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.



  1. This is my 1st time commenting on "New Views on Old Bones" & I like what I’ve read so far.

    "Another major push at public outreach was the completion of a new official NHM dinosaur book, which I co-authored with Darren Naish:"

    Given that my #1 all-time favorite book is a NHM dino book ( ), this is very exciting for me! Please, I must know more! What's the title? What kind of dino book (E.g. An encyclopedia, a natural history, etc)? Is it an adult book or a children's book? If adult book, "Casual Readers" or "the Enthusiast" ( )? I understand if you can't answer these questions now, but I thought I'd at least try. Many thanks anyway in advance.

  2. Thanks for the kind comments ;-) We don't have a final title for the book yet, but it should appear in print around Easter 2016. It's aimed at an informed popular audience and should be suitable for older children and adults. It's definitely not an encyclopedia, but an overview of what we currently understand about dino evolution and biology.

  3. "Thanks for the kind comments"


    "but an overview of what we currently understand about dino evolution and biology."

    So exciting! Can't wait!

    BTW, I forgot to ask in my previous comment: Will there be a kindle/ebook edition? Many thanks again in advance.

  4. Honest answer is that I'm not sure, but good idea - will pass on the publisher and see what their plans are ...

    1. "but good idea - will pass on the publisher and see what their plans are"



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