Pteranodon vs Cretoxyrhina

Shark vs Pterosaur. By Mark Witton.

Over the last 10 years I have published quite a few papers on various feeding traces, shed teeth and stomach contents that help demonstrate and refine some understandings about who ate who in the Mesozoic. These are often very interesting but also frustratingly incomplete and it can be hard to identify one, let alone both, of the protagonists and in any case these are often isolated examples that may or may not represent wider trends. Still, at least sometimes there can be a good set of marks with repeated patterns and enough data to be quite confident about a relationship.

One such is that between the classic giant pelagic pterosaur Pteranodon and various sharks from the Cretaceous, most notably Squalicorax. This is no big surprise, these pterosaurs were spending a large amount of time out over the water and could probably dive and swim after prey, even if they didn’t likely sit for long on the surface when they did so. Even aside from the possibility of being caught, at least some pterosaurs must have died while out over the water or been stranded and ill or injured on the surface and that would inevitably attract large predators to come for a meal. Given the huge numbers of Pteranodon bones we have, it should not then be a surprise that there are a good number of them described with various bite marks that can be confidently attributed to large sharks. Pterosaurs were generally lightweight for their size but that doesn’t mean there was not some decent muscle on them and modern seabirds are not infrequently eaten by sharks providing a nice analogy too.

‘Complete’ Pteranodon at the LACM.

Such data though is limited to marks on bones and it’s always nice to have something more detailed than this. Although mentioned before in several previous papers, one outstanding Pteranodon specimen in LA has never been described or illustrated properly and so when I got my hands on it while visiting Mike Habib a few years ago, it was rather inevitable that something would happen, and the paper on that, with the healthy addition of Mark Witton as a collaborator, is now out.

The indivdual in question is mounted as a lovely complete (and sort of 3-D) pterosaur on display in the Los Angeles County Museum but it is a composite of somewhat indeterminate origin and it’s not entirely clear how many individuals were used to make it or how complete any of them were. What is clear though is that there is a short series of articulated cervical vertebrae and that these have the tooth of a decently sized shark with them. It’s trapped under a prezygopophysis so it’s hard to think it just drifted in there by chance onto a skeleton at the very bottom of the sea, and while the tooth doesn’t look like it penetrates the bone it is a reasonable interpretation that this is a shed tooth from a bite.

The tooth is diagnostic of the large pelagic shark Cretoxyrhina and we have a good enough idea of where in the mouth it sat which means we can get decent estimates of the sizes of each of the two animals here. The Pteranodon clocks in at around 5 m in wingspan with the shark being 2.5 m in length, but despite this apparent discrepancy, the shark would have been by far the heavier animal and in the water it would swim rings round the pterosaur. In short, while we don’t know quite what happened here (was it predation or scavenging) it looks like a decent sized shark took a chunk out of a pterosaur and lost a tooth in the process.

This is the first record of sucha trophic relationship between these two genera, though of course various unattributed bites that are already known might also have been made by Cretoxyrhina. However, despite the large numbers of Pteranodon specimens known, apparent bites on them turn up in only about 1% of cases. In some ways this may sound like a lot but there’s perhaps a 6% rate of carnivore-consumed interactions known for Rhamphorhynchus, so the open ocean (perhaps unsurprisingly) might have had fewer incidences of large predators getting to grips with large pterosaurs than near shore ones with much smaller animals.

All in all though, this adds a nice new point to the dataset on pterosaurs and their position in various food chains. We have a healthy record of them eating things, and being eaten, and each new bit of data like this helps us get a better and better handle on how pterosaurs fitted into ecosystems and how they might have lived, and died, in the Mesozoic.

 

The paper is fully OA and available here.

 

Interview with Gabriel Ugueto

Gabriel is a real newcomer but has smashed into the palaeoart scene with his huge productivity levels meaning his artwork is already everywhere online and in books and in concert will all kinds of media and palaeo projects. There’s already a mountain of his material and more is coming as he talks about his book plans below.

Tyrannosaurus ‘design’ done for ‘The Real T. rex’

How long have you been an artist?

I have been drawing since I can recall. I was thinking about this the other day, and I realized that I do not remember a time in my life when I was not drawing or painting. I have always loved drawing, I have always loved animals, and I have always loved drawing animals, so I guess it was a natural progression for me to become a scientific illustrator and paleoartist.

Chasmosaurine phylogeny

How long have you been producing palaeoart?

I am a newcomer to the paleoart scene. I have only been seriously involved in producing paleoart for the last three years, but in that time I have been fortunate enough to have won the praise from numerous paleontologists and several fellow paleoartists that I truly admire. I have worked on some really interesting projects that include books, scientific papers, art for museums, magazine articles, and even the TV documentary “The Real T. rex,” in which I got to work with you in the concept art that was used to generate the CGI Tyrannosaurus rex that appears in the program. I studied graphic design and illustration, and the road to becoming a paleoartist has not been straightforward. Before entering the world of paleoart, I was doing other types of graphic art, including scientific illustration. For several years I was also an independent herpetology researcher, and I authored numerous papers including the description of several new species and genera of neotropical lizards. During that time most of my scientific illustration was concentrated in herpetology. As time went by, I started getting more and more requests to illustrate various types of reptiles and amphibians. The world of herpetology is intrinsically linked to paleontology, so I consider my incursion into paleoart just a natural extension of my work as a scientific illustrator. Eventually, enough people were asking me for commissions that I could start working as a full-time freelance paleoartist and scientific illustrator.

Titanonophoneus

What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?

I grew up in Venezuela in a family of nature lovers, so I was surrounded by numerous field guides and other animal books, as well as by the diverse local fauna. Thus, I was exposed to animals constantly in one way or another, and they very quickly became the most important subject for my art. I was not only fascinated by extant creatures but extinct ones as well. Dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles were among the first animals I remember drawing, and I was completely mesmerized by them. My oldest brother (who is my elder by 19 years) was studying geology when I was a little kid so there were all these books about geology and paleontology laying around in my house. I used to spend hours reading those books and drawing the various extinct animals that appeared in them.

Thylacoleo

What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?

My favorite piece is always the one I am currently working on, or the one that I am planning to do. It is that drive to create something new that keeps you going, hungry, and interested as an artist. I think that is the case not only in paleoart or scientific illustration, but in every line of creative/scientific endeavor. Currently, I am largely focused on finishing my book “Journey To The Mesozoic vol. I.” In it, I would like to take the readers on a journey around the world during the Triassic and Jurassic periods, visiting 33 geological formations and seeing reconstructions of over 600 tetrapod species that lived during that time. Some of those reconstructions include several well-known dinosaurs like Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, but also numerous, more obscure and extremely interesting creatures. So, my book and the reconstructions I have produced for it, are currently my favorite pieces of paleoart.

Niobrara fauna

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?

There are many paleoartists who have been, and continue to be, sources of inspiration for me. Among those, I can name five who have been fundamental in influencing and inspiring my work. Douglas Henderson has created some of the most beautiful scenes in paleoart, with masterful compositions depicting animals in a very natural way. I am particularly fond of his reconstructions of Triassic animals and environments. John Conway has been a major influence on me regarding depicting exciting hypotheses in an artistically interesting way. I also deeply admire the wonderful art by Mauricio Anton. His magnificent and detailed illustrations of (primarily) extinct mammals are, in my view, some of the best depictions of that group of vertebrates ever created. Matthew Martinyuk reconstructions of maniraptoran dinosaurs and pterosaurs, done in a simple but thoroughly researched, field guide style, have also been very influential for me. As have been the beautiful, atmospheric reconstructions of appropriately feathered maniraptoran dinosaurs by Emily Willoughby.

Assorted sauropods

What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?

I get this question on social media all the time, and I always answer it the same way: I cannot choose just one because there are so many of them that I find so interesting, including all extant birds and crocodilians. In all honesty, I think I am slightly partial towards theropods, but recently, my love for various pseudosuchian groups has grown tremendously. Many of them, like poposauroids and metriorhynchids have become some of my favorite art subjects.

Deinocheirus and Alioramus

Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?

There are a lot of them, maybe too many to list. Also, I am always interested in revisiting animals that I have reconstructed in the past, viewing them from a different point of view or perspective.

Dimorphodon

What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?

In my view, good paleoart should make the viewer feel the subject you have depicted as an animal that could be alive. Secondly, good paleoart should be effective in helping general audiences understand the latest scientific research and hypotheses. Finally, good paleoart should never showcase extinct animals as blood-thirsty, psychotic movie monsters. Sadly, the world of paleoart is over saturated with reconstructions of dinosaurs and other Mesozoic reptiles running around or swimming with their mouths wide open, a maniacal look in their eyes, and blood spilling everywhere. Sure, gory scenes occur in nature, but they are not nearly as interesting or common as other parts of the daily life of any animal. Images like that just help reinforce the view of dinosaurs and other extinct animals as kaiju. For me that is the equivalent of a tabloid story. Simply yellow press or click bait at its best based on little or no real truthful information.

Shuvuuia

You can follow Gabriel on Twitter here and Instagram here and his website is here.

 

Interview with Brian Engh

Brian with his fighting mastodons picture

It has been quite a while since I managed to do a palaeoart interview but here is a new one with newly crowned Lazendorf prize winner Brian Engh. He is a relative newcomer to the palaeoart scene but has risen quickly and blogs extensively about his projects and thoughts on dinosaurs and has a reputation for taking on big projects with some of the more dramatic and unusual (while still biologically plausible) takes on dinosaurs and other ancient beasts.
How long have you been an artist?

As long as I can remember I have been compelled to depict things, to create characters and settings and stories, to inhabit the realm of imagination and try to manifest it in physical reality. But only recently has my truly personal creative interests coalesced in a way that I can survive off them.

Cacops attacks

How long have you been producing palaeoart?

My first commission was in 2010 for Tor Bertin’s paper reviewing the Spinosauridae. There was a big gap in paleoart commissions between that and my first truly professional paleoart commission which was the art depicting Aquilops (shown at the bottom) for the paper and press release describing that specimen in 2014.

Brian’s early spinosaur picture

What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?

I have always been interested in unexplored worlds and strange non-human beings, and bringing those to life through art. I cannot remember a time when I did not want to look at a frog or a plant or a chicken or a bug an try to understand it. My fascination with paleontology is just a natural extension of that interest, with the added benefit of the creatures being even more alien, the worlds less explored, and both absolutely requiring art to bring them back to life.

Lazendorf prize wiining entry – Savage Ancient Seas

What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?

Whichever one I’m working on next. By the time I’m done with a piece I am exhausted with it and too close to it.

If I have to pick a single finished piece that I’m reasonably satisfied with it would be the life-sized portrait of “Ava” the new ceratopsian found by Triebold Paleontology that the Western Science Center commissioned. I feel like the character of a living animal is starting to come through in that piece. It was also fun to work at life-scale. There’s a strange intimacy to detailing the big snout of an animal that died 75 million years ago. It feels like grooming a big old pet. By the end of that project I really wished I could’ve seen what this individual who’s skull had been found really looked and acted like, where it hatched, how it survived, how it died and how it slept in the earth until it woke up in our modern world with a different face. I wish I could see the real animal’s face next to the one I gave it. I wonder how it would react to its own portrait…

The end of Xiphactinus

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?

I really can’t pick because there are different ways to evaluate art & artists, and also the viewer’s mood and context is important for enjoying art. In terms of overall mood and style, my favourite paleoartist is Doug Henderson. His work “feels” right to me. It feels like the planet I know, and the prehistoric creatures inhabiting it feel like real animals you would expect to find living in this ancient planet. But Doug isn’t really active any more, and it seems that the difficulty of making any decent money off of paleoart and the other frustrations that come from interacting with the paleontological community seem to have worn him down and made him throw in the towel on paleoart, so I can’t say he’s my favourite artist in terms of his career. John Sibbick’s work is also gorgeous, viscerally compelling, often amazingly believable-looking, and it was hugely influential on me as a kid. I would say his animal reconstructions are my favourite in terms of the character or attitude they exude, and his plant reconstructions are the most texturally satisfying I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately he also has become much less active in paleoart since the 90s, but I really don’t know anything about him or his career beyond that. I also love James Gurney’s work, but more for the fantasy side of what he does. Gurney’s work makes me feel like life will persist and is good. There’s a sentimentality to his work that seems almost restorative for the mind and soul. It is also to his credit that he his still active in both the publishing and scientific worlds, and he shares his knowledge through his youtube page and blog. I admire all of that a lot. Mark Hallett is also at that rare intersection of still being active as a professional artist and having tremendous skill and an amazing body of work. I had the good fortune to meet him at SVP in Salt Lake in 2016. I didn’t realize until I met him that Mark was born with one arm. Despite this handicap he has developed top-level skills in drawing and painting, and has executed some of the most ambitious and beautiful pieces of paleoart anyone has ever pulled off. On top of all that he doesn’t seem to have let the often petty, political and poorly funded world of paleontology jade him too much. He has continued against all odds to grind through making paleoart, and in 2016 he released a huge book on sauropods with my friend and long-time collaborator Matt Wedel. You should probably include a link to where people can buy that here (ed: done!).

Feeding sauropods

What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?

I don’t have one, but because kids at outreach events ask me this all the time my go to answer is cassowary… because then I get to tell them about how goddamn awesome cassowaries are and that dinosaurs never fully went extinct.

Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?

Yes of course. All of the ones I have not.

Hypothetical inflated throat sacs for large sauropods

What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?

Inspiring wonder and awe.

In recent years obnoxious know-it-alls mostly on the internet have steered every conversation about paleontological art toward evaluating its “scientific accuracy” despite the fact that these self-made experts are pedeantic dickheads that only remember laundry lists of facts so that they can look smarter than people, rather than actually developing a solid grounding in biology by which to have any real discussions. I think this has caused a significant beating back of the creativity of a lot of artists interested in paleontology, and has contributed significantly to a lot of really beige, conservative paleoart in recent years, despite all the amazing discoveries published every other day it seems. These same paleontological pests are the same people who will look back on a piece by Knight or Burian or the sculptures at the Crystal Palace and mock them for being “tail dragging lizards” and “totally incorrect,” and in doing so completely fail to recognize that this art inspired generations of subsequent artists and scientists to take an interest in natural history. Although antiquated, these past works had that effect because they were aesthetically beautiful, impressive, and gave people a window to a world that they had never seen or thought about prior to encountering that art. At best a piece of paleoart can only reflect some of the current views and knowledge on a given paleontological subject, and as more fossils and discoveries come to light nearly ALL paleoart will eventually be totally inaccurate. We should actually hope for this, because it means science and our understanding of our planet is advancing, and we shouldn’t view older art as “bad” because it is no longer up-to-date. For this reason I am fully willing to take the risk of having my work labeled “too speculative” or “sensationalized”, and it’s part of the motivation for hosting my own paleoart contest, where the main criteria I’ll be judging and rewarding the work on is creativity and originality. The contest ends November 1st, and I am excited by all the wild entries I’ve received thus far. I hope that any artists out there who haven’t entered will do so before the deadline! You can learn more here.

Cryptic Aquilops

As ever all images are copyright to Brian and are on generous loan here. Please speak to him if you want to use them.

 

Testing for sexual selection

I had a new paper out a few weeks ago but it was at the very height of my busy start to teaching and so barely even got a tweet out about it and completely failed to do anything on here. That’s a shame as this is a paper that has some serious and major implications for trying to detect sexually selected structures in extinct animals (and indeed looking at some odd structures in living ones too). I’ve written a huge amount about dinosaur dimorphism and sexual selection and with numerous papers covering different aspects of the evolution and behviour of dinosaurs (and pterosaus) when it comes to signals and sexually selected things like crests, spines and horns.

The short version is that these are of course hard to look at becuase we can’t directly observe behaviour in extinct animals and coupled with small sample sizes, taxonomic uncertainty of specimens and then issues like extended growth periods and cryptic dimorphism and this is a frustratingly tricky subject to tackle. One standard, if imperfect, measure has been to look at the growth trajectory of the anatomical feature in question and to see if it grows more rapidly than the rest of the naimal, especially iof this happens relatively late in ontogeny. In short, animals don’t need sexaul display structures when they are not sexually mature but when they are this is important so things like horns tend to be small for a long time and then grow very quickly.

This paper led by Devin O’Brien and featuring a host of sexaul selection theroists and biologists posits that things may be more complex still. Features that directly rate to body size will be postively allometric (this can include things like horns and crests in dinosaurs) but those that are not (like say a moths’ antenna), will not. The former are accurate representations of the animals they are attached to and so act as a proxy for their size and quality, but other traits that can still be variable and under sexual selection are not acting in this way and so wouldn’t follow this pattern. There may even be some allometry in these latter traits (non-reproducing animals will not likely invest in such features until the can mate) but the allometry will be much greater, and the correlation with body size present in visual signals.

To help resolve this, we also reccommend in the paper that allometry be tested not jsut again body size but also some other reference trait that is likely to (or been shown to) grow close to isometry. So for example, don’t just measure your dinosaur horn as it related to overall skull size, but also compre it to something like tooth size or humerus lenght. That will help keep things clear when there are other traits around that can grow rapidly or are large but that don’t function as signals. One wonderful example of this we inlcude is a comparisons of the horns on the head of a chameleon with the lenght of the tongue. We used foot size as a reference trait andf show that while both tongues and horns do show allometry, the tongue is little more than isometric but the horns (used in combat and an obvious visual siganl to reflect that) have a much greater allometric slope and show greater variability which is likely to reflect differing quality.

We include a whole raft of such measures of various animals from insects up to mammals and covering both signal and non-signal traits. Two extinct animals were included based on dataset I’ve been working on for a while and may be of interest. One was the frills of Protoceratops which I and colleagues did some time ago but now updated with some extra specimens that we did now have before. These produced a simialr result to our analysis which is no big surprise but nice to see the previous results verified. The second one though was to look at the growth of the tail vane in Rhamphorhynchus.

The standard interpretation of basal pterosaur tail vanes has been that these functioned in steering in flight and acted as something of rudder. That works out quite well since many of the shapes adopted are surprisingly close to the rudders actually made for various aircraft and putting a small vane at the end of the tail would make mechanical sense to increase the effects. However, it is notable that the vanes for Rhamphorhynchus (the only pterosaur where we have a decent sample size) seem to change quite dramatically in shape as they grow and this is rather at odds with the idea that this is purely mechanical. Similarly, there is some serious variation between various basal pterosaurs in vane shape which suggests that the tail is unlikely o be (purely) mechanical in function and the fact that the pterodactloids gfot rid of theirs implies it is hardly critical for flight. Some people have suggested that these vanes were therefor acting as some form of signal and our analysis bears this out. The height of the vane grown very considerably and shows strong positive allometry as the vane changes from a narrow leaf shape in juveniles to a triangle in adults. The vane could of course be multi-functional and it could well be that it has been co-opted from something initially mechanical to function in signaling.

The fundamentals of the methods and theory described here have been around for some time, but the nuance is important to try and distinctuish between traits that are sexually selected and those which are also likely used in some form of display and even combat. It should make for a more reliable way of assessing these kinds of traits and that should be of real benefit to palaeontologists who have an interest in these things. I hope it is not long until more animals are formally assessed for their growth trajectories and what that might mean for understanding their behaviour.

The paper is open access and is freely avaiable here:

O’Brien, D.M., Allen, C.E., Van Kleeck, M.J., Hone, D.W.E., Knell, R.J., Knapp, A., Christiansen, S., & Emlen, D.J. 2018. On the evolution of extreme structures: static scaling and the function of sexually selected signals. Animal Behaviour.

Yet more on bite marks

Yes, I have a new paper out and it is another paper describing bite marks on bones. I have done a number of these now and it can easily seem that they are incremental publications with limited application, but this is important stuff. As has been shown across various papers and descriptions, piecing together the taphomonic history of a specimen and the environmental conditions around it, as well as the nature of the bites, is crucial to showing if bites were likely inflicted by feeding predators or scavengers as well as what species/ clades may have left these traces. If palaeontologists are going to be able to amke effective statements about what bites can tell us then it will help enormously if we have numerous detailed datapoints where we are confident about what information they provide.

So, enter a small and beaten up piece of ceratopsian frill. I was shown this a few years ago by Darren Tanke and Caleb Brown after it was found during a dig in Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, Canada. It was unusual in that it was from a fairly young animal and the bite marks were quite small. It is also unusual that these are bites on a frill, it’s not the kind of place an animal would usually feed on becuase there’s bascially no meat there, just a bit of skin and bone which rather points towards these being scavenging traces from an animal that got to a very decayed carcass rather late.

The bites are hard to interpret with lots of cracks and breaks not helping things. There are two clear bites and they fit the classic morphology of theropod traces and we can rule out things like crocodiles, champsosaurs or mammals having been responsible, despite the small size. One looks more like a tyrannosaur bite (though it would have to be from a very small one) and a second looking more like it was from kind of deinonychosaur. It is certainly possible that more than one animal bit this same bit of bone, but equally bite can be variable and identifying them accurately can be very difficult or even impossible to accurately work out who the biting animal was. So despite the apparent possible different candidates it’s hard to say quite what happened here. That’s obviously disappointing, but it’s important to try and evaluate each bite on it’s merits if possible and this does a least provide evidence that even smaller centrosaurs were being bitten by the local theropods and these were not beyond trying to make a snack of a damaged squamosal.

The whole paper is freely available and open access and is online here if you want to see more:

Hone, D.W.E., Tanke, D.H., & Brown, C.M. 2018. Bite marks on the frill of a juvenile Centrosaurus from the Late Cretaceous Dinosaur Provincial Park Formation, Alberta, Canada. Peer J.

 

Behold the SummonEngh!

Congratulations go out to Brian Engh as he has been awarded this year’s Lazendorf palaeoart prize for his stunning ‘Savage Ancient Seas’ piece. If you don’t know Brian and his work it’s high time to catch up, he’s been an increasing force in palaeoart for some time now and he even has a small and distant connection to the Musings after his first ever commissioned work of a Spinosaurus popped up on here many moon ago.

To celebrate his win, Brian has pointed out that there’s too few art prizes for palaeart (well, one to be exact) so he is starting his own. Anyone can enter and as fits Brian’s interests, he’s especially keen on speculative, but reasoned, reconstructions of anatomy, behaviour and ecology. Here is a video of brian explaining the whole thing (there’s cash to be won!!!) and here’s the Facebook group he has set up for it. now, go make some art!

 

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.

TLDR

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: https://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/the-complete-how-to-guide-for-young-researchers-so-far/

and: https://archosaurmusings.wordpress.com/2012/02/09/online-resources-for-palaeontologists/

 

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.

 

Icebreaker

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.

 

Workshops

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.

 

Accommodation

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.

CATALOGUE

PHOTOS

 

 

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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.


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