Thursday, 31 December 2015

Dino highlights of 2015

The past year has witnessed some remarkable new discoveries that have provided some amazing advances in our understanding of dinosaur biology and evolution. What follows is a list of the five papers that I found most interesting and/or useful in 2015 (modesty prevents me from including my own papers, of course). There may be some surprises here as, unlike some of my colleagues, I don't always find the latest new species announcements all that interesting - I tend to prefer conceptual papers that have a longer-term impact, rather than those new finds that grab short-term media attention. So, with that in mind, here are my top reads (in no particular order):

1. Chilesaurus diegosuarezi

Reconstructions of Chilesaurus (image from courtesy of Gabriel Lío)

Although I'm primarily an ornithischian and sauropodomorph worker, this was -the- stand-out new species of 2015 in my opinion. A truly bizarre herbivorous theropod from the Late Jurassic of Chile, this animal has features of several distantly related dinosaur groups combined into one body. I was lucky enough to see the material before it was named, when visiting Argentina in 2013 and my host, Fernando Novas, teased me by showing me the specimen one bone at time. He showed me teeth and ankle bones that looked like those of a prosauropod, then vertebrae like those of a theropod. After I'd congratulated him on an interesting new fauna, he grinned and revealed that he'd been showing me bones from a single associated skeleton. Fernando and his team happily admit they're not particularly comfortable with Chilesaurus as a basal tetanuran, but regard this as the current best fit for the data that they have. My hunch is that Chilesaurus will eventually occupy a more derived position within Theropoda, but there are a lot of strange, primitive features in the skeleton. It will be interesting to see where Chilesaurus eventually comes to rest in the dinosaur tree.

2. Age of the Chañares Formation

The study of dinosaur origins has been re-invigorated in the past decade by the discovery and re-analysis of many Middle and Late Triassic taxa, as well as the recognition of a whole new clade of dinosaur relatives, the silesaurids. However, understanding the anatomy and relationships of these animals is only part of the story. Most of our knowledge of the earilest relatives of dinosaurs - including lagosuchids and silesaurids - comes from only two places in the world, the Chañares Formation of Argentina and the Manda Beds of Tanzania. Both of these formations have been widely regarded as Middle Triassic in age and this date has been used to constrain the timing of dinosaur origins. However, new work on the age of the Chañares Formation, by Claudia Marsicano and colleagues, used radioisotopic dates derived from tiny zircon crystals within the sediment to check this assumption. The new dates obtained by their team suggest instead that this classic 'Middle' Triassic locality is actually Late Triassic in age and, as a result, that the origin of dinosaurs may have taken place in a geological instant (a few million years), rather than over the more protracted timescale that's currently envisaged. Other teams around the world are now planning similar analyses of the sediments from various Middle and Late Triassic localities to see how good our assumptions over their absolute ages really are.

3. The interrelationships of ornithischian dinosaurs

A major new study by my colleague Clint Boyd has assembled one of the largest ornithischian phylogenies ever attempted. This paper includes a wealth of new character data and represents the first real advance in the area since the earlier efforts of Richard Butler, published back in 2008. Although some individual ornithischian clades have received abundant attention, the overall pattern of ornithischian evolution has been surprisingly neglected. Clint's work offers some new hypotheses on the relationships of major ornithischian lineages that have not been previously proposed (such as the exclusion of parksosaurs from Cerapoda) and also gives an interesting, robust framework for the first rigorous palaeobiogeographic study of ornithischians. Lots to digest here and this paper is likely to be influential for many years to come.

Clint's new phylogeny (Figure 2 in his PeerJ article) - some interesting surprises lurk within.

4. Discovery of dinosaur blood cells

Several research groups around the world have been pushing at the envelope of what's possible regarding fossil preservation. These have included the discoveries of dinosaur muscle fibres, feathers, possible melanosomes (and their implications for dinosaur colour), and even the potential for biomolecular preservation. However, in almost all of these cases (the majority of which are fairly controversial, with more debate among specialists than media coverage suggests) the localities producing these exceptional structures are themselves exceptional - sites known as Konservat Lagerstätte, which have unusual geological characteristics that enable these types of preservation. However, Sergio Bertazzo and Susannah Maidment have provided convincing evidence of microscopic structures (blood cells, collagen fibres) in dinosaur bones from localities where such high-fidelity preservation was previously thought to be impossible. Their work suggests that there may be enormous future potential for studying even poorly preserved dinosaur material in much greater depth than ever imagined previously.

5. Phylogeny of the diplodocid sauropods

This paper truly wins the award for effort – a monumental specimen-by-specimen analysis of diplodocoid sauropods that formed part of Emanuel Tschopp's PhD dissertation.  Although this study gained media notoriety for resurrecting the name Brontosaurus (a conclusion that's being hotly debated, but which I have to admit some sympathy for), it's much more important than that. It provides an extensively documented set of new character data for these dinosaurs and is one of only a handful of phylogeny papers that really attempts to document and describe its characters for the reader. In addition, it is the only comprehensive evolutionary study of this bizarrre dinosaur clade and offers many new insights into the evolution of the diplodocoid body plan. This one will be a citation classic for sure.

There were many other insightful and interesting dinosaur papers in 2015, too numerous to mention here, and I look forward to what will surely be another busy year in 2016. Happy New Year everyone!

Saturday, 26 December 2015

2015: a year of highs and some pretty deep lows ...

Well, it's been a long time since I've posted here and I thought it was about time that I came out of blogging torpor. The end of the year is approaching rapidly and, like many people, I've been taking stock of the past 12 months - one of my most difficult years professionally (and personally) and one that I will not be sorry to see torn from the calendar. Let's not beat around the bush - 2015 felt like my least productive year, at least in terms of research, in a long time. This was due to a combination of factors - partly work-related and partly life-related - and these summed together to mould  a year that's been frustrating and challenging, though not without it's high points too.

So why was it so bad? Well, most obviously, I had a minor accident that led to my hospitalisation from a ruptured spleen back in May (never great to lie squirming in agony on your office floor before being whisked to hospital by ambulance for internal bleeding of unknown origin). Although the rupture turned out to be minor, and I was only in hospital for a few days, the subsequent complications hit me hard and I had three months of pain and discomfort that literally slowed me down to a crawl and effectively took out the middle part of the year. This coupled with lots of work-related travel and various family-related issues (such as my mother's major heart surgery) also contributed to the stress. Finally, I found myself more in demand than ever before by the public and corporate sides of the NHM meaning that any meaningful space for research time was extremely limited. Sigh. However, there have been some highlights too. Although most of 2015 has felt like running through treacle, at least some of the work I've been involved with has come to fruition and raised a much needed smile.

The year began in full Sophie the Stegosaurus mode - dealing with public events in the wake of the exhibition launch (December 2014) and also starting to progress some of the scientific outputs stemming from the acquisition. The first of these to appear was our study of Sophie's body mass ably led by Charlotte Brassey, my research assistant on the project. Although Charlotte was to leave my lab early in the year following the end of her appointment, a sad loss for the museum, we've continued working on Sophie along with Susie Maidment and the second paper - a monographic treatment of Sophie's postcranial anatomy - also came out during the year, following a huge amount of detailed work on the specimen. Other papers on Sophie (notably jaw mechanics and limb mechanics) are currently in the works and there are still a few more projects that we aim to carry out on the specimen before we're finished. I also wrote the text for a popular science book on Sophie that the NHM should be publishing sometime in 2016 ...

It was also good to see movement on our NERC-funded fossil turtle project with our first paper showing a close link between Cretaceous climate and turtle distribution, thanks to some nice data analysis by my postdoc David Nicholson, with lots of help from my colleagues Patricia Holroyd and Roger Benson. Now the data is all there and the methods worked out there should be a lot more on this to come over the final year of the grant. Several other longish-term projects also came to a close this year, including a major re-description of the skull of Lesothosaurus, led by Laura Porro and done collaboratively with Larry Witmer. A long-standing editorial task ended this year, with the acceptance of all of the papers for the A. S. Woodward Symposium volume, which is now published online and will appear in print in the next few months, a real achievement for all concerned.

Some new big projects kicked off - notably an effort to finish publishing on the Middle Triassic Manda Beds archosaur material from Tanzania held at the NHM, which led to some fun visits by Sterling Nesbitt and Richard Butler. Hopefully we'll be able to tell the world something sensible about both Mandasuchus and Teleocrater before too long.

My PhD students have all had an excellent year and hearing about their research and helping them push forward their own agendas has been good for my sanity. Was great to see two of them - Sam Bennett and David Button - finally become doctors in their own right and to see David move on to a post at the University of Birmingham. The rest of the group continue to make good progress, getting deeper and deeper in their respective areas: Simon Wills using isotopic analyses alongside his studies of taxonomy and sedimentology to understand British Middle Jurassic vertebrates; Amy Waterson building ever more sophisticated niche models for forams and turtles; Matt Baron pushing forward manuscripts on Lesothosaurus and building his basal dinosaur phylogeny; Terri Cleary starting to compile much needed data on fossil squamate diversity; Selina Groh assembling the largest character set for crocs I've ever seen; Paul Varotsis CT-scanning skulls of Dorsetisaurus to really investigate its anatomy; Serjoscha Evers gathering huge amounts of comparative data on the early evolution of sea turtles;  David Ford spotting potential new species among Permo-Triassic diapsids; and Omar Regalado-Fernandez building a massive sauropodomorph character matrix. All of these projects are likely to be heading to publications soon, so I envisage a lot of enjoyable reading crossing my desk in 2016. I've also welcomed another new student to the fold this year - Richard Fallon - who'll be doing something outside my comfort zone, but really neat - addressing the impact of early dinosaur discoveries on the popular consciousness of Victorian Britain.

Lots of travel this year too, with several trips to the USA, including the Tuscon Rock and Mineral Fair (January), SVP Executive Committee Meeting in Bethesda combined with a research trip to Cincinnati (May), and the SVP Annual Meeting (October) - the latter leading to the irritating theft of my laptop thanks to the incompetence of the TSA staff in Dallas. During my stay in Cincinnati, Glenn Storrs and I were able to push forward our work on the new ?Apatosaurus in the CMC, which hopefully we'll finally finish in the new year. An overnight trip to Berlin in late December allowed me to witness the unveiling of Tristan the Tyrannosaurus, which was an interesting night. However, by far the best trip was my three weeks in South Africa working with Jonah Choiniere, his students Kimi, Blair and Casey, and my students Matt and Simon. A week working in the collections on various Lesothosaurus and Massospondlyus related projects was followed by a much-needed fortnight in the field, working on the Early Jurassic exposures of the Upper Elliot Formation in the Free State, following a transect from Clarens to Ladybrand. We found several promising new localities for further work and lots of material - our papers on this will be appearing as soon as the specimens are prepared, though that is some months away yet. At some point I should write up an account of this trip, but that's a post for another time.

Other than Sophie, public outreach duties this year have included significant time working with BBC Radio 4 on two different series (Natural Histories and Natural History Heroes), in which I discussed dinosaurs and the life and times of Baron Nopcsa. Various TV-based dinosaur projects around the launch of Jurassic World also took time, though with fewer obvious effects - one of these didn't make it the screen due to licensing issues (though I had a fun day of playing working with iguanas, ostriches and lions at Chessington World of Adventures to make up for it). It's also likely that many people didn't know that I was heavily involved in helping Dean Lomax with ITV's Dinosaur Britain (I read numerous script drafts, advised on the CGI and was the official advisor), but I don't make it on to the screen as I was due to be filmed on the days I ended up in hospital: luckily Mike Benton and others expertly stood in for me at exceptionally short notice, with thanks to them for doing so. Another major push at public outreach was the completion of a new official NHM dinosaur book, which I co-authored with Darren Naish: Darren did most of the heavy lifting, however, and deserves the lion's share of the credit. This new title should hit the bookshelves in the next couple of months and will boast some new artworks by Bob Nicholls.

So, 2015 was a year of some interesting highs, but not without it's share of unpleasant lows. Here's looking forward to having a more research-friendly 2016 and wishing all of my friends and colleagues all the very best for a successful and happy New Year.