I have participated in a number of field projects, beginning with my crude afternoon trips to local fossil outcrops while a high school student in Illinois. Since that time I have looked for dinosaurs and other vertebrates across the American west (Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, New Mexico), Europe (Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, UK), Brazil, and China (Tibet). Fieldwork is now a major part of my research and I spent 1-2 months out of the year in the field.
A growing focus of both my fieldwork and research work is the fascinating Middle Jurassic vertebrate record of Skye, an island off the west coast of Scotland. The Middle Jurassic is one of the poorest sampled intervals for vertebrate fossils over the past few hundred million years, which is unfortunate because several major groups (such as coelurosaurian theropods) seem to have begun their evolutionary diversification during this time. As luck has it, Skye boasts one of the best Middle Jurassic faunas from anywhere on the globe. Although finding fossils here is not easy due to weather, and many specimens are isolated and/or very small, the potential is huge. Since my hiring in Edinburgh in 2013 I have been co-leading annual fieldwork trips to Skye, with a great team including Tom Challands and Mark Wilkinson from Edinburgh and Dugald Ross from the Staffin Museum. We are part of a larger consortium of Scottish-based researchers, the PalAlba Group, that also includes Nick Fraser and Stig Walsh at National Museums Scotland, Neil Clark at the Hunterian Museum of the University of Glasgow, and Colin MacFadyen of Scottish Natural Heritage. We have made several important discoveries, including a large trackway site left by sauropod dinosaurs and new species of crocodiles and marine reptiles. A summary of our discoveries can be found here. Our fieldwork has been supported by the National Geographic Society and several smaller grants from Scottish sources (e.g., the Edinburgh Geological Society, Royal Zoological Society of Scotland). [Photos by Magnus Hagdorn]
Two big questions are driving much of my current field research. First, how did terrestrial ecosystems recover after the devastating end-Cretaceous extinction about 66 million years ago, which killed off the dinosaurs and paved the way for the mammals to radiate? Second, how did dramatic climate changes affect vertebrate evolution in the deep past? I am currently addressing both of these interesting questions by working collaboratively with Tom Williamson, Ross Secord, Dan Peppe, and Anne Weil in New Mexico, which boasts an incredible section of Paleocene terrestrial sedimentary rocks that are rich with fossils (the Nacimiento Formation of the San Juan Basin). We have been doing collaborative fieldwork in the San Juan Basin for the past few years, including fieldwork trips in 2011-2016, and have a lot of future projects planned. In particular, Tom and I are starting to work closely on the post-Cretaceous radiation of "archaic" mammals such as "condylarths", taeniodonts, and other groups. These mammals, which evolved quickly after the dinosaur extinction and thrived during the first 10 million years of the Paleocene, remain quite mysterious. We still know very little about their relationships or evolutionary patterns, and are even unsure about which living mammal groups (most of which originated about 10 million years after the dinosaur extinction) they may be ancestral to, or closely related to. Another interesting aspect of the Paleocene was that it was a hothouse world with a "non-analogue" climate very different from our modern world. Paleocene mammals and other organisms had to endure several short periods of intense climate change called "hyperthermals". By studying these hyperthermals and how organisms reacted to them, we may learn about how our own world may change in the face of modern anthropomorphic climate change. Our research is being funded with a generous grant from the National Science Foundation (US), on which I am a Co-PI, as well as several grants from the Bureau of Land Management in the US (details on Williamson's website). [Right photo by Ray Ewing]
I am part of a research team studying the latest Cretaceous terrestrial faunas of Romania. These faunas were first studied over 100 years ago by the pioneering paleontologist (and aristocrat and wannabe-king) Franz Baron Nopcsa. They include some of the most unusual dinosaurs in the global fossil record: dwarfs, primitive species, and other aberrant creatures that owe their weird morphologies to the insular island environment of Late Cretaceous Transylvania. I have been working in Romania since 2010 and have done fieldwork there over the summers of 2011-2014. This is in conjunction with the indefatigable Romanian paleontologists Matyas Vremir and Zoltan Csiki-Sava and my former advisor in New York Mark Norell, and has also included collaboration with Greg Erickson, Aki Watanabe, Akiko Shinya, Mick Ellison, Darren Naish, Gareth Dyke, and our firework of a Romanian friend, Radu Totoianu. We are trying to better understand the bizarre Late Cretaceous ecosystems of Romania, the development of aberrant body plans in taxa, the age of the fossil-bearing deposits, and the theropod dinosaurs that lived in these environments. This project was initiated by Matyas' 2009 discovery of the superb type specimen of Balaur bondoc, the poodle-sized double sickle-clawed dromaeosaurid that is currently the best theropod specimen from the final 60 million years of the Cretaceous in Europe. Matyas, Zoltan, Mark, and I described this specimen together in 2010 and monographed it in 2013.
During the summer of 2016 I began a collaborative research project with colleagues in Brazil, including Roberto Candeiro of the Federal University of Goias and Felipe Simbras of Petrobras (the Brazilian petroleum company). With funding from a Newton Grant we spent two weeks together in Goias State in central Brazil, doing fieldwork in the latest Cretaceous (Santonian-Maastrichtian) Bauru Group and describing dinosaur fossils from this rock unit. These fossils are some of the last known dinosaurs before the asteroid impact not only in Brazil, but in the southern continents more generally, so they hold great potential for understanding the timing and causes of the dinosaur extinction. Our work is ongoing and we hope for a continued field and research program in the future.
Triassic of Portugal: During the summers of 2009-2011 I co-led field expeditions to the Late Triassic mudstones of the Algarve region of southern Portugal. This work is in conjunction with Octavio Mateus and Richard Butler, and has also involved several students and geologists. Our work primarily focuses on a thick, dense bonebed located only meters below the CAMP volcanic basalt flows that mark the end Triassic mass extinction. We excavated a great deal of material, including many skeletons of the new temnospondyl species Metoposaurus algarvensis (the 'Super Salamander') and the first phytosaur fossil from the Iberian Peninsula.
Triassic of Poland: Richard Butler and also have a strong fieldwork collaboration with Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki and Tomasz Sulej from the Institute of Paleobiology in Warsaw. During the summers of 2008-2012 we have spent time in Poland, often exploring several Triassic bone and footprint sites in southern and central Poland. Most of these sites are working clay quarries, and in some cases specimens are found in dense bonebeds. At other sites, rich footprint horizons are present. We discovered several intriguing specimens, including bones and footprints, some of which are the oldest stem dinosaurs in the global fossil record.
: Lithuania is as flat and featureless as my home in Illinois, and for centuries has bounced back and forth between many of Europe's most oppressive empires. Understandably, there has been little paleontological research here. In 2009, 2010, and 2012 I co-led field reconnaissance missions to the Triassic of Lithuania, with Richard Butler, Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki, Piotr Szrek, and Tomasz Sulej. We discovered the first Mesozoic terrestrial vertebrate fossils from Lithuania: some phytosaur teeth and jaw fragments that we described in 2012.
Hell Creek Formation, Montana: I have worked in the Hell Creek Formation, a famous rock unit dating from the final moments of the Age of Dinosaurs, with the Burpee Museum of Natural History, a small museum in Rockford, Illinois, with an impressive track record of finding important dinosaur fossils. The Burpee crew spends several weeks per year digging in the sparse, dusty badlands of Carter County, in the far southeastern corner of Montana. Carter County is more than twice the size of Rhode Island but is home to only 1,360 people, many of them cattle ranchers who let their sheep and cows wander across the sage-covered badlands. The throaty call of a far-off cow is a more common sound than car engines or human voices while doing fieldwork out here. Much of the badland topography is formed by the sandy and muddy rocks of the Hell Creek Formation, which were deposited on a floodplain about 66 million years ago. Such common dinosaurs as Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, Edmontosaurus, Ankylosaurus, and Pachycephalosaurus called this floodplain home. The Burpee crew has found fossils of all of these creatures. During my time in the field one of the crew members came across a jumble of Triceratops bones, which turned out to be the nearly complete skeletons of three juveniles. This was the first instance of multiple Triceratops individuals found together. I have published on these fossils with my Burpee colleagues Josh Mathews, Scott Williams, and Mike Henderson. Currently the Burpee crew is working on a collection of interesting bones that seem to belong to a juvenile Tyrannosaurus.
Tibet, China: The most exotic field project I have participated in, by a wide margin, was a three-week expedition to look for dinosaurs deep in the heart of Tibet. This project was led by my former undergraduate advisor Paul Sereno, who has successfully discovered dinosaurs all across four continents. Joining Paul in Tibet was a thrill, and on this trip (as well as several other trips with Paul to Jurassic and Cretaceous units in the western United States) I learned the basics of prospecting for fossils, collecting specimens, organizing logistics, and dealing with bureaucratic headaches. Indeed, we didn't have much time to actually explore on this trip, as we were frequently held up along the way by local authorities who were interested in what we were doing. But what an experience! We reached 16,000 feet above sea level, drove through the world's deepest gorge (three times deeper than the Grand Canyon!), caught a glimpse of the world's tallest unclimbed mountain, explored Buddhist monasteries and temples, and ate Tibetan staples such as yak meat, yak butter tea (most vile thing I have ever drunk), barley, yak, yak, barley, barley, and yak. My fellow explorers will probably remember me decades down the road as the young guy carrying the large wooden stick, to fend off the notoriously vicious (and often rabid) Tibetan mastiffs that guard the flocks and homesteads of the local nomads.
LaSalle Limestone, Central Illinois: I cut my scientific teeth by venturing out into the plains of central Illinois, in my parents' car, to look for 280-million-year-old shark teeth, brachiopod shells, corals, and crinoids. During my summers as a high school student I worked as a part-time reporter at the local newspaper in the morning and often looked for fossils in the afternoon. I primarily focused on a Pennsylvanian unit called the LaSalle Limestone, which is mined for cement-making materials across central Illinois. It is widely exposed in a number of quarries and roadcuts, which are often chock full of fossils. I learned how to read geologic maps, collect fossils in the field, avoid torrential downpours, and, most importantly, that brachiopods just don't do it for me. Still, I published two papers out of this work.