Friday, 8 July 2016

How do you get into palaeontology?

This remains one of the questions I am asked (or the variant of how did I get into palaeontology) by people I meet when they find out what I do. My answer is very simple, but will also give a longer version from other people's experiences and suggestions if people or parents of kids want to know their options.

Unlike many people, I have always wanted to do what I am doing (if you ignore my very first few years of my life when I wanted to be Noah, but that hinted my early interest in all the animals). From what I can remember (and I am sure my parents have a slightly different version), when I was about 4 getting given a book on dinosaurs from my uncle on dinosaurs and my fascination grew from there. An aunt, who lives down in Dorset, took me to the Jurassic Coast shortly thereafter and I found my first fossils. Lots of belemnites.

Belemnites, loads and loads of them. Image from
I was hooked. Over the years, I dragged my family repeatedly to the Jurassic Coast where I would eventually find crinoids and ammonites. It wasn't just England though. Every place my family went on holidays, my parents, where possible found places for me to go look at or find my own fossils and rocks. Even if they weren't planned I was still looking at the ground, e.g. when my dad ran the Washington DC marathon, I was collecting quartz crystals by the side of the road instead of cheering him on. I did a science heavy set of GCSEs, and the three sciences and maths at A levels. I applied for a bunch of courses that I thought might get me towards palaeontology ultimately, whether it was Natural Sciences at Cambridge, Geology at a few of the London Universities, and Palaeontology and Evolution at Bristol. I ended up at Bristol, where I did my undergraduate, and had accepted a PhD. I got to go out on a "proper dig" with the Museum of the Rockies that summer. 2 weeks digging up a Triceratops and it was certain that there was nothing else for me. 3 1/4 years of a PhD continuing research looking at ornithomimosaurs led to my current postdoc. 2.5 years through it, I now get to go through the stress of looking for my next postdoc/job but that is for another time.

So for people interested in getting into palaeontology, how do you go about it?

This is the most important of all requirements for modern palaeontologists. There are undoubtedly exceptions (e.g. Jack Horner) who never went to university, but the field has come a long way and everyone has at least a masters level degree, and most have PhDs. This is definitely a requirement as for the academic route into palaeontology (preparators generally require less academic degrees, but much more experience to get a job). As such be prepared for a commitment on the same level as medical doctors in terms of time at university. Before you get there, the focus is heavily on sciences. For A levels, there is a focus particularly on chemistry and biology required for university, and knowledge of maths and physics is incredibly useful. Surprisingly geology is not required! As for degrees at university, I know people who have gone through biological sciences, zoology, geology and natural sciences at various universities. Importantly, it will be picking topics and projects that are palaeontology related throughout the degree that will set you up better for masters or PhDs which are looking for specific experience in those areas.

This applies at any and all levels really. If you are enthusiastic about it, do some research into who is doing work in the things you are interested in. Most large universities have geology or biology departments with at least one palaeontologist. Even if there isn't a palaeontologist, there is probably someone doing evolution based studies that would be worth contacting to see if they have volunteer projects. Museums are much the same. In Bristol, I know several summer projects ended up as publications. Remember, for university applications, they are looking for people who are passionate about what they are doing, and for higher degrees you need to be able to show this. If you are interested in doing field work, most large US and Canadian universities and museums do field work every year and often are looking for enthusiastic volunteers. The best ones you shouldn't have to pay for besides transport to the site and back.

It doesn't have to be scientific papers, but that does help. Read the news, find the palaeontology stories (the BBC science has lots but there are other sources out there). If there are stories you want to read the science, look for the paper. Some are open access so anyone can read. If they aren't, contact the author. Usually they are very happy to share their papers. If not, Facebook has groups that share papers, and there are places like and that may also have them. You may also be able to find them on places like Sci-Hub but there are ongoing copyright cases associated with that source.

Get into the field
Something that I've said many times previously, and am incredibly passionate about, go look for fossils! In the UK there are loads of amateur groups that go collecting, great websites for finding out where to go and what to look for and even guided trips (e.g. UKAFH). I suspect there are many such groups in every country. Not all palaeontologists are field palaeontologists, but it helps if you can put fossils into geological contexts which you can only get by going into the field.

If you are a parent and you kids love fossils
All I can do is encourage you to encourage your children. Take them to museums. Take them fossil hunting. Most kids grow out of their dinosaur phase. Some of us don't. Even if your kids grow out of the phase, many people maintain that fascination in dinosaurs and may develop other useful things like reading news/science, a love of the outdoors, or just be incredibly grateful that you didn't force them to do something just because you thought science/palaeontology doesn't pay well. You can make a living from it, and many do. It isn't an easy career, and there is undoubtedly a long time in university, and a long time after where you have 1-5 year contracts and a lack of stability. The support of my parents let me do what I love, and made it a lot easier every step of the way.

At the end of the day there is no "right" way to get into palaeontology. There is no time limit, no restrictions on when you must study palaeontology. If you love it, go for it.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology

I've just returned to work after a fabulous conference, the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology (ICVM) 2016 in Washington DC. It was an incredibly busy week, a combination of a long travel (via Iceland) and lots of great talks. In fact, it was 4.5 days of talks, with all starting off with some high profile speakers leading the way with plenaries, then 6 simultaneous sessions so there was something for everyone going on nearly all the time (and sometimes too much at once so things were inevitably missed).

I was pleased to get the opportunity to present my work on how cat muscles scale as well as how we can use these data to reconstruct fossil taxa (in this case Panthera atrox - the North American lion, and Smilodon fatalis - sabretooth "tiger") and their soft tissues, and implications this has for the biomechanical reconstructions (keep an eye out for this paper which is currently in review).
Convex hull model of P. atrox based on musculoskeletal reconstructions.
In addition to my own work, it was great seeing all of the talks of past and present lab mates (and there are now a lot from the three big groups across the universities). Their works span everything from pterosaurs, birds, cats, dinosaurs, mammals, and fish.

There were some particular highlights though amongst the rest of the science:

  • The suggestion that sperm whales only have dentition on their lower jaw may be linked to helping lure squid using bioluminescence on the teeth.

  • The entire diceCT (sounding like dice CT, rather than dissect) symposium showing how you can obtain and utilise iodine to contrast enhance CT scanning to produce spectacular images of soft tissues in small animals (they are working on bigger animals, but diffusion is a pain without over-saturating the edges) and their utility for understanding anatomy, function and reconstructing soft tissues. Check out the website for more!

From Gignac et al., 2016 showing diceCT utility for contrast enhanced CT scanning.

  • Casey Holliday and colleagues continue to produce some of the most amazing histology slices of cranial joint morphologies across reptiles and archosaurs (besides the jaw joint). Not only incredibly important in terms of defining what is and isn't a joint, but realising that all the groups do it differently. And I would happily put some of their cross-sections on my wall as art as they are gorgeous.

Best I can offer until the publications come out. From Holliday lab page.

  • There were interesting talks on reconstructing jaw musculature, particularly one on how ornithischian "cheeks" are probably just a more anterior insertion of some of the muscles on the lower jaw.

  • I enjoyed finding out that sloth vertebral muscles are the same as "right way up" terrestrial vertebrates.

  • Seeing that reconstruction of Spinosaurus floating around quite happily (a different result to that presented at SVP which had it unable to float upright and tipping onto its side). However, T. rex also floats happily (as long as its head is up) so if that Spinosaurus reconstruction is correct and not just a rubbish, short-legged, chimeric reconstruction (personal opinion), it still isn't special in its aquatic abilities.

There are there are many more talks deserving of recognition, including those I was unable to attend as I was in other talks (I'm told there was one on chameleons producing infrasonic sounds and being able to hear them with their feet which sounded amazing). There were also the usual high quality selection of posters spanning the entirety of topics and groups from the talks sessions that were up the entire conference allowing people to browse at their leisure.

Other things I also really enjoyed:

  • All talk rooms were the same size so their was no indication to which were expected to be the most popular (e.g. dinosaurs at SVP). The downside is some very popular sessions were very crowded, but I don't believe I saw a single session with every seat filled.

  • Selections of food and drinks available at the coffee breaks. Whilst it may not sound like much, I don't drink tea or coffee so it was nice having something to drink besides water during the coffee breaks.

  • I also attended the end of the business meeting for the conference discussing to get an insight into the workings of it, seeing the next president and committee members being elected, and hearing that the next ICVM is in either Glasgow or Prague (I'm hoping for Prague). A sneak preview that that year SVP is in Australia too so an exciting year of conferences awaits! 

I got to personally thank Larry Witmer for all his work and for being such a great meeting, but again I would like to thank the host committee and everyone who organised ICVM 2016. Barcelona was great 3 years ago, but DC was even better. Looking forward to 2019 and seeing what that ICVM brings!

Gignac et al., 2016. Diffusible iodine-base contrast enhanced computed tomography (diceCT): an emerging tool for rapid, high-resolution, 3-D imaging of metazoan soft tissues. Journal of Anatomy 228, 889-909.