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! 

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