Meet Dr. Stephen Brusatte - Reader in Vertebrate Paleontology
(A.K.A – a very smart man who knows a lot about dinosaurs).
Stephen is an American paleontologist and evolutionary biologist, who specializes in the anatomy and evolution of dinosaurs. He studied his Bachelor’s Degree at the University of Chicago, then continued to do a Masters at the University of Bristol, before completing his Doctorate at the Columbia University. Stephen is now a Chancellor's Fellow in Vertebrate Paleontology at the University of Edinburgh.
In addition to his scientific papers, his popular book Dinosaurs (2008) and the textbook Dinosaur Paleobiology (2012) earned him a wide acclaim, and he became the resident paleontologist and scientific consultant for the BBC Earth and 20th Century Fox's 2013 film ‘Walking With Dinosaurs’, which is followed by his popular book Walking with Dinosaurs Encyclopedia. His latest book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: The Untold Story of a Lost World is out now!
As an icon in his field and a popular figure for the Dinosaur hunters amongst us, we thought we would interview Stephen and ask him some key questions.
Stephen can you tell us how you got to where you are today?
I grew up in the USA and went to university there, then it was off to grad school and finally after ten years of studying I finished my PhD and started applying for jobs, and I caught the break of a lifetime when the University of Edinburgh hired me as a lecturer about five years ago.
What was it like working on the film walking with dinosaurs?
Very rewarding. As scientists, most of the time we are conversing with other scientists, so it was awesome to have the chance to consult on something that reached such a big audience, particularly kids.
Can you tell us a little bit about what your work day entails?
Every day is different. I teach undergrads, run a lab, advise grad students, do fieldwork to discover new fossils, and do quite a bit of public engagement in terms of science writing and outreach. I’ve just had a new adult pop science book published: The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, which was a lot of fun to write.
If you could be a Dinosaur what would you be and why?
T-Rex. It goes without saying you would want to be the King of Dinosaurs!
Can you tell us about what it's like in the field for a dinosaur hunter?
You never know what you’re doing to find. It’s one big detective game and every fossil is a clue that can tell us about the history of Earth.
What's the best thing about your job?
Every day I wake up and have the chance to discover something new about the world.
What do you believe dinosaurs evolved from?
Dinosaurs evolved from humble, cat-sized reptilian ancestors called dinosauromorphs, which got their start about 250 million years right after a horrible extinction wiped out about 95% of all living things!
There are many theories about the mass extinction of the dinosaurs - ours include blowing too many co2 bubbles that caused climate change. But what do you think really happened?
Ha! Yes, there are a lot of theories, some reasonable, others verging more towards the absurd. But by now we know what actually happened: a six-mile-wide asteroid crashed into the Earth and changed the climate and environment very quickly, and the dinosaurs couldn’t cope.
What do you believe dinosaurs evolved into?
Today’s birds are dinosaurs. They evolved from small, feathered, meat-eating dinosaurs like Velociraptor. That means some dinosaurs are still with us today!
We have drawn some pretty brightly coloured dinosaurs. But how do we know what colours dinosaurs really were?
It’s amazing but some clever scientists figured it out. If you have well preserved dinosaur skin or feathers, you can look under a high powered microscope and actually see the pigment vessels (called melanosomes). The types of melansomes present tell you what colour the dinosaur was.
What are crocodylomorphs and are Crocodiles actually dinosaurs?
Crocodylomorphs is the fancy scientific name for the group of reptiles that includes today’s crocs and alligators and their closest fossil relatives. They are cousins of dinosaurs, not actual dinosaurs.
We have depicted dinosaurs dancing, doing pottery and blowing bubbles. But how do we find out dinosaur behaviours from static fossils?
It can be really tricky. Footprints are very useful in this regard because they record the interaction between a dinosaur and its environment. For instance, by measuring the spacing between footprints we can tell how fast a dinosaur was moving.
Dinosaurs means terrible lizard but we think dinosaurs were not terrible - simply misunderstood. Is one misunderstanding that all dinosaurs were cold-blooded?
I agree! Dinosaurs are greatly misunderstood. They were not small-brained, drab-coloured evolutionary failures, but dynamic and successful animals, and many of them may have been warm-blooded like today’s birds.
As mentioned previously, you worked on ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’, which gave the audience a chance to visualise dinosaurs in their natural environments. How have other technologies influence your field?
A big one is CAT scanning. We now regularly CAT scan dinosaur skulls to see inside and virtually make a model of the brain cavity, ear, and other internal structures. This can tell us how smart dinosaurs were and how they sensed their world.
People have prviously asked the question “did dinosaurs have feathers?” and we hypothesised they might have used them to tickle other dinosaurs, for cleaning as feather dusters or as stuffing for making soft pillows (as they had boney heads). Do you think dinosaurs had feathers?
Definitely! We know that for a fact—there are thousands of fossil dinosaur skeletons from China that are preserved covered in feathers. They were buried so quickly by a volcano, kind of like Pompeii-style, that the feathers didn’t have time to decay.
What do you think your biggest challenge ahead will be with dinosaur evolution?
We still have so much to learn. Right now is the golden age—somebody is finding a new species of dinosaur once per week. The challenge is to keep up the interest and the funding so that this continues!
What are your favourite books or websites about dinosaurs?
It is shameless to say my own book, but I’ll remind people about my new book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs. In writing it I got inspiration from many other books, like Robert Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies and David Fastovsky and David Weishampel’s The Evolution and Extinction of the Dinosaurs.
What is your top tip to get into paleontology?
Passion can take you a long way in life, so if you’re into dinosaurs and fossils, keep up that enthusiasm. But you also need to study hard—so take as many science and maths courses as you can in school, and keep up on the latest dinosaur discoveries on the internet.
If we want to read more of your work where can we find it?
The new book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is the big one. It was so much fun to write and I hope people will enjoy it. It tells the story of dinosaur evolution: from their humble origins, through to their rise to power and their age of dominance, and then to the evolution of birds and the extinction of the rest of the dinosaurs. Throughout I weave in my own stories of traveling the world studying dinosaurs and discovering new fossils.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
You can also follow me on twitter @SteveBrusatte. Thanks for the opportunity to talk about dinosaurs!
We would like to say a huge thank you to Steve for kindly giving up his time. Do not forget to check out his book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs!
Use the code dinohunter for 20% off.
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