Paleontologist Investigates Ancestors of Crocs and Birds

An in-process excavation of a sauropod dinosaur skeleton in the Rukwa Rift Basin of southwestern Tanzania. The quarry has thus far yielded numerous ribs, vertebrae and limb bones of a new, as yet named, species of sauropod dinosaur. (Image credit: Patrick O'Connor, Ohio University)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Patrick O’Connor is an associate professor of anatomical sciences in the department of biomedical sciences at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine and a member of the Ohio Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Studies. O’Connor was initially trained as a comparative biologist/paleontologist at a medical school. He now works with other paleontologists and geologists in locations such as Tanzania, Madagascar, Zimbabwe and Antarctica. These research teams typically include students from the U.S., for instance in projects such as the Rukwa Rift Basin Project (RRBP), which explores paleontology and geology in poorly sampled areas in southern and western Tanzania. O’Connor’s taxonomic specialty is focused on archosaurs, the group that includes living crocodiles and birds, but also includes extinct members such as nonavian dinosaurs and pterosaurs. His research focuses on both living and extinct members of the group, ranging from Marabou storks and hummingbirds to theropod dinosaurs and the extremely specialized notosuchian crocodyliforms. One of O’Connor’s research areas involves the origin and evolution of birds, in particular how different anatomical systems (e.g., the pulmonary system) in birds and their dinosaurian ancestors have evolved in a step-wise fashion through time, as revealed in his study. In recent years, O’Connor has re-entered the undergraduate world in order to take classes in Ki-Swahili, an important, if not essential, prerequisite for working in East Africa. Recently, O’Connor and his team discovered a bizarre mammal-like notosuchian crocodylifrom from 100-million-year-old sedimentary deposits in Tanzania. This discovery supports a growing consensus that the relatives of crocodiles alive during the age of dinosaurs were much more diverse than their relatives alive today. Check out the NSF Special Report to view a webcast and photos and to learn more about these ancient crocodiles and O’Connor’s research.

Name: Patrick O’ConnorAge: 41Institution: Ohio University Field of Study: Evolutionary Morphology and Paleontology

What inspired you to choose this field of study? I have always been interested in being outside, hiking along trails, and scrambling around on rocks − interests no doubt related to growing up in a small town in the Great Lakes region. At the same time I have always been fascinated with most aspects of biology, and in particular with zoology. When I “discovered” biology and geology during my undergraduate days at Michigan State University, paleontology seemed like a fantastic way of combining these interests. The study of evolutionary morphology provides a venue for exploring aspects of organismal form, function, development and even genetics, in order to better understand the mechanisms that lie at the foundation of the diversity of life that we see around us today. This in turn allows us to consider potential mechanisms by which different groups of now-extinct animals diversified at past times during Earth's history.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? During my second year of graduate school I was approaching a deadline for one of the degree requirements for the Ph.D. program. At the same time I was offered an opportunity to return to Madagascar and collect fossils from one of the most amazing field areas in all of the southern hemisphere. As silly as this may sound in retrospect, I was seriously considering not going into the field so that I could finish my assignment. I have to credit one of my committee members, Scott Sampson, for stating it this way: “…in 30 years you will not even remember doing that assignment, but you will definitely remember the trip to Madagascar.” With that bit of perspective, I rocketed off to Madagascar for the summer, worked with a great team of individuals with whom I still collaborate today, and was able to complete the assignment while in the field. In short, that expedition helped to cement my dissertation topic, and ultimately, the career path that I am on today.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? Home chemistry experiments that combined key ingredients from my grandmother’s kitchen and my grandfather’s basement workshop — really! Inspired no doubt from movies about “mad scientists” my cousins and I would acquire eggs, baking soda, flour, paint, plaster, etcetera, and formulate concoctions in canning jars. Clearly stoichiometry wasn’t of prime importance to us at the time, but I do feel that these experiments may have been an early manifestation of my interests in the sciences, and ultimately led to research assistant stints in different biology and geochemistry laboratories during my training.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? Flexibility or latitude in what I get to think about and do from day to day. In my case, this includes the opportunity to travel and work with people from all over the planet. Whether this is with villagers in remote parts of Madagascar or students and faculty from universities in Tanzania and Egypt, I find that I am continually learning how to better communicate and work with people of many different backgrounds and perspectives. These opportunities are not mine alone. This type of work necessitates a large team-based approach, such that many students from the U.S. have opportunities to visit other parts of the world and conduct field research. In addition to advancing our scientific pursuits, this international work inspires many of our team members to take the opportunity to enroll in language classes in order to better immerse themselves in other cultures during the research projects. A win-win-win situation.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher?A considerable amount of creativity combined with healthy dose of passion. An effective researcher is always thinking on his or her toes, whether it is at the lab bench or in the field setting, and it goes without saying that researchers must absolutely love whatever it is they are investigating!

What are the societal benefits of your research?An understanding of past life and ecosystems is essential for us as we consider the dynamic face of the Earth today. On one level, we develop an appreciation for how climate change is hypothesized to have affected organisms in the past, providing perspectives useful for navigating the complex conservation issues that we will be facing over the next 10, 100 or 1000 years. On another level, the announcement of a new species of extinct animal has proven time and again that it can easily capture the imagination of children and adults alike. Thus, effectively communicating our research serves many purposes, from engaging young minds and potentially tracking students into scientific disciplines, to properly reaching out to the public regarding foundational concepts in biology that have profound educational, funding and policy implications at local, state and national levels.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? I would have to credit a number of contemporary paleontologists who have influenced my thinking and approach for integrating field and laboratory research, including David Krause, Matthew Carrano, Kevin Padian, Zhe-Xi Luo, Farish Jenkins and Bill Clemens. In terms of historical figures, that list would no doubt include Ernst Mayr and G.G. Simpson, among others.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most?That paleontology is so, so, so much more than studying dusty bones of long dead organisms in the museum. The paleontologist of today integrates multiple fields, such as biology, geology, chemistry, physics and mathematics, to address a variety of questions related to past life on Earth. One researcher may use the latest bench techniques in molecular biology to sequence amino acids preserved in a fossil. Another scientist may analyze fossil-entombing sediments using high-precision isotope mass spectrometry. Yet another person may use the latest microCT or synchrotron imaging modalities to characterize the anatomy of fossil skulls or the microstructure of fossil bone. Taken together, these methods constitute cutting edge technology and approaches for conducting science in the 21st century, all of which are being used by paleontologists today.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? One large cabinet of fossils, among which include the holotype specimen of Pakasuchus kapilimai, a small-bodied mammal-like crocodile that our team collected from 100-million-year-old rocks in Tanzania, and a collection of bird and theropod fossils from the Late Cretaceous of Madagascar. I really couldn’t choose among them and so would likely perish in the fire trying to move the entire cabinet.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?I have a playlist that accompanies me via computer, iPod and/or iPhone wherever I happen to be working, whether it is in the lab, the office or the field. This playlist includes what most people might consider an unhealthy dose of U2 and a smattering of the Police, Queen, Foo Fighters, Collective Soul, Coldplay, Sting and absolutely unmentionable 80s rock bands, among a varied collection of music from central and north Africa. This playlist has been featured on field expeditions from Tanzania and Madagascar to Zimbabwe and Antarctica, sometimes to the chagrin of my colleagues.

Editor's Note:This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.