructing soft tissues. In a way, I’d put that ahead of the feather discoveries. In my related field of biomechanics, the way that dynamic models of the musculoskeletal system have matured into very rigorous computational tools is incredibly exciting and beginning to have massive payoffs that are bound to continue well beyond our lifetimes.

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

I’ll be potentially controversial and say that dinosaur locomotion is almost worked out as far as we can get. The rest is just details. For now, anyway. I say “for now” because now we’re up against a fundamental lack of understanding of how living animals work, which impedes how far we can get with reconstructing extinct animals, leaving a serious danger of constructing a lot of houses-of-cards in this area. That is why I urge palaeontology-type researchers I work with to contribute both to our understanding of living animals, for their own sake, as well as to our inferences about extinct animals. For palaeontology to proceed much further, we need to push neontology forward, and unite these disciplines more strongly. I’m profoundly tired of “us vs. them” arguments in both fields, such as molecules “vs” morphology; the latter is an analogous example of how people waste time defending their disciplinary territory. There’s just one life science; one history of life on Earth; get over it and work together where necessary to find the one answer. Similarly, in biomechanics there’s a lot of guff about theoretical “vs” experimental methods and which is better science. The focus on questions often gets forgotten. So, unity is what I’m preaching, because it will lead to questions getting answered.

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

A quick shopping list:

-Don’t trust your supervisor; after a year or so of your research you probably know more than them. Challenge their authority, objectively.

-Read the crappy science as well as the good science. It makes you a better critical thinker.

-Push yourself to be a questions-researcher, not just a methods-producer (or worse yet, just a user). Methods are ephemeral; answers can be eternal (if you’re lucky).

-Defy disciplinary boundaries. Never let someone tell you “don’t do that, you’re a palaeontologist.” Define your own identity as a researcher; scoff at labels. BUT…

-Know your limits; that’s what a young researcher is probing. Reach out to work with others that complement your skills, rather than try to do everything yourself.

-Push yourself to value scientific and professional integrity. I’m no saint either, but people do get known for being honest and fair in their scientific and professional lives.

-“Work-life balance” is nonsense. Practice work-life integration; boundaries can be fluid. Science is about an all-consuming passion for the natural world; it shouldn’t be contained within 9-5 working hours or it gets stale. Nor should it prevent you from having fun, including taking breaks to “refuel” when your Science-Fu levels are low. In these days of a terrible job market, the competition is insanely tough so you need to work efficiently and prioritize what is best for your career (which may be best for your life in a broader sense).

-Be incredibly ambitious, but with full recognition that your “5-year plan” will last your whole career, and everything in science takes immensely more time than almost anyone thinks it will.

Academics on Archosaurs: Matt Carrano

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.

Academics on Archosaurs: Jeff Wilson

Jeff Wilson, University of Michigan
I’m interested in sauropod dinosaurs, the fossil reptiles of the Indian Subcontinent, and ichnofossils.

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
I was never interested in dinosaurs (or fossils, for that matter) as a child. I’m still not crazy about them. I loved anatomy from an early age, which manifested itself in unsupervised frog dissections and me following around my uncle, a surgeon, in hopes of getting into the operating room (which I did). This interest in anatomy led me to believe I should be a doctor, and so I took the MCAT and worked for a year as a surgical technician – only to find that I didn’t like the clinical atmosphere or dealing with patients. I didn’t really know what to do with myself at that point. I ran into my advisor at Kalamazoo College, Paul Sotherland, who recommended Gould’s book ‘Wonderful Life’ to me. That book changed everything. It brought together anatomy, evolution, history, and adventure in a way that I hadn’t thought about before. I wondered who could be doing that sort of work nearby and eventually wrote Paul Sereno, who in 1992 was fresh from his second trip to Ischigualasto. I drove down to Chicago to visit him, and he showed me the skull of Herrerasaurus, which was mysterious to me. I don’t remember much about what Paul and I talked about, but after a couple of weeks he called to invite me to spend three months in the Sahara excavating a sauropod graveyard. I remember him telling me we were driving there from London. I said yes.

2. What is your favourite piece of research?
I will take a ‘pass’ on this question, but I will say that the most fun I ever had working on a manuscript was when Matt Carrano and I put together the ‘response to reviewers’ for our 1999 paper on wide-gauge sauropod trackmakers. We were graduate students then, and we were reviewed by the formidable R. McNeill Alexander, Martin Lockley and Tony Thulborn. Thulborn alone had 80+ marginal annotations specifically about word choice and composition. He was so charming in the way he flayed the paper, one had to laugh. Example: we used the word “freer” in the original to refer to titanosaur vertebral articulations, to which he wrote something like (from memory, not a direct quote), “Gentlemen, there is no ‘freer’ ? one is either free or not, just like one cannot be ‘partially pregnant’ or ‘somewhat dead’.” Ha! There’s more to the story, but I’ll end here.

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
I really admire some recent work on saurischian dinosaurs, but it is difficult to pick one discovery. Perhaps I’ll go with a technique. I was really blown away by Steve Gatesy’s recent SVP talk on 3-D motion analysis in birds.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Sample sizes are typically quite low for sauropod dinosaur species, many of which are represented by a single exemplar. We have become habituated to describing all (or most) morphological variation in our exemplars as differentiating species or genera, often without entertaining the possibility of within-individual, within-population, and within-species variation. Discriminating among these sources of variation is to me one of the most important questions facing us.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?
Philip Gingerich wrote this nice paper ‘George Gaylord Simpson: Empirical Theoretician’ in which he examined and categorized the nearly 13,000 pages of Simpson’s primary output. Although he was thought of as a ‘theoretician’, much of Simpson’s work, especially his early work, was empirical. I think that collecting careful, quality empirical data is important, and I would encourage students build their datasets with a question in mind. Bigger is not necessarily better; the dataset should be small enough that it can be managed and mastered.

Academics on Archosaurs: Robert Reisz

Prof. Rober R. Reisz, University of Toronto
Specialist in prosauropod dinosaurs, in addition to the study of Paleozoic tetrapods
1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
A student wanted to take on a project on dinosaurs, and since I was working on a lot of Paleozoic amniotes from South Africa, I came across the very interesting project of the Early Jurassic prosauropod Massospondylus. I brought home material pertaining to this dinosaur, and became interested in the group.
2. What is your favourite piece of research?
Working on the early theropod Coelophysis. This is a very exciting project because the quality of the materials makes it the best preserved early dinosaur.
3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
Although prejudiced because it is my research, but the discovery of the Early Jurassic embryonic prosauropod dinosaurs, and of the nesting site where they have been found is one of the most exciting and important discoveries of the last decade.
4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Gigantism. How could the sauropods get so large? I think the answer lies in the embryonic data and the growth rates of these fascinating organisms.
5. What advice would you give to students about research?
There is a tendency now to do quick and dirty projects for maximum impact. In my opinion, careful descriptive work, careful illustrations and reconstructions, all lead to strong phylogenetic analyses, and good paleobiological interpretations. First hand study and illustration of fossil specimens is fundamental to our field, and if we do not do it, we lose our advantage as historical biologists.
Much too often paleontologists do what I call pull the drawer out and code the specimen for analysis. This is not good science. Careful study, which includes preparation and illustrations of our unique treasures, the fossils, is fundamental to our field.

Academics on Archosaurs: Scott Sampson

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.

Academics on Archosaurs: Mike Habib

Michael Habib, University of Southern California
I primarily study the biomechanics of flying vertebrates, especially early birds and pterosaurs.

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

I’m a classic – I declared loudly that I wanted to be a paleontologist at about the age of four.  The most important catalyst was probably the trips I took with my family to the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, DC (I grew up in that region).

Perhaps a more interesting story is how I ended up in my particular speciality.  While I am really a rather general biomechanist, I think most Musings readers will know me as a pterosaur worker.  I’m quite pleased by that label, but it came as something of a lucky break – I really got rolling on pterosaurs after attending the 2007 Flugsaurier Conference in Munich, which I originally attended on something of a whim because I’d been playing with a few pterosaur bits at the USNM collections in between bird work. That was a real full circle moment because I’d loved pterosaurs as a kid.  Of course, as Musings folks will no doubt recall, Dave organized that conference!  Thanks Dave, it rocked.

2. What is your favourite piece of research?
Okay, no surprise here – I’m most pleased by the quadrupedal launch model for pterosaurs I proposed in 2008.  I think that has actually had a measurable impact on how we reconstruct pterosaurs, and it also seems to have affected how other scientists think about animal takeoff and flight evolution.  So that’s pretty darn cool.

To be fair, though, a paper I’m currently writing may end up being one of my all time favorites (it’s the much discussed anurognathid study with Mark Witton.  I know, I’ve been talking about it forever, but we keep adding stuff – this is going to be a wicked paper).

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
This is a much more difficult question for me.  For one thing, I’m not sure what my “field” really is.  If we assume it’s animal flight evolution, then I would have to list the discovery that functional wings existed in theropods outside Aves (which either means theropod flight should up more than once, or that theropod flight came before birds).  If we assume I’m a “pterosaur guy” then I suppose it would be the range of new soft tissue discoveries that have rapidly accrued, in part because of the outstanding UV imaging studies of individuals like Helmut Tischlinger.

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

Within animal flight overall, the largest questions relate to the origin of flight in pterosaurs and bats.  While debate will range on about the details of the origin of avian flight, we have the base layer pretty well worked out now.  However, the early stages of flight in pterosaurs and bats are darn near completely unknown at this stage.  I’m waiting for some really excellent stem-pterosaurs to be discovered.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?
Remember that you are a professional writer.  You have to do good science to have things worthy of writing about, but at the end of the day, every academic scientist (and that’s practically every professional paleontologist) is basically a professional writer.  Own that fact, and live up to it.  Work hard to write well, and think carefully about your readership and how to reach the people you want to read your work.

Academics on Archosaurs: Greg Erickson

Dr Gregory M. Erickson, Florida State University
Specialist in dinosaur paleobiology

1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
I liked dinosaurs when I was a kid but found other interests by the time I hit middle school. I was originally an engineering major and then a wildlife management major (my father was a large game biologist) at the University of Washington. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. During the summers I was a construction worker and was considering that for a career. My roomate was a geology major, and I realized that just by taking a few courses I could graduate and move on. I took a dinosaur class from John Rensberger. The course was inspired by Bob Bakker’s Dinosaur Heresies. John invited me on a dig. He encouraged me to consider a career in vert paleo. It was then that I realized my background in biology and engineering could provide for new insights in vert paleo. After a year or so of working in the miserable Seattle rain, I decided that I had had enough and decided to take the GRE and go to grad school. I was accepted into Jack Horner’s program. The rest is history.

2. What is your favourite piece of research?
I am most proud of the work I have done on dinosaur dentitions

3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
The rediscovery that birds are dinosaurs.

4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Hard to say. I think that if we could readily determine the sex of dinosaurs that it would have huge ramifications for our understanding of dinosaur paleobiology

5. What advice would you give to students about research?
Writing skills are critical for survivorship as a professional paleontologist. The pen is mightier than the pick.

Academics on archosaurs: You Hai-lu

Dr Hai-lu You, Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, Chinese Academy of Sciences
Specialist in dinosaurs, especially Cretaceous ornithischian dinosaurs.

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

By chance. I applied my Master degree for paleoanthropology, but was suggested to switch to dinosaurs.


2. What is your favourite piece of research?

My favorite piece of research is on the re-discovery and research on Gansus, an Early Cretaceous bird from northwestern China that at the beginning of the branch leading to modern birds. Before our research, only a partial foot was discovered, and our team now excavated ~100 specimens. Our result was published in Science, and the various medias reported it, including a documentary by Science Channel.

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

“Proto-feathers” from China , which changed our view on the concept of birds, and the evolution of the function of feathers.

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

The using of PhyloCode, which will have fundamental influence on our view of the tree of life.

5. What advice would you give to students about research?
Go through everything on dinosaurs, from the field to preparation to research to museum activities.

Academics on archosaurs: Heinrich Mallison

Heinrich Mallison, Researcher, Museum für Naturkunde – Leibniz Institute for Research on Evolution and Biodiversity at the Humboldt University Berlin.
I’m a geologist/palaeontologist trying hard to use digital techniques to unlock the remaining secrets of dinosaur locomotion.

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

I guess – but given my age of roughly 6 years back then it’s kinda hard to tell – I guess it was a dinosaur book my Dad bought me in the Stuttgart Zoo’s shop (no idea why a dinosaur book).


2. What is your favourite piece of research?

The speedwalking dinosaur hypothesis I still need to publish.

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

That basal dinosaurs, and even basal dinosauromorphs, were so much more bird-like [and, by convergence, mammal-like]  with regards to lungs, metabolism, bone growth, etc. then previously imagined. Suddenly, many questions resolve themselves into a fitting picture, and many supposed/questionable convergences default into shared inheritance!

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

Funding – when will politicians understand that basic research is more important than a short-time blip in the GNP?

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

Palaeontology is a true multidisciplinary science. Therefore, it does not matter what you study officially (geology, palaeontology, zoology, botany, climate research, physics, veterinary of human medicine, engineering, etc.) – you have to do them all anyway! Find a subject what can feed you if there is no research funding for dinosaurs.

Academics on Archosaurs: David Fastovsky

David E. Fastovsky, University of Rhode Island
Mesozoic, terrestrial vertebrate-bearing paleoenvironments, vertebrate paleontology

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

Roy Chapman Andrews:  All About Dinosaurs (1953).


2. What is your favourite piece of research?

Overall, I loved working on fluxes of vertebrate extinctions at the K/T boundary; I also loved working on some very interesting vertebrate-bearing paleoenvironments in NE Mexico; the rocks were crazy; the fossils were weird; it just doesn’t get better than that!

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

Feathered non-avian dinosaurs; the extinctions at the K/T boundary.

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

We’ve begun to move from individual specimens to ecosystems.  That kind of work should continue; that’s how to really capture the great rhythms of life through time.

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

Be creative.

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!).


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