Jun 30th 2013 by davehone • 56 Questions • 2112 Points
I am a British palaeontologist specialising in carnivorous dinosaurs and the (non-dinosaurian) flying pterosaurs. I've held palaeo jobs in Germany and China and carried out research all over the world. I'm especially interested in behaviour and ecology. I do a lot of outreach online with blogs and websites.
Not proof but of interest, my other main blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/lost-worlds
Last update: I think I've done all I can over the last 6 hours. We're over 1300 comments and I've produced a good few hundred of them. Thanks for the great questions, contributions and kind words. I'm sorry to those I didn't couldn't get to. I may come back tomorrow or do another one another time, but for now, goodbye.
When you are working on theories regarding behavior, are there specific animal groups alive now that you look to for inspiration?
There are three main things you want to look for / at when doing this, and they can provide different degrees of information and confidence. First off there are ecological analogues - if the animal in question was clearly a large and terrestrail herbivore, then looking at other big ones might be of use (e.g. elephants, rhino, buffalo). Then you can look at functional analogues - those which have a number of key features in common that link to certain behaviours (so big claws, a strong elbow, enlarged shoulders, and interlocking vertebrae are all key to ant-eating animals). Finally you can look at living relatives of the group (if any are still around, or if not, their nearest relatives) to see what they do. In the case of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, that means birds and crocs for living relatives.
Would just like to say this was my dream job as a kid, its so awesome to know there is other people actually living it! Whats it like being in this kind of career as far as personal view and such? How does one try to reason out a long gone dinosaur's behavior?
In terms of the job, the good stuff is that you can often be very independent, (flexible hours, limited set deadlines etc.), and yes, you do get to travel around and see cool things and make scientific discoveries. Intellectually it can be very satisfying. On the downside though, it takesyears and years of training and the job market / competition is insane (so I have a batchelors, masters, PhD, 5 years and a postdoc and several years as a lecturer and I'm still only on a year-to-year contract and have chased jobs around the world.). You do it because you love it, but man it can eat into your money / relationships / time. I've seen tons of brilliant people drop out because they can't meet the demands of the job through kids / money worries / partners etc.
As for the main question, it's tricky, obviously. I've just submitted a paper last week about the issue and how we as palaeontologists might do things a little better, but in short we try and put together evidence from living stuff (see the first answer above), and combine that with things like evidence from footprints, we can mechanically test some ideas (are these teeth strong enough to bite into this possible food etc.) and we can use some basic logic to rule in / out some ideas. Things can be limited, but others can be really well supported with good lines of evidence (e.g. carnivory can be rock solid when you the animal in question not only has sharp teeth and strong jaws, but also the bones of what it ate inside the stomach!).
Need to have a good think, it's a cool question. I'll come back to this later if I remember.
on dinosaur behavior.. which dinosaur do we know the most about?
Actually it's very probably Tuyrannosaurs. In the past it has been over-studied in a sense, but that now means we know more about it than most other dinosaurs and as such we have the most data and analyses to draw upon, and of course that then becomes a cycle of positive reinforcement and we learn ever more about it. There are now hundreds, maybe even thousands of papers on rexy and plenty directly or indirectly on behaviour. It's certainly a prime candidate.
I'm an archaeologist. Does it make you crazy when people ask you if you find mummies? Because it drives me NUTS when every time I tell someone what I do they ask me about dinosaurs.
Yep! I once put out a press release for a paper and one places used the entire thing verbatim except to delete the word palaeontologist and in one case replace it with 'archaeologist' and another with 'anthropologist'. Apparently I didn't know my own job as well as they did.
I also feel sorry for other palaeo people as 'palaeontologist' is synonymous for many with 'dinosaurs'.
What dinosaur is believed to be the most intelligent ever discovered, how intelligent (eg, rat/dog/etc) were they, and what evidence is looked at to figure this out?
Troodon is the one always cited as having the largest brain to body size ratio. Now that is a fair indication of intelligence across species, but obviously is still also limited (some birds are ferociously smart despite not having proportionally huge brains). Putting some kind of modern comparison on that though is pretty much impossible - it's hard enough to realistically compare say some monkeys with dogs and birds, so a dinosaur is basically impossible. If you pinned me down though, I'd guess the smart ones were on a par with many modern mammals (dogs, cats, rats etc.).
Did Tyrannosaurus Rex or any of it's cousins have feathers?
What's up with the organic material they've found in broken dinosaur bones?
Do you think dinosaurs cared for their young, based upon finding around 'nests'?
What kind of 'behaviour' are you able to define so far?
Yes! The basal tyrannosaur Dilong does, and Yutyrannus does (we have fossils with feathers). I think it's increasingly likely rexy himself had feathers: here's an article I wrote on the subject not too long ago (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/lost-worlds/2012/oct/17/dinosaurs-fossils).
Don't know. As mentioned above, there's some supposed cartilage proteins, but it's controversial and I know nothing about it really. Sorry.
At least some did for a while yes. I'm not very convinced for any of the evidence I've seen for extended parental care (i.e. looking after the kids for many months or even years), but I'm sure some guarded nests and hatchlings and may have fed them. After all, pretty much all crocs and all birds do this, so we would expect dinosaurs did too.
It ranges from the very limited (this was a carnivore, it tended to live in plains) to in places quite specific (it ate this species, it was a scavenger, it selpt in this posture). Depends a lot on the group / species in question, the data available and the type of behaviour, but at various times people have tackled (with at least some success) most major areas of behaviour - sleep, mating, raising young, combat, finding food, avoiding being eaten, social behaviour, migration etc.
You mentioned you studied flying pterosaurs. In my mind as a child, I pictured them similar to large birds of prey - swooping from the skies and snatching smaller creatures from the ground. As I got older, I found it less likely they could stealthily approach anything because of their size and possibly due to their anatomy. How do you figure they hunted? And any thoughts on how talented of fliers they were (say compared to a bat versus a modern raptor)? Also, any interesting bits of information you've concluded about their behaviour that are of note?
Three hours in and finally a pterosaur question! :) Well first off like dinosaurs, there was a fair range of size with adults anything from 1 to over 10 m in wingspan, and there were some carnivores, insectivores, some herbivores, some filter feeders and lots of fish feeders. None of them are really built like hawks or raptors and most would have either been going after prey on the ground, or snatching it from the sea (or possibly diving for it). Since their legs are integrated with the wings, they could not have swung the legs round and down to grab things without making flight very hard for themselves (though some bats do it) so may be why they stuck to using their heads as it were.
What are some common misconceptions about dinosaur behavior?
The big one is that Tyrannosaurus was a predator OR a scavenger, when it was both, or the idea that dromaeosaurs (Velociraptor etc.) hunted in packs when there's almost no evidence for this. Some stuff from the 1800s still hangs around too which is a bit odd: hadrosaurs or sauropods lived in water, dinosaurs dragged their tails. There's some annoying tropes in both entertainment and documentaries (Tyrannosaurus fighting Triceratops, every predator stopping to roar before trying to chase prey). I've written a paper on generalise hunting behaviour (which seems to be largely widely accepted) for theropods and how they would preferentially target juvenile animals, but most illustrations / animations etc. of them show major showdowns between a big carnivore and some huge herbivore.
My hunting behaviour one? All my papers are available here: https://sites.google.com/site/davidhonesresearchprofile/home/publications-abstracts
You want 'Hone & Rauhut, 2010'.
What kind of noises did dinosaurs make? Hiss like crocs? Sing like birds? Croon like Elvis?
Probably all of the above, at least potentially. It's hard to say as we can't easily say if many were more bird-like or more croc-like: birds have special throats that help them make noises but nothing shows up in the bones - dinosaurs could have had them and we're unlikely every to know. Certainly though across the whole range of species I'm sure there was a lot of variation in pitch, volume and style.
How agile were large dinosaurs?
I find it hard to imagine even big carnivores being fast and agile but I would guess they had to be?
Not very, but it may not be that critical. They don't need to be agile, just more agile than their prey. And of course if they have some general advantage (like an ambush, hunting in the rain or at night etc.) then even being less agile may not be an issue most of the time.
I have seen no convincing evidence to this effect at all. There is some tentative stuff which suggests they may have hung around together a bit, but that's about it so far. It's very plausible, but the actual evidence for it is currently severely lacking.
If there's one thing you've learned in your work you'd want the public at large to know that we don't know already what would it be?
That a colossal amount of knowledge, analysis, discussion and assessment and testing can go into even very mundane papers and small pieces of work and they should not be dismissed offhand (generally). The pseudo-science / anti-science brigade can be ludicriously frustrating with their assumptions that it's all made up / selective etc., but even those with strong science backgrounds can instantly reject things they don't agree with before taking a look at the underlying evidence which is even more irritating.
Not really very palaeontological, but more generally science-y and something I've picked up from most of my dealings with the public and as an educator.
There has been interest in the pigmentation of dinosaur skin. What inferences would you make about a species behaviour based upon its colouration?
Depends on the colours of course, and what animal it is in. Naturally we'd take bright colours to be indicative of some form of signalling (often sexual, but not necessarily) and dark or contrasting ones to be good for hiding, but there's a big difference to hiding from potential predators or from prey etc. so this stuff can be hard to interpret. Still, if you combine this with other data (say that bright colours were only on frills or other apparently ornamental structures) you can make a stronger case.
Some reptiles today have the ability to change their pigment, like the chameleon. Do you think that there were any dinosaurs, maybe even predatory ones, that may have had these abilities?
Probably not, it does seem limited to lizards (and maybe a few nakes, but I can't think of any offhand) and isn't in crocs or birds, so probably not dinosaurs. Maybe they could flush things a little with blood, but that's about it I suspect.
My 10-year old son is sitting here with me. He has been telling everyone who will listen for over three years now that he plans to major in paleontology. He would like me to ask you what types of activities or opportunities he could try to look for as a young person, especially as he heads into his teens, to try to get a head-start on educational experiences in the paleontology field, beyond simply reading books and waiting for college.
Well there's only so much I can suggest as I've not been through the North American uni system and it's rather different in the UK, plus my background is pretty much pure biology rather than the more traditional biology / geology mix. What I can suggest to him is that he gets the basics in - there's not actually much to be gained from reading tons of dinosaur or fossil mammal books (or even texts and research papers). Sure it helps if you have a general understanding of the history of life on earth and even specific knowledge about some species or bits of research, but I think on average that time would be better spent learning to be good at maths, getting solid grades in the other sciences (physics, chemistry and biology all feed into palaeo) and getting a good handle on critical thinking and writing skills. That'll make the actual palaeo stuff way easier to learn and excel in.
Best of luck!
If human skeletons were discovered by a different species, after human extinction and assuming no images of humans still existed, the structure and appearance of our ears, nose, eyeballs, and hair would be very difficult to determine, thus making any reconstruction a sort of crap-shoot. Besides the feathered dino's, are there any other theories about what they looked like that challenge what most of us believe dino's to look like?
Edit - words
It's not that much of a crap shoot actually as some things are least are really pretty consistent and can be restored with confidence, like the eyes are largely going to fit the orbits of the skull, and external ears are fairlty consistent across higher apes etc. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/lost-worlds/2012/dec/10/dinosaurs-fossils) so would could do a fair bit.
I think in terms of appearances, there could well have been quite a few things like dewlaps, scaly crests and the like that don't match to bones or are consistent so we really can't guess unless we get a great specimen with soft tissues or a restring trace. I'm sure some of them were utterly bizarre and we'd struggle to guess their real appearance from the bones alone.
This may not be the right place to ask this, but imagine a visiting alien species finds human bones on Earth long after we've gone extinct. What would they be able to tell about human society?
Maybe a bit if they have relatives to work with, the other apes would tell them a fair bit. And large brain size does tend to correalte with sociality. Evidence of people living together (either houses/ cities etc.), things like footprints, or even mass mortality events would imply we spent a lot of time together. Depends on quite what evidence you find really.
Can we say that birds are dinosaurs as in http://xkcd.com/1211/?
Oh yes, absolutely, 100% Birds ARE dinosaurs, and therefore what we normally call dinosaurs (as indeed I've done here) are more properly non-avian dinosaurs.
Has there been clear evidence of there being symbiotic relationships between dinosaur species, like the shark and remora?
None I can think of. Would be hard to tell a lot of the time of course, but we may find something like animals repeatedly sharing burrows , or special footprints that always co-occur which would at least suggest it.
Jurassic Park aside, what are your thoughts on Jack Horner trying to recreate a 'dinosaur'? Is there much a palaeontologist like you would gain in studying its behaviour? I mean, it's not really what was around 65 million years ago.
EDIT: Also, what are your thoughts on Jurassic Park (we can pretend the other two didnt happen).
Well I think the idea (like pretty much anything in science) is intellectually interesting - could we really do it and how? And we'd learn a lot from it about genetics and the evolution of birds. From the point of view of palaeontology and dinosaurs though, I can't see it would tell us very much at all, and yeah, it'd have to be interpreted in the light of birds splitting from the dinosaur line 150 million years ago. So I can't see that it would be of any great use and the cost and effort would be extraordinary.
shhhhhhh don't ruin it for the rest of us http://imgur.com/1fU0u
Oh yeah, and on JP. Well it's great fun. But I find I like it less and less with age because it's not (in my opinion) a very good film rather than anything with the dinosaurs (though I think the effects are starting to date too). I prefer Valley of Gwangi.
what are the most common misconceptions about the velociraptor
That is was a) that big and b) hunted in packs. Followed by c) was super-smart, d) super fast and e) had no feathers. Most of this can be laid at the door or JP, but some would have been around anyway or predated it and this merely popularised them.
Can a T-Rex love? All jokes aside, how did you get into paleontology and what are your favorite aspect about your work?
Probably not, though there may have been strong bonds between some species it's true - look at the lifelong partnerships in some birds.
I got into palaeo more or less by chance - I was interested in, and working at, all manner of different things and a palaeo PhD came up first. If I'd been offered one I applied for on fish behaviour, things might have been very different.
It is always VERY cool to realise you have worked something out / learned something / seen something for the first time ever. You literally have come across something no-one in the world has before. It can of course be a tiny epiphany about some aspect of rib shape or whatever, but it's still cool.
Not in the sense of sitting down and doing a formal research paper on bird behaviour (though i would like to), but I do use bird behaviour data and information to inform my work all the time. Some birds carry out behaviours very similar to what we would predict or have for dinosaurs and so use that to inform our ideas.
Are there any groups of creatures from the Mesozoic era that you feel have been under-researched?
Most of them really. That sounds facetious, but you look at the rate of work on dinosaurs (literally multiple papers a day and on average one new species a week) and we really don't even know that much about them yet, and we've poured a lot more into dinosaurs than many other species. Answering that more properly, I have a soft spot for rhynchosaurs and would like to see them get a bit more attention but I'm not sure they are a particularly poor group any more than many others (placodonts, metriorhynchids etc. etc).
What is your view on whether Nanotyrannus is a distinct species from T. rex, or whether the samples found are merely juvenile T. rex specimens? I've seen people almost come to blows over this argument, and I'm rather confused about it. I know there are some differences like number of teeth, and differences in the quadratojugal structure.
I've not looked into it in detail and I've not seen the original skull (though I have seen a decent cast). The key question for me is the state of the sutures in the skull and how sealed they are. In short are all the bones joined together properly, this only happens ahen things get close to adult, so if they are fused, it's not an adult and by extension not Tyrannosaurus, if they are very open then it could have a lot more growth to do and could well be rexy. Certainly it does look an awful lot like what you would expect a half-sized Tyrannosaurs to look like, but that's not awfully convincing as an argument either.
I know this debate is probably still raging, but do you think dinosaurs were warm blooded or cold blooded?
Err... Endothermic or ectothermic if you want to be sassy about it.
Well there's all kinds of everything in there: endothermy, ectothermy, heterothermy, homeothermy and (winderfully) gigantohomeothermy. It's a pain / nightmare trying to sort it out but I think there's no one simple answer - it's hard to imagine a 100 g alvarezsaur in the desert had the same physiology as a 10 ton hadrosaur in the arctic circle or a 50 ton sauropod. Between size, environmental temperature, the difference between ancestral (i.e. the 'cold' reptiles ) and following (i.e. the 'warm' birds) and other odd things (like hibernation-type tactics) and of course coverage of things like feathers, there must have been a fair bit of variation. That said I think, on balance, most dinosaurs had a realtively high and stable temperature most of the time. Quite how they managed that is another issue.
How the hell do you study behavior in dead things?
"Yep, Jim, it appears Nodosauridae live very sedentary lifestyles, this one in some sedimentary rock appears not to have moved for a few million years."
Err see above / below. Not sure where it's gone now, but this came up earlier. Short version, accrue data from lots of streams - tracks, anatomy, brain structure, mechanical testing, logic, comparisons to living animals etc.
What's your favorite dinosaur, and have you discovered any species yourself?
I really like Amargasaurus. It looks dead funky and has a cool neck and odd evolutionary history. I've not discovered any bones that represent a new species yet (well, I found something I think is new, but my colleagues disagree :) but it's still being freed from the rock, so the jury is out) but I have named or helped name a number of dinosaurs: Zhuchengtyrannus, Limusaurus, Xixianykus, Anchiornis, Linheraptor, Shaochilong and the pterosaur Bellubrunnus.
How much creative powers does a Paleontologist advisor have in projects they are tied in with? I assume it depends on the scale of the project... So say, how much room did Horner have for Jurassic Park? He wasn't able to push Dinosaurs to full accuracy, even in the first film. Was it due to lack of trying, or did he really not have enough power on the design and behavior of the dinosaurs?
In terms of media stuff it can be very frustrating. I've only done some limited work, but have several friends who have been very involved in projects and just complain that they are utterly ignored most of the time. That said, some researchers do seem to not care about accuracy and just say "yeah, fine" to whatever goes in front of them. It's annoying on both counts, some people don't give them the right advice and those that do have it ignore or overruled. On one book I kept complaining about the terrible reconstructions and was basically told by the editor to shut us as they couldn't afford the time / cost to make the changes, but if they'd listened in the first place and used a decent artist the problems wouldn't have been there.
Do you have anything in your private collection that youve found you really treasure?
which is your favorite museum?
when you've been out on sites, what is your, 'this will not end well' moment?
I've got a lovely little block of ammonites I found at Lyme Regis (south coast UK) that I'm rather proud of. I've made some decent dinosaur bits but inevitably they're in a museum (where they belong).
My favourite museum for dinosaurs is the Fukui Museum in Japan, with the Carnegie a close second. Having saif that, I've yet to visit a couple of real classics like the Smithosonian and the American museum of Natural History, so there's time for changes.
In the field, oh yeah, the big ones being the time the police tried to arrest us for illegal digging somewhere in Asia (we weren't illegal, but had been reported as such by a local authority for not paying the bribes they wanted), and the time in China the drivers had moved the care from where we left them and not told us. Stuck in the desert short of water and no way of finding the cars, not pleasant.
My daughter (5) is very interested in Dinosaurs and becoming a palaeontologist. Do you have any suggestions on how to foster the interest? What helped you along when you were younger and interested in this path? Thank you so much, what a cool profession!
Not how how to suggest you foster it beyond the usual with kids - let her get on with it and offer support and try and get her to some museums and get her books. The vast majority of kids grow out of dinosaurs, but it can be a great introduction to science in general and how we learn about things and can involve some maths, physics, chemistry and biology.
I think what helped me is pretty much that, my mum always had time to take me to the zoo and the museum and I was always getting books on animals etc., though perhaps at least in part becuase I had few other interests.
Is it possible to really clone an entire dinosaur simply by using DNA from its bones?
Well we don't (to my knowledge, oddly enough I don't deal a lot with genetics) really have the technology / skills to take a DNA strand and go to a live animal, and we don't have any dinosaur DNA at all (some protein has allegedly been fund, but that's very controversial and it's not genetic). Even if we found some, we couldn't do a lot with it.
No, the half-life of DNA is not long enough for us to get any usable DNA from that far back.
Right but it's a half life, so some could survive that long. Just unbelievably unlikely, and if it does, would it be intact, and could be restore the chromosomes correctly and....
So say in a slightly different universe where our ancient ancestors evolved while dinosaurs were still alive and the dominant species on earth, do you think humans would have stood a chance of surviving (assuming lets says we had our basic language, huntings tools/techniques and lived in small societies) or would we have been greatly outmatched and driven to extinction?
I think the earlier hominids might not have made it, but a true, early H. sapiens might have scrounged out a living somewhere, we're so damned adaptable.
How do you handle creationists? Have you ever been confronted by any?
I try to ignore them, or give them short shrift (like say I'm not interested in arguing). I've never been confronted (we don't have such a big problem in the UK) but have had some tetchy comments etc. on blog posts. I take my hat off those who do engage and try to educate them, but in general I don't feel I have time to correct the ignorance of people who mostly are not interested in what I would teach them. I'd rather write some more blog posts or do a school talk and teach and audience who want to (or may / can) learn.
Did bipedal dinosaurs bob their heads as they walked similar to how modern birds do today?
Someone asked me this a while back and I'm sure a biomechanics researcher has done something on this, but I can't remember the answer and I failed to track down the work (assuming it exists and I'm not making it up). As I recall though, I think the answer is likely no for most of them.
Do you have any personal theories about dinosaur behavior that evidence may not be able to fully support at this time but you'd love to see proven in the future?
On the flip side anything you suspect will be proven wrong in the long run about behavior?
Interpret anyway you'd like and thanks for the AMA, this is a good one!
Ohh, great one. Though sadly I can't think of anything right now. I did suggest once that spinosaurs might be super-generalists, able to deal with just about anything and so being a bit of a jack-of-all trades. I did have some tentative evidence for this, but not much and I'd love to know if I was right (or wrong for that matter, the alternative, to my mind, is more odd).
I think the mad leap for everyhting to be super-social, or a brilliant parent or living in packs is exaggerated (it may be right, but the evidence is rather lacking a lot of the time) and needs to be at least reassessed a bit.
At any point, while trying to explain a dinosaurs behaviour to a layman have you ever walked around imitating a dinosaur?
Personally I'm fond of the Velociraptor walk myself.
Yes, repeatedly. :) Doing things like trying to show how a T. rex would stand up with little arms is especially awkward for a human.
My triceratops is constantly trying to mate with my house guests. He's almost full-grown, and his constant humping has become both an annoyance and a hazard. I've tried everything, from obedience training to a spray bottle filled with water, but nothing seems to help. What can I do?
Get some eau de rex.
Slightly more seriously and not entirely off topic, I understand this is a real issue for female owners of male iguanas.
Dinosaurs attained tremendous sizes compared to today's land animals...what allowed them to do that and prevents it from happening to today's animals?
I had a paper out on this just a few months ago (Open access here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0051925) but it seems to be a combination of their reproductive strategy, anatomy and the plants available. Though of course it is complex and given enough evolutionary time, maybe mammals could do the same, or at least get close.
In Jurassic Park, velociraptors are portrayed as being fairly intelligent animals (able to figure out how to open doors, trick its pray, etc.). Were any dinosaurs actually that intelligent, and how can we know anything about the intelligence of dinosaurs?
Already more or less done this with Troodon further up the thread.
Nope, though I get that all the time, even now. Though I do have a PhD student who is not only tall, slim and with short dark hair, bur whose name really is 'Ross'. He has way more problems than I do.
Are Paleontologist's re-evaluating the phylogenetic position of Sciurumimus? While I think it would be neat for full coats of feathers to have sprung as early as Megalosauridae, I can't really imagine it practically and still take the theory with a grain of salt.
I really wish I could have gone to study Paleontology, but Medicine ain't bad. Hearing stories like that of Mike Taylor, Horner, and even George Blasing makes me feel confident that I have a chance even after I finish my current studies though.
I'm not too convinced its a megalosaurid and the fact that the only good specimen is a juvenile doesn't help. It's certainly plausible things that basal had feathers but I want to see something better. I assume people will revise / add to the analysis but I'm not directly aware of any right now.
You can always contribute in some ways - you don't have to find fossils or write papers. There's tons of people acting as volunteers in museums, or who help researchers file and analyse data, etc. Everything helps the fields move forwards.