Five conversations

April 22, 2014

2007-01-07 Big Bend 142 small

5. Brian Kraatz, 2004

In the spring of 2004, I was killing time over in Tony Barnosky’s lab at Berekeley, talking to Brian Kraatz about something–mammals, probably. Brian told me that I should consider going to the International Congress of Zoology that was happening in Beijing that fall. He’d actually told me about it several times, but I kept forgetting about it. It seemed remote from my concerns. Finally, though, the day before the abstracts were due, I thought, “Why not?” I could get travel money from the department and it would get me over there to see a lot of Asian dinosaurs in person.

I was also intrigued because presenters could submit either abstracts or short papers, and I had an idea for a short paper. I had been thinking a lot about how pneumaticity got started in dinosaurs and how much we could infer about that, so that evening I stayed up until about 3 AM banging out what would become Wedel (2006), pretty much as it was published, except for the figure, which was added later.

That got me to Beijing, where I spent a lot of time talking with Paul Barrett, who saw my talk and later invited me to contribute a talk to an SVP symposium on prosauropods, which grew into Wedel (2007) and became a chapter of my dissertation. And that got me an invite from Adam Yates and Matt Bonnan to join them in writing up the first really solid evidence of pneumaticity in prosauropods (Yates et al. 2012).

RESET

When I wandered over to the Barnosky lab to kill time that day,  Brian wasn’t in. Instead I got to talking with Alan Shabel about food webs in East African riparian ecosystems. The habitats and faunas he was talking about put me in mind of the Morrison Formation of the American West. I wondered if the quantitative ecological analysis that Alan was working on would yield any insights into how Late Jurassic ecosystems worked. And that fired a few neutrons at the Van Valen papers I’d been reading for Kevin Padian’s paleobiology seminar, and precipitated a chain reaction. The paper that came out of that, “Sauropod dinosaurs as Van Valen’s energy maximizers”, was published in Paleobiology in 2007. That’s how I got into quantifying energy flow through dinosaur-dominated ecosystems.

I was presenting some of that work at an ecology conference in 2008 when I got invited to join a team of biologists going to the Galapagos. I was particularly interested in the role of extant dinosaurs (i.e., birds) in ecosystems dominated by bradymetabolic reptiles. Some of the data from that trip and one subsequent  expedition went into my 2013 paper on the rise of dinosaurs during the Triassic. But most importantly, it got me working in the Galapagos, which I had wanted to do ever since I was a kid.

Oakland Zoo Tortoise - resting

4. Mike Taylor, 2000

My first paper came out in the first issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in 2000. It was the one in which Rich Cifelli and Kent Sanders and I designated OMNH 53062, a string of four sauropod vertebrae from southeast Oklahoma, as the type specimen of a new dinosaur, Sauroposeidon proteles. I had been collecting business cards and mailing addresses from people at SVP since 1997, and I had a list of about 100 people that I thought would appreciate a reprint of the paper. So when the reprints arrived from the publisher, I printed out a bunch of form letters, made an assembly line of reprints, letters, and envelopes on the big table in the OMNH vert paleo library, and killed an afternoon getting everything assembled and ready to ship out.

Also about this time I received a polite email from some English guy named Mike Taylor, asking for a reprint. I wrote back and said that I’d be happy to send him one. I don’t know what he wrote back next, but it was sufficiently interesting that it kicked off a conversation that has now been going on for 14  years. When Vicki and I went to England on spring break in 2004, we stayed with Mike and Fiona in London. I went back over for SVPCA in London in 2005, and after 2009, I started going to SVPCA every year instead of SVP. That’s how I got to know Dave Hone. I got acquainted with Darren separately–we were sending each other reprints in 2001, I think, and talking sporadically about brachiosaurs. I think that Mike and Darren also met separately, and possibly if I hadn’t been around, they still would have ended up working together. But my papers with Mike–which account for seven of the nine I’ve published since my dissertation–wouldn’t have happened, or would have come out very differently. And you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

Darren & Mike with Dippy

RESET

I first met Mike Taylor at the SVP meeting in Bristol in 2009. He had done that paper on that weird vertebra with Darren a couple of years before. We got together over a few pints and discovered that we had a lot of interests in common–Star Wars, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis–but c’mon, who can’t you say that about in this geek-infested business? He’s a nice guy, and we’re friends, but we’re not what you’d call close.

I spent most of my time at that meeting catching up with Matt Bonnan. We’d been friends since the late 90s, and we’d written the paper on the probable brachiosaurid metacarpal in 2004, but we hadn’t collaborated much. Well, we were both out of grad school and into stable jobs, and we really put our heads together that meeting. Two streams of papers came out of that: first, the sauropod biomechanics papers, which merged his limb development stuff with my pneumaticity stuff, and secondly, all of our work on quantifying serial variation using geometric morphometrics.

Although the first set of papers has attracted more attention–certainly more media attention–it’s the second set that give me more satisfaction. I’ve always been interested in serial homology, I just didn’t have a novel approach. But with Matt’s help I was able to combine morphometrics and phylogenetics to produce developmental phylogenies of serially repeated structures. That by itself is pretty cool, but when you bring it into the extant realm you can put the gene expression patterns right into the analysis. The stuff we’re doing with axial development in chickens right now–man, I don’t know if I’ll ever find the time to write another paper about extinct dinosaurs, when there’s so much fun to be had with the living ones.

Matt with chicken

3. Brooks Britt, 1997

In the summer of 1997, I was on a multi-thousand-mile quest to determine whether OMNH 53062 was a new dinosaur, or just a big example of something already known. Vicki and I had been to D.C. that spring, partly as our first vacation as a married couple, and partly so that I could see the Astrodon/Pleurocoelus material at the Smithsonian. That summer, I mapped out an epic tour of museums in the West. With our friend Tyson Davis, Vicki and I went to Dinosaur National Monument, the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake, the BYU Earth Sciences Museum in Provo, and the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.

The main reason we went to Grand Junction was because at the time, the MWC had some of the BYU Brachiosaurus material from Dry Mesa Quarry on exhibit. Rich Cifelli and I weren’t sure what OMNH 53062 was yet, but we thought it looked an awful lot like Brachiosaurus. Brooks Britt was the curator there at the time, and he took us down to the basement and showed us some of the sauropod material from the Lower Cretaceous Dalton Wells Quarry. Brooks was particularly excited to show us the pneumatic features in the vertebrae. I told him about the big vertebrae from Oklahoma that I was working on, and he said, “You should get those vertebrae CT scanned, to get a look at the pneumatic spaces inside.” I smiled and nodded and thought to myself, “Dude, you are completely crazy. I am an undergrad on an independent study. No way do I have the juice to get giant dinosaur bones CT scanned.” But I didn’t forget about what he’d said. When we got back to Oklahoma, I mentioned it to Rich–and then I forgot about it.

Ridem dino

Happily for me, Rich did not forget about it. A few months later, he was at a university function with the director of OU’s University Hospital, and he mentioned the idea of CT scanning the dinosaur bones. The hospital director was all for it–the CT machines frequently had down time on Saturdays, and the hospital would trade time on the machines for publicity when we published our results. That December, I was in Rich’s office for one of our weekly meetings when he said, “Hey, are you still interested in CT scanning the vertebrae? Because if you want to, we can make it happen.” I don’t remember what I said, but I assume it was some variant of “Hell yeah!”

We took the first jacket up to the hospital in January, 1998. We got decent results. The vertebrae were so big and dense that the scans were plagued by beam-hardening artifacts, but we could see that internal structure was honeycombed by dozens or hundreds of thin-walled cavities. The problem was, we had no idea what that meant–a few physical cross-sections of sauropod vertebrae had been published over the years, most notably by Heber Longman in 1933 and Werner Janensch in 1947–but to my knowledge no CT scans of sauropod vertebrae had ever been published, and you could probably count on your fingers the number of published CT scans of fossils of any kind. Brooks had a bunch in his 1993 dissertation, but that was unpublished, and I wouldn’t get a copy for several more months. So we had no baseline.

Utah 2008 05 Kent in reading room

But we did have Kent Sanders, a radiologist at the hospital who was hot on this stuff and helped us read the films. And we had a museum full of dinosaur bones and access to a CT scanner on the weekends. So that’s how I spent most of the Saturdays in 1998–drive to the museum, fill the trunk of the car with dinosaur bones, drive up to Oklahoma City and spend the day scanning with Kent. I wasn’t supposed to do my MS thesis on pneumaticity, but when the primary project I had been working on didn’t look like it was going to pan out, I realized that I had enough CT scans of sauropod vertebrae that with a little selective hole-filling I could describe the evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropods. So that became my Master’s thesis.

RESET

That conversation with Brooks Britt in the summer of 1997 was a turning point for me. Until then I’d been interested in OMNH 53062 for what it could tell us about the animal that it had once been part of. But when Brooks started telling me about the taphonomy of the Dalton Wells Quarry, I realized that the Oklahoma vertebrae were telling another story, too: the story of what had happened to that animal. So that’s the angle we played up in the paper–how did these vertebrae get separated from the rest of the critter? Mesozoic murder mystery!

Then the next summer I was out with Rich’s crew in Montana, working in the Cloverly Formation. I actually spent most of my time with Des Maxwell and his group at the Wolf Creek quarry, which was a sauropod bonebed. I did a poster on that quarry for SVP in 2000, and I wrote my MS thesis on the taphonomy of the quarry.

While all of this was going on, I was spending more and more time talking with Brooks Britt. He had done his dissertation on pneumaticity in fossil archosaurs, but he had all kinds of interesting things going on related to taphonomy, including modification of dinosaur bones by termities, and evidence of fungal hyphae in dinosaur bones. Brooks had done his Bachelor’s and Master’s work at BYU before going to Calgary for his dissertation. He encouraged me to think about going to BYU for my PhD work. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made–I freaking love Utah, and the chance to go live and work there was too good to pass up. I started out as one of Ken Stadtman’s grad students, but when Brooks got the job at BYU in 2002, he agreed to come on as my co-advisor. I’m mainly interested in what you can infer about terrestrial ecosystems from tracks left on bones, so that’s what I did my dissertation on. Most of the chapters were on sauropods, naturally, but I did have that one project looking at invertebrates, fungi, and microbes–or their traces–in faunal bone I collected from Capitol Reef National Forest in the summer of 2005. Now that was a fun project.

While I was working at BYU, Vicki got her PhD in anthropology from the University of Utah. Both of us had field sites in southern Utah, and we really fell in love with that part of the state. After we finished our degrees we moved to St. George, which is just gorgeous. Vicki coordinates the excavation and repatriation of Native American remains and artifacts from Utah federal lands, and I teach geology at Dixie State University. When I’m not digging, teaching, or hiking, I blog about sauropod taphonomy. My friends tease me because it’s such a geeky niche thing, but it makes me happy.

Matt in the field

2. Rich Cifelli, 1996

You know how sometimes you end up working on something just because it’s there? That’s how I started working on sauropods.

Immediately after I left Trish Schwagmeyer’s office, I marched down to the museum, barged into Rich’s office, threw myself in a chair, and asked him if he’d sponsor me on an independent study. He said that he’d be delighted to–what did I want to work on? Dinosaurs, I said, dinosaurs! “Well, we have these big sauropod vertebrae from southeastern Oklahoma that need to be identified.” We went and had a look. It wasn’t my dream project–I was more interested in big theropods and ceratopsians–but I said I’d take the job. There was a little paperwork to fill out. We conceived a one-semester project, to be completed in the fall of 1996, to identify the specimen, OMNH 53062, to the family level. Rich loaned me some of his sauropod papers to photocopy so that I could get up to speed on the anatomy. I spent the fall of 1996 grokking sauropod vertebral morphology and trying to figure out what this thing was.

RESET

Immediately after I left Trish Schwagmeyer’s office, I marched down to the museum, barged into Rich’s office, threw myself in a chair, and asked him if he’d sponsor me on an independent study. He said that he’d be delighted to–what did I want to work on? Dinosaurs, I said, dinosaurs–especially big theropods or ceratopsians! “Well, we have these ceratopsian odds and ends that Stovall collected back in the 30s and 40s. They’ve been catalogued all this time as Pentaceratops and Triceratops, but someone should probably check on those IDs.” Wow, my dream project–of course I pounced on it! There was a little paperwork to fill out. We conceived a one-semester project, to be completed in the fall of 1996, to identify the specimens to the genus level. Rich loaned me some of his ceratopsian papers to photocopy so that I could get up to speed on the anatomy. I spent the fall of 1996 grokking ceratopsian cranial morphology and trying to figure out what those things were.

Well, it turns out that they were Pentaceratops and Triceratops after all. So no big news, but I did learn a lot on that project: how to photograph and measure fossils, how to read scientific papers. Mostly it just got me back in the museum.

You know how sometimes you end up working on something just because it’s there? That’s how I started working on Tenontosaurus. I’ll confess, at first I didn’t have any deep, abiding love for “Tonto”. I scorned it as the world’s most boring dinosaur–no horns, spikes, frills, claws, or sails, basically just a scaly cow with a longer tail. But, man, these things were pouring out of the Antlers Formation like water out of a tap. We had adults, subadults, big juveniles, little  juveniles, even a few bones from individuals so small they must have been yearlings. I started working on them in my spare time, and got a little project going on the post-hatching ontogeny of Tenontosaurus. When I graduated with my BS in the fall of 1997, it just made sense to stick around and keep working on Tenontosaurus for my MS.

Topps - da baby eating sticker

Naturally I was presenting this stuff at SVP every fall, and that’s where I met Jack Horner. He thought my ontogenetic work on Tenontosaurus would be good preparation for tackling hadrosaur ontogeny and diversity. So I went to MSU for my PhD work. After I finished I got the job I have now, teaching geology in Missouri. Even when I was living in Montana, I’d still get into the OMNH collections for  a day or two of research whenever I was back in Oklahoma. Now that I’m just five hours away, I’m back at OMNH all the time. There’s just so much to work on–Eolambia, the small ornithopod material from the Cloverly Formation, and especially the teeth. The OMNH has hundreds of these little ornithopod teeth from the microsites in the Cedar Mountain Formation, the Cloverly Formation, and the Antlers Formation. Nobody wants to work on them, except me. While I was working on Tenontosaurus I had to come up with some size-independent characters that I could use to determine the ontogenetic age of ornithopods based on their teeth. Once I had those, all of those teeth catalogued as “Ornithopoda indet.” became a goldmine.

I certainly never saw myself becoming “the ornithopod tooth guy”–what an oddly specific thing to be an expert on! But to me they are beautiful, intricate, and endlessly fascinating. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll take all of my best photographs and start a Tumblr.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

1. Trish Schwagmeyer, 1996

Trish: “You’re blowing it. You want to do research, but no-one is going to trust you with a project if you can’t take care of the basic stuff like keeping your grades up.”

Me: [face-burning, fully convicted silence]

Trish: “You are capable of much more than this. I know that these grades are not reflective of your best work. This is your chance to prepare yourself for the career you want. You owe it to yourself to do better than this.”

Me: [sucking it up] “I understand. And I’ll do better. Other than getting my grades up, what else can I do to make myself attractive to graduate programs?”

Trish: “Find a professor that you like and do an independent study. Get some research experience.”

Yow. I will remember that for as long as I live. “You’re blowing it.” Thank God that alone out of everyone in my life, Trish Schwagmeyer had the guts to look me in the eye and call me out.

RESET

Trish: “Your grades last semester were a little rough.”

Me: “Yeah. O-chem II was murder.”

Trish: “And biochem.”

Me: “Yeah. Biochem.”

Trish: “Have you noticed that you get As and Bs in your language and history classes, and Cs in your math and science classes?”

Me: “Yeah, of course.  Math and science are hard. Language and history are…”

Trish: “Are what?”

Me: “I dunno. Fun. More like play.”

Trish: “Maybe you’re in the wrong major.”

Yow. I will remember that for as long as I live. “Maybe you’re in the wrong major.” Thank God that alone out of everyone in my life, Trish Schwagmeyer had the guts to look me in the eye and diagnose the problem.

Immediately after I left her office, I marched over to the registrar and changed my major from Zoology to Letters. And breathed a huge sigh of relief. After that, I just cruised. I got my degree, stayed at OU for a Master’s in classical languages, and now I teach Latin at a private high school in Oklahoma City. I should have known that a career in science wasn’t in the cards. The evidence was written all over my transcript. Paleontology is still interesting to me–I doubt if I will ever stop being fascinated by dinosaurs–but it just wasn’t a realistic career option. I’m so glad I found my true calling.

the herd - small.0

 

About these ads

8 Responses to “Five conversations”

  1. Liguo Li Says:

    Great selfie…. Sauropods like your story… Chicken are listening to either…

  2. Mark Robinson Says:

    I don’t know what that was but it was awesome.

  3. Joel Abraham Says:

    Interesting literary technique – thanks for sharing. Please don’t post conversation six “Joel, Alan, Eric, Brian, and Sierra Nevada – 2002″.

  4. John Scanlon, FCD Says:

    Thank Everett! Of course there’s some proportion of alternate universes where you were a morbidly depressed underachiever, but it’s probably quite small.

  5. Matt Wedel Says:

    Umm, who ya talkin’ to? Or is this an alternative universe joke, where my parents named me Everett?

  6. John Scanlon, FCD Says:

    That would work too, but mainly because of this guy.

  7. Matt Wedel Says:

    Ah, very nice. You out-geeked me this time, Scanlon!

  8. Dave Godfrey Says:

    I’d read Ornithopod Tooth Picture of The Week, and Sauropod Bone Decay Picture of the Week


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 400 other followers

%d bloggers like this: