How do I become a palaeontologist?

This question comes round and round again online and I regularly get e-mails asking exactly this from people who are interested in becoming palaeontologists. There is plenty of good advice out there in various formus and answers to questions, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a really long and detailed answer and as much as anything, having something like this will hopefully serve as a one-stop shop for people who have this question.

For anyone who has come to this blog because of this post and doesn’t know me, I am a palaeontologist working on dinosaur behaviour and have been for over a decade (I got my PhD back in 2005). Though I’m British and based in the UK, I’ve had palaeo jobs in Ireland, Germany and China and I’ve got numerous colleagues in the US, Canada, all over Europe and in places like Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Australia and South Africa that I have talked to about working there, so I have a decent picture of what issues are relevant wherever you are from and where you want to be. There will of course be things I don’t cover below or that vary significantly (e.g. the duration of various degree programs and what they specialise in etc.) but this should cover the basics.

Hopefully this will help answer the major questions, and clear up some big misunderstandings and offer some advice to get into palaeontology. There are also some harsh truths here but I’m trying to be open and honest about the realities of trying to make a career of this competitive branch of science. So, with that in mind…

What do you think a palaeontologist does?

A lot of people asking about getting into the field seem to be seduced by the apparent image of the field as a glamorous science. There’s fieldwork in exciting places, media coverage (you can be on TV, in movies!), new discoveries, naming new species and generally being a bit cooler than the average biochemist or experimental physicist. But if this is what you think, it’s actually pretty misleading. You are only seeing the very top people and most of us don’t get much time in the field or travelling in a given year, and spend most of their time in an office and while that might include writing papers, there’s plenty of grant writing, admin and less exciting stuff. I rarely get into the field and probably >90% of my time is spent teaching and doing admin work for my university. A fair chunk of my research and outreach output is done in my own time taking up evenings and weekend and even vacations. I don’t get to sit around and play with fossils all day and there are very, very few people with senior enough research positions who get perhaps even 50% of their time to do real research and fieldwork – there will always be paperwork and admin that needs doing and even writing research papers or planning a field season can be really quite tedious at times. Real joy comes from discoveries in the field or in research but these are moments you work for, there’s not a constant stream of them.

So it’s worth making sure you have a realistic impression of real life as a palaeontologist and ask yourself if you have realistic expectations of what the job might entail and where you may end up. That said…

Do you know what jobs are available?

Palaeontology tends to be thought of as people digging up fossils and then maybe researching on them and / or teaching about them. Palaeontologists are scientists and they work in museums or maybe universities. That’s not wrong, but it masks a pretty wide range of careers and employers. It goes back to my point above, there are lots of jobs for palaeontologists or people working in the field of palaeontology and in addition to researchers and lecturers, there are science educators, museum curators and managers, exhibition designers, specimen preparators, photographers, science writers, palaeoartists and consultants of various kinds. People can work for media outlets, national parks and other government bodies, companies that mount or mould specimens, that monitor building sites and roads for uncovered fossils, and others. One of these might be more what you are interested in – you don’t have to end up as the senior researcher in your national museum to have ‘made it’ and similarly, that can mean you have a very different set of requirements to get a different kind of job. You pretty much have to have a PhD to teach at a university, but you can potentially get a job working preparing fossils with little more than a good high school education. Experience and engagement with the field can always lead to you changing paths and I know of people who started out in science without a degree that are now full professors or have some senior palaeontological position.

There are also lots of opportunities in various places to be a volunteer and you certainly don’t need a PhD or even a degree to get involved in scientific research and i know of high scoolers who have managed to publish papers – some drive and knoweldge can go a long way. There are opportunities to engage in the science without actually holding a professorship at a big university. If some of the information coming up is a bit daunting, there are options and alternatives.

Do you know what the job market is like?

Despite the above listed variety of jobs out there, there are still not a huge number of jobs in palaeo, and fewer still for academic positions. Worse, there a lot of people who want them. If you are desperate to get into an especially sexy area like dinosaurs or carnivorans then it’s even worse. For every academic job there are likely to be 10 well qualified candidates (and quite possibly 20 or more) and these are all people who have held at least one postdoctoral position (maybe 1 available for every 5 people) and have a PhD (maybe 1 available for every 20 or 30 people who want to do it). It’s very common for people for slowly drift out of the field simply because they cannot find a job even after years and years of training and experience and a good record of research. I know of colleagues who did their PhD around the same time I did and have yet to find a permanent position. Others are stuck in jobs they would rather not be in, hoping for something better and, sadly, when finances are tight, palaeontology is often a field which suffers cuts more than other sciences. As with the point above, I’m not saying this to put people off (though I’m sure it does) but it is worth knowing the reality of the situation. Getting on a degree program, even coming top of the class will in no way ensure you get on a doctorate program, let alone in the field you want to study, let alone a job at the end of it.

Do you know what the career trajectory is?

As noted above this can vary enormously depending on what you may want to try and do, but I’ll focus here on academic positions since that’s what most people do want to do, and it’s generally the longest and most involved pathway. First off you will need an undergraduate degree, increasingly this tends to be in the biological sciences though there are lots of people with a background in geology. You’ll need to know at least some of each but it’s perfectly possible to forge a palaeontology career (depending on what you do) with a very heavily biased knowledge in favour of one or the other. Most people don’t specialise seriously until later so don’t worry about doing one and assuming it’s a problem, and don’t get hung up on doing a palaeontology degree – there simply aren’t many of them about and it’s not a deal at all if you have not done one. With a good degree you can get onto a Masters program which will obviously increase your knowledge further and improve your skills, and then onto a doctorate which will be anything from 3-6 years depening where you do it. It could take a year or two to get onto this programs if there is something specific you want or of course you may need to work to get the funds necessary for tuition fees etc. Most people will also then go on a take one or two positions as a postdoctoral researcher or similar before finding a job. Some of these are short term (a year or so) and some can be much longer (5 year special research fellowships are rare and great if you can get them, a one or two year contract is more common). You may end up taking some short-term jobs (parental leave cover, or for a sabbatical etc.) and can bounce around on contracts for a while before landing a permanent position/ All told, it’s likely to be at least 10 years and could easily be 15 or 20 between starting at university and a first year undergraduate and having a permanent position at a university as an academic. This can also involve moving round the country or between countries (and continents) to find a job. Again. if you are dead set on working on taxon group X at university Y, be aware that it’s likely to be a very, very long shot or needs to be a very long-term career goal.

How do you start?

So assuming that this is still something you think you want to go for, how do you actually start on the road to becoming a palaeontologist? Well, the short version is go to university and do well. That’s what I did, at least in part because I wasn’t any more interested in palaeo than some other fields in biology and I kinda drifted this way (this is really common, even people who start absolutely dedicated to working on one particular area get sidetracked by new interests or simply the available opportunities). Of course with so much more information out there now online there are much better ways to get started and to learn something about possible careers, universities, current research, museums to go to, etc. etc. You may be surprised to find that a what of what you know is not that relevant or important for getting into the field. Knowing a whole bunch of facts isn’t a bad thing, but understanding principles, being good at absorbing knowledge and interpreting things and coming up with ideas and testing them are more important. You can always look up a fact if you forgot it or don’t know it, but if you can’t effectively come up woith ideas to test, collect good data and organise your thoughts then it’s obviously hard to do good science. Learning things like names of species and times and places they are from is obviously a good start, but don’t think it’s a massive head start on potential peers. Obviously you’ll want to focus on palaeontology, but biology and geo sources are important too, a wider knowledge base will be better than a narrow one. So, in sort of an order that will lead to you learning and understanding more and getting better:

  • Read online. There are tons of good sources out there – follow people on Twitter, join Facebook groups, listen to podcasts, read blogs etc. etc. Absorb information on biology, geology, current research trends, the history of the subject and the fundamentals of science. Engage and discuss things with people.
  • Read books. Build up your knowledge base with some good popular science books and then if you can access them, get hold of some university level books that are introductory for subjects you want to engage in. There are good books out there on palaeontology generally and various branches like invertebrate palaeo, mammals, human origins etc. Public libraries can often get even very technical works in for free and there are others online. Some books can be very cheap second hand.
  • Get more practical experience and engage with the field and fossils if you can. Visit museums and go fossil hunting. If you can, volunteer at a museum and get some experience and training no matter what form it might be.
  • Read papers. Large chunks of the scientific literature are online and available. You won’t get everything you want, but you will be able to see a lot of things. Learn from them, not just the science being done, but look at patterns and trends and look at how papers are written and delivered, how hypotheses are produced and tested. See what makes a good argument and a good peice of work.
  • Get to a scientific conference if you can. As with reading papers, it may be hard to dig into technical material given by experts aimed at other experts but you will learn something from it and get to see scientific discourse in action and meet people. Speak to students about how they got started in the field and speak to academics about their programs and what finding or positions may be available.
  • Try to get involved in scientific research if you can. Offer your services to academics with whatever your current skills and knowledge you have and see if you can help. It might be very peripheral sorting out specimens, or merely collating data or drawing things for a figure and it might not end up in authorship on a paper, but it would get you actively engaged and see the process of research up close. I have had people assist me from Germany and Australia so you don’t need to be physically in the smae building to collaborate and get valuable experience and training.

Any, though in particular all, of these will give you a huge advantage when it comes to getting started for real on a degree or with a new palaeontology job or internship. The best students know what they know and what they don’t, and have the initiative and drive to seek out opportunities to learn and get experience and are not put off by setbacks. You may not be able to get to a conference or find an academic looking for help, but you really should be able to start at least reading papers and developing your knowledge and understanding. That will massively appeal to people looking to recruit to positions or studentships and can make a big difference.


Palaeontology is a hard field to break into, most don’t make it even if they are hard-working and talented and deserve it. But if it’s what you really want to do, then be aware of the risks and go into it open eyed but also hopefully armed with a bit of knowledge and advice as to what you can do to stand a better chance. Be prepared to have to move, be prepared to have to sacrifice a great deal, be prepared to end up somewhere very different to what you might have expected or planned, but also be prepared for the possibility of a fantastic job. All of it is of course up to you, but I wish you the best of luck and I hope this is some useful advice.


To finish off, here’s a bunch of links to other related resources I’ve generated over time on getting along in research and getting hold of papers etc. etc. that should be useful:



FLUGSAURIER 2018 Circular

At the University of Southern California and the LA County Museum, Los Angeles, USA from August 10-14, 2018.


Dear all,

Here are some updates and details on the upcoming conference. Apologies for the delays but things are now racing forwards. The abstracts are under review and we hope to get these back to people soon. In the meantime, here are various updates about the events and the conference.



There will be an ice breaker coffee session and welcome address on the morning of August 10th (and not on the evening of the 9th as we’d originally hoped. If enough people are arriving on the 9th though we can arrange an informal meet up at a local venue). The first technical session will be that afternoon. On the evening of August 10th there will be a welcome social at the Traditions Bar on the USC campus.



There will be two workshops, each two hours in length. Each workshop will have two chairs/moderators. They will provide opening remarks, and then the sessions will proceed primarily as a Q&A based discussion. The topics will be:

Workshop #1: A brief guide to accessing pterosaur specimens worldwide: laws, regulations, and expectations. Chaired by Taissa Rodrigues and Mike Habib.

Workshop #2: Azhdarchoid paleobiology: reviewing the latest in studies of systematics, ecology, and functional morphology. Chaired by Mike Habib and Liz Martin.



Mike is still trying to work with USC to reserve less expensive options on campus. However, this has become problematic, and his recommendation at this late stage is that delegates book other options so that they have a fallback. Many of the area hotels can be booked and cancelled without penalty (so long as cancellation is at least a week prior to arrival). The light rail network is extensive and quick and also has a station right outside the LACM and main USC campus so it should be possible to find accommodation some way from the venues that is still a relatively short and simple commute in. Some options:

The Freehand Los Angeles will run about 140 USD/night during the conference period. It is waking distance from the light rail, which will transport delegates to the conference location in about 15 minutes.

The Radisson at USC is an expensive option immediately across the street from USC. It will run about 300 USD/night.

The Vagabond Inn – Los Angeles at USC is also walking distance and runs 200 USD/night.

There are some small motels and AirBnB options in the area that run around 80 USD/night, but some are in questionable neighborhoods. We highly recommend contacting Mike if you are looking at a possible cheap lodging option and are unfamiliar with Los Angeles.

If people want to share rooms to cut costs further, we suggest they contact each other via the Facebook group. We’re happy to facilitate this.


Palaeoart exhibition

We will be hosting a paleoartist exhibition on the USC campus, and there will be a combined art and poster session for Q&A and informal discussion with the artists. We will have a projector for playing videos and animations available.


Specimen viewing

On August 13th, we will have a specimen viewing event, collections tour, and exhibit hall tour at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, hosted by Dr Luis Chiappe. There will be a lunch provided. Tours will take place after lunch. There will be time to browse the museum exhibits as well.


Field Trip

On August 14th, we will be taking a field trip to the Alf Museum in Claremont, CA. There will be new pterosaur material available for viewing, collections tours given by Dr Andy Farke, and information on local geology of interest. Those extending their stay may wish to visit some of the local Mesozoic formations. Transpiration to the Alf will be by coach, leaving at 7:30AM, return time TBC.


Introducing the Queen Mary Biological Collection

A year or so after I joined queen Mary, I discovered a fairly extensive, and also effectievly abandonned collection of specimens in various storage sites in the department. We have pressed plants, fossils, casts, models, skeletons, dried skins, pickled animals, drawings and more. It’s virtually a miniature museum, but all of it uncatalogued, unsorted and unlabeled. It was pretty soon clear that there were some real gems, a lake Baikal seal skeleton, a whale fetus, several tuataras, casts of the holotype of Pterodactylus and the Berlin Archaeopteryx, some rare seeds and plenty more.

I applied to the university’s Westfield fund for student development and this was happily granted, giving me some funds to work with. So for the last couple of summers I’ve been getting my students to help work out what things are, repair and preserve them and critically, to catalogue them. We now have a provisional database up and running and a photo index of every specimen. It needs work to check for some errors and we also have more still to add but the basics are there.

Critically, I want this to be used for research as well as making thios accessible for teaching. We already have loaned a number of specimens out to colleagues and others have been photographed or measured for papers and I hope that’s only the start. If you want access to anything, please let me know. We have been using the code QMBC for Queen Mary Biological Collection and given my work, you can see why I picked the specimen I did for QMBC 0001.





GDPR compliance

OK so apparently I need to do this for the blog so here goes. Obviously any enquiries etc. you can leave a comment or e-mail me via Specifically, if you want your messages / data deleted then contact me directly. There should be nothing gathered be my or any widget on WordPress that should go beyond that covered below.

Here is the WordPress privacy notice.

And here’s the cookie policy.



Non-tyrannosaurs biting like tyrannosaurs

The internet has obviously revolutionised communications between people but it throws up new connections and opportunities that I think few would have seen coming. A couple of years ago, Dan Chure put up a photo on Facebook of a small sauropod femur with some very obvious theropod bites on it. This was from the Dinosaur National Monument site where Dan worked (he’s now retired)  which made it unusual since non-tyrannosaur faunas tend to have far fewer bites in them than do those where the tyrants are present. At first glance though, this looked like a tyrannosaur-type bite with a long set of bite-and-drag marks where the cortex had been really ripped through so this was really unusual. With my extensive background of research on theropod bites, this was something I was very interested in and I didn’t recognise it. I’d assumed something this unusual and interesting would have been described before but not only had it not been (as far as I know it’s not in the literature at all) but no one was even planning to work on it.

So Dan and I got to work on this and inevitably ran into some issues. Identifying what is effectively an isolated and damaged femur from a young animal is tricky. There are a lot of sauropods knocking around in the Morisson and femora are not one of the more diagnostic elements, but we were able to show that it was from a diplodocoid. The femur s under 60 cm long and while that’s obviously a sizeable animal, it is really small for a sauropod and means this was likely a pretty young individual.

The marks on the bone are concentrated on the dorsolateral side of the bone and consist of a series of grooves across the face of the bone that are especially deep at the upper end. At their deepest, these go through the cortex and indeed a fair bit of bone seems to have basically been snapped off, perhaps coming apart as a result of the amount of damage to the element.

This could also have happened at least in part through transport too. Taphonomically the bone has an odd history, apparently isolated, it is actually very close to a second and near identical femur which suggests that both were from a single animal, but there are not other obvious comparable bones nearby and this suggests a very disarticualted carcass. Not only does the other femur lack any bite traces but these are essentially absent in the quarry as a whole. Of the huge number of bones present, only this small saurpod has any bites on it. That’s obviously really rather odd – if loads of carcasses were around, you might expect either tons of bites from theropods getting stuck into the wealth of food or almost none because feeding carnivores avoided biting bones when there was lost of muscle, or they simply couldn’t get to the bodies (if they were say underwater). But one bone badly bitten when even it’s companion wasn’t and then nothing else, is clearly an oddity. It suggests some odd circumstance where this one bone was, perhaps temporarily, accessible to a feeding theropod though the exact details of what may have happened are irrelevant, it does add a level of intrigue to this case.

The bites themselves are reminiscent of those made by tyrannosaurs – long and deep scores made by a bird-like pull back of the head. That action was common among larger theropods but the specialised premaxillary teeth of tyrannosaurs made them well suited to doing this when the teeth were in contact with the bone. Non-tyrannosaurs did not have the inclination to do this when feeding as with their thinner teeth, these would be at risk of breaking. Other fossils show they had the power to bite deep into bones but generally didn’t, rather than couldn’t, making this case a rare example of this behaviour. While it may have been an exception, it does at least show the capacity of non-tyrannosaurs to feed in this way.

Exactly which theropod this may have been though is a still harder question to answer. One of the nice things about bites left by large tyrannosaurs is that they are the only credible candidates for the trace maker in a given environment and you are generally only picking between a couple of pretty closely related species. You may struggle to say if a bite was from Albertosaurus or Daspletosaurus say, but it was still a large tyrannosaur with fundamentally simialr anatomical specialisations and behaviours and therefore general interpretations are going to be pretty solid either way. In the Morrison though you have large allosaurs and ceratosaurs and some unstable / uncertain taxonomy too (like Saurophaganax) meaning the options are much more open.

Various researchers (inlcuding me) have commented on the possibilities of using the spaces between teeth as an indicator of which animal might have left a given mark. However, as Dan and I cover here while in theory that could be useful, in practice we can’t account for the variables of things like ontogeny and missing or offset teeth and the angle at which an animal might drag the head could all dramatically affect the spacing between traces left by the teeth. In short, where there are mutliple credible trace makers it it going to be very hard to pick between them without soemthing diagnostic like shed teeth.

Still, wit no large tyrannosaurs around in the Morrison, whatever did this was not one so we can at least say confidently that at least one large theropod was engaging in tyrannosaur-style feeding, even if it was rare. Perhaps of course the style of feeding was common but merely tooth-bone contact was limited and this fits with waht we do know about that pull feeding action. Even so, this is something of a frustrating project between the quirky history of the bone and its bites and the uncertain identities of the bone and the trace maker. Hopefully more traces like this will turn up or be described from Jurassic beds and we may begin to piece together the feeding styles of large theropods. This one might be a partial mystery for now, but it hopefully provides some useful data fitting into what we know about the behaviour of some of the big theropods other than tyrannosaurs, even if this leads to the idea that they may have been more simialr to each other in this regards than we previously realised.


Hone, D.W.E., & Chure, D.J. 2018. Difficulties in assigning trace makers from theropodan bite marks: an example from a young diplodocoid sauropod. Lethaia.

Citations of lists – a small moan

I used to do this sort of thing a lot on this blog but with the posts generally slowing it has become rather more rare (for better or worse, most readers would likely go for better I imagine) but it’s time for a moan. This is something I have seen before but recently I’ve had a whole spate of papers to review that do this and it seemed something annoying and common enough to put out publicly so that a) hopefully people will agree with me and b) then some will stop doing it.

This is about points in papers were a big long list appears in the text but then all the citations come at the end. So you get something like ‘…as seen in Tyrannosaurus, Tarbosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Gorgosaurus, Albertasaurus and Zhuchengtyrannus (Smith et al., 1994; Jones, 2001; Smith and Jones, 2005, 2007; Smith and Smith, 2016, 2017).

At best this is annoying and at worst actively cryptic about information. In my example there are six taxa and six papers so you can assume that they realte to these taxa in order, but even if they do, it’s a slight pain to work out exactly which paper refers to which one. I’ve seen examples like this with a dozen papers and then you really do have to move your finger along and count to try and work out which is which. Even so, this assumption may not be true – are those papers certainly in the right order? The only way you can find out or to check is to go and read each to follow it through. The point of citations is a paper trail of what you did and where you got the information from and to credit it correctly. So this list in this format is actually making you redo the work of the author and is hardly something that actually helps communicate information.

Worse, I regularly see such lists have different numbers of points to the number of references given. That means that at least some points are covered by a single reference (if they are more numerous) or multiple points are covered in one reference (if there are more points), but again, it’s impossible to know which is which. You are back to having to reread each paper to check.

In short, for the apparent sake of making a list look slightly nicer on the page, the information the reader often wants, even needs (which paper does or does not directly refer to which of those things in the list, be they taxa, anatomical features, localities or whatever) is obscured. Now, I do get that this easier on the eye to read than say ‘Tyrannosaurus,(Smith et al., 1994),  Tarbosaurs (Jones, 2001),but personally I don’t find that an issue, I’ve read enough papers to skim over references while reading without a problem. More importantly, it is perfectly clear exactly which paper refers to which point and so is far superior to a big lump of papers are the end.

If it’s not immediately clear, it can’t immedaitely be verified and you may have to wade through a large number of references to check. This is hardly the end of times, but for me this really helps neither the author show that they have done what they set out to or the reader follow that up. And so really, please, please, cut out the lists followed by a list of references. Authors don’t do it and referees and editors, pick up on it and ask people to make specific points supported by specific references.

Flugsaurier 2018 deadline extended

The LA Flugsaurier meeting is creeping closer and we are working hard to get everything in place. However, as sure as night follows day, people are behind on their abstracts so we have decided to extend the abstract submission deadline by a week! The new deadline is April 9 (not 2nd!).

Keep up with new information and deadlines on the Facebook group or the conference website.

Ceratopsian horns and frills – what drove their evolution?

So I have another new paper out on sexual selection and what this means for dinosaurs. This one has been led by my PhD student Andy Knapp (follow him on Twitter here) and he agreed to write about it here:

Ceratopsians are among the most instantly recognisable dinosaurs thanks to their enormous, elaborately-adorned skulls. The frills and horns of ceratopsians have been the subject or ongoing debate in palaeontological circles since the discovery of Triceratops in the late 19th century. Triceratops is known to everyone, specialists and non-specialists alike, and remains the classic example of ceratopsian skull morphology, with three large forward-pointing horns and a thick, shield-like frill extending back from the rear of the skull. It seemed obvious to early palaeontologists that these features had evolved for protection. The trouble is that Triceratops is almost alone in possessing this precise combination of features. Many of the larger ceratopsians that we know of didn’t have such large horns, and most had large, weight-saving fenestrae in their frills which would offer little protective value in life. In recent years the large number of known ceratopsian species has increased with a steady stream of new discoveries, each with its own characteristic horn and frill morphologies. These discoveries have posed a whole load of new questions as to what their purpose was.

Large, elaborate features with no obvious use – such as the frills and horns seen in ceratopsians – are expensive to grow and maintain, and obvious parallels in living creatures involve sexually selected features. The most extravagant examples of sexually selected features, as realised by Darwin in his book The Descent of Man, involve extreme sexually dimorphism in traits and/or overall size; peacock tails, elephant seals, etc. In contrast, there is no convincing evidence of sexual dimorphism in any ceratopsian taxa. This has led some researchers to reject the hypothesis of sexual selection as an explanation for exaggerated features in ceratopsians and other dinosaurs, and suggest that instead these features have evolved for species recognition.

Species recognition is the idea that being able to differentiate members of your own species is vital in herding, protection and mating. Basic examples of ‘species recognition’ are everywhere in nature; zebras don’t have trouble telling lions apart from other zebras! The more specific idea that physical traits evolve as a mechanism to allow differentiation is controversial. There are a few known examples of divergence of traits in closely-related taxa where hybridisation could be detrimental to fitness, a process known as reproductive character displacement. This is distinct from ecological character displacement, where sympatric taxa that fill similar ecological niches diverge in traits associated with resource acquisition. The rock nuthatches Sitta neumayer and S. tephronota exist across central Asia in partially overlapping ranges. Where they are sympatric, the distinctive dark eye stripe, ubiquitous across the rest of the two species’ ranges, fades in intensity in the population of S. neumayer. This has been interpreted as an adaptation to prevent hybridisation between the two species. Crucially, other known examples of reproductive character displacement involve minor modifications to pre-existing, often sexually selected features.

Reproductive character displacement is not expected to operate where a taxon exists in isolation, because there is no evolutionary pressure for traits to diverge. This prediction allows us to test the hypothesis of species recognition as an explanation for the presence of distinctive traits in extinct taxa for which we have good geographical information. Ceratopsians fit these criteria well. They were widespread across North America and Asia, speciose, and many species are known from relatively complete remains. We compiled and assessed a list of 350 cladistic character traits for a 46 well-known ceratopsian species and compared how the traits generally considered ornamental, and thus contenders to be species recognition traits, varied between sympatric and non-sympatric species. We also examined at other traits; those that were internal and therefore not visible during the animal’s life, and those that were external but not considered to function as a display trait. We then conducted a pairwise comparison of each possible species pair for three distinct character classes; internal, display, and external non-display.

We then compared the results for species pairs known to be sympatric and, therefore, likely to encounter one another in life, with non-sympatric species pairs. For each category we found increasing character divergence with increasing phylogenetic distance as expected, but, crucially, found no difference between the disparity of the display characters of sympatric species and those of non-sympatric species. This suggests that interaction between species has no effect on the evolution of ornaments in ceratopsians, and that species recognition is not a contributing factor to ornament evolution. Of course, it is entirely plausible that ceratopsians were able to identify conspecifics by their ornamentation, but this would have been a byproduct of ornamentation, not a cause.

The ruling out of species recognition as a driver of ornament evolution, at least in ceratopsians, shortens the list of possible explanations. Avoiding hybridisation would benefit both parties and so the evolution of distinguishing features should tend towards a zero-cost exercise. In contrast, ceratopsian skulls are the largest of any terrestrial vertebrate and impose certain limitations on their bearers. Computer models of ceratopsians have shown their massive skulls shifted their centre of mass further forwards than other quadrupedal dinosaurs. Compared with the hadrosaurs that they shared the ancient river deltas of what is now Canada’s Dinosaur Provincial Park, this made them poor swimmers and liable to drown when crossing bodies of water. This obvious handicap, along with the sheer cost of growing and maintaining such a large component of overall body mass that has no obvious mechanical or ecological function, points to an explanation that favours investment in high-cost structures.

An additional result of our analysis was that at the lowest phylogenetic distances, ornamental traits were around ten times more diverse than internal traits and three times more diverse than non-ornamental external characters. This suggests a general trend for rapid evolution of ornamental traits. Rapid evolution and high-cost are both hallmarks of sexually selected features. If the frills and horns of ceratopsians are sexually selected, as has been previously suggested, they are distinct from extant taxa in being both highly exaggerated and sexually monomorphic. This combination suggests strong sexual selection that applies more-or-less equally to both sexes. Some evidence for ceratopsian ornamentation being sexually selected has been demonstrated previously, and this study both adds to this evidence and rejects a competing hypothesis. Ultimately, our findings open up further avenues for exploring the life history and ecology of these fascinating and enigmatic creatures.


Knapp A, Knell RJ, Farke AA, Loewen MA and Hone DWE (2018). Patterns of divergence in the morphology of ceratopsian dinosaurs: sympatry is not a driver of ornament evolution. Proc. R. Soc. B. 20180312.



Brown WL and Wilson EO (1956) Character displacement. Systematic Zoology. 5: 49-64

Darwin, C. (1871). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. London, John Murray

Henderson DM (2014). Duck Soup: The floating fates of hadrosaurs and ceratopsians at Dinosaur Provincial Park, in Eberth D and Evans D (eds). Hadrosaurs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 459-466

Hone, D.W.E., Wood, D., and Knell, R.J. (2016). Positive allometry for exaggerated structures in the ceratopsian dinosaur Protoceratops andrewsi supports socio-sexual signalling. Palaeontologica Electronica. 19.1.5A: 1-13

Knell RJ, Naish D, Tompkins JL, and Hone DWE (2012). Sexual selection in prehistoric animals: detection and implications. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 28; 38 – 47

Maidment SCR, Henderson DM, and Barret PM (2014). What drove reversions to quadrupedality in ornithischian dinosaurs? Testing hypotheses using centre of mass modelling. Naturwissenschaften. 101: 989 – 1001

Padian, K. and Horner, J.R. (2010). The evolution of ‘bizarre structures’ in dinosaurs: biomechanics, sexual selection, social selection or species recognition? Journal of Zoology. 283; 3 – 17

Flugsaurier 2018 Circular

This has been in the works for too long but we do now have a formal first cicular for Flugsaurier 2018. The abstract submission date is but 6 weeks away, but then you should have known about this conference from 3 years out… 🙂


Flugsaurier 2018: Los Angeles
The 6th International Symposium on Pterosaurs: First Circular

Welcome to Los Angeles

We invite all individuals working on, or interested in, pterosaur biology or associated geosciences to submit abstracts for the 2018 Flugsaurier meeting in Los Angeles, CA, USA. The meeting will be held August 10-14 at the University of Southern California and the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Please mark your calendars for what we are sure will be an exciting meetinng!

Current  Calendar:

all events at USC, except Welcome Reception/Specimen Viewing and Field Trip

August 10th: Ice Breaker at USC (AM) and aRernoon technical sessions
August 11th: Technical Session; Welcome Recepion and Specimen Viewing at NHMLA
August 12th: Technical Session (AM); Workshops (PM); Paleoart Exhibition
August 13th: Technical Session (AM); Workshops (PM); Conference Dinner (PM)
August 14th: Field Trip (TBD)

Notes: The NHMLA is located adjacent to the main campus of USC. The Conference Dinner loca4on is TBD, but we expect to use a venue either on the USC campus or in nearby Downtown Los Angeles. The Field Trip costs will be included in the registraion. We hope to arrange a trip to the Moreno Formation of California.

Abstract Information
Abstracts have a limit of 500 words with up to 3 references (Harvard format) and 1 figure.
For details, or to determine if abstracts meet criteria, please contact Michael Habib: Abstracts can be submi]ed here. We will accept mul?ple submissions from authors but only one talk per lead author. Abstracts will be reviewed. We cannot guarantee speaker or poster slots. Abstracts submissions are due by midnight, Pacific Time, on March 26th. EDIT: Deadline extended – the new deadline is April 9th.

Host Committee:
Host committee will also be the review committee for all abstract submissions Michael Habib (Chair), Brent Breithaupt, Nathan Carroll, David Hone, Lu Junchang, Elizabeth Martin-Silverstone, Taissa Rodrigues.
Special Thanks goes to Luis Chiappe for hosting the NHMLA components of the program.

Travel Information

The closest hotel is the Radisson Hotel Los Angeles Midtown at USC. Rooms at this hotel
average 178 USD per night:
Less expensive options can be found in some parts of Downtown Los Angeles. The American Hotel often has rooms for 85 USD per night: The hotel is walking distance from a light rail sta?on, from which rail travel to USC and the NHMLA is approximately 10-12 minutes.

We are currently working with USC to secure some low-cost housing on campus. We expect this to be limited and available mostly to students. More informa?on about on-campus housing will follow as soon as it is confirmed.

Travel to Los Angeles:
The closest airport to the conference venue is Los Angeles International (LAX). However,
travelers can also fly into Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR) or Long Beach Airport (LGB). LAX runs regular buses to Union Sta?on, from which light rail can be taken to Downtown Los Angeles and USC.
Note that travel to the United States for a conference typically requires a B Class Visitor Visa, unless the port of origin is part of the Visa Waiver Program. For details on Visitor Visa applications, and to determine if your country of origin is associated with a VWP, please check here:

Natural Histroy Museums of LA County:
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is the largest natural and historical museum in the western United States. Its collections include nearly 35 million specimens and artifacts and cover 4.5 billion years of history. The NHMLA houses an extensive collection of specimens from the Niobrara Chalk and Pierre Shale, including a sizeable collection of Pteranodon specimens and one of the few partial skeletons of Nyctosaurus. In 2016, the NMHLA hosted Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs, from the AMNH.

Other Area Museums:
Alf Museum, Claremont CA: The Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, located on the
campus of The Webb Schools, houses extensive vertebrate fossil collections, including multiple excellent pterosaur specimens. It is the only nationally accredited museum in the USA on a high school campus. The Alf Museum provides a unique research program for Webb students where they study fossils they find on collec?ng trips and publish the results of their research in collaboration with museum staff, a unique program for secondary school students.
Tar Pits Museum, Los Angeles CA: Part of the LACM system of museums (along with the
NHMLA), the Tar Pits Museum in Los Angeles has one of the largest Pleistocene collections in the world. Active excavation continues throughout the year on the grounds of the museum, which is located in the Miracle Mile district.


The official website to keep an eye on is this one:


New Perspectives in Pterosaur Palaeobiology

So a new volume of papers in now online that I have edited and now there’s lots of pterosaur goodness to access. This is above titled volume produced by the Geological Society and is volume 455 in the Lyell Collection. The full list of papers and links is here but while most have been available online for some time, there is not this pretty published hardbacked version (cover art and photo by Mark Witton).

This volume is ultimately the product of the  2015 Flugsaurier meeting held in Portsmouth and features a number of papers that were presented there as well as others that have come in. There is a new taxon named (an anuroganthid!) and papers on taxonomy, systematics, anatomy, ecology, ontogeny and biomechanics. There are 17 papers and an introduction and as such I think it’s fair to say that this is a major collection and anyone with a serious interest in pterosaurs is going to need to read this.

Sadly the collection is not OA and these volumes can be expensive, but they are generally available at a reduced rate after a year or so. Unlike earlier editions the individual papers have been produced as high quality PDFs and distributed to authors, so if there’s a particular paper you are desperate for, I’m sure you can enquire. Personally I like dead tree versions of things, and this volume is printed on nice paper and has nice colour figures too which is clearly a bonus.

I should take a moment to thank Mark Witton and Dave Martill my coeditors in this venture and all the referees who took time to work on these papers. Also I’d like to thank the staff of the Geological Society who accepted our pitch and helped guide us through the work necessary to get this volume completed. I’m very pleased with the finla result and it’s nice to see citations already accruing for the papers within. The books are bing printed and shipped so for anyone who has ordered or was an author on a paper, expect these to arrive in the next few weeks.




Sexual selection: patterns in the history of life

Longtime reads will know I have a huge interest in sexual selection and what that might mean for the evolution of all kinds of features (horns, crests, colours, feathers) in various archosaurs. In an effort to explore this further and help make new research connections, I have got together with Rob Knell and Doug Emlen to arrange a small meeting on this through the Royal Society. This will take place on the 9th and 10th of May next year jsut outside London.

The speaker list is fantastic and includes palaeontologists, modellers, theorists and people who link between those disciplines and with interests in dinosaurs, birds, insects, mammals and other clades. In short, this should least to a wide ranging discussion and opportunities for people to put some ideas out get and get collaborations and research going in major new directions.

Attendance is free (though there are costs for accommodation and food) but you will need to register and places may be limited. All of the details of the meeting are here including the speaker list. We hope to also run a poster session for non-speakers too.



Hawkins’ St George and the, errr, ‘dragon’

I was recently introduced to the image below and thought it was something I should share. Given my interest in pterosaurs and palaeoart I was rather surpised by it as I was completely unaware of its existence. That is is by a British artist with a major influence on early depicitons of fossil animals only added to my surpise that it had passed me by. Perhaps it is well known and I’ve simply managed to miss it, but I rather supect it may not be common knowledge at all since it was apparently not created for a palaeontological audience.

The picture in question was made in 1783 by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, he of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs fame. Hawkins designed these, and many other sculptures, and produced all manner of artworks that were used to show off dinosaurs and other ancient beasts. In this case this wasn’t ever a palaeoart pic as such but really an illustration of the legend of St George and the dragon only with the latter having a very prehistoric bent. Those who know the Crystal Palace animals will reconise the pictured ‘pterodactyl’ as being a very close representative of the pterosaurs that sit on a rock above the dinosaurs. This animal is rather larger than these and would be big for a pterosaur known at the time, (and huge for a Pterodactylus) but despite some oddities (the back of the head in particular, and the very long tails) is very clearly pterosaurian.

Given the number of prominent scientists of the age who are at some level creationists (including Richard Owen, Hawkins’ employer on the Crystal Palace sculptures) it is tempting to assume that this was an influence in illustrating such a religious figure with something that’s perhaps less a fictional dragon and more real, if extinct, creature. Is there an attempt here to give credence to the legend by suggesting the dragon was real, if a little out of time? I can’t help suspect so, though I don’t know Hawkins’ intent, perhaps it was simply a case of a nice bit of inspiration for him to be able to use one set of ideas on a second project. Either way, for me it’s a rather interesting piece of early pterosaur illustration and one that deserves to be better known.


@Dave_Hone on Twitter

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 492 other followers