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. These tissues grow incrementally, which means that they leave behind a record of their growth the same way trees lay down annual rings.
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.
Most of my past research, including my PhD thesis, focuses on oviraptorosaurs. These are toothless, feathered dinosaurs commonly known as egg-thieves (but more on that later…). Typically the more derived members are divided into two groups: Caenagnathidae and Oviraptoridae. I have ongoing projects on members from both groups.
Caenagnathids are predominantly North American, although 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 more on the foundational knowledge about the group: anatomy, taxonomy, and systematics. Their delicate skeletons mean that they are mostly known from fragmentary, non-overlapping material, which makes it a nightmare to determine which specimens belong together. In addition to describing more material and skeletons (see publications), I’ve been examining their growth using histology, and their diversity using morphometrics. Those projects are still in the pipeline, so look for a featured post on them soon.
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 genera are known, their systematics are relatively well established, and most are represented by fairly complete material. This lets us extend our inquiry beyond the foundations to some of the more interesting 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?
Some of these questions were addressed in a recent collaborative effort in Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology (P3 for short), as part of a special issue focusing on Nemegt Ecosystems. You can find that study here, a pdf proof here, and a blog post about the project here. Right now I’m working on a couple really exciting projects, look for more soon!
I try to keep a healthy gamut of side projects on the go, mostly because I find I can’t help but be excited. Right now most of my side projects are coming out of my fieldwork in the Horseshoe Canyon Formation.
One of the more comprehensive set of projects stems from a fantastic site near the Morrin Bridge. The site produces dozens of troodontid teeth, alongside perinate material from other dinosaurs. Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is that the site also produces (spoilers) eggshell—the first record of eggshell from the Horseshoe Canyon Formation! That manuscript is in review now, and as it moves forward I’ll be featuring it and the learning process involved in working on eggshell. The site has produced a ton of really exciting material, so we’ll get a few projects out of it in future years.
Alongside the rest of the crew from the 2017 season, and spearheaded by my colleague Mark Powers, I’ve also been slowly working on a nearby hadrosaur trackway. Mark stumbled onto the footprints in the summer of 2017, and his expertise and sharp eye let him find what anyone else would pass over. The tracks hold a lot of promise for our understanding of hadrosaurs in the area, and their unusual preservation hints that we may not have recognized similar sites in the past.