Sunday, January 31, 2016

Platecarpus: Beast of the Week

This week we will be checking out a marine reptile that has been able to tell us a LOT about how it lived and what it looked like when alive.  Enter Platecarpus tympaniticus!

Platycarpus was a mosasaur, a kind of prehistoric lizard that was adapted to a life in the ocean, that lived during the Cretaceous period, between 84 and 81 million years ago. It swam in shallow oceans over what is now North America, parts of Europe, and also northern Africa.  At fourteen feet from snout to tail, it was large for a lizard by today's standards (biggest living example is the Komodo Dragon at ten feet) but it was tiny compared to other known species of mosasaur, some of which grew to be gigantic.  The genus name, Platycarpus, translates to "Flat Wrist" in reference to the anatomy of its limbs, which were flat paddles.  Like all known mosasaurs, Platycarpus was a meat-eater.

Platecarpus life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza

Platycarpus is a well-studied mosasaur because its fossils tend to be very common in areas where it lived.  In fact, we probably know a lot of what we know about mosasaurs in general thanks to Platycarpus.  There is one specimen in particular that really made the picture of this creature more clear.  It was so well preserved that paleontologists could identify patches of skin, the outline of the body, its last meal, and even some of its organs!

The skin of Platycarpus, according to the patches of it that preserved, was scaly, much like that of modern snakes and lizards.  The scales were rounded and mosaic-like on the head, and became more like diamond-shaped shingles, overlapping slightly on most of the body.  It also had small, thin scales on the throat and underbelly.  This is similar to what you would find on most lizards and snakes today on a general level.  The scales were also very small, so you would only be able to have really picked them out visually if you were very close to Platycarpus.

This figure from the beautifully preserved Platecarpus specimen which was published in 2010 shows some of the scales, and the trachea.

The organs that scientists think they may have been able to identify in the well-preserved Platycarpus specimen are the heart, liver, and kidney, based on their positions in the body.  The most interesting preserved organ, however, was the trachea, the tube-like organ used to breathe air.  What makes the preservation of this organ special, is that scientists could tell it was forked, and therefore would have led to two lungs inside the body.  This is different from snakes, which are close relatives of mosasaurs, which typically only have one lung.  Before this discovery, there were thoughts that perhaps mosasaurs only had one lung, too, to accommodate their streamlined bodies, which we now can confirm was not the case.

Platycarpus' tail was tall and flattened on the sides, which would be expected for a marine animal.  It was also sharply downturned towards the tip.  This indicates that Platecarpus had a fluke on the top of its tail in life, similar to that of a shark.  Other extinct marine reptiles, like ichthyosaurs and some kinds of crocodiles, also exhibited this same feature.  Before this discovery it was assumed that mosasaurs swam similar to snakes, moving their whole bodies in S-shaped motions.  Now we know their style of swimming was probably closer to that of modern crocodilians and sharks, keeping the body stiff, while powering through the water with their powerful, broad tails.

Platecaarpus skull on display at the Naturmuseum Senckenberg in Germany.  Note the large eyes (supported by those scleral rings) and blade-like teeth.

Unlike the teeth of some larger mosasaurs, like Tylosaurus, which were pretty broad, for crushing prey, the teeth of Platecarpus were relatively flat, and blade-like.  They were also serrated, to slice meat even easier.  This indicates that Platecarpus was probably more adapted for hunting prey with softer bodies, like squid and certain kinds of small fish.  The remains of some digested fish were also found in the well-reserved Platecarpus specimen.  Platecarpus' entire skull was proportionally smaller, with a shorter snout than what is typically seen in other mosasaurs, further supporting the idea that it was better at hunting small prey.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!


Lindgren, J.; Caldwell, M.W.; Konishi, T.; Chiappe, L.M. (2010). Farke, Andrew Allen, ed. "Convergent Evolution in Aquatic Tetrapods: Insights from an Exceptional Fossil Mosasaur". PLoS ONE 5 (8): e11998. 

Lingham-Soliar T. 1994. The mosasaur "Angolasaurus" bocagei (Reptilia: Mosasauridae) from the Turonian of Angola re-interpreted as the earliest member of the genus Platecarpus. Palaeont. Z. 68 (1/2): 267–282.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Barosaurus: Beast of the Week

I figured that since there is so much hype going on currently about that new titanosaur, we should use this week to honor... the other famous sauropod on display in New York!  Check out Barosaurus lentus!

Barosaurus life reconstruction by Christopher DiPiazza

Barosaurus was a large sauropod dinosaur that lived in what is now the Western United States, during the Late Jurassic period, about 150 million years ago.  When alive it ate plants and adults could have grown to be about eighty five feet from snout to tail.  The genus name, Barosaurus, translates to "Heavy Lizard/Reptile" because well...look at it.  Could you lift one?  I don't care how much you skip leg day at the gym nobody is lifting that guy.

Within the sauropod group, Barosaurus belongs to the family, diplidocidae.  Diplodocids are characterized by having relatively long snouts with thin, peg-like teeth in the front of the mouth. (Although a skull from Barosaurus, itself, hasn't been found.)  They also all had extremely long tails that tapered down to a thin whip, which they may have used as weapons against rivals and predators.  Diplodocids also tended to have shorter front limbs than hind limbs, putting their center of gravity over the hips.  This may have allowed them to have reared up on their hind legs, using the strong tail to make a third "leg" for short periods of time if they needed to.  Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, and Diplodocus (duh) were also diplodocids.

Compared to its relatives, Barosaurus had a longer neck, shorter (still pretty long, though) tail and a shorter body.  Since there were so many different species of sauropods that lived at the same time and place during the late Jurassic, alongside Barosaurus, we tend to notice slight differences between them, especially when it comes to neck length.  This may have been an example of niche partitioning, which is when similar species of animals have evolved slightly different lifestyles to avoid competition with one another.  In this case, Barosaurus may have used its longer neck to take advantage of foliage at a level that was unavailable to shorter sauropods.  It also may have used this neck to sweep across vaster expanses of low-growing plants to eat, without having to actually move its body.  Barosaurus' neck vertebrae were long and hollow, with lots of openings around them.  These bits of space around the bones are called pleurocoels, and were probably adaptations to make the dinosaur's long neck as light as possible so it could keep its head off the ground.  They also may have provided space for muscles responsible for pumping blood to the brain.

Barosaurus skeletal mount at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The American Museum of Natural History has probably the most famous Barosaurus skeletal mount, of an adult rearing back on its hind legs to defend a baby against an attacking Allosaurus.  This scene is right in the front entrance and is the first thing you see when you walk into the museum.  When I was six years old and saw it for the first time, my head almost exploded.  It is important to note, however, that a lot of this scene is speculation.  We really have no proof that sauropods cared for or protected their young in this fashion.  In fact, we have some evidence that some kinds really didn't do much parenting work at all, beyond burying their eggs after laying them.  Also, some of the bones this Barosaurus mount is based on have since been assigned to a different genus, called Kaatedocus.  The overall shape of the creature, however, is still identifiable as Barosaurus.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!


Dingus, Lowell. "Sauropodomorphs." The Halls of Dinosaurs: A Guide to Saurischians and Ornithischians. New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1995. 18. Print.

Foster, J. (2007). "Appendix." Jurassic West: The Dinosaurs of the Morrison Formation and Their World. Indiana University Press. pp. 327-329.

Lull, Richard S. (1919). "The sauropod dinosaur Barosaurus Marsh: redescription of the type specimens in the Peabody Museum, Yale University". Memoirs of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences 6: 1–42.

McIntosh, John S. (2005). "The genus Barosaurus Marsh (Sauropoda, Diplodocidae)". In Tidwell, Virginia & Carpenter, Ken (eds.). Thunder-lizards: The Sauropod Dinosaurs. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. pp. 38–77.

Tschopp, E.; Mateus, O. V. (2012). "The skull and neck of a new flagellicaudatan sauropod from the Morrison Formation and its implication for the evolution and ontogeny of diplodocid dinosaurs". Journal of Systematic Palaeontology

Saturday, January 16, 2016

New Titanosaur at the AMNH: Questions Answered

In case you weren't aware, the biggest dinosaur skeleton known to science (for now) was just mounted at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.  Last night was the unveiling party and I was lucky enough to have been able to attend.  At this event, curators of paleontology, Dr. Mark Norell, Dr. Michael Novacek, and paleontologist, Dr. Diego Pol, all of whom were involved in the discovery, excavation, transporting, and mounting of this beast, sat down and finally spilled a wealth of fascinating information about it on stage, right under the tail.  

The head and front part of the neck of this skeleton wouldn't fit in just the one room, and so is peeking out into the hall.

Leading up to this there have been so many questions about this new beast.  When I was at the event, I made a list of all the important information that was shared.  Here it is below for your enjoyment!

It was a titanosaur, part of a very successful group of sauropods that lived on almost every continent during the Cretaceous Period.  

It is a species new to science.  We know this because its neural arches are taller and differently shaped than those of any other known titanosaur.

It still has not been officially assigned a scientific name.  This name will come out when the formal paper, describing it, is published.  Dr. Pol did, however, elude to the fact that he plans for the name to honor where it was discovered in Patagonia, and the rancher who originally found the bones on his land and alerted the Egidio Feruglio Museum of Paleontology, enabling it to be excavated and studied for science, and ultimately put on display in a museum to be shared with anyone who visits.

Butt view of the skeleton.

The skeleton is one hundred twenty two feet long from snout tot tail, and is the largest dinosaur currently known to science.

It was not fully grown when it died.  This is because the sutures on the vertebrae were not fully fused together, a trait seen in pretty much all animal skeletons that have not finished growing yet.  Dr. Pol estimates that it was about 75% grown at the time of its death.

It is estimated to have weighed about seventy tons when alive. This is actually very light considering how large it is.  If you scaled up an elephant to that size it would weigh a lot more.  This is because this dinosaur's bones were hollow, like a honeycomb on the inside, making it lighter.  Other dinosaurs, like birds used this same adaptation to fly, while sauropods like this guy, used it to become gigantic without collapsing on themselves.  This also would have enabled the attachment of air sacks, which enable the animal to take on more oxygen as it respired.

This pillar-shaped front limb would have supported literally tons of weight.  Note how it has three claws on the back limbs but none on the front.  This seems to be the trend with titanosaurs.  Other kinds of sauropods typically had one claw on the each hand.

It lived 101.6 million years ago during the Early Cretaceous Period in what is now Argentina.

It wasn't alone.  In the same formation, there are the remains of at least five other members of the same species still to be unearthed.  According to exactly where they are in the earth, it was determined that they did not die at the same time, however.  For whatever reason, perhaps the presence of water, (since there is evidence of there having been a river nearby back then) this particular spot in Argentina attracted dying members of this species.

So far no bones from other species of dinosaurs have been discovered in that area.  However, plenty of theropod teeth were found, which were probably from scavengers, shed while eating the titanosaurs after they had died. 

The skeleton mounted on display is entirely made of casts.  The real fossils would be too heavy and delicate to get up there.  Th e real limb bones are mounted on the wall right next to it, however.

Real arm fossils are mounted on the wall next to the skeleton.

Overall about 70% of the skeleton was found.  This makes it one of the most complete giant sauropod skeletons known.  (Dreadnaughtus is still the most completely known, at about 75% complete.)

The skull was never found.  Sadly, fossilization of sauropod skulls is extremely rare.  This could be because, compared to the rest of the skeleton, the skull is particularly small and delicate.  Therefore it would have been easier for it to have been destroyed or swept away after death. The skull that is mounted on display is based on other species of titanosaurs of which the skull is known.  (only three species)

The skeleton's back has two inches of clearance from the museum room's ceiling.  This is after they renovated the place, too!  As the skeleton was being built, Dr. Norell said that he was getting ready to entertain the idea of mounting the dinosaur in a crouching position in case it was too tall to fit.

From left to right, Dr. Michael Novacek, Dr. Diego Pol, and Dr. Mark Norell share information about the new dinosaur.

What an amazing discovery!  I am personally thrilled that it has found its way all the way to my backyard in New York City where millions of people will visit it for years to come. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Hypsilophodon: Beast of the Week

This week we will be starting the new year off with a dinosaur I have been meaning to get to for months, actually, but new discoveries and requests kept taking preference.  So finally let's say hello to a little dinosaur that was one of the first to ever be scientifically described, Hypsilophodon foxii!

Life restoration of Hypsilophodon by Christopher DiPiazza.

Hypsilophodon was discovered in what is now Southern England during the Early Cretaceous period, between 130 and 125 million years ago.  It was a plant-eater, and adults measured almost five feet long from beak to tail.  The genus name, Hypsilophodon literally translates to "High-Ridged Tooth" BUT this is in reference to the scientific name for a modern kind of iguana, Hypsilophus, which has a high ridge of spines growing down its back.  Hypsilophodon's teeth didn't have any sort of ridges on them...but they were similar to the teeth of modern iguanas, which is why it was named what it was. (like how Iguanodon was named)  Hypsilophodon was a small member of the ornithopod dinosaur group, related to Iguanodon, Tenontosaurus, Mantellisaurus, and to a lesser extent, the duck-billed hadrosaurs.

Hypsilophodon skeletal mount on display at the American Museum of Natural History.

Hypsilophodon was first discovered during the mid 1800s so it was among the first of the non-avian dinosaurs to be recognized by modern science, shortly after Iguanodon and Megalosaurus.  Like them, Hypsilophodon went through a few changes to its identity as scientists gradually learned more and more about it.  Originally, it was actually believed by some to be just a small Iguanodon, and then a smaller kind of Iguanodon.  After finally confirming it was a separate genus, Hypsilophodon was believed to have been a tree-climber, since it was small, lightly-built, and since scientists at the time thought it could have used its first toe on each foot as a sort of perching digit, like what you might find on a modern song bird and its tail may have been prehensile to grasp branches like that of some monkeys.  Upon further examination, however, it was found out that Hypsilophodon's first toe was more like a dewclaw, and therefore, was unable to rotate around and grasp something like a branch.  Its tail, in actuality would have been stiff, not flexible, due to the presence of ossified tendons found down its length.  In addition to the arboreal idea, the idea that Hypsilophodon could have hopped like a kangaroo to get around was also entertained for a while, since its feet were indeed very long.  Scientists have since concluded that it most likely was simply a very fast runner, and did so like modern ostriches and emus.  This would have enabled it to escape the many predators it coexisted with, like Eotyrannus, Baryonyx, and Neovenator.

Illustration by Neave Parker from 1950 of Hypsilophodon using its toes to perch on a branch.  It has since been determined they were more adapted to running on the ground.  Photo from the London Museum of Natural History's online archives.

Hypsilophodon had relatively long, powerful arms, and five fingers on each hand.  The fifth digit of each hand angled differently, forming a sort of opposable digit, which could have helped to grasp things, like plants, in life, like the thumb of a primate.  The stiffened tail was an adaptation for agility, and would have allowed the dinosaur to make sharper turns when on the move.  Ossified tendons in the tail are an adaptation which were common to many other kinds of dinosaurs, like the hadrosaurs, and predatory dromaeosaurs.

Hypsilophodon had a short, sharp beak in the front of its mouth for clipping tough vegetation.  It's teeth were flattened laterally, leaf-shaped, for shredding food.  Hypsilophodon also had small, pointed teeth in the very front of its mouth, just beyond the tip of the beak.  These teeth were found in a number of other kinds of small, plant-eating dinosaurs, and may have aided in stripping leaves off of branches.  Hypsilophodon also had extremely large eye sockets, suggesting its eye sight was probably quite good in life.  In front of each eye, it had a palpebral bone, or "brow bone".  These bones are also present on modern crocodilians and certain kinds of birds, and give the animal a superficial "angry" appearance.  Their primary purpose was probably to cut glare and shade Hypsilophodon's eyes in life.

Close up of the Hypsilophodon's skull at the American Museum of Natural History.  Note the palpebral bone growing from the front of the eye socket.  Also check out the short beak and small teeth.

There is a bit of debate going on right now as to what kind of skin covering dinosaurs like Hypsilophodon would have had when alive.  For a long time we just assumed they were covered scales, but recently there has been more and more speculation towards it having had feathers, or feather-quill-like structures when alive.  This is partially fed by discoveries of not only theropod dinosaurs, of which we know for a fact many of had full coats of feathers, but also certain kinds of early ornithiscian dinosaurs being discovered with feathers or coarse, quill-like structures on the fossil specimen's body.  Specifically these dinosaurs are Psittacosaurus, a very early relative of ceratopsians, Tianyulong, a kind of heterodontosaurid, and Kulindadromeus, a more basal ornithiscian.  Now although these three specimens are indeed more closely related to Hypsilophodon than the feathered theropods...they were still farther away from it on the family tree than the ornithopods, of which many have been proven to have had scaly skin.  So was Hypsilophodon purely scaly like its closest relatives, or did it have some extra fluff like other smaller dinosaurs?  The exact body covering of Hypsilophodon is still very much a mystery!

Sketch I did of how Hypsilophodon may have looked if it had feathers.

That is all for this week!  As always feel free to comment below or on our facebook page!


Galton, P.M., 1974, The ornithischian dinosaur Hypsilophodon from the Wealden of the Isle of Wight. British Museum (Natural History), Bulletin, Geology, London, 25: 1‑152c

P.M. Galton, 2009, "Notes on Neocomian (Lower Cretaceous) ornithopod dinosaurs from England - HypsilophodonValdosaurus, "Camptosaurus", "Iguanodon" - and referred specimens from Romania and elsewhere", Revue de Paléobiologie, Genève 28(1): 211-273

Hulke, J.W., 1874, "Supplemental note on the anatomy of Hypsilophodon foxii", Geological Society of London, Quarterly Journal30: 18-23

Hulke, J.W., 1882, "An attempt at a complete osteology of Hypsilophodon foxii, a British Wealden dinosaur", Royal Society of London, Philosophical Transactions172: 1053-1062

Mayr, G.; Peters, S. D.; Plodowski, G.; Vogel, O. (2002). "Bristle-like integumentary structures at the tail of the horned dinosaur Psittacosaurus" (PDF)Naturwissenschaften89 (8): 361–365.

Norman, David B.; Sues, Hans-Dieter; Witmer, Larry M.; Coria, Rodolfo A. (2004). "Basal Ornithopoda". In Weishampel, David B.; Dodson, Peter; and Osmólska, Halszka (eds.). The Dinosauria (2nd ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 393–412. ISBN 0-520-24209-2.

Sues, Hans-Dieter; Norman, David B. (1990). "Hypsilophodontidae, Tenontosaurus, Dryosauridae". In Weishampel, David B.; Osmólska, Halszka; and Dodson, Peter (eds.). The Dinosauria (1st ed.). Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 498–509.

Zheng, Xiao-Ting; You, Hai-Lu; Xu, Xing; Dong, Zhi-Ming (19 March 2009). "An Early Cretaceous heterodontosaurid dinosaur with filamentous integumentary structures". Nature 458(7236): 333–336.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Interview with Paleontologist: Liz Freedman Fowler

Today we have the pleasure of talking to paleontologist, Dr. Liz Freedman Fowler! Dr. Fowler received her Ph.D. in paleontology at Montana State University under the guidance of Dr. Jack Horner at the Museum of the Rockies. Her dissertation research focused on the evolution and growth of hadrosaurine dinosaurs from the Judith River Formation (Late Cretaceous, Campanian) of Montana. Dr. Freedman Fowler is originally from Florida, and received her B.A. from Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After completing her doctorate, Dr. Freedman Fowler was the Curator of Paleontology at the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana, and an adjunct professor at Montana State University. In January Dr. Freedman Fowler will become the Museum Director of the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site in St. George, Utah.

Question 1: Let’s start from the beginning.  What was your earliest sign of interest in paleontology that you can remember?

LF: In preschool, dinosaur toys were always my favorites. In second grade, I learned the word “paleontologist” and my career was set. I never changed my mind.

Question 2: Did you have any professionals or family members who served as role models when you were younger?  Do you still have any now?

LF: My parents were always supportive of my interest in paleontology, and took me to lots of museums, parks, and fossil fairs when I was a kid. My mom took me on digs in Florida, where I grew up, and once I started leading dinosaur digs in Montana, my family came out to help dig.

Question 3: Was there anything you did or learned as you were on your way to your current career that you feel got you to where you are?  By this I mean any sort of field experience, a class, networking with the right people, or possibly something different or all three?

LF: My senior year of high school, I was invited to a special national conference for high-achieving students, and Jack Horner was there. I gathered up the courage to sit at his table for breakfast one day, and he asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to be a paleontologist. Jack had a replica dinosaur foot sitting on the table, and asked me what it was. I said Deinonychus, and Jack immediately invited me to come out to Montana and dig up a T. rex with the Museum of the Rockies that summer. I’ve been digging dinosaurs with the Museum of the Rockies for just about every summer since then!

Question 4: Is the field of paleontology different now than from when you started as far as you can tell?  How about from when you were a child?  What would your advice be to anyone trying to make a career in paleontology (or science in general for that matter) now?

LF: As a whole, paleontology used to be based in geology departments. In the past couple of decades, there has been a shift toward paleobiology and evolutionary biology, so professors and graduate students have been based in biology departments. This has led to lots of amazing research, but now many new paleontologists are not getting much of a background in geology. Understanding geologic processes, and spending time out in the field looking at the rocks, it critical to understanding the biases in the fossil record and the way specimens are collected. Without that knowledge, biological interpretations could be very misleading: look at faunal lists for any formation or time period, and relative abundances of each species – did all of those animals really live at the exact same time in the exact same environment? Generally not. For accurate paleobiological interpretations, you need to know your data set inside and out, and the best way to do that is to get out in the field and collect the fossils yourself!

Question 5: What was or is your favorite project in paleontology so far?  Would you be able to tell us about some of your current or future projects?

LF: My favorite project is the claws research I did with Denver Fowler, John Scannella, and Robert Kambic. It was a multifaceted project where we studied the anatomy and functional morphology of the claws of modern raptors (hawks, owls, etc.), and correlated different claw sizes and shapes to different feeding and hunting behaviors. We got to watch a lot of fascinating YouTube videos of hawks tearing apart their prey. Then, after determining the relationship between claw morphology and predatory behavior in modern birds, we used this information to study how raptor dinosaurs like Deinonychus captured and ate their prey. We spent a lot of time studying that very same Deinonychus foot that Jack showed me the first time we met, back when I was just graduating high school, so it was really special to incorporate that specimen into our research as grad students.
As for current and future projects, I just graduated with my PhD in May 2015, so I’m in the process of getting my dissertation papers published. My dissertation examined the evolution and ontogeny of Campanian hadrosaurs in the Judith River Formation. The first chapter, naming the new genus and species Probrachylophosaurus bergei, was published in November (, and the next three chapters, on a bonebed of Gryposaurus, will be published soon. Then there will be some spin-off projects based on additional hadrosaur material, and then some other dinosaurs from the same area…I’m not done with the Judith River Formation yet!

Probrachylophosaurus bergei by Christopher DiPiazza

Question 6: Did you have a strong interest in these specific subjects within paleontology or did the projects choose you?

LF: I was always interested in paleobiological questions – looking at dinosaurs as living animals. Using modern analogs is a great way to study how dinosaurs might have behaved, so I was very pleased to get to study modern raptor birds and then compare them to raptor dinosaurs (non-avian). My PhD research “evolved” due to the specimens I collected during the summers. The new species I described in my dissertation hadn’t been collected when I started doing research in the Judith River Formation! I was very lucky that we found these great sites, and that I got to lead crews from the Museum of the Rockies in collecting these amazing hadrosaur fossils.

Dr. Fowler with Probrachylophosaurus material, cast, and life restoration by John Conway.

Question 7: What sort of interesting places have you traveled to while working?  What was your favorite traveling experience so far?  Do you see yourself traveling more in the future?

LF: Most of the research done at the Museum of the Rockies is based in Montana, but we travel to places that have similar types of rocks, to compare the dinosaurs found in these places. Because my field area is in northern Montana, I have visited Alberta several times to see rocks of the same age and spend time with our Canadian colleagues. Jack Horner has helped form a collaboration between the Museum of the Rockies and Mongolian paleontologists, so I did get to visit Mongolia, which was a very special and memorable experience.

Question 8: A popular image of paleontologists is that they are constantly out in the field digging up fossils, which is true to an extent.  What people don’t realize sometimes is that a lot of paleontology work is conducted in a lab as well.  In your experience, how much of your projects (in general) take place in the field, and how much are in the lab?

LF: Almost all of my research has required extensive fieldwork. Paleontology needs fossils, and someone has to dig up those fossils. Some museums are still sorting through a backlog of specimens collected decades ago, but if you really want to find something new and exciting, and have very detailed data so you can accurately study the evolution and growth of dinosaurs, you really have to get out there and collect new specimens yourself. Without new fossils, paleontology would stagnate. I always want to be finding new specimens and pushing the science forward.
That said, the lab side of things takes a lot of time, too! Fossils have to be cleaned and stabilized in the lab, molded and cast, and then studied with a variety of methods. The academic year fits the timeline pretty well – spend a couple of months in the summer collecting fossils, then clean and study them the other ten months of the year.

Probrachylophosaurus known material

Question 9: One of my pet peeves is when people assume paleontology doesn’t really do any real good in the grand scheme of things and is just a “for fun” science.  To you, how does paleontology benefit us as humans and play into the “big picture”?

LF: To understand our current world and all of the life on it, we have to understand the past. How and why did each species evolve? How do changes in the environment and geologic processes affect the rates and directions of evolution of different groups of animals and plants? Why is a Jurassic ecological community different than what we see today? Every piece of anatomy and physiology in your body evolved for a reason, but to understand some of the unusual things about our bodies (appendix, pineal gland, middle ear bones), we have to consider our evolutionary past.
On the more emotional big-picture side, paleontology evokes a sense of wonder about a strange past world, keeping kids and adults interested in dinosaurs, science, and learning. Almost every little kid loves dinosaurs, and even though very few will ultimately become paleontologists, hopefully their interest in dinosaurs will translate into an interest in their science classes and other classes in school, leading them to STEM careers.

Question 10: Do you ever get criticized on any of your work?  How do you handle it?

LF: Not really; my research has generally been well received. I work very hard to make sure every single detail is as accurate as possible. For the most part, paleontologists are very civil to each other, and even if they disagree with someone’s research, they try to do it politely. If someone does criticize my work, then I try to respond with a clear, unemotional explanation. Maybe they disagree because they didn’t understand some aspect of my work, and maybe they didn’t understand because I needed to explain it more clearly. Or maybe we will always disagree on the interpretation of the data, and that’s ok.

Question 11: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum, I know) were just two of the programs I remember as a kid that helped fuel my obsession with paleontology into adulthood.  Did you have favorite shows, movies, or even toys growing up that fueled your passion?

LF: I was definitely a Land Before Time kid. The original movie, mind you; I haven’t seen any of the sequels. I think Land Before Time helped cement my interest in dinosaurs. My favorite stuffed animal as a little kid was a handmade Brontosaurus (yes, I still called it Brontosaurus, deal with it, I was 6) that I named Littlefoot after the Land Before Time character. Then several years later Jurassic Park came out and I absolutely loved it. But I want to be clear – I wanted to be a paleontologist long before Jurassic Park. I’m like a paleo hipster that way.

Question 12: Who was the first paleontologist you met?  How was that interaction? 

LF: Growing up in Florida, I met several paleontologists, mostly mammal researchers. Frank Garcia was an avocational paleontologist who was always very kind to me, and he is a really fun guy. But the first dinosaur paleontologist I met was a familiar name. When I was, oh, about 14 or 15 years old I think, I went to a Paleofest at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and their keynote speaker was none other than Jack Horner. After the lecture, he signed my copy of Digging Dinosaurs and asked me what my favorite dinosaur was. I said raptors. (Foreshadowing much?) So this was actually the first time I met Jack, although he wouldn’t remember me. A few years later I properly met him at that conference for high school seniors, and we talked about the raptor foot. A few years after that, I surprised Jack by visiting him at another Paleofest at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and had him sign another book. He asked me to be a crew chief at the dig in the Judith River Formation that summer. He spent the summer convincing me to come to Montana for grad school, and so I did, doing research on Judith River dinosaurs as well as raptor feet. It all came full circle. 

Deinonychus foot

Question 13: Why do you think prehistoric animals are so influential to us today?

LF: When I was a kid, the main reason I liked dinosaurs was because they were strange and amazing monsters, but they were real. Not mythical creatures like dragons. How did these strange animals live, and why was their world so different than it is today?  I think that dinosaurs and other prehistoric mammals are popular because they have that sense of mystery, but because they are real, we can solve the mystery if we study them hard enough.

Question 14: What is your favorite prehistoric animal?  Was it different when you were younger?

LF: My favorite dinosaurs were the raptors, and Parasaurolophus. I liked raptors because they were small and fast and clever, like very deadly birds. And that was before we knew raptor dinosaurs were feathered! I’m not sure why exactly I liked Parasaurolophus…I think the crest was just very elegant. So it’s fitting that my research ended up focusing on the evolution of hadrosaur crests, and how raptors kill things. 6-year-old me is happy.

Parasaurolophus by Christopher DiPiazza

Question 15: If you could use a time machine to go back and pick only one prehistoric animal to bring back from history and observe alive and in person, which would it be and why?

LF: Opabinia. Five eyes? What the heck is going on there? Animals on this planet mainly stick to bilateral symmetry and paired structures, so how did five eyes happen? Are there really five or are we misinterpreting the fossils? It’s just so hard to comprehend a life form so different from everything else we know.

Opabinia by Christopher DiPiazza

Question 16: Back to the time machine.  This time you can go back to any place and time period and have a look at what the environment was really like.  Which one would you pick and why?

LF: Ooh, tough choice…either the Hadean/Archean Eons or Snowball Earth (Huronian glaciation). The farther back in Earth’s history, the less we know, and the more errors accumulate in our speculations. I would love to see the earth just as the crust starts cooling, and oceans and tectonic plates start to form. I’m also fascinated by the concept of a massive global climate change being triggered by the evolution of early bacterial life, and the global chaos caused by the Great Oxygenation Event.

Question 17: Which is your favorite museum?  Why?

LF: Ooh, loaded question. I have affiliations and loyalties to many museums. Obviously the Museum of the Rockies has been my home for many years, so it will always be my favorite. For very small museums, I have always been impressed by the Rudyard Depot Museum (where I did my dissertation fieldwork), which has great local dinosaur fossils as well as what I consider the finest local history museum in Montana, and the community support and pride in their museum is amazing. For small-to-medium museums, the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum in Malta, Montana has some truly exceptional dinosaur specimens, and a wonderful group of people running it. Stop by and visit! But, to pick a dinosaur museum outside of Montana, my favorite is the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. It is huge! On my first research trip there, I only had an hour to visit the exhibits, and I ran through them taking photos as quickly as I could, and I still had to skip the mammal section!

Question 18: What hobbies do you have?  (Don’t have to be paleo-related.) 

LF: I like to observe wildlife, any and all kinds of animals. Most paleontologists love animals, and studying modern animals is one of the best ways to learn about possible dinosaur behaviors. I take photographs and videos of modern animals every chance I get. Our research on birds of prey led to an interest in all birds and all feet (not just birds), so now I am constantly on the lookout for wildlife, and yes many of my photos focus on the feet. As my husband and coauthor Denver Fowler says, “feet are the business end of the animal”. You can learn a lot about behavior from an animal’s feet.

That is all for now!  Thank you so much to Dr. Fowler for the great interview!