3D geometric morphometrics is a measurement tool that allows us to compare the forms – also called “morphologies” – of different living organisms. Comparing different morphologies can lead to a better understanding of how they actually “work” and the study of doing so is termed “functional morphology”. This tool can even be used to study the functional morphology of fossils! However, to do so, you will need A LOT of specimens in the form of 3D models. This is mostly to ensure that every species will be represented within the sample in order to support the statistical robustness of the results. Even if more and more specimens are becoming available online, it is still of great interest to travel to various collections in order to digitize them. This is especially the case when you are a PhD student still building his sample, which was exactly my case.
My PhD aims to study the shape variation between limb bones of pseudosuchians and ornithodirans spanning a range of postures from sprawling to erect and quadrupedal to bipedal. For this purpose, my sample needed more aetosaur (armoured herbivorous pseudosuchians), loricatan (close crocodile-relatives) and early theropod dinosaur bones.
This phylogenetic tree shows the relation between every animals that I was about to digitize with their inferred postures.
In a heartbeat, I was aboard a direct plane from London to Phoenix for a two-week-long road trip through the southern part of the United States. This area is one of the best locations when it comes to studying Triassic archosaurs, and collections there hold a wide array of limb bones ideal for my project. My fossil wish-list took me to the Petrified Forest National Park (PEFO) in Arizona, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History (NMMNH) in Albuquerque and the Museum of Texas Tech University (TTU) in Lubbock.
After I touched down in Phoenix and grabbed the keys of my car, I headed east, towards Holbrook and PEFO. My road trip started with a long drive through endless fields of saguaro cactuses, mountain roads, snowy high-altitude wetland forests and a vast dry desert. To be short, a drive that makes you review your knowledge about superlatives. But in the end, I knew I reached the right location when I saw signs with big painted words like “fossils” and “petrified wood” along colourful sculptures of dinosaurs.
What a start for a first day at work!
The palaeontological collections of Petrified Forest are located in the middle of the National Park.
My contacts there were Dr. Adam Marsh, Cathy Lash and Dr. William G. Parker. This first stop was a perfect opportunity to start filling holes in my sample with beautifully preserved Revueltosaurus (early possible aetosaur), gigantic phytosaurs (crocodile-like early aquatic predators) and the enigmatic herrerasaurid dinosaur Chindesaurus. I also met with one of the Dawndinos collaborators, Dr. Sterling Nesbitt, who was travelling to PEFO too.
My photogrammetry kit was composed from both Dawndinos and Gravibone materials and easy to set up and three days were more than enough to wrap up the acquisition.
I left the windy state of Arizona and headed to New Mexico. After another drive through breathtaking locations, I reached the old town of Albuquerque where the Natural History Museum is located. Nicole Volden welcomed me.
No time to ogle at the Tyrannosaurus vs. Triceratops sculpture; I only had 2.5 days ahead of me to go through the huge collections of NMMNH!
However, even though I had already made the list of specimens that I wanted, I kept stumbling upon better looking ones in every drawers that I opened. I decided to save Dawndinos a few lunch expenses in order to acquire as many fossils as I could!
NMMNH staff needed to top-up on green loan-tickets as I kept taking pictures of all these long-awaited Typothorax specimens. I even found a nicely preserved loricatan femur that will probably become one of the main assets of my sample.
Speaking of loricatans, it was already time to leave for Texas and meet the iconic Postosuchus; a possibly bipedal close cousin to crocodiles.
Every good story need a turning point. This is when things went nasty: eastern New Mexico and western Texas were placed under winter storm watch on the day I was supposed to travel. It was exactly the “being at the wrong place at the wrong time” type of situation.
Driving on ice and snow through the big nothing between Albuquerque and Lubbock took me all day.
Fortunately, I made it safely in the end.
After this unexpected event, I reached the Museum of Texas Tech University. I could not miss it: the building is right next to the Moody Planetarium which mimics the shape of a mesa, an emblematic geologic formation from the West.
Dr. Sankar Chatterjee, Kendra Dean and John-Henry Voss led me through the maze of the TTU collections. It was so exciting to study the holotype of Postosuchus. I could not help but remember my childhood fascination for this animal!
The TTU collection also hold a huge collection of the small, bipedal poposauroid Shuvosaurus; another croc-cousin. Finally, the very last picture (n=15,079) that I took shows the best-preserved specimen of my sample, a colossal Paratypothorax (aetosaur) femur.
A few hours later, and between two storms, I landed back in a rainy London. On my flight back, I realized how glad I am to be part of the generation that still got to travel around the world in order to build the bank of 3D data that will be available online to everyone in the future.
I grew up with a raging interest for dinosaurs and fed upon bone-war stories and pop-culture dusty palaeontologists roaming the badlands. Driving through the huge lands of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas along the historic Route 66 for the sole purpose of chasing archosaur fossils was a dream come true.