Thursday, May 30, 2013

Interview with Artist and Author: Katrina van Grouw

We should know by know that birds are living dinosaurs and are every bit as fascinating.  Coming from a background working with living animals, myself I am really excited to share an interview I had with Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird.  

Katrina van Grouw is a former curator of the ornithological collections at London’s Natural History Museum, a taxidermist, experienced bird bander, successful fine artist and a graduate of the Royal College of Art. She is the author of Birds, a historical retrospective of bird art, published under her maiden name Katrina Cook. The creation of The Unfeathered Bird has been her lifetime’s ambition.  I bought this book and let me say it is amazing!  Anyone remotely interested in birds will enjoy and learn a whole lot from it.  

Question 1: At what age did you become interested in birds?  Were they always a subject of your art?

KV: As far back as I can remember; I was passionate about birds and natural history. I had a whole string of pet birds and other animals. The companion of my early childhood was a much loved pet chicken called Hilda (which grew up to be a cockerel). Later on I reared a jackdaw which used to fly along next to me when I rode my bicycle. And I built up a little ‘museum’ at home, of birds’ wings, skulls, old nests and feathers etc., and used to persuade my mum to take me to the natural history museum at Tring nearby, at least once a week in every school holiday, throughout my entire childhood. (This museum now houses the London Natural History Museum’s ornithology collections, and it was here that I later worked as a curator).
As a 4 year old I was always drawing eagles and vultures. And dogs – I’ve always felt much closer to dogs than to people. Then, as my interest in birdwatching developed, round about the age of 11, I attempted to draw all the birds on the British list. I managed to get about half way before the school art teacher moulded me into believing that ‘real artists don’t draw birds’.
Although this was rather cruel, it was followed by a traditional and rigid early art training, with challenging still life compositions and regular life drawing sessions from a human model which has been to my advantage as a draughtsman.

Question 2: What medium do you most prefer to use for your art?  Any particular reason why?

KV: All the drawings for The Unfeathered Bird are in pencil (I use a B or a 2B, kept very sharp), then were changed digitally into sepia afterwards. Before this, I used to draw large dramatic sea cliffs in graphite, with very small birds and the foam on the water added in white paint. And before this, I was a printmaker, working primarily in drypoint – a type of engraving - on enormous copper plates.
What all these things have in common is their directness, and I guess that says a lot about me. I’ve done lots of paintings over the years, and lots of printmaking in other media, for example etching (where you have to protect the pale areas while you etch the dark bits) and relief printing (where you have to remove the white areas and leave the dark). But none of these media do it for me at all. Much too long-winded and indirect! And colour? - An irritating and unnecessary distraction!

Albatross by Katrina Van Grouw

Question 3: Is there any particular artist who particularly inspired you growing up?  How about today?

KV: Growing up, my tastes were fairly predictable for a young person learning about art history. I went through a Salvador Dali phase (everyone does). Then I was blown away by the Pre-Raphaelites (everyone is). After that period of obligatory technique-worship, I discovered Samuel Palmer who fuelled my passion for the English countryside. I still love Palmer’s work, but prefer the poignancy of the early 20th Century English graphic artists working before and between the Wars: Eric Ravilious and the Nash brothers amongst others.
I’m also a great fan of the symbolist painters and printmakers, Arnold Bocklin, Gustav Moreau, and Odilon Redon, all of whom have something to answer for in my work.
On the natural history front, George Stubbs was, and is, a great shining hero in the sky.
But no-one has had a more profound influence on me than John James Audubon. Not only did The Birds of America inspire my early drypoints of birds during and shortly after college years but, more importantly, the knowledge of Audubon’s long struggle to produce it kept me going throughout the production of The Unfeathered Bird. It was difficult not to see parallels between the two projects. Like mine, Audubon’s idea did not fit squarely into a niche; it was both art and science. He had to fight for it, and believe in it. He worked life-sized, like me. He was uncompromising and pig-headed like me, and put his book before everything and everyone else - like me. Both books took over 20 years to come to fruition. And Audubon had to get his published in England while I had to get mine published in America. Now, I’m definitely not saying I’m on a par with Audubon – but only that – when the odds stacked up against me and I wanted to give it all up and just fall apart – I’d think about what Audubon would do, and carry on.

Front cover of Katrina's new book featuring a peacock.

Question 4: When did you decide to pursue a career in illustration? 

KV: I didn’t! In fact I’ve never really thought of myself as an illustrator at all, and have only illustrated a couple of books other than The Unfeathered Bird.
My first degree was in Fine Art, and that’s how I always saw myself. In my student days ‘illustration’ was a bit of a dirty word – especially as it was widely assumed that if natural history was your subject matter then you were an illustrator; end of story. I had countless arguments with college tutors who thought it their mission to tell me that I’d joined the wrong course! My college friends and I were always seeking a watertight definition of the difference between fine art and illustration. My definition now is that fine art is produced with the intention of selling or exhibiting it in its original state, whereas illustrations are produced primarily for reproduction. Many a work of fine art, reproduced, can serve as an illustration in a suitable context; and many a fine artist would do well to take a look at the skill and draughtsmanship inherent in illustration. When it comes to drawing ability, most illustrators can wipe the floor with today’s fine artists!
But if you’d like to know when I decided to pursue a career in art – well, it was a reluctant choice and I only submitted to it when I realized that I had no hope of anything else, several years after leaving school and unable to get a place on a science course. I’d shown my drawing ability very young, you see, and had been treated like a child prodigy, so I wasn’t qualified to do anything but art. To be honest though, art was actually what I really wanted to do all along (and I’m certainly no scientist) - but I would have preferred to have been allowed to make my own decisions in my own time!

Night Heron by Katrina van Grouw
Question 5: You have a degree in Natural History Illustration.  How much of each field (science and art) does this cover?

KV: In fact my first degree (my BA) was in Fine Art, and after this I went on to do a Master’s degree (MA) in Natural History Illustration. Unfortunately, that particular course, at the Royal College of Art, was a bitter disappointment. I’d expected lectures in historical natural history illustration and a vibrant art/science scholarly atmosphere, but there was nothing like this at all. The tutor encouraged field drawing, and arranged for reduced price entry to London Zoo, which is all very good. However, I had been taken on to do a specific project – an illustrated thesis on bird anatomy (really a research degree), which I was left to pursue unsupervised for the entire duration (2 years). The course has now ceased to run.

Synanthedon by Katrina van Grouw.

Question 6: Have you done other illustrations of subjects besides birds? 

KV: Yes, indeed, but they’re not all what you might call illustrations.
When I first became a printmaker and learned to do drypoints, I’d walk for miles along the chalk downs carrying lots of tiny metal plates that I’d engrave onto directly. My subject was the landscape and its archaeological features – chalk figures, burial mounds, standing stones etc. (more about my love affair with the chalk downs in question 12…). I built up quite a collection which I someday intend to publish as a set.
The move back to natural history subjects was a sudden one, when I remembered where my real interest lay, and I was very much inspired by historical natural history illustrations and museum collections. Birds were my primary interest, but I also did a lot of work from botanical subjects and even molluscs.
So, the landscapes turned to birds and, over the years, the birds became smaller and smaller until they were just tiny shapeless specks in the landscape again (though this apparently seamless transition was, in reality, punctuated with soul-wrenching intellectual crises). The large landscape – or rather seascape - drawings were produced in situ; perched on cliff tops overlooking caves or stacks or natural arches.
People have told me that they can see a similarity between the coastal geology drawings and the anatomical work. This pleases me immensely, as in both cases I was endeavouring to convey the underlying structure and solidity: what’s going on underneath.
In terms of proper illustration, I’ve actually done very little (The Unfeathered Bird which I conceived, wrote, and designed myself; and two bird books for other authors) but I did illustrate a book called A Field Guide to the Smaller Moths of South-East Asia for the Natural History Museum way back in 1992. Photographs were used for the colour plates, but I produced 50 or so drawings of the head structure of various species; pin-head size or smaller (the moth heads - not the drawings) and a few resting postures of whole moths.

head of Nemophora dicisella (a moth) by Katrina can Grouw.

Question 7: Even though you have no formal scientific training, you eventually became the curator of ornithology at the Museum of Natural History in London.  How did you achieve such an amazing position?  What was it like working there?

KV: That sounds very grand, but I was actually one of a team of five curators, each with a different responsibility for a part of the collections. (In the UK, curators are more like collections managers in the US, i.e. caretakers as opposed to researchers). I was jointly responsible for skins, and had overall responsibility for specimen preparation and repair. We also all received and supervised scientific visitors to our own area, and answered public enquiries, issued loans etc. It was the knowledge I’d gained in my early anatomical investigations many years before, as well as my understanding of moult and ageing as a bird bander that landed me the job, and especially the fact that I knew how to prepare bird study skins.
Much of the job was just like working in any other big institution - meetings about meetings; corporate policies; health & safety legislation etc. etc. But I loved the place, and was proud to be a part of it; it made me feel like a swan, as opposed to the worthless ugly duckling I’d felt before, and there’s not a day that passes when I don’t wish I was still there.

Beacon Hill by Katrina van Grouw.

Question 8: You are a qualified bird bander and have travelled all over the globe working with wild birds.  Do you have a favorite experience doing this?  Was there any particular species of bird you were banding most or trying to band?

KV: Bird banding is all about identifying individual birds so that you can study population changes and bird movements with greater accuracy. All data is potentially useful, but specific projects, with a particular aim, are of the greatest scientific value. I’m really not a scientist at all, but I enjoy the detective work involved in getting as much information as possible from a bird in the hand – a single feather can give a vital clue about a bird’s age, for example. So I could contribute to the scientific work of others in my own way.
I initially trained to be a bander because I wanted to take part in expeditions to remote places – not the best reason, I know! My first expedition was 3 months spent in Senegal, West Africa, banding European migrants in their winter quarters and studying the movements of migrants through the Sahel. So although we were surrounded by all sorts of resident African birds that most of us had only seen in books, our target species were actually the common migrants we were used to seeing in England. It was a fantastic trip and I saw some superb wildlife: patas monkeys galloping across the desert; great flocks of queleas swirling in the air like swarms of insects; lakes covered in bird life – flamingos, pelicans, whistling ducks and wading birds of every description; crowned cranes dancing in the desert; a puff adder swimming through a moonlit swamp amongst the roosting birds... It was all the more poignant for me because until then I’d never even been on an aeroplane!

Question 9: Have you ever received any negative feedback on any of your work?  How do you respond to that?

KV: Yes; but only from idiots. And I respond very badly!
But seriously – what hurts most is unjust criticism, without good reason – people making negative comments just to make themselves look clever; and criticism which has no foundation. For example, dozens of reviewers have said The Unfeathered Bird is beautifully written, but one person said the writing is weak. For me, the negative impact of that outweighs all the accumulated effect of the positive comments. I worked so hard, for so long, and sacrificed so much for this book, that it hurts to get niggling little criticisms like that.
However, 99.9% of my reviews have been simply glorious – some, deeply moving - and have far, far, exceeded expectations.

Pomarine Skuas by Katrina van Grouw.

 Question 10: Art and illustration is such a diverse field.  It has also changed dramatically within the past decade or so.  What advice would you have to give an aspiring artist today?
Ooh, nice question – can I give two?

Piece of advice No. 1:
Draw. Everything. All the time. Keep a sketchbook. But don’t fret and worry about the drawings looking good to others. Let drawing become an exploration; stay focused and full of integrity about the quality of your observation; be your own hardest critic. A sketchbook is for you and you alone.
Piece of advice No. 2:
Don’t be too opposed to the option of taking a day job. I know; there’s a lot of stigma against it – people think you’ve given up, or sold out, or couldn’t make it as an artist. This is bullshit! As long as you continue to make time for artwork, a part time or even a full time job gives you self-esteem, contact with people, daily routine and money. Money’s really important actually. Life is too short to have to steal leftover food or burn the furniture to keep warm (yes, I’ve done both these things). But always remember: when anyone asks you what you do, say that you’re an artist.
And this one’s for anyone; not just artists:
Be careful what you give up. It might be a long time before you manage to get it back.

Wedge Tail Eagle by Katrina van Grouw.

Question 11: What is your favorite bird?  Did you have a favorite bird when you were a child?

KV: Well I like jackdaws, for obvious reasons, and that may well have been my favourite species as a child. But it’s seabirds, now, that really turn me on. I love everything about them – even (well, probably especially) the smell. And the sound. There’s nothing so wonderful as being perched on a clifftop above a seabird colony when the breeding season is in full swing.
Fulmars are great – I just love it when they vomit on you.
Storm Petrels are simply magical.
Cormorants are cool (our mutual friend Niroot and I decided that I’d be a cormorant if I were a bird).
But my favourite seabirds of all are Frigatebirds. They’re enormous, black, piratical, primitive-looking things, and you can just imagine Pterosaurs when you see them soaring overhead. They’re so exciting to watch, too. They don’t swim; they can barely perch, but they fly like demons! Best seen against a tropical stormy sky, in pursuit of a shining, white, comet-tailed, tropicbird...

Skeletals of a Frigatebird pursuing a Tropicbird by Katrina van Grouw.

Question 12: Do you have any other hobbies or interests (not necessarily ornithology related)?

KV: Hmm, let me see… I like red wine.

I love going to the cinema. My friends are appalled by the intellectual level of the films I like to see. But I don’t want cultural stimulation – I go there to escape, on my own. Meteorological disaster movies, far-fetched archaeological adventure films, science fiction and anything to do with superheroes do very nicely.

But my greatest passion is for long walks in chalk down landscape – especially the stretch of 100 miles or so that runs between Buckinghamshire (where I live), down through Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Wiltshire and is covered at the far end with ancient earthworks: ditches, burial mounts, barrows, hill figures of horses cut into the chalk; standing stones; and odd isolated clumps of trees. I love the feeling of knowing the landscape intimately, as far as the eye can see. I’ll happily disappear up there for days on end with my dog, Feather. Unfortunately I get slightly afraid of sleeping outdoors on my own at night – or more accurately – I’m scared of getting scared. Probably a good thing, on reflection, as it’s the only thing that keeps me from going completely feral.

Pouter Pigeon with an inflated condom in its crop. 

Question 13: Your book, The Unfeathered Bird, features many amazing illustrations of bird anatomy all illustrated by you.  Was any particular one especially memorable to do?  Did any give you unexpected trouble?

KV: Unexpected trouble? – oh yes! Drawing the skinned birds was unbelievably difficult. They go all floppy and shapeless. I could just have the skinned carcass lying on the table, and re-construct the position mentally, with reference to images of living birds, or I could rig them up with all sorts of wires and threads and things – whatever would keep them in the position I wanted. The pouter pigeon with its crop inflated was unforgettable. We actually ended up pushing a condom down the bird’s throat then blowing it up like a balloon!
The greatest challenge though was drawing skeletons in lifelike postures from bones that were not articulated; the ones in scientific reference collections in natural history museums. The scientists using these collections need to study the articulating surfaces of individual bones, so it’s important that they’re not glued or wired together. I worked out quite a clever solution: I would draw the skeleton of another bird already prepared in the position I wanted, then rub out and re-draw each bone in turn, with reference to the respective bone of the desired species. It works remarkably well, but you have to really know your birds. The Magnificent Frigatebird (my favourite image from the book) was drawn in this way, from a disarticulated skeleton on loan from the Field Museum, Chicago, and modelled from the position of the Tropicbird it’s chasing. As a huge fan of both frigatebirds and tropicbirds (with feathers on), it was important for me to get it right, and do justice to the dynamism and excitement of a real-live aerial pursuit.

Thank you so much Katrina!  Be sure to check out Katrina van Grouw's website and buy her book!  It has quickly become one of my favorites in terms of imagery alone.  Stay tuned for Sunday's Prehistoric Animal of the Week!  Farewell until then! 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Ornithocheirus: Prehistoric Animal of the Week

Didn't get enough pterosaurs from our interview with Mark Witton this past Thursday?  Never fear!  This week we will be looking at one of these awesome flying reptiles, Ornithocheirus mesembrinus!  Made famous by the 1999 BBC TV special, "Walking with Dinosaurs", Ornithocheirus was a unique-looking animal.  It was large, the largest known specimen likely had a wingspan of about twenty eight feet.  "Walking with Dinosaurs" inaccurately portrayed it much larger, however, at almost forty feet.  (What is it with them and blowing up already impressive animals anyway?)  It lived in what is now Brazil during the Early Cretaceous period about 115 million years ago.

Ornithocheirus mesembrinus life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza

The genus, Ornithocheirus, actually includes several different species that over the years have changed names a few times.  The one I spent long slaving hours over my desk illustrating for this post more or less want to focus on today used to belong to a different genus called Tropeognathus.  It has since been lumped with Ornithocheirus, however.  Same animal, just a different name made up by us, humans, in a futile attempt to make ourselves less confused about how we classify animals.

Skull from Ornithocheirus mesembrinus.

In addition to being rather large, this species of Ornithocheirus had a long tapering snout, lined with straight, pointed teeth and a bony half-disc-shaped crest on its upper and lower jaws.  This pterosaur probably specialized in hunting fish and other marine prey. The crests could have allowed it to dip its mouth into the water to catch food without worrying about drag while on the wing.  It and other members of its family also had really large heads, long arms but proportionally teeny-tiny bodies and hind limbs.  This is probably an evolutionary result of an animal that spends a lot of its time soaring over the water (think about pelicans and albatross).  When alive, it would have had large and well developed neck, chest and arm muscles but relatively wimpy hind legs.  I think I know a few dudes at the gym who could relate to Ornithocheirus now that I think about it.

Ornithocheiroid pterosaurs: sporting disproportionally muscular upper bodies before it was cool.

Ornithocheirus has also made an appearance as a major character in an animated series that aired on Cartoon Network called "Secret Saturdays".  The character's name was "Zon" because she came from the Amazon.  Pretty accurate!

"Zon" from "Secret Saturdays".

That's all for this week!  Special thanks to Dr. Mark Witton, an expert on pterosaurs, for coaching me through my illustration at the beginning of this post!  As always if you would like to see a certain prehistoric animal reviewed on here just give us a shout in the comments below or on our facebook page


Kellner, A. W. A.; Campos, D. A.; Sayão, J. M.; Saraiva, A. N. A. F.; Rodrigues, T.; Oliveira, G.; Cruz, L. A.; Costa, F. R. et al. (2013). "The largest flying reptile from Gondwana: A new specimen of Tropeognathus cf. T. Mesembrinus Wellnhofer, 1987 (Pterodactyloidea, Anhangueridae) and other large pterosaurs from the Romualdo Formation, Lower Cretaceous, Brazil". Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências 85: 113.

Wellnhofer, P. 1987. New crested pterosaurs from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil. Mitteilungen der Bayerischen Staatsammlung für Paläontologie und Historische Geologie, 27, 175-186.

Wellnhofer, P. (1991). The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs. New York: Barnes and Noble Books. pp. 124.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Interview with Paleontologist: Mark Witton

Today we have another fantastic interview!  I was lucky enough to get in contact with paleontologist, Mark Witton! 
About me
I’m a UK-based palaeontological researcher and artist based affiliated with the University of Portsmouth. My research and much of my artistic output concerns pterosaurs, which I like so much that I’ve just produced a book about them with Princeton University Press: Pterosaurs: Natural History, Evolution, Anatomy (details <a href=””>here</a>). In the real world, I live in southern England with a snake, skink and girlfriend, but online I spent most of my time at and it’s <a href=””>sister blog</a>, where I post new artwork and attempt to write short, snappy thoughts on palaeontological issues which frequently turn into long, long discourses. I can also be followed on Twitter @MarkWitton.

Bamofo, the largest giant pterosaur model presented at the 2010 University of Portsmouth/Royal Society exhibition 'Dragons of the Air', and his maker, Dr, Mark Witton.

1) Who did you admire growing up?

 MW: You know, now that I think about it I’m not sure I had any clear ‘heroes’ when I was growing up. The things I idolised more than anything else were monsters and creatures of movies and stories. I never cared for the good protagonists, though, despite them being the characters we’re meant to be rallying behind. I used to draw pictures of Bruce the Shark from Jaws, Geiger’s xenomorphs, the ‘predator’ creature, and dinosaurs attacking people, and recreate the destruction of towns and cities with dinosaur toys. They were just so much more interesting and cooler than the humans. I remember the Kenner ‘Aliens’ action figure range very fondly. Apart from the Queen figure, which was very disappointing. Sorry Kenner: it’s time you know that you upset my eight year-old self.

So disappointing...

2) At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

MW: I was very young when I got the palaeo-bug. So young that I can’t remember how old I was. I don’t think it was solidified until I was nine years old though, when Jurassic Park was released. Dinosaurs were already fairly important on my radar, but Jurassic Park made them the main event.

Two azhdarchid pterosurs, one substantially bigger than the other, stalk their way through across a misty Cretaceous landscape.

3) You are most known for your work with pterosaurs.  How did you end up studying that branch of paleontology?

MW: I was no more interested in pterosaurs than any other group of fossil reptiles until I was approach the end of my undergraduate studies. My dissertation focussed on Cretaceous rocks known as the Wealden Group, which outcrop across southern England, including the famously dinosaur-rich Isle of Wight. If you’re interested in the fossil vertebrates of these deposits, it’s only a matter of time before you encounter one of the Palaeontological Association’s more unusual entries in their Field Guide series, Dinosaurs of the Isle of Wight, edited by David Martill and Darren Naish. For some reason, this dinosaur-titled volume also included a chapter on pterosaurs by Stafford Howse and colleagues (I suspect this was DM’s influence: Dave is a sucker for wing membranes) which gave an overview of the anatomy of the pterodactyloid Istiodactylus latidens. I. latidens is a medium-sized (4.5. m span), long-winged pterosaur with an unusual skull thought to reflect vulture-like scavenging habits by Howse et al. The anatomy of this species was very interesting to me, so I asked Dave Martill about the prospects of studying pterosaurs for a PhD. We put a project together and off I went. A nice ending to this story is that while I didn’t get to work on I. latidens specifically in my thesis, my interest in it went full circle last year when I published a <a href=””>new interpretation of its skull</a> and elaborated on Howse et al.’s scavenging hypothesis.

Three Istiodactylus latidens scavenge the remains of a dead stegosaur in Lower Cretaceous Britain.

4) You are also an artist.  Which medium do you prefer the most for your reconstructions?  How do you come up with color schemes for your long extinct subjects?

MW: I have to work digitally to make anything that’s even passable. I can sketch ok, but my work in anything other than digital paints isn’t all that great. I need the ability to correct mistakes until I’m blunder into something more successful. You just can’t do that in most other media. It would be great to have more rounded skills, but finding the time and resources to experiment with different techniques isn’t easy.

I try to rationalise my colour schemes for extinct animals from observations of modern species and predictions of their lifestyle, taking into account their foraging habits, preferred habitats, use of display structures and so forth. Colour is impossible to predict accurately in virtually all extinct animals (I’m sure  many readers are aware that even using feather melanosome arrangements to predict dinosaur colour has recently been called into question), but I think we can rationalise a likely ‘colour envelope’ for most species. My preference is for a more subdued and modest palate rather than the very bright colours used by some artists. It seems that some have taken the discovery of feathers in many dinosaur species as a signal for madcap colour schemes, but I’ve never understood this. For every bright blue or yellow bird, there’re 100 brown or grey ones. That might be boring, but it’s more accurate.

Life reconstruction and the underlying skeleton of the thalassodromid pterosaur Tupuxuara leonardii, a 4 m span pterosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil.

5) What was your favorite dinosaur (or other prehistoric animal) growing up?  Which is your favorite now?

MW: I certainly drew far more Tyrannosaurus as a child than any other dinosaur, partially because Jurassic Park made it look so awesome. It was probably my favourite dinosaur when I was growing up.

Nowadays, it’s harder to decide on a single favourite animal. I don’t think I have a single favourite anything anymore, actually. I think part of growing up is realising that things can be cool for different reasons, and that you can’t rank incomparable subjects. My honest answer, then, is a cop out ‘all of them!’, but, in a gun-to-head situation, I’d probably say that giant azhdarchids and sauropods are animals I find particularly interesting. Their size is the alluring factor. Imagining a 5 m tall azhdarchid striding around before quad-launching into the skies on wings spanning 10 m is really something. And it’s hard to read anything about sauropods that doesn’t blow your mind in some way. They were clearly amazing animals.

A Tyrannosaurus rex, trying to remember where he put his car keys.

6) Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines.  What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

MW: The Internet makes it easy for young folks with palaeontological interests to observe and get involved with the development of palaeontological science. The palaeo blogosphere is a very active place, and I’d advise young people to dive right in. Many of its contributors are excellent writers, illustrators and science communicators who make ‘actual contributions’ to palaeontological science when not posting content online. What better place to get a sense for the way palaeontologists work, see which debates and issues are the fashionable topics, all the while enhancing your palaeontological knowledge? Plus, reading the toing-and-froing on different issues is a great way to see healthy critical minds in action, where evidence is weighed up, arguments are referenced against peer-reviewed literature, and that sort of thing. A healthy scepticism is an essential part of being a good scientist, so it’s a good idea to start developing that early. The best part, of course, is that you can also directly interact with real some of the best minds in palaeontology via comments, tweets and live chats, so you can be involved with real palaeontology without even leaving your lounge or putting trousers on.

The business end of a titanosaur. No, the other business end.

7) Going to college these days and then on to grad school has become a daunting task.  Many people are unaware of how long it takes to make it to the finish line.  The rewards are great, but what would you say to someone pursuing professional studies after college?

MW: Uh oh, the can of worms is opened! We could talk for ages about this, so I’ll try to be brief. That’s going to be hard, because this topic is something that currently occupies my thoughts for most of the day and has led to many sleepless nights. Because opinions on this largely stem from personal experience, I want to stress that my opinions on this matter are very much my own, and may differ from those who end up in palaeontology circles via another path. Thus, if you are seeking advice about getting into palaeontology post-university, make sure you seek the advice of others to sample as many opinions as possible.

A lot of students I’ve encountered can’t wait to get into a PhD programme once they’ve graduated, to the point where they’ll personally fund the whole project if they have to. I was one of these guys. I worked part-time while doing a full-time PhD for three years from 2005-2008. It was hard work, and I very rarely had any time off. I’m glad I did that, because it led to a lot of great things that have made, and continue to make me very happy, but I am not sure I would recommend it to people who’re thinking about doing PhD studies. If any readers happen to be in that position now, and gunning to do a PhD because they think it’s the road to a dream job in palaeontology, you need to stop and think for a bit. Gaining a PhD will undoubtedly change your life, but not necessarily for in the way you think it will.

In the rush to get a PhD, young students tend to ignore a piece of common knowledge about palaeontology: there are no jobs. Maybe these words are too familiar to us now, to the point where we don’t really hear them anymore, or perhaps we’re all so keen to get into palaeontology that we don’t really listen. Whatever the reason, young scientists need to realise that the ‘no jobs’ comments are there for a reason. PhD studies are fairly easy to get through, but I cannot stress enough how tough some postdoc periods are. This is particularly so at the moment with university and museum departments facing cutbacks and closures. Finding work can be very, very difficult after the PhD unless you’re extremely talented, or extremely lucky. You could be looking at several years or maybe decades without permanent employment. I know at least eight bright, hard-working palaeontologists that this has happened to, and have heard stories of many more. If you browse the Internet looking for this sort of thing, it becomes apparent that many PhDs outside of palaeontology experience similar problems.

To give you a picture of what this ‘wilderness period’ is like, consider the following. You may find yourself drifting from short-contract to short-contract, moving around to wherever work takes you, pitching any talents you have as a freelancer and living off something like £12K a year - if you’re lucky. All the while you’ll be trying to maintain enough academic kudos to remain potentially employable by publishing papers, doing outreach and maintaining a visible online profile. Odds are you will have to work all hours and invest your own savings into projects and conference attendance, because you risk falling off the map if you don’t.

This may not sound like a big deal if you’re a young, liberally minded undergraduate. After all, you’re still doing what you always wanted, right, even if your quality of life isn’t as high as you might like? Bear in mind, though, that our priorities change with age. Professionally drifting for a few years becomes pretty frustrating after a while, and the incessant feeling that you should be doing ‘something important’ is exhausting. It becomes hard to ignore the reality of your average monthly wage being less than that of a supermarket shelf-stacker despite the years of work and investment into earning the premier qualification awarded by higher education. You can forget owning a house or car, or taking regular vacations, and will struggle to grow and excel yourself professionally. If you’re anything like me, this lack of progress will become an issue. Low wages and enforced workaholism will also become problems if you have a partner, children or other dependents to worry about during this time too. And if you do have dependents, your ability to relocate yourself for employment becomes a heck of a lot more complex, or even impossible.

Clearly, the lucky and the tenacious break through their wilderness periods – some may avoid them altogether - and land successful careers as lecturers, research scientists and so forth, but prospective PhD students need to ask themselves if they want to run through that gauntlet. The PhD is the easy bit, the life after is the challenge. Crucially, and what is often overlooked by young folks, there are lots of ways to stay in touch with palaeontology that do not involve getting a PhD. Simply blogging about palaeontology is a great way to be part of the palaeo scene without being reliant on it. Working as a lab technician, museum educator, exhibition developer, geopark warden and are ways to work with fossils in your day job, but you don’t need a PhD to do them. There’re many more careers which incorporate palaeontology if you’re prepared to work within natural history or science jobs generally. A lot of these options are not available to you if you have a PhD, however. If you decide you do want a job outside of academia, a PhD becomes a ball and chain. In the ‘real’ job market, a PhD is as a warning beacon for an employee who’s going to quit the moment a better job comes along. I’ve been told on several occasions that I’ve not got jobs because of over-qualification. It’s a limbo-like existence, where it’s very difficult to find an academic role, and has no obvious route into ‘real’ jobs either.

I’m still rambling, so I’ll tie this all up. I’m not saying ‘do not do a PhD’. I’m saying that young people need to think long and hard about taking one on. Do not just rush into it. Think about where you want to be in 10 years, taking into account time for the PhD and its aftermath. If the scenario outlined above sounds unappealing, then perhaps a PhD is not for you. Remember that you do not need a PhD to be involved with palaeontology, and that you do not have to start a PhD immediately after leaving university. A lot of people do their PhDs later in life on the side of their working careers, treating them as a hobby rather than a profession. Above all, be aware that a PhD is not an express ticket to your dream job in palaeontology. It may be an important part of it, but it comes with a Hell of a lot of baggage. 

A family of Pachyrhinosaurus sporting coats of long, shaggy protofeathers.

8) What was or is your favorite research project?  What are some of your current projects?

MW: I think my work on pterosaur mass, which proposed that pterosaurs were about three times heavier than most other people were saying at the time (2008), is the bit of work I’m most satisfied with. It’s perhaps is one of the most important things I’ve done. I don’t think I fully appreciated its significance at the time, but pterosaur mass estimates had been in need of a good shakeup for years. I think that paper helped a lot with that. 2008 was a good year actually, because it also saw Darren Naish and I bring terrestrially stalking azhdarchids to the world. That has to be another favourite and I think it’s fair to say it’s been a very successful paper. It’s very easy to see the influence those ideas and some of the associated artwork have had on portrayals of azhdarchids in pop culture, and perhaps other pterosaurs as well.

You can never reveal too much about current projects of course, but I’m currently involved with some new giant pterosaur material from Romania which is extremely exciting. I can say nothing else about that for the moment, though, suffice to stress it’s extremely cool. Mike Habib and I should be bringing a paper on insect catching in anurognathid pterosaurs in to land soon as well, which is also pretty neat. I’ve got some additional projects at various stages of completion as well, which will hopefully turn into actual papers in the near future.

The outdoor component of the 2010 University of Portsmouth/Royal Society exhibition 'Dragons of the Air', featuring 5 life-sized models of giant azhdarchid pterosaurs.

9) Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs.  What was your most memorable movie, book or TV program that inspired you with regards to peleontology?

MW: Clichéd as it is, Jurassic Park is up there. It has to be for any 20-something palaeontologist. I feel sorry for people a decade younger than me because they didn’t get to experience that game changing moment common to this generation of dinosaur buffs. They’ve always known the fast, bird-like dinosaurs that Jurassic Parkreleased to the world and can’t fully appreciate their relevance against the upright, plodding creatures we knew until the early 1990s. As mentioned above, Jurassic Parkcemented my childhood obsession with dinosaurs well and truly. I think I probably would’ve ended up training as a palaeontologist anyway if it weren’t for that film, but Jurassic Park made it a certainty.

A moody, battered Stegosaurus and his fluffy tail

 10) I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist.  Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met?  Were you a nervous wreck? 

MW: I do, but I wasn’t nervous. We were at a University of Portsmouth open day and being shown around by David Loydell, an expert in Silurian graptolite biostratigraphy, so the circumstances weren’t really conducive to being scared. I do, however, still get very nervous speaking to fellow palaeontologists at conferences. I’m petrified that they’re going to find out that I don’t know anything.

A couple of freaky pterosaurs, known as Zhenyuanopterus (a genus likely synonymous with Boreopterus) float about in a Cretaceous Chinese lake.

11) Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures.  Why do you feel they continue to fascinate us?

MW: I think you’ve answered that question for me. They’re amazing animals, and that’s all there is to it. Some dinosaurs were amazingly big, amazingly powerful or looked amazing with their crests, horns and spikes. All Mesozoic dinosaurs are amazingly old, and the manner in which their appearance and lives are reconstructed through chance discovery of fossils is an amazing feat in itself. Fossilisation, the means through which we glimpse the Mesozoic world after millions and millions of years, is pretty amazing too. Whatever aspect of dinosaur palaeontology you look at, you find some amazingness. It’s hard to think of another subject that can rack up the amazing-count as consistently as dinosaurs.

12) What is your favorite time period?

MW: As before, picking a favourite is challenging because each portion of geological time has its own appeal. Certainly one of the more interesting periods to work with, if you’re into Mesozoic terrestrial tetrapods anyway, is the Cretaceous. Its terrestrial fossil record is considerably better than that of the Jurassic or Triassic, which means we have a more detailed picture of what was happening in its continental ecosystems. The Cretaceous record of some groups is sufficient to get a rough handle on attributes of palaeobiogeography, niche portioning, population dynamics and so forth. We know our ideas of these are rough, but there’s enough data to at least put some tangible hypotheses on the table. While the faunas and ecologies of the continental Jurassic and Triassic are just as interesting, most of their records are also much patchier. We just can’t see them in the same resolution that we can see the Cretaceous.

Dsungaripterus weii, a large dsungaripterid pterosaur from China, murders a small pterosaur for fun. And to eat.

13) Do you have any other interests or hobbies you could tell us about? (doesn’t have to be paleontology related)

MW: I’m a bit of a science fiction buff, I suppose, both of vintage sci-fi and more modern franchises. I don’t tend to read many modern science fiction novels, preferring the classics of the genre. A lot of modern science fiction authors get so bogged down with minute details of their universes that I find them dull, or are simply clichéd and formulaic. In terms of film, my partner and I are have unintentionally amassed a fairly impressive sci-fi DVD and BluRay collection. There’re still a few holes to plug, but we’re slowly covering all the important bases. I like to paint to relax, but watching a good movie comes close. I consider myself extremely lucky that my other half is just as much a nerd as I am, if not more, so a quiet evening in watching the new Dredd movie is something that works for us both, and romantic dinner discussion can be about the identity of the new Star Trek film villain.  I’m clearly a very lucky man.

Thank you Dr. Witton!   If you are interested in knowing more you can check out Mark's website and blog.  Stay tuned this Sunday for a very special prehistoric animal of the week!