Emma Bernard completed the MSc in Palaeobiology at Bristol , and has been Curator of Fossil Fishes at the Natural History Museum for some years. Here she talks about her job, and how she got there. It all started when she was young, collecting fossils and reading dinosaur books. She describes a typical week in her job, “I can be hosting a visitor looking at Devonian jawless fish, another looking at rays from the Eocene, supervising volunteers re-boxing lungfish tooth plates, taking images and measurements of Solnhofen specimens for a researcher in America… taking samples of a specimen for geochemical analysis… talking to a group of school children about fossilisation and identifying a fossil someone found on a beach”. Read more here.
Since the Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology began right back in 1996, we encouraged the students to aim high, and to publish their research projects. Since then, we have accrued over 160 publications from the formal research projects each student does. Most years, there are maybe 5–10 published papers, but in 2020, that number was 15.
The papers cover all fossil groups, from foraminifera to dinosaurs, and addressing themes in macroevolution, phylogeny, climate change, palaeoecology, and biomechanics. Read all the details here.
In fact, MSc students published 17 items in 2020, including a news item by Jack Cooper about his work on Megalodon, the largest shark, and Rachel Kruft Welton’s book, Practical R for Biologists.
These publications represent great achievements for the individual students; even turning a top-rated project into a paper that passes scrutiny of the leading international journals is a large task; each of these represents fantastic knowledge, intelligence and effort by each of the named students.
It’s not often that a Masters student publishes a book, but Rachel Kruft Welton has just done that, as co-author of the bestselling Practical R for Biologists: An Introduction. The aims of the book are to work “through a set of studies that collectively represent almost all the R operations that biology students need in order to analyse their own data. The material is designed to serve students from first year undergraduates through to those beginning post graduate levels”.
In fact, Rachel is an unusual student, in that she already has an MSc from Imperial College London and a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK before qualifying as a teacher. She has been a professional biology and science tutor for nearly 20 years, including mentoring undergraduates as part of Birmingham University’s alumni scheme. Rachel has returned to academic research after raising two sets of twins. She hopes to continue where she left off.
If you are interested in buying the book, go to https://uk.bookshop.org/books/practical-r-for-biologists-an-introduction/9781789245349.
Jane’s MSc project on ‘Evolution of ecospace occupancy by Mesozoic marine tetrapods’ has just been published in Palaeontology, and you can read it here. In her study, Jane reviewed all the ichthyosaur, plesiosaurs and other toothy monsters of the Mesozoic seas, and determined their body sizes, diets (fishes, molluscs, each other), swimming styles, as well as their stratigraphic ranges. In previous studies, researchers had determined guilds (= ecological groupings that share modes of life) either on diet or locomotion, but here she combined all aspects of ecology that could be determined reasonably reliably. She coded 35 ecological traits for 371 species (work out how many cells in the data table!).
The multivariate numerical analysis showed that all these marine reptiles could be divided into just six ecological categories linking how they moved, where they lived, and how they fed: pursuit predators that chased their prey, ambush predators that lurked and waited for the prey to swim past (two groups, one in deep water, one in shallow), a fourth group of reptiles that could still walk on land, shallow-water shell-crushers and foragers, and marine turtles with a variety of life modes.
Jane then looked at how the different guilds responded to mass extinctions, such as that at the end of the Triassic, and confirmed the huge extinction and replacement by new clades. However, the surviving ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs showed considerable conservatism. They didn’t expand their ecological roles at all, and many niches were left empty until new groups of crocodiles and turtles emerged later in the Jurassic to take over these roles.
Jane Reeves added: “It was a great experience being able to study a large variety of creatures, and to then reconstruct the ecological lifestyles of extinct animals from just their fossils”. She is now doing a NERC-funded PhD on ‘The soft tissue fossil record to elucidate the origin and diversification of vertebrates’ at the University of Manchester.
You can read the University of Bristol press release here.
Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology student Jack Cooper has just published his thesis work, and to great acclaim. He studied the legendary giant shark Megalodon (Otodus megalodon) and his detailed morphometric study has revealed the size of the rest of its body, including fins that are as large as an adult human.
Today, the most fearsome living shark is the Great White, at over six metres (20 feet) long, which bites with a force of two tonnes. Its fossil relative, the big tooth shark Megalodon, star of Hollywood movies, lived from 23 to around three million years ago, was over twice the length of a Great White and had a bite force of more than ten tonnes.
Jack used a number of mathematical methods to pin down the size and proportions of this monster, by making close comparisons to a diversity of living relatives with ecological and physiological similarities to Megalodon. The project was supervised by shark expert Dr Catalina Pimiento from Swansea University and Professor Mike Benton, a palaeontologist at Bristol. Dr Humberto Ferrón of Bristol also collaborated.
Their findings are published today in the journal Scientific Reports.
Jack Cooper said: “I have always been mad about sharks. As an undergraduate, I have worked and dived with Great whites in South Africa – protected by a steel cage of course. It’s that sense of danger, but also that sharks are such beautiful and well-adapted animals, that makes them so attractive to study. Megalodon was actually the very animal that inspired me to pursue palaeontology in the first place at just six years old, so I was over the moon to get a chance to study it. This was my dream project. But to study the whole animal is difficult considering that all we really have are lots of isolated teeth.”
Previously the fossil shark was only compared with the Great White. Jack and his colleagues, for the first time, expanded this analysis to include five modern sharks. The results suggest that a 16-metre-long Otodus megalodon likely had a head round 4.65 metres long, a dorsal fin approximately 1.62 metres tall and a tail around 3.85 metres high. This means an adult human could stand on the back of this shark and would be about the same height as the dorsal fin.
The paper: ‘Body dimensions of the extinct giant shark Otodus megalodon: a 2D reconstruction’ by J. A. Cooper, C. Pimiento, H. G. Ferrón, and M. J. Benton in Scientific Reports. Read the paper here.
You can also watch and listen to Jack talking about his discoveries here. Jack has also written a great feature article (Cooper, J.A. 2020. Scaling a giant. Geoscientist 30(10), 10-15), and you can read it here.
Matthew Skinner, who completed the MSc in Palaeobiology at Bristol in 2019, has just published his research in Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association. He studied a collection of fossils rom Ruthin Quarry in South Wales, which in the Late Triassic was a small island set in a tropical sea. Matthew discovered that most of the Ruthin beasts showed greatest similarity to relatives from North America.
He also found that many of the reptiles were more primitive than expected, a common feature of island species, and there was some evidence for the species-area effect (many animals on large islands; fewer on small islands). Matthew also named a new species, Smilodonterpeton ruthinensis (‘chisel-toothed reptile from Ruthin’), a procolophonid with strange, chisel-like teeth, and he used Ct scanning to determine the true nature of a mystery reptile that had been named from Ruthin in the 1950s, the plant-eating Tricuspisaurus thomasi (see scan and 3D digital model).
Read Matthew’s paper here.
Former Bristol MSc Palaeobiology student Emma Schachner, noted professor at LSU Health Sciences Center, Utah, has made the link from dinosaurs to the impact of the Sars-2 virus! She and collaborators modelled the impact of Sars-Cov-2 on the lungs of three patients from CT scans, and included a healthy person for comparison. Emma’s journey is roughly this: Dinosaur-mad person -> experimental studies of respiration in modern crocodilians and dinosaurs (crocodilians, by the way, provide evidence for having a bird-like one-way respiratory system, evidence they were formerly endothermic, and reverted to ectothermy) -> human lungs and Sars damage to lungs. Excellent.
Read Emma’s paper here.
Fionn Keeley, who graduated from the MSc at the end of 2019, has a dual career, as a palaeontologist and as a games developer. He is reported in a recent profile on the noted web site from his native Ireland, We are Irish.
Fionn explains the links between dinosaurs and fantasy computer games, ‘‘I’m not sure what drew me to extinct animals more than living ones. I suppose I’d always liked mythical creatures too, and I think there’s sort of a fantastical element to prehistoric life, especially when you’re a child. There’s some element of mystery to palaeontology that I really like as well – it sometimes feels like you’re imagining the missing pieces of a jigsaw or trying to work out the colours of a black-and-white photo.’
He released his first game Fadó in October of 2019, just a month after finishing his MSc thesis. Not only that but he’s now working on several projects both on his own and as part of a team. His game Fadó is a retro RPG about Irish myths, a topic and a game genre that he’s always been fond of. Fionn sees the game as a collection of short stories that were in the kind of books that he used to read as a child. ‘I’m hoping to follow it up with further episodes that add to each story and continue to grow its world – since all of the game’s areas are real places, it’s a lot of fun to build on the larger-than-life versions of them established in mythology,’ he says.
In the photo, Fionn proudly shows off his Masters thesis. Who’s a clever boy then?
The Brothers McLeod, animated film-makers based in Stratford-upon Avon, have just had their short documentary animation ‘Marfa‘ nominated as one of three for this year’s Best British Animation Short at the BAFTA Film Awards. Miles McLeod, one of the ‘brothers’ completed the MSc in Palaeontology in 1999, and since then has worked with his brother Greg.
Myles is a BAFTA Award winning writer. He is an award-winning short filmmaker (two nominations for BAFTA Film Award) and has written dozens of scripts for TV. He has also created shows including co-creating DreamWorks’ Noddy Toyland Detective. In 2011 he won a BAFTA Children’s Award for his work on Quiff and Boot for the BBC.
What possible connection could there be between palaeobiology and animated film?
Simone Conti, who completed the MSc in 2018, has published his Masters thesis on ‘The oldest lambeosaurine dinosaur from Europe: Insights into the arrival of Tsintaosaurini’ in Cretaceous Research for April 2020. He had the chance to work on some beautiful specimens from Spain, and it turns out the new specimens prove the existence of an unusual group of hadrosaurs, the Tsintaosaurini, in Europe, a group otherwise known from eastern Asia. Members of the tsintaosaurine tribe would have dispersed into the Ibero-Armorican Domain not later than the early Maastrichtian, coexisting with endemic dinosaurian groups for some time. Simone is now beginning his PhD in Portugal on the biomechanics of diplodocid sauropods, using engineering techniques, such as Finite Element Analyses and Multi-Body Simulation Systems. It is a joint PhD between the Aerospace Department of Politecnico of Milan (Italy) and the Geology Department of Universidade Nova of Lisbon (Portugal). You can read Simone’s paper here. The image shows the femur of Simone’s Spanish dinosaur.
Emma Schachner, who completed the Bristol MSc a while ago and is now a Professor at Louisiana State University, gave a TED talk at her University last year about her work on respiration in vertebrates and what this tells us about the origin and success of dinosaurs. The talk has now been selected to go live on the international TED talks site, and you can watch it here. The photo shows Emma and one of her greatest fans.
Bristol City Museum has shrouded some of its exhibits to highlight the impending risk of their extinction. This striking exhibit has been featured in an article in The Guardian, and is attracting widespread attention. Isla graduated from the Bristol MSc in Palaeobiology some years ago, and has since worked in a number of museum jobs. She is currently Curator of Natural History at the Museum.
Isla said, “The extinction crisis is causing a lot of anxiety among people. We have a unique role to play with our animal stories and histories, and in creating a space for conversation and doing something positive to raise awareness. We want to help people imagine a world without these incredible creatures.”
She is shown with a stuffed Bengal tiger, once represented by 100,000 individuals, now only 4000. “Some animals on the list are surprising, like the giraffe and chimp,” she says. “Familiarity is part of the problem. Extinctions can be silent, especially as many iconic animals seem a common part of our everyday culture.”
Emma Bernard, Curator of Fossil Fish at the Natural History Museum, has just taken part in the ‘Mission Jurassic’ excavations in Wyoming. These are a partnership between The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (project lead), with the Natural History Museum, the University of Manchester and Naturalis (Leiden).
A key part of the programme was to document the geology and all fossils, not just the dinosaurs, and Emma was there to keep an eye on this wider range of finds. Emma completed the MSc in Palaeobiology in Bristol in 2007, and did a variety of jobs before getting the Curator position.
As she reports on her NHM web page, “I participate and lead in a number of outreach events every year, such as the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival. I regularly take part in collection enhancing fieldwork all around the world; America, Morocco, France and have lead field teams to various localities within the UK.” Here she is leaving the BBC (yet again) after a live interview on Radio 5 about the recent dig.
In a recent excavation in the Morrison Formation in Wyoming, former Bristol MSc students, Joe Bonsor has been a key participant. This is the ‘Mission Jurassic’ enterprise between the Natural History Museum and the Children’s Science Museum in Indianapolis. Joe completed the MSc in 2010, and is currently completing a PhD on ‘The taxonomy and phylogeny of the Wealden iguanodontian dinosaurs’ jointly between University of Bath and the Natural History Museum. With his PhD supervisor, Dr Susie Maidment, Joe has had the adventure of his life, excavating classic dinosaurs and speaking to the press. Joe loved every minute of it and all the recent press interest ‘makes him want to go back!’
Read more on the special BBC web page.
Congratulations to Adam Smith, curator of natural sciences, Nottingham City Council, who completed the MSc in Palaeobiology in 2003, and a PhD on plesiosaurs, in Dublin, in 2007. Adam has just been awarded a share of a grant of £200,000 awarded to seven curators in various museums around the country. His proposal is to research and display the museum’s nationally significant herbarium collection.
The Headley Fellowships with Art Fund is designed to help curators take time away from their day-to-day responsibilities to carry out in-depth research into their museum’s collection. The funding is linked to the ongoing decline in public spending on museums and galleries in England, which has fallen 13% in real terms over the past decade.
During his time in Nottingham, Adam has staged several highly successful exhibitions, including a massive exhibition in 2017 and 2018 on Chinese dinosaurs.
More details of the award are here.
Here is Adam, hiding down at bottom left (green trousers), behind Chris Packham, who opened the dinosaur exhibition in 2017.
Bethany Allen, who graduated from the MSc in 2017 and is working on her PhD at the University of Leeds, writes about her active outreach and engagement work here.