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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Paleo Interview 3: Stephen Brusatte

As all familiar readers should know, I always do interviews through email, and since I lack a webcam, and don't have car to drive everywhere to meet up with people, that seems to be the easiest way. This was the same with Stephen Brusatte. I met Brusatte two years ago at PaleoFest 2010, and I knew we talked quite a bit while we were there; I still remember jokes about him and how many books he's published and them betting how much we would have published by age 30. He has truly done quite a bit of stuff for his young age, so I decided to interview him. Enjoy.

Brusatte in Wyoming.


1. When did you first get interested in dinosaurs?

I became interested in dinosaurs, and paleontology and evolution more broadly, right at about the same time I entered high school, so when I was about 14. I didn't really care about dinosaurs or fossils when I was a young kid, but my youngest brother did. He was going through the classic "dinosaur phase" when I was starting high school, and he asked me to help him out with a school project he was doing on dinosaurs. I wanted to be a good brother so I helped him go through his dinosaur books to gather information, and soon I became hooked! I was thrilled to learn about all of these strange types of dinosaurs that I have never heard of, and the new discoveries that were hitting the news. This was around 1998, so right around the time that the first feathered dinosaurs were discovered and published. Jurassic Park II had recently come out as well, so it was an exciting time to be learning about dinosaurs. I began reading as many websites as I could, and reading technical papers published by scientists. Within a few months I knew I wanted to be a paleontologist!

2. Did anyone in your life (family, teachers, etc) encourage your passion for dinosaurs?

Definitely my brother, and also many of my science teachers. One teacher in particular, my high school geology teacher Joe Jakupcak, was a great mentor. He was the first person to take me out in the field and show me how to collect fossils, and then he taught me how to study and describe them. I did a research project in high school focused on the brachiopods and other invertebrate fossils found near where I grew up in central Illinois. It was a lot of fun and reinforced my goal of becoming a paleontologist, and Mr. Jakupcak was there to help me every step of the way. My entire family was also instrumental as well, not only my brother. My parents were always supportive: they would buy me dinosaur books, take me to the Field Museum and Burpee Museum all of the time, and even let me plan parts of summer vacations when we could visit dinosaur museums and field sites. I couldn't have become a paleontologist without them.

3. Did any paleontologist help encourage your career or inspire you?

Paul Sereno was the most instrumental. I met Paul when I was in high school and began corresponding with him over email. He was really friendly and enthusiastic, and it just stunned me that such a famous scientist would respond to my questions! I decided to go to the University of Chicago to do my undergraduate degree and I began working in his lab soon after I started there. I eventually began working on research projects with Paul (we described three new species of carnivorous dinosaur from the Cretaceous of Africa, and I also assisted Paul in building databases to store taxonomic and phylogenetic data) and he took me to China and the western US to help him dig dinosaurs. I still can't believe how fortunate I was as an undergraduate--Paul was a great mentor and I will always appreciate all of the guidance he gave me. He helped mold me into a (hopefully) good scientist. And I still work with Paul today.

4. What is your favorite memory having to do with paleontology (such as fossil digs, museum visits, etc)?

I've been really fortunate to do fieldwork in a lot of neat places (China, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, England, etc.) and visit museums in North America, Asia, Europe, and South America. I've had a lot of adventures so far, and travel and adventure are some of the best perks of the job. If I had to pick one great memory it would be visiting the famous Cretaceous-Tertiary outcrops near Gubbio, Italy, where Walter Alvarez first discovered the "iridium anomaly" in the clay layer marking the Cretaceous-Paleocene boundary, when the dinosaurs went extinct. We went there on an undergraduate geology field course. In an amazing stroke of luck, Walter Alvarez was in Italy doing research at the time and he joined us in the field! He pointed out where he had first taken samples and explained to us how he first started to understand that an asteroid hit the earth at the end of the Cretaceous. I was hearing all of this directly, right from Dr. Alvarez, and it's a moment I'll never forget.

5. Have you ever named or help name any new dinosaurs?

Yes, I have named some. Paul Sereno and I named Carcharodontosaurus iguidensis, Eocarcharia dinops, and Kryptops palaios, three large theropods from the Cretaceous of Africa, as well as the pygmy tyrannosaur Raptorex. With my current advisor (Mark Norell) I named the tyrannosaur Alioramus altai and the bizarre Romanian dromaeosaurid Balaur bondoc (also with colleagues Zoltan Csiki and Matyas Vremir from Romania). With a big team of scientists from China I named the carcharodontosaurid theropod Shaochilong maortuensis. I've also named some crocodiles, mammals, and other reptiles.

6. Random mandatory question: What is your favorite paleoartist or piece of paleoart?

Well, this is a tough one to answer, because I have no artist talent whatsoever and I've never really tried my hand at paleoart! But, I've long respected people like Doug Henderson, Luis Rey, and Greg Paul, who bring dinosaurs to life through their amazing drawings and paintings. I'm also really blessed to work in New York alongside two excellent artists, Mick Ellison and Jason Brougham, and I worked in Chicago alongside Carol Abraczinskas, who does scientific illustration for Paul Sereno. I think their work really sets the standard for scientific illustration today.

7. What has your research in theropods told you?

We've learned many things, but the most important thing we've done is (gradually) build up a better and more complete family tree (phylogeny) of theropods, which better helps us understand how theropods have changed over their evolutionary history, how large body size evolved, and how the theropod skeleton changed as theropods evolved into birds. Maybe the neatest thing we've learned (not just through my work, but through the work of many theropod workers over the past couple decades) is that the evolution of birds was a gradual affair. Many characteristic features of living birds such as feathers and wishbones did not evolved together, did not evolve along with the origin of flight, and evolved millions of years before birds. These features are present in bona fide, non-flying theropod dinosaurs. That's an amazing story.

8. You've seen to written quite a few books and another one of yours is soon to be published. Can you tell the blog readers a little bit about it?

I really enjoy writing, both for scientific and popular audiences. My primary job is to write scientific papers--descriptions of dinosaurs and other fossils, as well as studies of evolution, aimed for other scientists. But I really love writing books for the public. I've done a few of these--Stately Fossils, Dinosaurs, and Field Guide to Dinosaurs. I wrote Stately Fossils about a decade ago and it was published by a good friend of mine, Lynne Clos, who runs the popular avocational fossil magazine Fossil News. The other two books are big, glossy, colorful coffee-table type books published by a London publisher called Quercus. Dinosaurs is meant for a more general audience, whereas the Field Guide is meant for young kids. Every month or so I get a random email from somebody (usually either a really young kid or their parents) who have read one of the books, and these messages really put a big smile on my face. I love it that I can help, even in a little way, to educate kids about science and nature. I have another book upcoming, called Dinosaur Paleobiology. It will be published by Wiley-Blackwell in April of this year. It is a technical book, meant for an audience of advanced students and fellow researchers. But, I hope it will also be useful for a more general audience of dinosaur fans and amateur fossil collectors. The aim of this book is to explain what we currently know about dinosaur anatomy, biology, and evolution, and the methods we use to gain this knowledge.

9. What would you recommend for anyone interested in dinosaurs or any prehistoric creatures to do?

Always keep learning! The internet is a great resource, and there are so many websites and scientific papers freely available where you can learn anything you'd like about dinosaurs, fossils, and evolution. The best tool of any scientist is a flexible, inquisitive, and enthusiastic mind. And if you want to pursue a career in paleontology, be prepared to be patient! It takes a long time to get all of the necessary degrees (up to a PhD) that you need to get a job as a professor or museum curator. I'm still finishing my PhD, and will hopefully be done within the next year. If you do want to pursue a career in paleontology, it's important to take as many science, math, writing, and art classes as possible. All scientists need to understand the fundamental concepts of major scientific disciplines (chemistry, physics, geology, biology) and at least basic math and statistics. And all scientists need to be able to communicate their research effectively, so writing and art are critical as well. And most of all: just have fun. Work hard, and go wherever your interests take you.

Brusatte with an egg in Barcelona. At least, I hope it's an egg. Oh God, I hope I'm not wrong.

For more info on Brusatte, visit his webpage:

IIf you have any questions for Steve Brusatte, make sure to email him. He's quick to reply and is a pretty friendly guy. Brusatte also writes articles for Prehistoric Times, so make sure to watch out for those too. Thanks for reading.

Images from Brusatte's website and property of Brusatte.