Con esta segunda entrevista, nos mantenemos entre expertos en Saurischia, pero esta vez salimos al encuentro de los terópodos. Quizás te suene el nombre de nuestro invitado. Y no es de extrañar: el año pasado su trabajo y el de sus colegas estuvo en boca de todos. Uno de los responsables de la publicación de Raptorex kriegsteini, así como de Alioramus altai, dos de los terópodos más famosos descritos el pasado año. Sin más, os dejamos con la entrevista a Steve Brusatte. ¡Disfrutadla!
Hi Steve, and thanks for taking part in this interview. And congratulations for your achievements last year 2009! First of all, as it’s starting to become a tradition in this interviews, could you tell our readers how were your beginnings in paleontology? When did you decide to become a dinosaur paleontologist?
Unlike so many people in the field of paleontology, I only became interested in dinosaurs and fossils when I was in high school, so when I was about 14 years old. My youngest brother was going through the «dinosaur phase» at that point, and had many dinosaur books and toys, and I began reading some of his books and was immediately hooked. By the time I was 16 years old I knew that I had to pursue paleontology as a career, and a few years later I entered the University of Chicago and studied geology. I grew up in central Illinois, in the middle of the United States, where there are no dinosaur fossils. There were some great museums, the Burpee Museum and the Field Museum, and I visited as many times as I could. Illinois is covered with Paleozoic sedimentary rocks, full of invertebrate fossils, and I collected as much as I could. Then, finally, when I was in college I was able to dig for dinosaurs for the first time.
Do you have any advice for young researchers? What do you think is more important in the beginning of a research carreer?
It’s important to do two things. First, study as much science as you can at school. Not only biology or geology, but also physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Learning how to think like a scientist takes a long time, and taking many science classes helps build analytical skills. It’s also important to learn how to write well–so much of paleontology is writing papers and communicating our ideas to other researchers and the general public. You can be the best thinker and best scientist in the world, but if you can’t communicate then you’re out of luck. Second, it’s not all about school. On your own time, it’s important to read as much as you can. Learning how to read, analyze, and judge scientific papers (basically, learning how to assess scientific arguments) takes a long time, and only by reading many papers and books can students develop these skills. I also always enjoyed reading books about the history of paleontology, geology, and evolution–this helped me understand the major developments in the history of the science, and how pioneers like Darwin, Lyell, Cuvier, and others looked at evidence, made hypotheses, and argued their ideas.
What do you enjoy most in our job? The field excavations? The research?
I enjoy the traveling, either for fieldwork or for museum visits, and writing scientific papers. Traveling is a great perk, and I have already been able to visit so many interesting places simply because I am studying dinosaurs. I’ve been to China three times and all across Europe and North America. Traveling to the Mesozoic Terrestrial Ecosystems meeting in Teruel, for example, is where I first met Paco. You meet so many interesting people and learn so much, not only about fossils, but about different places and cultures. And writing–I love writing. I was a journalist for four years when I was in high school and college, writing articles for my local paper as a part-time job. Today I really see myself as a scientific journalist–I look for new information on dinosaurs and evolution, and then communicate this information to my colleagues. Each paper is a challenge to write, but for me, there is no feeling like seeing a scientific paper published!
Could you tell us something about your Ph.D. topic?
Yes, I am a PhD student at Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I have been in New York for 1.5 years and my PhD will focus on the anatomy, phylogeny, and morphological evolution of coelurosaurian dinosaurs. My phylogenetic project is focused on basal coelurosaurs–tyrannosauroids, compsognathids, ornithomimosaurs, and other taxa that fill that gap between non-coelurosaurs and derived maniraptorans. I also work on morphological evolution–morphological disparity, rates of character change, and morphometric skull shape.
Last year was a very theropod-active year. And you and your collaborators took part in it, with your description of Alioramus altai and Raptorex kriegsteini. Which are your thoughts about them? What do they tell us about theropod evolution?
Last year indeed was a great year for theropod workers, and I was very lucky to take part in the description of two important new tyrannosauroids, Raptorex and Alioramus. Both of them tell us that tyrannosauroid theropods were much more variable than we previously thought. Not all tyrannosauroids were enormous, massive, bone-crunching predators. Raptorex is about 125 million years old, 65 million years older than Tyrannosaurus. It is also about 1/100th of the body mass of Tyrannosaurus. Yet, it has many of the signature tyrannosaurid features: the big, deep skull, the large jaw muscles, the puny little arms. So, the classic tyrannosaurid body plan seems to have evolved in small animals that lived long before Tyrannosaurus rex! Alioramus lived right at the end of the Cretaceous, about 67 million years ago, right alongside Tarbosaurus. It is a proper tyrannosaurid–a member of the derived clade that includes Tyrannosaurus, Tarbosaurus, and Albertosaurus. However, it is only about half the size of Tyrannosaurus, and does not have the deep skull, thick teeth, and huge jaw muscles. Instead it has a very elongate and weak snout, and a very light and gracile skeleton. So it tells us that not all tyrannosaurids were huge bone-crunchers, but that some were more delicate animals that must have hunted smaller prey. It was very unexpected to find an animal like this that lived right alongside Tarbosaurus, right at the very end of the Cretaceous when the big tyrannosaurids were supposed to be the only dominant predators in the north.
In which topics are you working at this moment? And can you share with us any future prespectives?
We’re working on so many things right now. First, we are preparing a full monographic description of Alioramus altai, which should be submitted later this year. We also have a new phylogeny of tyrannosauroids that we will publish soon, and may offer some surprises! I am doing fieldwork in the Triassic of Portugal, Poland, and Lithuania, and may be starting some other projects in Europe soon. These projects have to do with my other main research interest, the origin and early evolution of dinosaurs and other archosaurs during the Triassic. I am very lucky to have some great collaborators in these projects–Richard Butler, Grzegorz Niedzwiedzki, Octavio Mateus, and Piotr Szrek for the fieldwork, and Roger Benson, Thomas Carr, Mark Norell, Paul Sereno, Graeme Lloyd, Steve Wang, Tom Williamson, Phil Currie, Marco Andrade, Martin Ezcurra, Mike Benton, and many others that would take up this entire page! I have some papers in review right now, so hopefully I can report some new research soon…
Thank you very much, Steve! And good luck with your research!