Friday, 17 February 2017

The science behind the movie: what we really know about dinosaurs and how

This is an article that I wrote to accompany a lecture I gave at the Royal Albert Hall, back in November 2016, in conjunction with some screenings of Jurassic Park that were accompanied by a live orchestra. For various reasons, this didn't get published and I just found it again and thought I might as well pop it on here ...

The premise underlying the Jurassic Park franchise is an elegant one: that dinosaur DNA, preserved in the guts of ancient mosquitoes trapped in amber, could be used to clone these animals, bringing them back to life using the latest genetic technology. A terrific idea, but, sadly, one that remains deeply within the realms of science fiction as - to date - no-one has discovered even a fragment of dinosaur DNA, nor do we currently have the means to clone a dinosaur even if we were lucky enough it’s original genetic material. More hopefully, some scientists are attempting to bring back other famous animals from extinction, including the iconic woolly mammoth. Mammoths are lot younger than dinosaurs, having gone extinct only a few thousand, rather than millions, of years ago, and this means that many of their remains, frozen in Siberian permafrost, can yield large amounts of viable DNA for scientists to work with. However, even in this case a cloned mammoth is still a long way off. In addition to the numerous ethical problems that would surround the resurrection of an extinct species (the world has changed significantly since the last mammoth drew breath), there are still numerous scientific obstacles to mammoth cloning, not the least of which is that we have yet to learn enough about the reproduction of those animals that would be the best hosts for implanted mammoth embryos – elephants. So, given that we’re unlikely to see dinosaurs roaming our zoos and safari parks anytime soon, how do scientists determine how these amazing animals fed, ran, bred and died?

Palaeontologists, the scientists that study extinct life, have a surprising array of tools with which they can examine the fossilized remains of animals and plants to determine how they might have appeared and behaved when alive. In the case of dinosaurs we have their skeletons, but we also have other evidence that can give deep insights into their daily lives, including preserved gut contents, eggs, nests, footprints, skin impressions and even dinosaur poo. Detailed examination of skeletons provides information on the shapes of the bones and how they fit together. Comparisons with living animals are also key, as if we can identify similar features in these living animals, whose biology we can study in real time, we can then infer similar functions for those same features in extinct animals. Rough patches and flanges on bone can be used to reconstruct the positions of muscles, cartilage and ligaments, and studying the scratches and wear patterns on teeth reveals vital information on diet and feeding. This type of work has been carried out since dinosaurs were first discovered, in the early eighteenth century, and continues to provide new results today. However, this classical approach has been expanded thanks to the advent of an array of modern technologies, pioneered in fields as disparate as medicine and engineering, which are now being applied to fossils on an almost routine basis.

Perhaps the most significant of these advances has been the application of computed tomographic (CT) scanning. CT scanning uses rotating X-rays to build up a three-dimensional model of both the internal and external anatomy of an object and has diverse applications ranging from diagnostic use in medicine to checking car or airplane parts for flaws before they leave the factory floor. CT can be used to peer inside dinosaur bones and reveal features of the skeleton that were previously difficult to access, including the shapes of the brain and the air-filled sacs that ran through many dinosaur bones. The CT scans produce perfect virtual models of the bones that can then be subjected to testing in ways that would be impossible with a fragile or cumbersome fossil. By importing these virtual models into different computer programmes, dinosaur skeletons can be clothed in muscle, subjected to forces generated by walking, running and feeding, and tested to destruction in ways that no worthy museum curator would permit on the original bones themselves.

By carefully cutting thin sections through dinosaur bones and putting them under the microscope, we can age dinosaurs and work out how fast they grew to adulthood. This is done by counting the growth lines in the bone walls, which were laid down each year in a tree-ring like fashion. Dinosaurs grew really fast, with even the largest species reaching full size in no more than 30 years – and like humans dinosaurs had a teenage growth spurt. Some dinosaur fossils are so spectacularly preserved they include evidence of soft tissues like skin, muscle and internal organs, which give vital clues on dinosaur biology and appearance. For example, some spectacular fossils from China show that many meat-eating dinosaurs were covered in thick coats of feathers, helping to cement the idea that birds are nothing more than small, meat-eating dinosaurs that gained feathers and learnt how to fly. The recognition that birds are dinosaurs is an idea that has been proven beyond reasonable doubt in the last 20 years and also gives us new clues on what extinct dinosaurs might have been like. As living dinosaurs they can be used to test some of the ideas that palaeontologists have proposed based on bones alone. Moreover, they carry a direct genetic legacy of their dinosaurian ancestry, which means that bird genes are dinosaur genes, even though birds represent only one specialized branch of the dinosaur family tree. Some scientists are currently attempting to switch on long dormant genes in living birds that might have been responsible for producing the teeth, characteristic skull shapes and long tails of their dinosaur ancestors. These efforts are already producing impressive results, with genes being found that can transform bird beaks back into more dinosaur-like snouts and those that can stimulate hens to form teeth. Surprisingly, this work is not only interesting in its own right, but it has implications for human health as some of the key genes are also important in regulating various strains of human cancer, so this pure science project on dinosaur genes is providing insights that could improve human health too. Moreover, this type of genetic manipulation, based on the DNA of living dinosaurs, is probably the closest we will ever get in reality to a Jurassic Park scenario.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Lake Kariba dinosaur expedition: Part 2

On arrival in Harare we were met by one of our local hosts, Dave Glynn, who whisked us to his house in the suburbs where were to meet the other team members. Dave and his wife Julie run a tourism business in Zimbabwe and organised most of the logistics for our trip, as well as hosting us before and after the fieldwork. They also provided our accommodation at Kariba, placing their houseboat on Kariba, Musankwa, at our disposal. As the day wore on, we were joined by Darlington Munyikwa, the Deputy Director of National Museums and Monuments, and Michael Zondo, from the Bulawayo Museum, both of whom have extensive fieldwork experience within Zimbabwe and had been on many trips to look for dinosaur material all over the country. All of us were to stay with Dave and Julie, to allow an early start on the road to Kariba. That night we were joined by more of the crew, namely the Broderick family, Tim, Patricia and Lucy. Tim was a geologist with the Zimbabwean Geological Survey and had spent many days walking and mapping our study area and his wife Patricia and daughter Lucy were veterans of many fossil hunting trips. Lucy is a professional photographer and was to prove invaluable in documenting our sites and finds. Over dinner we discussed our hopes for the trip and a strategy for making the most of our time around the shores of Lake Kariba.

After a short night and an early start, we packed our vehicles with field kit, 10 days worth of fresh food and other supplies, hitting the road at 4:30 am in order to reach Kariba by early afternoon. It was still dark as we left Harare, but as the sun rose it revealed a beautiful country. Most of the region between Harare and Kariba is farmland and the rains had left the landscape lush and green. After one minor breakdown, which was quickly repaired, we reached Kariba at lunchtime. The Broderick family caught up with us en route, bringing with them another team member, Rowan MacNiven, a fossil-mad restaurateur from San Francisco, whose loud and frequent shouts of “BONE!!!” would become a hallmark of the trip. 

Loading up the speedboats at Kariba and getting ready to cross the lake (photo: Pia Viglietti)

On arrival at Kariba we were met by the final member of our party, Steve Edwards, whose lodge, Musango Safari Camp, was based on the shores of the lake, in prime fossil-hunting territory. This is the point at which our work really began and the whole group was needed to transfer our supplies to the two speedboats that were to take us across the lake to rendezvous with Musankwa. We’d have these speedboats, and two other pontoon boats, with us for the entire trip to allow us to explore the convoluted coastline. With everything safely stowed we boarded and began the 90-minute journey westwards to meet Musankwa, which was lying moored off of the island that was to be the site of our first prospecting trip. The houseboat was essential as camping in the area is potentially hazardous, with lion, elephant, hippo and other game in the areas we wanted to prospect. In addition, it allowed easier transport of stores and was an excellent mobile base for moving from island-to-island and from lake-to-shore.

Some days the commute to work is a lot more pleasant than others (photo: Pia Viglietti)

During our journey across the lake we got our first real flavour of the region. Lake Kariba is one of the largest artificial lakes in the world and is 140 miles (~220 km) long, up to 20 miles (~32 km) wide and has a maximum depth of just under 100 m (although most of it is significantly shallower). It was formed by damming the eastern end of the Kariba Gorge, which forms part of the Zambezi river valley, close to Kariba town, which took place in 1955–59. It forms the international boundary between Zambia and Zimbabwe and was created by the colonial government for the region, prior to the independence of both countries. The lake filled between 1958­–63 and a hydroelectric plant at the dam supplies most of the electricity for both nations, while the lake is used for commercial fishing and tourism. The fringes of the lake are dotted with numerous small islands (which were large hills before the flooding of the valley) and the southern (Zimbabwean) border of the lake is occupied by Matusadonha National Park. The area is densely vegetated, with mopane forest and grassland running down to the shores, and has prolific birdlife and game. During our transfer we were entertained by white-winged terns fishing, African sea eagles flying overhead, and sightings of elephant on the shore and hippo bobbing along the the lake margins. 

Elephant and hippo were frequent visitors to our fieldsites (photo: Pia Viglietti)

The houseboat Musankwa, which was to be our home during our time on Kariba (photo: Jonah Choiniere)

The geology in the area is complex, with much faulting, and the southern shore of the lake is composed mostly of ‘Karoo-aged’ rocks thought to be equivalents to those found in South Africa, which range from Permian to Early Jurassic in age. The area has suffered some drought over the past few years, exposing more shoreline than usual, increasing the amount of land that we were able to prospect. Some of the islands are named, but many are known only by a formal numbering system. Our destination, and base for the next few days, was to be island 126/127. This was chosen as it is the type locality for the earliest known sauropod, Vulcanodon karibaensis, literally ‘the volcano tooth from Kariba’. Vulcanodon, which is known from incomplete remains, is one of the most important animals for understanding the origin of sauropods and all of the available material comes from this island. These bones are now stored in Bulawayo, but one of our aims was to find out more about this site and, hopefully, to find new material … 

The bright orange cliffs that yielded Vulcanodon on islands 126/127, capped by a dark layer of basalt (photo: Pia Viglietti)

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Lake Kariba dinosaur expedition: Part 1

Our knowledge of dinosaur evolution is based on a series of snapshots provided by the fossil record, with a handful of key regions providing the lion’s share of information for any particular time period. This relies on serendipity – rocks of the right age and type need to be preserved in a way where they are accessible for collection – and the distribution of these deposits is essentially random, due to numerous geological processes acting to different extents in different areas at different times. For example, our most detailed insights on the last dinosaurs currently come from the western USA and Canada, whereas presently our information on the earliest dinosaurs is confined to Argentina and Brazil.

Southern Africa provides an important piece in this puzzle, with a series of sandstone and mudstone deposits laid down on broad river floodplains, that were laid down at a time when dinosaurs were first starting their rise to numerical and ecological dominance. These environments became more arid through time, culminating in vast dune seas, where dinosaur fossils could still be found. This series of rocks is referred to as the Stormberg Group in South Africa and reveals not only the dinosaurs but also the other members of a series of terrestrial faunas that lived during the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic, spanning a period when several pulses of extinction rocked the world at the Triassic/Jurassic boundary. The Stormberg Group has been (and continues to be) the focus of much attention and has yielded some of the best-known African dinosaurs, which are often known from abundant and beautiful material. These include the ornithischians Heterodontosaurus and Lesothosaurus, the theropods Dracovenator and Coelophysis, and (most abundantly) the sauropodomorphs, including Antetonitrus, Massospondylus, Pulanesaura and many others.

Adjacent regions of southern Africa, including Botswana, Lesotho, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have similar sedimentary series that are thought to correlate with those in South Africa, but for various reasons these deposits are have been less thoroughly explored. Nevertheless, some important material is known from these areas, with rich localities in Lesotho (which have supplied beautiful early mammal and Lesothosaurus material, as well as dinosaur footprints) and Zimbabwe. Many sites are known in Zimbabwe, with well-known taxa such as Coelophysis and Massospondylus known from the south of the country, while the early sauropod Vulcanodon was found on the shores of Lake Kariba on its northern border. Several field crews have worked on sites in the south of Zimbabwe more recently, finding new and important material, but the potentially rich dinosaur sites around the shores of Lake Kariba have not been prospected by palaeontologsts since the time of Vulcanodon’s discovery in 1969.

More recently, a small band of dedicated amateur palaeontologists and geologists, including local safari camp owner Steve Edwards and geologist Tim Broderick, have had their eyes to the ground along the shores of Lake Kariba and have found interesting new material of their own. Steve and Tim mentioned this material to various dinosaur specialists around the world, including my colleague Jonah Choiniere (based at the Evolutionary Studies Institute in Johannesburg) and I. The presence of Vulcanodon, and other Early Jurassic dinosaurs elsewhere in Zimbabwe, as well as the exciting news that new material was being found, suggested to Jonah and I that a trip to area would be fruitful and exciting. After months of background research, building new contacts with colleagues in Zimbabwe, and raising the money, Jonah was able to organise an expedition to the Lake Kariba area, in which I was lucky enough to participate, along with several other Zimbabwean and South African colleagues. So, on the 5th January 2017 Jonah, his postdoc Pia Viglietti, our joint PhD student Kimi Chapelle and I left Johannesburg, bound for Harare …

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

'Unspecialised' dinosaur herbivores: not so boring after all

One of the central tenets of palaeobiology is that similar looking skeletal structures in different taxa convey similar functions in life. Hence, the presence of serrated teeth, like those of extant carnivorous varanid lizards, imply carnivory in theropods, and the convergent acquisition of long, graceful lower legs in gazelles and ornithopods suggests cursoriality in the latter. While some of these form/function relationships have proved relatively robust to quantitative, experimental testing, the generality of several classical form/function comparisons has been questioned by recent work. For example, experimental studies on living teleost fish have shown that skeletal morphology alone does not predict jaw movements: predictions made on bones alone fail and real jaw movements could only be deduced when soft tissues and nervous control mechanisms were factored in (e.g. Lauder 1995). These, and other similar studies, have shown that we should no longer rely uncritically on simple form/function correlations, but should test these assumptions through experiment or modelling. This will allow us to avoid erroneous functional predications that would otherwise resonate through ecological reconstructions and discussions of homology, as well as influencing other functional work.

Thanks to the development of new and refined experimental methods, as well as sophisticated computer modelling techniques, we are now in a position where we can test at least some of the mechanical properties of fossil skeletons (and of living tissues) in ways far more rigorous than the early comparative anatomists could have imagined. With this in mind, my colleagues Stephan Lautenschlager, Charlotte Brassey, David Button and I decided to look at the skull function of three different herbivorous dinosaurs to investigate some aspects of the form/function question.

We selected skulls of the Late Cretaceous therizinosaurian theropod Erlikosaurus (the subject of Stephan’s PhD), the Late Triassic sauropodomorph Plateosaurus (from David’s PhD thesis), and the Late Jurassic thyreophoran Stegosaurus (based on the complete, but disarticulated skull of ‘Sophie’ the NHM’s new specimen, which was CT scanned and reconstructed virtually by Charlotte). Although these taxa are widely separated in time and space, and are phylogenetically distant from each other, we chose them as their skulls are superficially similar in several respects, due to many of the features classically associated with a herbivorous diet. Many of these features were acquired convergently, though some are due to their shared deep phylogenetic heritage. All three taxa have skulls that are relatively elongate and narrow, with low snouts, and the snouts are relatively long in comparison to overall skull length. The external openings are large, the mandibles are slender with slightly depressed jaw joints, there is no evidence for substantial kinesis within the skull, and the teeth are coarsely denticulate, relatively small, numerous and did not occlude. Traditionally these features have been associated with ‘weak’, fast bites, a lack of sophisticated chewing mechanisms, or indeed of any real specialisation (e.g. Norman & Weishampel 1991). As a result, it’s generally been thought that these skulls would have functioned similarly in life, with corresponding ideas about probable food plants and ecological roles (e.g. reliance on ‘soft’ vegetation, lack of oral processing).

From left to right, skulls of Erlikosaurus, Stegosaurus and Plateosaurus (Image courtesy of Stephan Lautenschlager/University of Bristol)
However, when we subjected models of these skulls to multibody dynamic and finite element analyses, what we found surprised us (Lautenschlager et al. 2016). Instead of behaving similarly, each of the skulls has its own unique function. Stegosaurus had a higher than expected bite force, in the range of 166–321 N, which overlaps with that of some living mammalian herbivores. By contrast, those of Erlikosaurus and Plateosaurus were much lower and similar to each other (50–121 N and 46­–123 N, respectively). These differences in bite force were accompanied by differences in stress patterns within the skulls. Plateosaurus seems have experienced the lowest and most evenly distributed stress patterns (implying a skull adapted to deal with a variety of different forces), whereas overall peak stresses were much higher in Erlikosaurus and Stegosaurus. In Stegosaurus, stresses were concentrated in the snout, whereas in Erlikosaurus they seem to have been highest in the posterior part of the skull. In addition, the skull of Erlikosaurus experienced the greatest amount of deformation during biting, but those of both Stegosaurus and Plateosaurus experienced very little shape change. 

Finite element models of 'Sophie' the NHM Stegosaurus, the image at the rear grossly exaggerated to look at possible deformation patterns (image courtesy of Stephan Lautenschlager/University of Bristol)

These results imply that each taxon had quite different feeding strategies, a conclusion that differs from previous ideas about these ‘unspecialised’ herbivores. For example, the differences in maximum bite force suggest that these taxa might have been feeding on diverse sorts of vegetation, with the higher bite force of Stegosaurus implying that it was able to feed on a broader, or tougher, range of plant parts/types than either the ‘prosauropod’ or therizinosaur. This higher bite force was enabled by a larger jaw muscle mass in Stegosaurus and/or an arrangement of the jaw muscles that allowed more efficient conversion of muscle force into bite force. The lower bite forces of Plateosaurus in combination with its high cranial robustness are consistent with low fibre herbivory, dealing with soft vegetation that required little chewing, and/or omnivory (the skull could have withstood dealing with struggling small prey, for example). Erlikosaurus appears to have been specialised to use the tip of its snout in plucking vegetation, as the skull performs exceptionally badly when biting food at the back of the mouth. Nipping soft vegetation with the tips of the jaw is also consistent with its low bite forces.

            Previously, these three taxa were all thought to be relatively ‘boring’ herbivores that simply nipped and swallowed soft plants. It now seems that one was eating much tougher vegetation, another was a generalist that could exploit different food sources, and the third was a specialist with a rather delicate way of feeding itself. This work shows that first appearances based on simple application of the form/function paradigm can be misleading. Novel functions have now been revealed that would have gone unnoticed if it were not for detailed biomechanical modelling of each skull. This leads me to wonder what other functional surprises might be lurking in dinosaur skulls, especially as so few have been really thoroughly studied in this way.


Lauder, G.V. 1995. On the inference of function from structure. In Functional Morphology in Vertebrate Paleontology (ed. J.J. Thomason), pp. 1–9. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lautenschlager, S., Brassey, C., Button, D. J. & Barrett, P.M. 2016. Decoupled form and function in disparate herbivorous dinosaur clades. Scientific Reports 6: 26495. doi:10.1038/srep26495

Norman, D.B. & Weishampel, D.B. 1991. Feeding mechanisms in some small herbivorous dinosaurs: processes and patterns. In Biomechanics in Evolution (eds J.M.V. Rayner & R.J. Wootton, pp. 161–81. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Happy 90th Sir David

Today seems a good day to pen my first blog post in a while, in order to mark the 90th birthday of the most effective natural history communicator we've even seen: Sir David Attenborough. His work in the area, since the early Zoo Quest series, has been marked by his trademark enthusiasm and his deep connection with the natural world. In addition to this sense of wonder, he also carries the gravitas of a man who really knows his subject and let's not forget that in addition to being best known for his TV and radio work on natural history he was also one of the most influential figures in British broadcasting history. The fact that he gave up senior roles at the BBC to return to his first love of documentary making speaks volumes about his passion for communication. His enthusiasm is not the manufactured kind seen in the majority of presenters we see on TV, but is totally genuine and infectious, and he finds interest in both the broad picture and in intricate detail. I've been privileged enough to see him at work, both in terms of his broadcasting and in terms of his charitable/corporate outreach, and to meet and correspond with him a few times, which has been nothing short of fulfilling a childhood dream.

As a nerdy, animal-obsessed kid growing up in suburban London I had few opportunities to interact with the natural world and his documentaries were something I looked forward to almost obsessively. They were, without doubt, some of the most formative influences on my early interests and helped to shape my future career path. Two of his TV series stand out in my earliest memories: Wildlife on One, which showcased a different species in its natural environment each week, and Life on Earth, the landmark series in which Sir David covered animal evolution, from the origin of life through to the origin of modern humans. Life on Earth, in particular, exerted a considerable influence on me and, to quote Darwin, really showcased the "grandeur in this view of Life". Even the title sequence, with it's eerie, amorphous forms hinting at change through time, and the haunting primeval music from the now defunct BBC Radiophonic Workshop (also responsible for the Dr Who theme tune), can still raise the same goosebumps I got as a kid. The series first aired when I was around 8 years old and I can still remember most of the key sequences. It's combination of broad picture thinking, highlighting major evolutionary transitions, and the amazing footage of the animals themselves was revelationary. I begged my parents for the book for Christmas: even though they thought it was "too old for me", as it was written for an adult audience, they bought it anyway and I devoured it again and again, enjoying not only the prose but the amazing photos. It's still on my bookshelf 30 years later.

My copy of Life on Earth: a long treasured 9th birthday present from my parents
So, thank you Sir David, on many levels. Thanks for introducing me to the wonder of the natural world and the joy of discovery. Thanks for showing me that it was possible to follow this path myself and to make a career that involved finding out more about the history of life on Earth. Thanks for your enthusiasm and support (I really enjoyed our conversations standing around Sophie!). And finally, thanks for using your influence to be a voice of reason and sage council in a world where many of these amazing organisms are now under threat.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

The shape of things to come...

As many of you will have noticed, the NHM's Dinosaur Gallery is currently closed for some much needed renovation work, and is due to reopen in late February 2016 (though it will open for the week of February half-term, before closing for a few more days after this to finish things off). This isn't a wholesale redevelopment of the gallery - that project is probably a few years distant (at least) and is dependent not only on raising the necessary funds, but also on some complex planning and the completion of several other large-scale museum projects that would need to be finished before the Dinosaur Gallery could be tackled. The current work is aimed at improving some aspects of visitor experience to the gallery (and to the museum as a whole) and in response to changing government health and safety guidelines, with which the museum has to comply.

So, what's changing? I can't reveal too much at this stage, but I can give some insights into what's going on. One of the major drivers for the work is to try and deal with the huge queues for the gallery, which currently lead to frustrating congestion in Hintze Hall. With 5.4 million visitors per year, the museum needs to find ways to enable the movement of people around the building more efficiently. Currently,  the popularity of the Dinosaur Gallery and the large queue that occupies Hintze Hall on busy days is a real barrier to this. The idea behind the current project is to find other ways of managing this queue, by moving it to other areas of the building and by providing a better experience for those people waiting in the queue. Another major driver behind the work is dealing with an engineering issue within the gallery that means some aspects of the way in which it's been used to date need to be altered.

One of the most obvious changes will be a new entrance to the gallery and an altered route for visitors through the various exhibits. However, there will be relatively few alterations to the actual content, so that the vast majority of current exhibits will still be on show. We are taking the opportunity to make some updates, however, with the removal of a few very dated displays, updates to information with specimens where required, a deep clean of all the exhibits, and some other changes reflecting the bird/dinosaur more accurately. So, although the project involves a lot of work, it's mainly an exercise in updating the current gallery rather than a large-scale redevelopment and rethink.

While the gallery is closed it's still possible to see dinosaurs in other parts of the museum - most obviously Sophie the Stegosaurus in our Earth Hall, but also the original Archaeopteryx specimen and Iguanodon teeth in our Treasures Gallery. More dinosaur content can also be found in the From the Beginning Gallery - alongside fossils of many other groups that are otherwise not found elsewhere in the public galleries.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016

A productive year for the lab!

It's the time of year when we're all taking stock and looking back at the accomplishments of last year as well as looking ahead to the opportunities and travails of the year ahead. With this in mind, here's a summary of what the lab got up to last year: a bit dry I'm afraid, but it gives a reasonable picture of the sorts of research that's been going on and what we've been up to...

A big shout out to my postdocs David N. and Charlotte, to my PhD students Simon, Matt, David B., Terri, David F., Amy, Serjoscha, Selina, Omar and Richard, and to a large number of collaborators all over the world (you know who you are)... Here's looking forward to an even more productive 2016.  

Arrivals & Departures

A sad farewell to Dr Charlotte Brassey after over a year of working full-time on Project Sophie. Charlotte has moved on to a research position at the University of Manchester in Bill Sellars’ research group.

Congratulations to Dr David Button on submitting his dissertation and passing his PhD viva in 2015 and on getting a new post in the Butler Lab at the University of Birmingham.

Welcome to Richard Fallon (University of Leicester), who’s co-supervised by Paul (alongside Gowan Dawson, Leicester and Will Tattersdill, Birmingham), and is doing is PhD on public responses to dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles in the Victorian period.

Journal Articles

Apostolaki, N., Rayfield, E. J. & Barrett, P. M. 2015. Osteological and soft-tissue evidence for pneumatization in the cervical column of the ostrich (Struthio camelus) and observations on the vertebral columns of non-volant, semi-volant and semi-aquatic birds. PLoS ONE 10: e0143834. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0143834

Baron, M. G. 2015. An investigation of the genus Mesacanthus (Chordata: Acanthodii) from the Orcadian Basin and Midland Valley areas of Northern and Central Scotland using traditional morphometrics. PeerJ 3: e1331.

Barrett, P. M, Evans, D. C. & Campione, N. E. 2015. Evolution of dinosaur epidermal structures. Biology Letters 11: 20150229. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2015.0229

Barrett, P. M., Nesbitt, S. J. & Peecook, B. R. 2015. A large-bodied silesaurid from the Lifua Member of the Manda beds (Middle Triassic) of Tanzania and its implications for body-size evolution in Dinosauromorpha. Gondwana Research 27: 925­–931. doi:10.1016/

Bates, K., Maidment, S. C. R., Schachner, E. R. & Barrett, P. M.  2015. Comments and corrections on 3D modelling studies of locomotor muscle moment arms in archosaurs. PeerJ 3: e1272. doi: 10.7717/peerj.1272

Brassey, C. A, Maidment, S. C. R. & Barrett, P. M. 2015. Body mass estimates of an exceptionally complete Stegosaurus (Ornithischia: Thyreophora): comparing volumetric and linear bivariate mass estimation methods. Biology Letters 11: 20140984. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2014.0984

Brusatte, S. L., Butler, R. J., Barrett, P. M., Carrano, M. T., Evans, D. C., Lloyd, G. T., Mannion, P. D., Norell, M. A., Peppe, D. J., Upchurch, P. & Williamson, T. E. 2015. The extinction of the dinosaurs. Biological Reviews 90: 628–642. doi:10.1111/brv.12128

Choiniere, J. N. & Barrett, P. M. 2015. A sauropodomorph dinosaur from the ?Early Jurassic of Lusitu, Zambia. Palaeontologia africana 49: 42–52.

Cleary, T. J., Moon, B. C., Dunhill, A. M. & Benton, M. J. 2015. The fossil record of ichthyosaurs, completeness metrics and sampling biases. Palaeontology 58: 521–536.

Evans, D. C., Barrett, P. M., Brink, K. S. & Carrano, M. T. 2015. Osteology and bone microstructure of new, small theropod dinosaur material from the early Late Cretaceous of Morocco. Gondwana Research 27: 1034–1041. doi:10.1016/

Evers, S. W., Rauhut O. W. M., Milner A. C., McFeeters B. & Allain, R. 2015. The morphology and systematic position of the theropod dinosaur Sigilmassasaurus from the ‘middle’ Cretaceous of Morocco. PeerJ 3: e1323. doi:10.7717/peerj.1323

Foth C., Evers S. W., Pabst B., Mateus O., Flisch A., Patthey M., Rauhut O. W. M. 2015. New insights into the lifestyle of Allosaurus (Dinosauria: Theropoda) based on another specimen with multiple pathologies. PeerJ 3: e940. doi:10.7717/peerj.940

Maidment, S. C. R., Brassey, C. & Barrett, P. M. 2015. The postcranial skeleton of an exceptionally complete individual of the plated dinosaur Stegosaurus stenops (Dinosauria: Thyreophora) from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Wyoming, USA. PLoS ONE 10: e0138352. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0138352

Nicholson, D. B., Holroyd, P. A., Benson, R. B. J., & Barrett, P. M. 2015. Climate-mediated diversification of turtles in the Cretaceous. Nature Communications 6: 7848. doi:10.1038/ncomms8848

Nicholson, D. B., Mayhew, P. J., & Ross, A. J. 2015. Changes to the fossil record of insects through fifteen years of discovery. PLoS One 10: e0128554. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0128554

Porro, L. B., Witmer, L. M. & Barrett, P. M. 2015. Digital preparation and osteology of the skull of Lesothosaurus diagnosticus. PeerJ 3: e1494. 0.7717/peerj.1494

Upchurch, P., Andres, B., Butler, R. J. & Barrett, P. M. 2015. An analysis of pterosaurian biogeography: implications for the evolutionary history and fossil record quality of the first flying vertebrates. Historical Biology 27: 696­–716. doi:10.1080/08912963.2014.939077 

Awards & Grants

Amy: Student Poster Award, The Micropalaeontological Society Foraminifera and Nannofossil Meeting; University of Bristol Alumi Foundation Travel Grant.
Matt: Jackson Student Travel Grant to attend SVP in Dallas.
Selina: Winner, Three Minute Thesis Competition, MAPS Faculty UCL.
Serjoscha: SYNTHESYS grant for 10 days research at SMNS in Stuttgart; Rodney M. Feldmann Award of the Paleontological Society for Australochelys Project in South Africa; NERC Impact and Innovation Award (through Oxford DTP) for CT scanning project in Chicago; University College Oxford Research Training Fund for academic travel.

Conference Talks & Posters

Amy: Talk on on Cretaceous turtle niche modelling at GSA; poster on foram niche modelling at TMS foram and nanofossil meering; poster at the International Biogeography Society.
David: Talk on on turtle palaeolatituduinal distributions at GSA and at PalAss.
Matt: Poster on Lesothosaurus postcranium at SVP and a talk on the same subject at Prog. Pal.
Paul: Talk on turtle palaeolatitudinal distributions at SVP.
Serjoscha: Poster on Rhinochelys at SVPCA and a talk on Allosaurus pathologies at the Paläontologische Gesellschaft.
Simon: Posters on Middle Jurassic dromaeosaur teeth at SVP and on the Woodeaton fauna at SVPCA and PalAss.
Terri: Poster on Mesozoic and Paleogene squamate diversity at PalAss.