August 6, 2009
Vertebrate paleontologist David Hone has always been “obsessed and fascinated by animals.” He got his start studying zoology and working at the London Zoo, but his attention later turned to much more ancient creatures. Vertebrate paleontology has benefited from his shift of focus. Since beginning his career as a paleontologist Hone has made important contributions to studies of pterosaurs, theropod dinosaurs, and other extinct creatures. I recently got the chance to ask Hone, who is presently studying paleontology in Beijing, China, a few questions via e-mail about his work and what it is like to be a paleontologist.
Brian Switek: You have just recently returned from a field site in China containing a fossil bed from the late Cretaceous, the end of the time of the dinosaurs. What kinds of animals are found there? What was it like there during the time those animals lived and died?
David Hone: It’s a fair mix actually and basically the same as the Late Cretaceous of North America—we have large tyrannosaurs (Tarbosaurus), ankylosaurs, dromaeosaurs (Velociraptor), neoceratopsians (Protoceratops), mononykines, hadrosaurs, oviraptorosaurs and troodontids. You don’t have to know much about dinosaurs to see that’s quite a bit of variation. The one difference is there are sauropods in China which are not present in northern North America (they are in Mexico and southern U.S., but not the north and Canada) which in itself is interesting—why are these two ecosystems, so far apart in space (since it is thought they were on separate continents at the time) so similar, but with one major exception? That implies some kind of long standing connection but if that is the case, why did the sauropods not make it when everything else did?
As for the environment, it was probably pretty similar to the one we see today there. Fairly rocky and desert-y with scrubby plants clinging on. Of course there was a large river delta in the exact area we were searching (that’s how many things got buried) but in other parts of China and Mongolia that are an extension of the beds we are searching it was far more like a desert and animals were typically buried in sand, such as the legendary “fighting dinosaurs.”
Between these two factors there is of course a lot of interest as effectively you have two near identical faunas in different places and different environments. This can potentially tell you a lot about the evolution of the ecosystems as a whole and the evolution of each of the clades. It’s always great to have a comparison, the trick as ever is how to make those comparisons correctly to get the information you want.
BS: Field work can be a pretty tough experience. What was your average day like while at the field site? What difficulties did you encounter in your search for fossils?
DH: Basically we’d drive out from our camp and just prospect (a nice technical term for looking around) for a couple of hours, have lunch, compare notes and go back out. If you found something good it would be marked up for later or collected if it was small. That was basically the first two weeks and then we went back for the last two and evaluated what we had and set about protecting and digging up what we wanted to take back.
There were no major obstacles but of course there are always problems, we lost the cars more than once, you can easily get lost or run out of water in the desert and there are snakes and scorpions and plenty of ticks in all the kinds of nooks and crannies in which you are supposed to be digging. I’ve had plenty of worse experiences in my travels and on average it was pretty easy going. This year we ran into sandstorms and at one point got hit by a hailstorm, in a desert, in June—incredible. Last year we had better weather but much longer drives to the filed sites which took up a lot of time, so it’s always different.
BS: How did you become a paleontologist? What experiences helped make you decide that you wanted to study extinct animals?
DH: None really, it was largely chance. I’ve always been an animal nut, but my preference was for living stuff (my degree was in zoology) and while I had done bits of palaeo where I could, it was never my main interest. While on my Masters course the option came up to do something dinosaur based (the clade was actually irrelevant, they were just a good group to pick for an evolutionary study) and that led me to dealing with Adam Yates (of Dracoventaor fame), Davide Pisani and the legend that is Mike Benton back at Bristol (where I had done my bachelors but in the biological sciences department, not geology, the two being rather well separated as subjects in the U.K.). When I was looking to do a Ph.D., Mike offered to take me on and it started there. If one of my other choices had come through earlier I’d probably have carried on with the work I was doing in fish mechanics or behaviour but that’s how these things go sometimes. It was chance and timing rather than desire, though if I’d been offered a position on slug physiology then I’d probably still be looking…
More about Archosaur Musings and predatory dinosaurs after the jump…
BS: You write a blog called Archosaur Musings. Do you feel that your writing there helps you to communicate your research to the public better?
DH: I really do, though whether or not the public agree is another matter. I found out a while back that a good friend of mine is a keen reader and it has rather changed my approach to the whole thing as Oliver is a computer techie of the highest order (as I hope he doesn’t mind me saying). I had been writing for the dino-geeks primarily and as a relaxation for myself (not having to worry about citations and all the petty annoyances that go with normal papers) and basically just hoped to correct a few misconceptions and get the odd person more aware of how real science works. However, now I am really trying to engage with people at any level and reach a more general audience and I go to the trouble of explaining (what I think are) simple terms and really lay out all the basics. In fact I’ve now started a big chain of posts that I expect will run and run on ‘science basics’ which deals with science itself and not just archosaurs.
There is a ton of blogs out there on science but every single one seems to be written for people who are at a minimum already interested in the field (be it physics or palaeo). If you are someone very ordinary who last did science at high school aged 16 or so and now want to learn a bit from the internet, the vast majority of blogs are useless (of the ones I have browsed). It just assumes too much knowledge which is fine for the target audience, but not for everyone (not that I don’t put up plenty of bits like this myself). I’ve already noted about how some issues I was never taught at school or even university and yet are fundamental to scientific thinking, what chance has Joe Public got (or even Joe the plumber)? I hope to try and change that a little bit. Time will tell.
In the main on the blog I try to talk about various bits of palaeontology that you won’t see elsewhere. The media and by extension the public somehow seem to think that fossils go in one end, computers and research happens and then a press release comes out with a paper at the end. Everyone talks about new research and what it means, but it is incredibly important to talk about the process. How did it get done, what did they do and not do, and why? How did they come up with the idea, how were they able to test it, how did they know what to look for? Where did the money come from, how did they get the paper published, what did the fieldwork involve? Are there obvious weakness with the research that need to be addressed, does it flat contradict something we have seen before and if so, why? This entire side of things is pretty much never addressed, even if the author has a blog of his own, but we need to show the public that we know what we are doing and why. Science is not a black box, anyone can understand it and anyone can do it. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding or hidden concept that allows the quacks and creationists a foothold and we can deny them it is we actually both top point this out, though of course you also have to make people listen which is far harder.
Onto the actual dinosaur content, the archosaurs (for those who don’t know) are a group of reptiles that essentially include everything in the family tree between birds and crocodiles and thus dinosaurs, pterosaurs and a bunch of others. It stated as a blog on the DinoBase site and was named by Darren Naish on one of his posts before I had even set up on wordpress. As a result the content of the blog is largely dictated by a name given to it by someone else, rather than me: there can’t be too many of them out there! Still, basically I keep on in the same vein for the actual dinosaur and pterosaur stuff as I do with the actual science – just trying to lay out the basics. What are pterosaurs? How do we define them? What were they like and what fossil evidence is that based on? There is obviously a ton of dinosaur blogs out there (and a couple dealing primarily with pterosaurs too) but I like to think I bring something a little different and of course there are few professional bloggers out there. (Though how much longer I remain professional largely depends on me getting my next contract).
BS: That’s far from your only outreach project through isn’t it?
DH: That’s right, there’s quite a list actually—I started the Q&A website Ask a Biologist so that people everywhere can ask a panel or academics anything about biology (thought mostly this involves us telling them we won’t do their homework for them) and we have now taken about 2000 questions in about two years. Next I contribute to DinoBase which is more of a forum and database site for dinosaurs and actually spawned the Musings. I have a new pterosaur site on the way with a bunch of colleagues, and I recently sent some stuff to the excellent ‘Why Science’. I’ve also done various radio and TV bits and sent off the odd article to popular palaeomagazines and when I’m in the U.K. I try to do school visits and public lectures on science and dinosaurs. It keeps me busy, certainly.
BS: Why is it important to study paleontology?
DH: Tricky one. My stock answer is always “because it expands human knowledge” which sounds either philosophical or poncey depending on your take, but I think it’s a valid answer. I just want to know. Everything. All the time. I was like that as a kid, just asking ‘why?’ all the time (which is basically how Ask A Biologist got started, I wanted to give people the kind of service I would have loved as a child—and probably my parents and teachers too for that matter to shut me up) though somewhat inevitably always about animals or biology in some regard and that has never left me, but now instead of asking other people I can find out for myself. If you want something a bit more practical it can tell us about the past and this is very important for looking at the future and never more so in the current climate crisis, though of course it’s hard to tack tyrannosaur taxonomy onto carbon emissions, but I can probably try. Even then you would be surprised what can be applicable for example the work I am involved in developing new aeroelastics based on pterosaur wings. The engineers are just boggled that you can actually do this, that an animal extinct for 65 million years is decades ahead of what they can make. Of course they are also annoyed that no one ever told them it had already been done!
BS: I hear that you are working on a new website all about pterosaurs. Could you explain what this project is and why you took up the task?
DH: Yes and yes. And I will too. The site is basically a brief primer on pterosaurs, everything about pterosaurs—flight, evolution and relationships, behaviour, the fossils, even pop culture references and a fair bit more. It’s started from zero knowledge so if you come in and know nothing about them at all, you should be able to follow it. Even if you come in a relative expert you should still learn plenty as the contributor list should blow you away. There are maybe 15 people who work on pterosaurs full-time and perhaps another 30 or 40 for whom it’s a major component of their research (including Ph.D. students) and here are a dozen of them writing this site (like Dino Frey and Ross Elgin). Thanks to our connections we were also able to get photos of all kinds of rare and important specimens that are currently not on the web at all, as well as artwork from Luis Rey, and John Conway and photos from Helmut Tischlinger. I would humbly submit that it’s one hell of a package and with luck there will be a blog attached too, so the bloggers among us like myself, Darren Naish and Mark Witton can cross post all our pterosaur stuff there.
As for the why, I guess there are a few reasons. First off it seemed necessary—there are hundreds of dinosaur sites and yet only a few for pterosaurs and frankly, most of them are pretty poor. Secondly, I am constantly throwing out new stuff like this (the Musings, stuff on DinoBase, Ask A Biologist and more) and this seemed like the most obvious thing to do. Thirdly to counter some of the terrible information that is out there from some of the ‘fringe’ people of which pterosaurs seem to draw more than their fair share. Finally in an “Everest moment,” because it could be done. I’d love to see this as a model for future projects like this with various people putting together things like this online. Obviously I have a real bent for science communication stuff, but I’d love to see a bunch of theropod people get together and do a unified theropod website like this aimed specifically at the public, then one on conservation and one on pine trees or whatever. A tree of life project for communication with all the relevant researchers giving up just a bit of time and effort to put together a small site explaining about their pet subject and what they are like. Pterosaurs were obvious not only because I’m a pterosaur worker, but because it’s a relatively small group that can be handled easily in this way in manner in which say a site on dinosaurs can’t—they’re just too big for a small group to handle. A pipe dream perhaps, but it could happen. There are lots of superb sites out there, but they are all so disjointed and often all trying to do the same thing. You don’t need ten average theropod sites all saying the same thing in the same way, you want one good one that tells you everything. Same amount of effort, much better for everyone.
I should stress that the site’s not quite ready yet since there are various tweaks to finish off but it should be out soon, but then we said that about a year ago…
BS: Just this week you co-authored a paper with Oliver Rauhut where you suggest that large predatory dinosaurs may have preferentially targeted juvenile dinosaurs. Some recent studies have suggested that juvenile sauropods, horned dinosaurs, and ornithomimosaurs traveled together in groups. Is this consistent with the hypothesis in your new paper that predatory dinosaurs might have preferentially targeted juvenile dinosaurs?
DH: I would argue that it is, but it’s a tricky thing to cover. This did get a minimal bit of coverage in the paper since you can’t discuss everything you would like to at great length in a paper like this as you rather veer off topic—I’d have happily written a couple of pages on the subject and it’s certainly something I want to follow up on with my behavior work. Returning to the thrust of the question juvenile animals (of all kinds) are vulnerable to predators for a bunch of reasons, they have higher relative energy requirements than adults (since they are growing), tend to forage in low quality areas with less good food or less good cover (since they lack experience and adults can bully them off the better sites) and as a result of these tend to forage for longer, and being less experienced with predators are less good at avoiding them. As a result they are pretty vulnerable to predation and anything they can do to mitigate this would be of great help to them. Obviously herbivores send a lot of time eating and when they are doing that they are not looking for predators, but if you form a group them at any one time a couple of animals will be looking for predators and looking in various directions which really boosts the overall awareness of the group as a whole. In short, it makes evolutionary sense for a group of juveniles to buddy up to scout for danger since they are at so much risk and this would fit my hypothesis that theropods were after juveniles. It’s tricky to test though (obviously) and something that has yet to be seriously explored and of course we don’t have too many records of this behaviour.
BS: Among modern predators there are some animals, like spotted hyenas, that specialize in crushing and consuming bones. Were there any predatory dinosaurs that filled the same role? Such a niche has been suggested for the recently-described abelisaur Kryptops; does this hypothesis consistent with the findings of your study?
DH: We have a specific section in the paper on large tyrannosaurs as putative bone-crunchers. As such I’m not sure whether you would say they fit with the hypothesis or not since we are not looking to cover every single clade or ecological niche for theropods. However I would say that the evidence as it lies in the literature and the currently available fossil evidence is that bone-biters were quite rare – there are quite simply few records of theropods biting heavily and deliberately on bones. If these animals were consuming large pieces of bone we should start finding coprolites full of bone chunks and stomach contents with adults bones (or bits of them) in, but instead we find a few bits of bones from juveniles and not much else. I am happy with the idea that there were bone-crunchers out there, (even Allosaurus has demonstrated it could bite through the odd big piece of bone despite lacking any obvious adaptations for it) but I don’t think we will see anything in quite the mould of a hyena in terms of very heavy adaptations towards bone biting and bone consumption.
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