Monday, 1 January 2018

Looking back: 2017 in NHMDinoLab

For me, New Year is a time for looking back as well as forward. Looking forward to the opportunities ahead and looking back to learn lessons that we can apply in the future. Everyone in the lab has had a really busy and productive year, with lots of standout achievements, but our fair share of bumps in the road too. Below is a quick summary of some of these achievements, many of which have been accomplished despite quite a few of us facing some major personal challenges during 2017.

Last year saw the departure of four valued people from the lab, the first being David Nicholson who moved in to the UK Civil Service, as a Home Office statistician, following the completion of his postdoc. PhD student Amy Waterson successfully defended her thesis on ecological niche occupancy in deep time and also went on to work in government, in a role that combines her expertise in climate change with a deep interest in public engagement. The second was another former student Matt Baron, who defended his PhD thesis on early dinosaur evolution in September. Matt is hoping to continue in the subject and has some promising job prospects in store, so I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the future. The third and final departure was lab associate Lorna Steel, our former curator of fossil reptiles, who for personal reasons decided to leave the NHM to pursue a new life in rural Wales (which seems to be suiting her just fine). An amazing colleague, we were all sad to see her go and will miss her stoicism and sense a fun a lot.

These departures have been balanced by new arrivals, however, with two new PhD students Becky Lakin (based at the University of Bath) and Tom Raven (at the University of Brighton), joining the lab. Becky’s project is on the evolution of avian reproduction (supervised by Nick Longrich and Dan Field), whereas Tom’s is on thyreophoran phylogeny (supervised by Susie Maidment) and I look forward to seeing each of them in London more often. We’re going to be joined by a whole host of new people in early 2018, with Susie Maidment returning to the museum in a new permanent Researcher position. It will be terrific to have another full-time dino person working at the NHM and February can’t come soon enough. Two more new staff will be joining the lab in February also and I’m delighted that David Button and Marc Jones will both be starting on NERC-funded postdocs, working on a project that I’ll be running with Laura Porro, so there should be exciting times ahead. We also had two short-term MSc students in the lab this year, Joe Bonsor and Danielle Moraviec, who were both great fun to have around.

Current lab members have spent a lot of time abroad this year. Omar Regalado-Fernández had an extended research visit to a bunch of major North American museums and Terri Cleary visited Pat Holroyd in Berkeley, to get up to speed on fossil turtles. Richard Fallon visited New York, chasing up letters relating to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. In another US trip, Simon Wills went to a new Morrison Formation quarry in Wyoming to search for microvertebrates. João Vasco-Leite had his first major research trip, taking in collections in Belgium, Germany and Switzerland and the lab has been well represented with talks and posters at meetings in Calgary (SVP: Omar, Matt, Terri, Selina Groh, Paul B.) and Munich (EAVP: Serjoscha Evers, Paul B.), as well as in the UK (SVPCA and PalAss). Paul B. and Terri were able to go on the SVP fieldtrip to Dinosaur Provincial Park, which was stunning. Omar successfully upgraded to full PhD status and got a Bogue Fellowship from UCL to support his US trip: João has also just found out that he was also a Bogue, so will be off the US sometime in the spring of 2018. Paul B. had an amazing fieldtrip to Zimbabwe in January 2017, together with colleagues from the ESI (Johannesburg) and local colleagues in Zimbabwe, looking for new dinosaur sites along the shores of Lake Kariba. Lots of terrific new sites, with some surprising new material and the pleasure of seeing elephants, hippos and crocs on our field sites on a daily basis. Paul B. also finished off the year in Africa with a quick trip to Johannesburg to try and finish some long running projects on early dinos. Serjoscha also got to do some cool fieldwork, joining his former mentor Oliver Rauhut’s crew for a trip prospecting in the Middle and Late Jurassic of New Zealand.

Most lab members have had their heads down this year getting chapters ready for dissertations or gathering new data, so most of the publications action has come from either Matt or Paul B. Terri has submitted the first paper arising from her thesis (fingers crossed) and Selina and Serjoscha have a bunch of things brewing. Matt has had a bumper year for papers, getting chunks of his thesis published, most notably his new dinosaur phylogeny, published in Nature, which proposes a radical rearrangement of the dinosaur family tree (Baron et al. 2017a). This has had lots of comment online, huge media attention (making it to #84 in the Altimetrics global listing for 2017), and has also generated published debate (leading to another paper: Baron et al. 2017b). More fanfare accompanied our suggestion that the enigmatic Chilesaurus might be an ornithischian (Baron & Barrett 2017), which again is leading to another comment and response. Matt’s other papers included one applying Bayesian methods to his phylogeny (Parry et al. 2017) and his postcranial description of Lesothosaurus in which we sank Stormbergia (Baron et al. 2017c). Also related to our ongoing collaborations in South Africa, Simon published a paper with a new GIS-based method for predicting fossil occurrences in the field (Wills et al. 2018). Serjoscha and Paul B. were both invited to be involved in a big project on plesiosaur inner ears that came out in Current Biology (Neenan et al. 2017).

Otherwise, most of the lab’s other outputs this year have come from Paul B., with reviews of dinosaur quadrupedality (Barrett & Maidment 2017) and the use of moment arms in vertebrate biomechanics, using Sophie the Stegosaurus as an exemplar (Brassey et al. 2017), papers on craniodental evolution and biomechanics in sauropods (Button et al. 2017) and herbivorous dinosaurs in general (MacLaren et al. 2017) and involvement in a policy statement on the use and storage of digital data (Davies et al. 2017). A third Nature paper was based on the naming of Teleocrater, an early avemetatarsalian from the Middle Triassic of Tanzania (Nesbitt et al. 2017), which marks the beginning of the end for describing the NHM Manda archosaur material (more to come in 2018). Finally, the team also got a paper out describing the stratigraphy of the Vulcanodon type locality, arising from our trip in January (Viglietti et al. 2018). Paul B. also published a new popular science book on Stegosaurus, again based on Sophie.

Various honours, grants and prizes came our way, with Serjoscha and Matt each receiving research grants to support their work (from the Systematics Association and Christ’s College, Cambridge, respectively). Selina had a great year, taking the prize for best talk at the NHM Student Conference and being a finalist in the ‘Research Images as Art’ competition at UCL. Richard received an honorary mention for his submission to the British Society for Literature and Science's ECR essay prize, which will be published in due course. Selina also became the leader of the 500 Women Scientists London Pod this year, an organisation founded to empower women and non-binary people and Simon took on a leadership role, joining the Council of The Palaeontographical Society. Paul Varotis has been looking after the finances of Les Amis du Museum (MNHN, Paris), which contributed to the organisation of IPC5 in Paris, the training of doctoral students, computerisation of their archives, and acquisition of new equipment. Finally, Paul B. had his Honorary Professorship renewed at the ESI.

Many lab members have also found time to do lots of outreach. Richard co-curated 'The Art of Dinosaur Science' (at University of Nottingham Lakeside Arts) and 'The Victorian Studies Centre at 50' at the University of Leicester. Selina was the runner-up in the cosplay competition at the London Comic Con and took place in a mini version of SoapBox Science at UCL for Open Day. Paul B., Matt and Terri all took place at various events in the NHM over the course of the year and Paul B. made his first appearance at New Scientist Live at the ExCel Centre, as well as participating in an evolution masterclass at The Guardian in addition to his usual involvement in other public lectures and media appearances (including a museum project with Sir David Attenborough, TBA). 

Phew. So, on balance, a terrific year for the lab and the basis for what will hopefully be a happy and successful 2018. We’re really looking forward to welcoming our new arrivals and wish everyone a tremendously exciting and fulfilling New Year.

Baron, M. G. & Barrett, P. M. 2017. A dinosaur missing-link? Chilesaurus and the early evolution of ornithischian dinosaurs. Biology Letters 13: 20170220. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2017.0220
Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. 2017a. A new hypothesis of dinosaur relationships and early dinosaur evolution. Nature 543: 501–506. doi:10.1038/nature21700
Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. 2017b. Baron et al. reply. Nature 551: E4 - E5. doi:10.1038/nature24012
Baron, M. G., Norman, D. B. & Barrett, P. M. 2017c. Postcranial anatomy of Lesothosaurus diagnosticus (Dinosauria: Ornithischia) from the Lower Jurassic of southern Africa: implications for basal ornithischian taxonomy and systematics. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 179: 125–168. doi:10.1111/zoj.12434
Barrett, P. M. & Maidment, S. C. R. 2017. The evolution of ornithischian quadrupedality. Journal of Iberian Geology 43: 363–377. doi:10.1007/s41513-017-0036-0
Button, D. J., Barrett, P. M. & Rayfield, E. J. 2017. Craniodental functional evolution in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Paleobiology 43: 435–462. doi:10.1017/pab.2017.4
Brassey, C. A., Maidment, S. C. R. & Barrett, P. M. 2017. Muscle moment arm analyses applied to vertebrate paleontology: a case study using Stegosaurus stenops Marsh, 1887. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 37:  e1361432. doi:10.1080/02724634.2017.1361432
Davies, T.G., Rahman, I. A., Lautenschlager, S., Cunningham, J. A., Asher, R. J., Barrett, P. M., Bates, K. T., Bengtson, S., Benson, R. B. J., Boyer, D. M., Braga, J., Bright, J. A., Claessens, L. P. A. M., Cox, P. G., Dong, X.-P., Evans, A. R., Falkingham, P. L., Friedman, M., Garwood, R. J., Goswami, A., Hutchinson, J. R., Jeffery, N. S., Johanson, Z., Lebrun, R., Martínez-Pérez, C., Marugán-Lobón, J., O'Higgins, P. M., Metscher, B., Orliac, M., Rowe, T. B., Rücklin, M., Sánchez-Villagra, M. R., Shubin, N. H., Smith, S. Y., Starck, J. M., Stringer, C., Summers, A. P., Sutton, M. D., Walsh, S. A., Weisbecker, V., Witmer, L. M., Wroe, S., Yin, Z., Rayfield, E. J. & Donoghue, P. C. J. 2017. Open data and digital morphology. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 284: 20170194. doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0194
MacLaren, J. A., Anderson, P. S. L., Barrett, P. M. & Rayfield, E. J. 2017. Herbivorous dinosaur jaw disparity and its relationship to extrinsic evolutionary drivers. Paleobiology 43: 15–33. doi:10.1017/pab.2016.31
Neenan, J. M., Reich, T., Evers, S. W., Druckenmiller, P. S., Voeten, D. F. A. E., Choiniere, J. N., Barrett, P. M., Pierce, S. E. & Benson, R. B. J. 2017. Evolution of the sauropterygian labyrinth with increasingly pelagic lifestyles. Current Biology 27: 3852–3858 doi:10.1016/j.cub.2017.10.069.
Nesbitt, S. J., Butler, R. J., Ezcurra, M. D., Barrett, P. M., Stocker, M. R., Angielczyk, K. D., Smith, R. M. H., Sidor, C. A., Niedźwiedzki, G., Sennikov, A. G. & Charig A. J. 2017. The earliest bird-line archosaurs and the assembly of the dinosaur body plan. Nature 544: 484–487. doi:10.1038/nature22037
Parry, L. A., Baron, M. G. & Vinther, J. 2017. Multiple optimality criteria support Ornithoscelida. Royal Society Open Science 4: 170833. doi:10.1098/rsos.170833
Viglietti, P. A., Barrett, P. M., Broderick, T. J., Munyikwa, D., MacNiven, R., Broderick, L., Chapelle, K., Glynn, D., Edwards, S., Zondo, M., Broderick, P. & Choiniere, J. N. 2018. Stratigraphy of the Vulcanodon type locality and its implications for regional correlations within the Karoo Supergroup. Journal of African Earth Sciences 137: 149–156. doi:10.1016/j.jafrearsci.2017.10.015
Wills, S., Choiniere, J. N. & Barrett, P. M. 2018, Predictive modelling of fossil-bearing locality distributions in the Elliot Formation (Upper Triassic–Lower Jurassic), South Africa, using a combined multivariate and spatial statistical analyses of present-day environmental data. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 489: 186–197. doi:10.1016/j.palaeo.2017.10.009