Michael Habib, University of Southern California
I primarily study the biomechanics of flying vertebrates, especially early birds and pterosaurs.
1. What first got you interested or involved in your research field?
I’m a classic – I declared loudly that I wanted to be a paleontologist at about the age of four. The most important catalyst was probably the trips I took with my family to the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, DC (I grew up in that region).
Perhaps a more interesting story is how I ended up in my particular speciality. While I am really a rather general biomechanist, I think most Musings readers will know me as a pterosaur worker. I’m quite pleased by that label, but it came as something of a lucky break – I really got rolling on pterosaurs after attending the 2007 Flugsaurier Conference in Munich, which I originally attended on something of a whim because I’d been playing with a few pterosaur bits at the USNM collections in between bird work. That was a real full circle moment because I’d loved pterosaurs as a kid. Of course, as Musings folks will no doubt recall, Dave organized that conference! Thanks Dave, it rocked.
2. What is your favourite piece of research?
Okay, no surprise here – I’m most pleased by the quadrupedal launch model for pterosaurs I proposed in 2008. I think that has actually had a measurable impact on how we reconstruct pterosaurs, and it also seems to have affected how other scientists think about animal takeoff and flight evolution. So that’s pretty darn cool.
To be fair, though, a paper I’m currently writing may end up being one of my all time favorites (it’s the much discussed anurognathid study with Mark Witton. I know, I’ve been talking about it forever, but we keep adding stuff – this is going to be a wicked paper).
3. What do you think is the most interesting or important discovery in your field in recent years?
This is a much more difficult question for me. For one thing, I’m not sure what my “field” really is. If we assume it’s animal flight evolution, then I would have to list the discovery that functional wings existed in theropods outside Aves (which either means theropod flight should up more than once, or that theropod flight came before birds). If we assume I’m a “pterosaur guy” then I suppose it would be the range of new soft tissue discoveries that have rapidly accrued, in part because of the outstanding UV imaging studies of individuals like Helmut Tischlinger.
4. What do you think is the biggest unanswered question in your field right now?
Within animal flight overall, the largest questions relate to the origin of flight in pterosaurs and bats. While debate will range on about the details of the origin of avian flight, we have the base layer pretty well worked out now. However, the early stages of flight in pterosaurs and bats are darn near completely unknown at this stage. I’m waiting for some really excellent stem-pterosaurs to be discovered.
5. What advice would you give to students about research?
Remember that you are a professional writer. You have to do good science to have things worthy of writing about, but at the end of the day, every academic scientist (and that’s practically every professional paleontologist) is basically a professional writer. Own that fact, and live up to it. Work hard to write well, and think carefully about your readership and how to reach the people you want to read your work.