|In-program shot showing the processing of data when making a 3D point cloud and mesh of a|
nodosaurid spike from the Isle of Wight, UK.
It's been a year and a few days since I started my vertebrate palaeontology PhD working on a specimen of Polacanthus from the Wessex Formation of the Wealden Sub-basin on the Isle of Wight. I feel some profound changes have taken place for me as a researcher and as a person; I had read about how all-consuming doing a PhD was but until I was actually doing the research I didn't understand how obsessive I'd become about out the science and about ankylosaurs and thyreophorans. To be able to work on an actual skeleton was a boyhood dream come true, and I'm pleased to say I feel the same wonder now as I did then.
This particular specimen of Polacanthus had been acquired by the University of Southampton a year or two previously from a private collector and was found on the south-west coast of the island in the mid 1990s. However, the fossil had had a turbulent past as various elements of specimen were collected by different collectors, and there was some dispute over ownership of the bones. In the end, the two sides couldn't reach agreement and the skeletal elements were never reunited.
In addition to the my original project plan it was decided a comprehensive description was necessary before taking a look at the biomechanics. The first task was to assess how much of the specimen there is and what condition it was in, a task complicated by the fact the specimen is split between three institutions. The majority now resided at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton, the location of the Ocean and Earth Science department and home of the Soton VP group. Other parts of the skeleton are in the collections at Dinosaur Isle Museum at Sandown on the island itself and a water-worn ankylosaurid brain case thought to be associated with the specimen but recovered from the foreshore had ended up in the collections at The Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge.
On top of this, the skeleton is various states of preparation. As mentioned, the brain case was water-worn and had been sectioned along the sagittal plane to reveal the interior. The DI elements have been fully prepped and are in excellent condition. The Soton elements are in need of preparation and although some bones have been glued back together there is a fair amount or re-positioning and cleaning of matrix still to be done. On top of this the ilium is in several chunks and the sacral shield is in many small pieces, most around 1cm square and resembles a couple of boxes of roman tesserae; there is a considerable and laborious task ahead for someone . . .
I decided my first job was to record the bones as they were and I set out to record the whole skeleton in 3D using photogrammetry. This entailed taking multiple images of each bone on a turntable in increments of 10 or 20 degrees. The results were then processed in Agisoft Photoscan standard edition and 3D point clouds and meshes generated which meant I could begin to reconstruct the skeleton on the computer. It also meant that I could carry around detailed 3D models of all the bones both singly and reassembled on my iPad; I literally carry a dinosaur in my bag!
Next I visited a couple of collections to look at other Polacanthus specimens, most importantly the holotype at the NHM and the elements of the Soton specimen held at Dinosaur Isle. I recorded some of these bones using photogrammetry for comparison purposes, but most importantly I recorded the elements of the Soton specimen at Dinosaur Isle and this means the skeleton will be complete again, albeit in virtual space.
I have also been building a relationships with collectors on the island and beyond, although as many of these are friends already that hasn't been particularly difficult. We rely on the local collectors to bring significant finds to our attention and I love working with these people as they often have unparalleled knowledge of the stratigraphy and fossil assemblage of the outcrops that they patrol on a daily basis. I recently picked up a couple of specimens that I am currently working on that have been donated for study, and I hope to publish on these as soon as possible.
|3D meshes of prints from the Hanover Point trackway, Isle of Wight, UK (Pond et al 2014)|
I attended the SVP in Berlin (with the most fantastic field trip ever) where I presented a poster on dinosaur tracks of the Isle of Wight and co-authored another along with Brent Breithaupt and lead author Neffra Matthews. The same team plus Martin Lockley and Jeremy Lockwood had co-authored my first paper as a first author Tracking Dinosaurs on the Isle of Wight: A review of tracks, sites and current research which was published in a special edition of the Biological Journal of the Linnean Sociey that was based on the Celebrating Dinosaur Isle: Jehol-Wealden meeting we had hosted at NOCS a year previously and I was also co-author on another two papers in that edition. A dinosaur trackers group is going to be established to enable collaboration between ichnologists worldwide and start some serious comparisons of ichnofacies of the early Cretaceous around the planet.
By the time my PhD panel meeting came around in December I was well into gathering data and beginning the virtual reconstruction of the skeleton. The meeting went better than I had hoped and I am aiming to upgrade in the early summer, which means I am proceeding faster than I originally envisaged and is great news. It was decided to refocus my PhD on the evolution and development of Polacanthus as the ongoing description and reconstruction revealed more about the specimen and this warranted investigation. This means a move away from the more comprehensive biomechanics work I originally intended to do, but that may we'll feature towards the concluding stages of the degree. It was also decided that I would do my PhD by publication, a decision I am very happy with as it means the research will get out there. Whilst this is going on another MRes student is looking at the histology of the specimen so this particular dinosaur is getting some serious attention at last.
|3D mesh of the ulna of a juvenile nodosaur held in the collections at Dinosaur Isle, Sandown, Isle of Wight, UK.|
There are other issues of course, not least of which is money. It's not easy to discuss this subject without sounding like a whiner, but here goes. Being self-funded means I cannot afford to travel as much as I would like to, and I have to work on basic or old versions of software that a grant might otherwise pay for. Being a couple of hundred miles from the university has it's problems too, and although I am in constant contact with my supervisor via the phone and Skype it can feel a bit isolated. Luckily the Soton VP group are a superb bunch of people and I keep in contact over social media and via email. I get down to NOCS as often as possible but lack of funds imposes constraints, and that's a a fact of life. I'll be looking onto the various grants available in order to fund software purchases and travel.
One of the major concerns at from the outset was how being a researcher would fit with work. Being self-employed it was a no-brainer that work had to come first and research would have to fit around it. In practice this has worked well so far, and the flexibility I built into my PhD means I can work as usual and still get time to pursue my degree. Also the two activities feed back into each other, for example I'm able to understand the science that's being communicated in much of my work and find it easier to understand context and some of the technical aspects of my end clients research. Of course the creation of 3D graphics and models in my day job has proved invaluable in my research, and I'm still building this skill set even after 28ish years of working in the industry.
|What we have to suffer for our science. Me having a terrible time on the SVP field trip to German lagerstätten last year.|
Finally, I am really enjoying doing my PhD. It's proved to be quite challenging (I don't have an academic background), often a little daunting but never less than utterly fascinating and very rewarding and as I mentioned at the beginning it's become a real obsession. I've received excellent support from my supervisors, fellow students and RA's at Soton, friends at home and on the island as well as my family, especially my wife and parents.
This year sees the SVPCA being held in Southampton so I hope to see you there. The logo (designed and drawn by yours truly) features Polacanthus of course!
Now for more science. Onward to year two!
Pond S, Lockley MG, Lockwood JAF, Breithaupt B, Matthews N. 2014. Tracking dinosaurs on the Isle of Wight: a review of tracks, sites, and current research. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 113: 737–757.