Pedro on fieldwork in Tanzania

posted 25 Sep 2015, 11:29 by Richard Butler   [ updated 25 Sep 2015, 11:30 ]

In July 2015, the first completely Brazilian palaeontological expedition in Africa took place in Tanzania. It was led by Max Langer, a researcher based in the University of São Paulo (Ribeirão Preto) and I (Pedro) joined his crew. I was formerly a student with Max’s (during undergrad and masters), but am now completing my PhD in Birmingham. It was a historical event, even though it ended up without very satisfactory results. The idea was to explore the rocks from the so called “Tunduru-beds”, which yielded the rhynchosaur Supradapedon stockleyi (now Hyperodapedon stockleyi), collected by the geologist Gordon Stockley in 1946. The presence of a representative of the genus Hyperodapedon in Tanzania is intriguing because it could indicate a correlation between the Tunduru-beds and the faunas of the Santa Maria Formation. The Santa Maria Formation is a Triassic formation in Brazil, from which several taxa have been described in recent years, including some of the most basal dinosaurs. As such, to find new fossils in the Tunduru-beds rocks, unexplored for the last 70 years, could represent an important piece in the puzzle of early dinosaur evolution. It could, but it didn’t. The expedition crew spent 15 days in the region of Tunduru, south Tanzania, prospecting, digging, walking, driving, exploring every outcrop (in river flanks, by the roads or in the middle of the savanna). The only information that we had about the fossil locality was the old map published by Stockley in 1947. It was supposed to be close to the main river of the region, the Muhuesi River. The only fossils found, however, were some fossil wood, already documented by Stockley. With luck, this expedition will be able to provide important geological data to better understand one of the most unexplored regions in Tanzania.

-- Pedro

Postdoctoral position in vertebrate palaeontology available in our group now!

posted 1 Jul 2015, 02:53 by Richard Butler   [ updated 1 Jul 2015, 05:42 ]

A postdoctoral research position in diversification patterns of fossil vertebrates is now available based within our research group. The successful applicant will be employed as part of a European Research Council-funded team focused on testing the spatial and temporal patterns and abiotic and biotic drivers of the diversification of terrestrial tetrapods over the Phanerozoic. The researcher will play a key role in the development of spatially and temporally comprehensive datasets of fossil vertebrate taxonomy and occurrences. Utilising these and other existing data they will conduct quantitative analyses to document major temporal and spatial patterns in species-richness over long geological timescales, and test relationships with potential drivers. The researcher will be expected to disseminate research results through outstanding publications in leading journals, conference presentations and outreach activities. Further duties will involve co-supervision of undergraduate student projects, and contributing to the training and mentoring of doctoral researchers and research assistants. Funding will be available for the researcher to undertake relevant training courses and attend both national and international conferences. 

The post is full-time for three years, with a starting salary of £28,695 to £37,394. I am looking for someone with a first degree in a relevant area such as Geology, Zoology, Ecology or Palaeontology and a PhD in Palaeontology, Evolutionary Biology or other relevant field. The candidate should have excellent quantitative and analytical skills, including demonstrable experience of using and programming in the statistical package R, a track record of high-quality scientific publications, and clear experience in disseminating research results via conference presentations. Desirable skills include: an understanding of and ability to interpret and work with published stratigraphic and taxonomic information; previous experience working with fossil vertebrates and/or deep time diversity patterns; experience in disseminating research results to the public through public engagement and media activities; and experience in supervising or co-supervising research work by undergraduate and/or graduate students. 

Our research group is highly active and growing, and currently includes three PhD students as well as undergraduate researchers. At least two further PhD students and a research assistant will also be joining the group later this year. We are part of a broader palaeobiological research group at the University of Birmingham that includes additional vertebrate palaeontologists, palaeobotanists, micropalaeontologists, and palaeoclimatologists. We have a historic departmental museum, the Lapworth Museum of Geology, which is currently undergoing a major redevelopment, and which will provide outstanding possibilities for outreach activities. Birmingham is the UK's second city, centrally located with excellent transport links, and is very affordable with excellent cultural facilities and a resurgent city centre. Rough Guides recently voted Birmingham one of the world's top 10 cities to visit in 2015. The University of Birmingham is located on a highly attractive campus in the leafy southern suburbs of the city. 

The full job specification and application are available through the University of Birmingham jobs website, where the position is "ERC Research Fellow", reference 55212. A direct link is here. Please ensure that you include a full academic CV as part of your application.  

The deadline for applications is 29th July 2015, with a preferred (but negotiable) start date of late 2015. 

Please contact me with any queries. 

-- Richard

Martin completes PhD and returns to Argentina

posted 29 Jun 2015, 08:06 by Richard Butler   [ updated 29 Jun 2015, 08:07 ]

All good things must come to an end, and after three years of working closely together I am sad to say that Martín Ezcurra has returned to Argentina. Of course I am delighted that he passed his PhD viva earlier this month with flying colours, defending the results of his work to his extremely impressed examiners Mike Benton and Jason Hilton. His co-supervisor Dave Gower came up to Birmingham for the day, and joined Martín, Mike, me and the rest of the research team for a celebratory Brummie curry. 

 Martín wearing a celebratory decorated hat, made for him by the other PhD students.

Martín with supervisors Dave Gower and Richard Butler.

Martín has now returned to Buenos Aires in his home country of Argentina, where he is waiting to hear officially about his application for a permanent position with the CONICET. He will be returning to work at the main natural history museum in Buenos Aires (the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales Bernardino Rivadavia), but we hope that there is lots of collaboration to come in the future, including return visits to Birmingham, collaborative fieldwork, and many more joint papers!

-- Richard

Extremely bizarre new herbivorous theropod published in Nature!

posted 29 Jun 2015, 08:04 by Richard Butler

The platypus is a semiaquatic mammal endemic to Australia and its relatives were also present in the Patagonian region of Argentinia approximately 60 million years ago. The platypus is a duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed and egg-laying mammal that disconcerted naturalists after its discovery in the very late 18th century, and was even considered as a possible hoax. The bizarre combination of features present in the platypus that are reminiscent of those of other animals can be explained by an evolutionary process called convergence evolution. In this process, two unrelated species or groups acquire similar characteristics because they live in similar environments or share a similar behaviour. But, if the news are about a new bizarre dinosaur, why I am talking about the platypus?

Chilesaurus diegosarezi is a new dinosaur that we named in a scientific paper published on Monday 27th April in Nature, and its appearance does not resemble that of a platypus at all. However, Chilesaurus does possess a bizarre combination of features, in which, like in the platypus, different anatomical regions resemble those of other unrelated groups of animals. Therefore, Chilesaurus can be considered a “platypus-dinosaur” because it represents a very good example of convergent evolution and shows how evolution works in deep time. 

Chilesaurus diegosuarezi, the new bizarre Jurassic dinosaur
Life reconstructions of Chilesaurus diegosuarezi by Gabriel Lio.

Chilesaurus was found in 145 million-year-old Upper Jurassic rocks from southern Chile and published by a team of Argentinian-Chilean palaeontologists and geologists led by Dr. Fernando Novas. I am one of the co-authors on the paper. This new dinosaur is known from four fairly complete, articulated skeletons and dozens of bones from other individuals. These specimens were excavated in the south of the Andes Mountains and sometimes in rather extreme conditions, with very cold, snowy days. The place is inaccessible by car and my colleagues, who participated in the fieldworks, had to use horses to reach the locality and transport the plaster jackets.

Fieldwork in the Toqui Formation (Andes mountain range, southern Chile). Excavation of one of the most complete specimens (left) and Diego Suarez, and his father Manuel Suarez, when he discovered the first bones of the formation back in 2004 (right) (courtesy of Fernando Novas).

There is a very nice video showing the excavation and study of Chilesaurus here (courtesy of Mariano Novas and Alexis Sosa).

The bones belong to young to adult individuals, and if we consider all the specimens together, only some skull bones and the end of the tail are currently unknown. Chilesaurus was a relatively small dinosaur, with an adult total length of 3.2 metres. We infer that Chilesaurus was a plant-eater because of the presence of leaf-shaped teeth, a retroverted pubis (one of the three pelvic bones) that probably increased gut capacity for processing plant material, and the robust morphology of the hindlimb that resembles that of other herbivorous dinosaur groups (such as therizinosaurs). Chilesaurus was the most common species of the braided river system in which it lived alongside with primitive crocodiles and large long-necked dinosaurs. 

Skeletal reconstruction of Chilesaurus diegosuarezi (top) and anterior half of a right dentary in lateral view (bottom) (courtesy of Gabriel Lio and Fernando Novas).

Chilesaurus belongs to a completely unknown lineage of dinosaurs that acquired herbivore habits from carnivorous ancestors and was probably endemic to South America. Chilesaurus is the first herbivorous theropod (a lineage that includes predominantly predatory forms) from the Southern Hemisphere. Nevertheless, the most outstanding about Chilesaurus are the similarities that different regions of its body possess with those of different unrelated dinosaur groups. The skull and neck resemble those of primitive long-necked dinosaurs (e.g. Plateosaurus), the vertebrae resemble those of primitive meat-eating theropods (e.g. Dilophosaurus), the pelvis is very similar to that of ornithischian dinosaurs (e.g. Iguanodon), and the hand has only two well-developed fingers as in Tyranosaurus rex, but with an unreduced arm. As a result, Chilesaurus looks like a combination of different dinosaurs that completely astonished us at the time that different regions of its anatomy were cleaned out from the surrounding rock and later puzzled us during its study. 

Results of one of the phylogenetic and morphospace analyses published in the paper. These analyses were one of my main contributions to the research.

There is no possibility that Chilesaurus is chimera made up of different dinosaur bones because we found four fairly articulated skeletons. The strange body of Chilesaurus shows that the evolutionary pressures that acted on its ancestor species lead to the selection of similar structures to those of other dinosaur groups with similar pressures driven by their environment or mode of life. In the case of Chilesaurus, this convergent evolution acted in mosaic in different parts of its body, such as also occurred in the platypus lineage. The presence of these multiple features shared by Chilesaurus and unrelated dinosaur groups was very challenging as we attempted to determine the relationships of the new species in the dinosaur “genealogical tree”. We proposed that the new dinosaur is a primitive tetanuran, a group of theropods that includes MegalosaurusAllosaurus, Tyrannosaurus and birds, but not Carnotaurus and early dinosaurs. However, the bizarre anatomy of Chilesaurus will probably open a heated discussion about its relationships, with possible implications for the relationships of the main dinosaur groups. Chilesaurus reveals how much data is still completely unknown about dinosaurs and waits to be discovered in the rocks that tell the story of our planet in deep time.

-- Martin

Martín submits PhD thesis

posted 23 Mar 2015, 10:29 by Richard Butler   [ updated 23 Mar 2015, 10:29 ]

After three years of incredibly hard work, Martín recently submitted his PhD. It is an extraordinary volume of work - 570 pages including appendices, but could have been much longer - and I am delighted to see my first PhD student submit. Mixed emotions for me - I'm extremely proud, but I'm also very sad because it means that soon Martín will be returning to Argentina. But first, there is the small matter of the defence, and we're looking forward to welcoming Professor Mike Benton as external examiner. Most of the chapters of Martín's thesis are already published, but he's currently working hard on preparing the final chapter for publication as well. 

 Martín, with proof of submission!

-- Richard

Richard back from PaleoFest meeting in the US

posted 23 Mar 2015, 10:03 by Richard Butler   [ updated 23 Mar 2015, 10:03 ]

Just over a week ago, it was my pleasure to have been invited to the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois, to give a talk at the annual PaleoFest meeting, organised in association with the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Together with 23 other experts on the early Mesozoic, I spoke in a symposium on the The Beginning of Dinosaurs and The Origins of the Modern World, presenting an overview of our research on the Triassic rise of archosauromorphs. It was an enormously enjoyable meeting, and I am grateful to Hans-Dieter Sues and Scott Williams for the invitation. A personal highlight was receiving a gift of a beautiful geological hammer engraved with my name from the legendary manufacturers Estwing, who are based in Rockford.   

-- Richard

ERC Starting Grant awarded to Richard

posted 23 Mar 2015, 09:55 by Richard Butler   [ updated 29 Apr 2015, 03:52 ]

Back before Christmas I was utterly delighted to discover that I have been awarded a European Research Council Starting Grant worth close to €1.5 million. This was awarded for a five-year research project that will focus on the patterns and drivers of tetrapod diversification on land from the Devonian to the present day, and which is entitled "TERRA. 375 Million Years of the Diversification of Life on Land: Shifting the Paradigm?" Using this funding, I intend to build a research group including PhD students, postdocs and research assistants that will use tetrapods as an exemplar group to revise our understanding of the long-term shape of life's diversification in the terrestrial realm. I'm looking forward to getting started with this project, once all the admin is complete and I've (more-or-less) cleared the deck of other projects!

-- Richard 

Fieldwork in India

posted 23 Mar 2015, 09:47 by Richard Butler   [ updated 23 Mar 2015, 09:48 ]

Yet again I'm playing catch-up on the news front, so I'm going to rush out a few posts on some of the things we've been doing the last few months. One of the most exciting was the opportunity in January to do fieldwork and visit fossil collections in India. This was funded by a National Geographic Young Explorer's Award to Martín (fieldwork), as well as our Marie Curie CIG funding (collections work). Martín, Roland and I flew to Kolkata in West Bengal, where we joined our colleagues Dr Saswati Bandyopadhyay and Dr Dhurjati Sengupta of the Geological Studies Unit of the Indian Statistical Institute. Our target was the Lower Triassic Panchet Formation of West Bengal, from which an important but generally fragmentary assemblage of vertebrate material has previously been collected from immediately after the Permo-Triassic extinction event. Our aims were to collect additional material, particularly of proterosuchid archosauromorphs, and better understand the recovery from the extinction in this part of Pangaea. 

Outcrops were generally sparse, but we did find a significant number of specimens in the bed of the Damodar River. These included remains of temnospondyl amphibians, fish, and the dicynodont Lystrosaurus, but also, more excitingly (for us), a number of specimens belonging to proterosuchids. These were all isolated cranial and postcranial elements, but together with historically collected material that we examined back in Kolkata, they are going to help us build up a more complete picture of the Panchet fauna. Martín will be back in Kolkata in May to work on some of the specimens, and we're planning a couple of papers revising the fauna.  

-- Richard

Temnospondyl jaw in situ in the Panchet Formation. My best find!

Martín and Roland excavating fossils along the banks of the Damodar River

The field crew, including Dr Saswati Bandyopadhyay (third from left) and Dr Dhurjati Sengupta (second from right) 

British Science Festival

posted 23 Sep 2014, 05:04 by Richard Butler   [ updated 23 Sep 2014, 05:04 ]

Birmingham recently hosted the British Science Festival, with many fantastic public events and talks here on the UoB campus and across the city. It was an exhausting week, but very rewarding! I organised an event on "Virtual Palaeontology", co-sponsored by the Palaeontological Association and the Lapworth Museum of Geology, with Imran Rahman and Russell Garwood giving great talks on how they use CT scanning in their research on Palaeozoic fossils. On the Sunday of the festival, we welcomed around two thousand people, mostly families with young children, into the Lapworth Museum, for a range of exciting activities relating to fossils and rocks. On the same day, I had the honour of giving the Halstead Lecture, sponsored by the Geological Association and the British Science Association. I spoke to a packed room on the origin and evolutionary rise of dinosaurs. 

My talk picked up a bit of media interest, with an article appearing in the Sunday Times, and two articles in Forbes. 

Me speaking at the British Science Festival. Image by Chloe Wilson (@_Chloewilson)

-- Richard

New dinosaur, Laquintasaura, from Venezuela

posted 23 Sep 2014, 04:50 by Richard Butler   [ updated 23 Sep 2014, 05:08 ]

I'm a bit delayed posting this, but together with a team of researchers from the UK, Switzerland, and the USA, I was recently involved in the description of the first dinosaur from Venezuela, which we named Laquintasaura venezuelae in a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Laquintasaura is exciting for a number of reasons: it is the first dinosaur from northern South America, a rare example of a dinosaur from the palaeoequatorial region, and perhaps the earliest evidence for social behaviour in ornithischian dinosaurs. However, the most exciting thing is that our new radioisotopic data reveals that Laquintasaura came from rocks that might be less than a million years younger than the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction, and so provides a rare window into how dinosaurs fared in the immediate aftermath of that event. It seems that ornithischian dinosaurs, at least, were doing pretty well! 

Life reconstruction of Laquintasaura by Dr Mark Witton.

I did an interview for BBC West Midlands on this new discovery, which you can watch below.

BBC West Midlands news story on Laquintasaura

-- Richard

Barrett, P. M., BUTLER, R. J., Mundil, R., Scheyer, T. M., Irmis, R. B. & Sánchez-Villagra, M. R. 2014. A palaeoequatorial ornithischian and new constraints on early dinosaur diversification. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281: 20141147 

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