My research focuses on three main aspects of fossil vertebrates: biology, behaviour, and evolution.
I use many techniques to understand the biology of extinct organisms, ranging from fundamental questions of how the skeletons were put together, to more challenging puzzles like how they grew and how they changed throughout life. Central to this is the study of anatomy, which provides the foundation for things like taxonomy, functional morphology, and phylogeny. I also study the palaeohistology of extinct animals, which examines the microanatomy of the bone and tooth tissues.
I study behaviour in fossil animals using exceptional fossils. Most of these are spectacular sites where multiple individuals of a single type of animal are preserved together. These kinds of finds tell us which kinds of animals lived in groups, and they can provide information on whether group dynamics changed over time or throughout the lifetime of an individual. I’m also interested in the reproduction of dinosaurs, particularly in the way that dinosaurs grew within their eggs–a field called embryology.
Palaeontology has unique access to experiments in deep time, which allows us to test how different characters evolved through time and what forces drove these changes. At the most fundamental level, I’m interested in sorting out the evolutionary relationships of different extinct animals: creating a family tree of life. Using these trees, we can track changes in biology and behaviour through time, and compare these shifts to climate, geography, and ecosystem change.
My current research is about the mammals that took over right after the dinosaurs went extinct. I’m looking inside their bones and teeth to learn how they grew over their lifetimes. By learning about their physiology and growth, we can start to understand how and why they took over global ecosystems.
Much of my PhD research focused on Caenagnathidae, a mostly North American group of oviraptorosaurs that are very poorly known. By reexamining old specimens and looking at newly discovered material, I’m slowly unravelling their diversity in North America. Recently, I’ve also been in Mongolia working on oviraptorids from the Nemegt Basin. Most species here are represented by complete skeletons, some of which are preserved brooding like modern birds. Because their anatomy is so well known, we can start asking questions about their behaviour, ecology, and evolution. You can check out some of my research in the publications section. You can see my complete CV here (I’ll try to keep it updated). Most of my work is also hosted on ResearchGate.
Caenagnathids were mostly North American, but their fossils have recently become increasingly common in Asia. They range in size from small, 5 kg animals like Microvenator and Caenagnathasia, to the enormous Gigantoraptor— estimated at more than 2000 kg.
My work on caenagnathids focuses on our foundational knowledge of the group: what they looked like, how many species there were, and how they were related to each other. Their delicate skeletons mean that they are mostly known from fragmentary, fossils which makes it a nightmare to determine which bones belong to the same species. In addition to describing more material and skeletons (see publications), I’ve been examining their growth using histology, and the way they dispersed back and forth between Asia and North America.
Oviraptorids are, as a group, among the best known theropods. They are exclusively Asian, and specifically are incredibly common in Mongolia and China. Dozens of species are known, their relationships are relatively well established, and most are represented by fairly complete skeletons. This lets us ask some exciting questions. What roles did they play in their ecosystems? Why were they so diverse, and how did all these forms coexist? What can we learn about their behaviour and sociality?
I tackled some of these problems during my PhD program, and we now understand how oviraptorids fit into their ecosystems and shared resources. I’ve also been able to work on some incredible oviraptorid specimens that tell us about both their behaviours and their evolution.
My research is funded by a number of agencies and small grants. These include: