Thursday, July 25, 2013

Interview with Paleontologist: Dave Hone

Dr. Dave Hone is a palaeontologist, currently based at Queen Mary, University of London. As a  researcher he specialises on pterosaurs and theropod dinosaurs and in particular on their ecology and behaviour. He has worked in China and Germany and made research trips across the world investigating fossils. He is also a strong advocate of outreach and science communication and especially online with a major collection of websites and blogs to his credit including Ask A Biologist, The Archosaur Musings, The Lost Worlds, and

Question 1: Who did you admire growing up?
DH: I can’t easily think of anyone I found especially admirable, though there were people I found inspiring and wanted to be able to do similar things to them. David Attenborough is a cliché in this regard, but I devoured every natural history program I could as a child, and obviously he featured in many and I learned a great deal from them. The other obvious candidate is Gerald Durrell, occasionally on TV, he is better know for his books, but anyone who spent his life working with animals and managed to start his own zoo, and run one of the first great conservation efforts is extremely worthy. The whole ‘having your own zoo’ thing appealed especially.

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

DH: When I was offered a PhD in the subject, so about 23. I’d always been interested in all animals, but generally preferred the living over the extinct, but I had done bits of palaeontological work before then. However, I was never really into palaeo that much – I liked it just fine and found it interesting, but there was nothing there like many of my colleagues and friends who had always wanted to do it. I just wanted to do something with animals and a palaeo PhD came up first, so I went for it. I’d applied for all sorts of others too in fish biology and bird behaviour and so on and if those had gone through, I’m not sure I’d have ever ended up here. But then there is quite a bit of that in academia I think, people just get or just miss out on certain opportunities and it all cascades from there and your path can go very, very differently to how you expected.

Question 3: I know you have a very diverse professional background within the science world, having worked not only in the field of paleontology but also with extant organisms at zoos and museums.  Do you have a favorite?  What do you like or even dislike about each field?

DH: Well each has its benefits and drawbacks. I loved working at London Zoo: daily contact with amazing animals and getting to learn about them as individuals and as a species is wonderful, but then there is literally no feeling like walking into the NHM in London to work – it really is iconic, beautiful and just fantastic. Both have the obvious downsides (major hours, very exhausting, can be very repetitive) and major upsides (cool animals / specimens, great colleagues). It really depends on what you find more interesting or appealing. In terms of research, I probably just prefer living things, though I suspect that may be because I do so much on dinosaurs and pterosaurs, it makes it nicer to take a break and delve into something a bit different, even if that generally is a topic that links back to my main research (like giraffe necks, bird soaring etc.).

Dark Wing Rhamphorhynhcus

Question 4: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up?  What dinosaur is your favorite now?

DH: When I was young it was probably Triceratops, it just looked really cool with the huge head and horns, and of course there was a massive one right in the entrance of the Natural History Museum so I saw it every time I visited, which was often. These days it’s hard to say, I’ve got a soft spot for certain specimens I’ve worked on (the Linheraptor holotype, the Dark Wing Rhamphorhycnhus) and certain groups I find especially interesting (anurognathids, alvarezsaurs and spinosaurs in particular) but there’s no real favourite species. That said I do get asked this a lot when I do school visits and my stock answer is Amargasaurus. Even though I don’t really do sauropods and have never seen a specimen or even a cast of any of it, (I’m not even sure I’ve read the original paper now I think about it) I love the fact that it’s a small sauropod with a short neck, and then the crazy spines give it a wonderful look. While I’m sure this’ll annoy the SV-POW boys, to me sauropods are generally pretty conservative overall in outward appearance, and this is a wonderful bucking of that trend.

Linheraptor cast

Question 5: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines.  What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

DH: It’s so hard as what works for one person (or has worked) may not work for another – either in terms of actual achievement or being appropriate for how that person best works, or wants to work. The one thing I can always say is: work hard, and respect other people (no matter how wrong you think they are, or they actually are). That alone should win you some colleagues (and avoid alienating others) and make you better, and that will always be a good start. I should also add that if you are not really devoted and very enthusiastic and fundamentally enjoy research then you will not get far. If you love it, then you’re going to persevere when things get tough (and they will) and if not, you are only going to fall by the wayside pretty quickly.

Question 6: 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?

DH: Well the first thing to say is the rewards are great if you make it, and most people don’t. I’ve seen a huge number of very talented and dedicated young researchers quit, or be forced out (debts, family commitments etc.), or put under huge pressures because of the simple lack of jobs, and the stress that comes with such a competitive model and massive workload. I don’t have a permanent position and have been globetrotting just to keep employed (Germany, Ireland, China) and all that comes with it (moving all your things across continents, constant house moves, no fixed address, endless job applications and interviews, etc.) will all the time trying to maintain a research output. For every ten people who want to do a PhD, there’s maybe one position, for every ten with a PhD there’s maybe one postdoc position going and for every half dozen of them there might be one academic position. While quite a few take different research paths or move into different things, it doesn’t stop it being very competitive at each stage. You are genuinely going up against odds of tens and even hundreds to one. Now obviously if you are in the top 1%, you are much more likely to be OK, but it really is like that and don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise. There are of course other career progressions that researcher at a university / museum, but if that is your only / major aim, you have been warned.  

Question 7: What was or is your favorite research project?  What are some of your current projects?

DH: I was delighted to get out the Lethaia paper on mutual sexual selection. It was a big fight after a couple of referees at another journal gave it a very hard time, but in the end it sailed in and I think it’s a major, major piece. Our understanding of dinosaurs and pterosaurs (and plenty of other things in the fossil record) has for me been blighted by fundamental misunderstandings of sexual selection in the palaeontological literature and I really felt this paper helped bring it up to date – there’s lots of ideas that has been ruled out incorrectly and we need to reassess some things like frills in ceratopsians in the light of mutual sexual selection. Similarly, I was very pleased with the pterosaur wingshape piece – again lots had been said or suggested about their flight, but without tackling the fundamental shape of the wing which is going to influence absolutely everything else. Finally, I think the MicroraptorUV paper was very important for our understanding of fossil birds and dinosaurs. As with the pterosaurs, lots is being said about wing shape and tail shape and structure, but to do that, you have to know whether or not the feathers are in a natural articulation, and we were able to show that they were even when they didn’t appear to be.

In terms of current research I have plenty on the boil that’ll be of interest. Obviously there’s the “Project Daspletosaurus stuff still ongoing, following my trip to Canada earlier this year and another piece on a Rhamphorhynchus specimen that was in the Tyrrell collections that will hopefully follow. I’ve got a paper in press on giant hadrosaurs and an important one that’s due out in JVP at some point which is a major review of the Jurassic Daohugou beds in China. There’s also something on super-pneumatic pterosaurs (pneumatic ribs!) and some other things are in review or provisionally accepted.

The big one to come is a special issue of Journal of Zoology that I am editing on behaviour and ecology in the fossil record. Only the first two manuscripts have come in and have yet to be even sent out for review etc. but this should be appearing early in 2014 and should be a nice compendium of material for people interested in this area. It’ll be a mix of specific reviews of key areas / taxa and some research papers on specific aspects. Although I tried to make it as general as possible it has ended up looking a little dinosaur-heavy though of course that probably won’t upset any readers here.

Question 8: 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 paleontology?

DH: Well as I said above, I wasn’t that into dinosaurs as a kid (well no more than I was into carnivorans or cephalopods or spiders) so there’s nothing that really pushed me to dinosaurs and away from anything else. That said I am a big film fan in general and in particular love animation, and so Ray Harryhausen’s stuff was simply enthralling and I loved anything he did, but of course One Million Years B.C. was a really big deal.

Question 9: I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist.  Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met?  Were you a nervous wreck? 

DH: Again, not being into palaeo over anything else made this not much different for me than meeting other researchers. My first palaeo encounter was with Jeremy Rayner while I was at Bristol. Not a ‘proper’ palaeontologist, more a zoologist who dabbled (though he did a fair bit on pterosaurs and Archaeopteryx) and he taught a couple of course I did and was the supervisor of my undergraduate research project so there was nothing there to really intimidate me – I’d already met lots of other researchers and senior professors. The other obvious candidate was oddly enough Mike Benton (my PhD supervisor) who taught on an undergraduate course I took and anyone who has met Mike knows he is the antithesis of someone to be nervous around, he’s just a wonderfully laid backand friendly person. Even incoming undergrads call him ‘Mike’, it’s all very relaxed and easy.

Question 10: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures.  Why do you feel they continue to fascinate us?

DH: My stock answer is that at their peak they were so large and so alien looking. If we lived alongside non-avian dinosaurs now and modern mammals lived tens of millions of years ago, we might find them equally interesting (why are there no 50 ton monsters, what the hell are bats and dolphins, what’s with the lack of giant bipedal carnivores and why the fur but no feathers?). Quite simply there is nothing else for size, scale and oddity like a brachiosaur, tyrannosaur, plesiosaur or azhdarchid and that is going to be appealing.

Question 11: What is your favorite time period?

DH: Well I only really work in the Mesozoic, and given how much I flit around or how broad my papers can be (i.e. looking at entire clades) I don’t have any particular focus like many people do (I’m not a tyrannosaur guy, or a Gondwana guy, or a Late Cretaceous guy). That said, given my work in Germany and China, the end Jurassic / Early Cretaceous sees the big transitions / radiations I’m most interested in (the derived theropods get going and the pterodactyloids get going, in terms of fossils at least) so that’s probably it.

Question 12: Is there anything else you would like to share about yourself?  What hobbies do you have (not necessarily paleo-related). 

DH: Sadly the constant moving of jobs means my typical live animal collection (small stuff like invertebrates and fish) is constantly being shut-down and restarted or being on hold so I’ve got literally dozens of aquaria and tanks and all the gubbins in storage waiting for the day I’m in one place for more than a year and I can set things up again. In the meantime I do a lot of zoo visits, this is something I’ve always loved, I just love seeing animals, but in the absence of my pets (assuming you can call whip scorpions and knife-fish pets) it’s something I spend more time on to get my fix, and the traveling means I’ve been to loads of places I would not have normally reached. Alternatively I try and just get out of the city and into the country with the same general aim: seeing some wildlife and being in something of the wilds. My downtime is pretty limited given the time put into the job, and then the time on all the various blogs and outreach projects does leave it short, so it tends to be things like grabbing a film or a break for a day or two. Even socialising can be very work-orientated as I do hang around with colleagues quite a bit and it’s hard not to end up talking shop. Short of a few days snatched between projects or at the end of research trips I think my last proper holiday (like a week) was in 2006 when I first went to China, but that might have well been just 5 days now I think back. It goes back to two general issues mentioned above – this is the kind of workload you have in this game, and of course the enthusiasm that’s required. Yeah, it’s a ton, but since I like doing research it’s mostly not that bad, or at least there’s a nice pay off to it. 

Thank you Dr. Hone!  Stay tuned for a new Prehistoric Dinosaur of the week and a recap of Gary and I's trip to New Mexico!  

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