Monday, 21 November 2011

Skipping with Dinosaurs.....


The main dinosaur movement that is of interest to paleontologists is locomotion, primarily running ability.  One thing that we are very interested in at Manchester is….maximum running speed.  This is especially important for both predator and prey. One trying to avoid becoming lunch and the other trying to catch lunch.

The methods available to biologists when studying modern species, such as cinematography, video recording, measurements of energy consumption, force and pressure plate studies, are not easily applied to the extinct species, unless time travel is miraculously invented!

One avenue of research that the Manchester group has focused on is the relative running abilities of different groups of dinosaurs. We particularly focused upon the challenge of determining, if possible, the top running speeds of various dinosaur genera. This work has been led by Dr Bill Sellers, who works in the Faculty of Life Sciences at the University of Manchester.

Both Bill and I had a fun day explaining to Apple Inc. about our research into dinosaur locomotion, amongst other things. We both use Apple computers for the work that we do at Manchester. Here is a short video that might give you a little more insight to what we do at Manchester.


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Tuesday, 8 November 2011

How did the dinosaur cross the road....

Taphonomy is the study of what happens when something is buried, literally meaning ‘burial-laws’ (‘taphos-nomos’). Ivan Efremov (1907-1972) can be considered the father of taphonomy, since his groundbreaking work in 1940 invented this often-smelly approach to paleontology. Most studies since then have been undertaken by organizations such as the FBI, who have a keen interest in the grave secrets of humans, especially those who end up in shallow graves as a result of foul play. Diagnosing the length of time and time of year that a body was buried can be crucial to solving a grisly crime. The temperature, moisture content, and insect activity are but a few of the variables that have to be considered when deciphering the decomposition history of a body. The soil and microbial communities it contains are also critical to understand if we are to disentangle the taphonomic tale of a body (or preserved fossil). Almost all terrestrial plants and animals end up in a patch of soil, whether that is in the parch-baked sands of a desert or the sodden channel sands of a river. We have to examine the above and below ground ecology and microbiology to identify the key players in the recycling process. Many studies have shown that the process of decomposition of large bodies into soil is primarily regulated by the size of the said body and the activity of scavengers and humble insects. Surprisingly, insects are key players in processing some of the largest animals that walk on the earth’s surface today. Our taxonomic friend Linnaeus from the 18th century commented on this fact, saying, “Three flies could consume a horse cadaver as rapidly as a lion.” More recent work has supported this view, indicating that insects can consume a body before a scavenger has fully utilized it. The complex intertwining roles of microbes, insects, and scavengers are also affected by season, for some species are more active at specific times of year. When one or more of the decomposition processes is inhibited, a cadaver can persist for much longer on a surface or near surface...here is a rather fun experiment we did with a chicken, for National Geographic. Dr Dino Frey and I were trying to work-out how the exquisite remains of Archaeopteryx survived 150 million years. Just be grateful you cannot smell what we had to inhale...

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Friday, 4 November 2011

Come to the University of Manchester and take Earth Sciences.

I was asked today, 'Why would you want to be a student at the University of Manchester?'.....and here is my reply.
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Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Synchrotron time ahoy!

The Manchester Palaeontology Research Group has been awarded two more years of beam-time to work at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light-source (SSRL). The whole group is over the moon about this wonderful opportunity. We can now build upon our earlier successes, which include working on the taphonomy of Archaeopteryx (above) and also mapping eumelanin pigment patternation in Confuciusornis (below).
The beam-allocation will provide the Manchester/SSRL team with the time to work on enhancing both data-capture techniques, whilst also updating of the experimental station... so we can enhance our x-ray vision on the innermost elemental secrets of both extant and extinct beasties.
Like so many University of Manchester research projects, the collaboration with SSRL is critical to expanding our knowledge of both past and present life on Earth, whilst working at the interface of several disciplines. The collaboration between beam-line physicists (Dr Uwe Bergmann, above right), PhD researchers (Holly Barden, above centre) and computational biologists (Dr Bill Sellers, above left), makes such research possible. However, it has been the geochemistry of the fossils that have relayed so much information from our synchrotron-based studies and that is the realm of Dr Roy Wogelius (below)...
For me, as a palaeontologist, its just damn exciting working in a field that shows so much promise, in terms of expanding our knowledge. This new field not only has the potential to yield insight to the exceptional preservation of past life, but also provide crucial information and clues as to the very biological pathways that once synthesized the compounds that remain hidden within the elemental inventories of such beautiful fossils. Its a splendid time to be a palaeontologist.