Monday, February 1, 2010

LITC Interview: Mark Witton

A feeding frenzy surrounds a fallen azhdarchid pterosaur. By Dr. Mark Witton. Used with permission.

Today's interview subject is Dr. Mark Witton, a research associate with the School of Earth & Environmental Sciences at the University of Portsmouth, currently working on a project which will bring life-size models of various pterosaurs to London. He is also one of the main contributors to the brand new, the first comprehensive website dedicated exclusively to pterosaurs.

Witton has become well known in the paleo-blogosphere for his striking illustrations of extinct critters, primarily pterosaurs. His are some of my very favorite reproductions of ancient life - images that reflect a strong personal style and depict animals interacting with their surroundings in unique, yet plausible ways. A new image popping up on his flickr stream is always a welcome shot of joy in an otherwise gray and suffocating day.

Right then. Witton provided thoughtful, generous answers to my questions. I should have expected such candor - his illustrations are always accompanied by colorful descriptions of the ideas they depict, often pulling in anecdotes from his personal life and references to pop culture. They're as fun to read as the art is to look at. His writings exemplify what I love about the science blogosphere (a world it took me too long to find, honestly), providing a personal dimension the journals simply cannot. One of the things that really excites me about the future of science education is this increased interactivity; I can imagine how thrilling it would have been as a youngster to be able to discuss The Dinosaur Heresies on dinosaur blogs as I read it for the first time.

Anyway. Enough appetizer, let's get to the meat. Most of the images used here are from Witton's aforementioned flickr stream, which warrants a good, thorough perusing by anyone interested in really cool stuff.

Your Time Is Gonna Come
Pterodaustro, a bunch of them. Or is it a gaggle?

Were you the kind of student who would doodle in your school notebooks when you should have been listening?

Sort of, but I was quite snobbish in my approach to doodling. Drawing pictures on file paper or in a school jotter meant that your images would always have lines printed beneath them, and I couldn’t stand that. Instead, at the age of 13 or so I started carrying plain paper around with me, starting with small bits that would fold away to be stuck inside my school blazer pocket and eventually bits of A4 or A3 that I would keep in a folder carried around school for that purpose alone. I still have the folder now, though it’s not looking quite as snazzy as it once did, and it’s still being carted around and doing the same job.

At school I drew at every available opportunity. People thought I was pretty strange as I regularly sat on my own, doodling away. Come to think of it, they’re probably right: most people don’t do that. Still, I didn’t really ‘gel’ that well at school: I wasn’t bullied or anything, but I certainly didn’t really feel like I fit in. On occasion, I would draw through classes too and, yes, the teachers assumed I wasn’t listening. Thing is, I genuinely was: although generally useless at multitasking, I can draw and listen or talk simultaneously. So, while my Year 9 English teacher was talking about Romeo and Juliet I was really, truthfully listening whilst another part of my brain was in a Cretaceous swamp with a Lambeosaurus. There can’t be many people who has memories of Shakespeare forever intertwined with giant hadrosaurs, but there you go.

Your artwork and interest in science certainly appear to go hand in hand, each influencing the other. Were you ever conflicted between going into art or going into science?

When I was growing up there was never any question about it: science reigned without question. My two big interests – drawing and palaeontology – have stuck with me since before I can remember and, at about age nine, the two became so linked that no other career paths – art or otherwise – were considered. With few exceptions, virtually every picture I drew between the ages of 9 and 23 were of some sort of prehistoric beastie and, yes, you’re absolutely right: the drawings fueled my desire to learn more about the animals, and what I learned fueled more ideas for pictures. It self-perpetuated, I suppose, and that momentum carried me, without question, towards my Ph.D. studies and my current job.

About halfway through my doctorate studies, though, other thoughts crept in. I started drawing non-palaeo-based topics: strange scenes of grotesque or anthropomorphised animals, deformed landscapes made of twisted, humanoid shapes, entirely mechanised people doing very human activities… that sort of thing. I really enjoyed it, and still draw similar things now. In fact, if I’m idly sitting in a cafĂ© or pub with my sketchpad, I’m far more likely to draw a headless, overweight and naked man throwing consumables into a bottomless basket or a chain-smoking, boozing lion than I am to draw something palaeontologically related. Hence, it’s taken a while to develop, but the last few years has seen something of a personal conflict between art and science and, while I think I’ve made the right decision to stick with science, I can’t help wonder where I may have ended up if I’d gone down the arty route. I was walking through a workshop in our university art department this week and I reckon I could be quite happy there, frolicking about in a paint-covered smock, listening to weird, abstract tunes and conversing in melodramatic tones. That said, my current job is so heavily based in palaeoart that I have little tand, sad as it is, I miss the research-focused days of my Ph.D. I guess I wouldn’t be able to do just art, then: there needs to be some science in there somewhere, too.

Have you had any experience with the "generation gap" in the paleontology community, between younger folks who are comfortable with the open-source movement and blogging and older folks who came up through the journal-centric world?

I’ve certainly seen a divide in opinion over this, though, in my experience, it’s not strictly a generational divide. Many academics I’ve spoken to about open-source journals recognise their undeniable utility and future role in science, but these opinions aren’t shared by folks that are trying to ensure that their university or museum is recognised as a world-leading research institute. Some open-access journals are not counted towards university research league tables, so the folks worried about the academic brownie points of their establishment would prefer to
see research to be published in classic, recognised journals that will gain kudos with those rating the university. As such, my personal experience of this divide reflects the weight of The System bearing down on specific scientists, and I can understand it to an extent. Institutions need money for research and more money will go to places with good research records. Until things change, the folks snubbing open-access journals people are merely doing their jobs by ensuring their institutions are highly thought of. I’m sure that this divide will close eventually as the big open-access journals are given the recognition they deserve as important scientific organs, though. The increasing number of high-profile papers being published in open-access publications will help this, so I’m optimistic we won’t have to endure it for long.

Similarly, I’ve not seen a generational divide over the opinions on blogging despite the strongly differing opinions of academics over whether data published on personally moderated sites should be recognised in scientific literature. I know some academics that would happily publish data or pictures they’ve seen online, whereas other folks stand resolutely by peer-reviewed literature and will cite little else in their work. Personally, while I think the supplementary data placed on personal websites or blogs to support scientific papers is a good idea, I’m firmly sided with the crowd that says peer-review is essential to the scientific process: it’s the primary agent in maintaining the integrity of scientific literature and we need to stand by it. Don’t get me wrong: some non-reviewed information on the ‘Net is provided by well-informed, reliable individuals that clearly reference their sources and provide accurate information, but plenty of it isn’t.

How do you police which sites can be cited and which ones can’t? The obvious way to keep such dubious facts out of scientific literature is a blanket ban on citing personal opinions expressed on the internet, but of course, this creates a confusing situation area where academics happily cite non-peer reviewed scientific books and articles, but not things they see on the Web. Why cite these but ignore internet postings? There’s no easy answer to these questions, but I think the core of any solution has to ensure that we don’t lose the integrity of scientific publishing. After all, without the vetoing of ideas surrounding scientific publication, there really is no point to having distinct scientific literature at all.

Shine on
Tupuxuara and an unfortunate frog

Many of the animals you draw seem to have "personality" without being overly anthropomorphized. Almost as if it sets aside the strangeness of pterosaurs and emphasizes the way they interacted with their environments, and how their adaptations made sense for the way they lived. Is this a conscious balance you try to strike?

Of course, maybe it's in my head...

Yup. All in your head.

Well, that’s not strictly true. When looking at pterosaur skeletons I find it hard not to imagine the animals moving around with their own characteristics: rightly or wrongly, the stumpy little wings but massive hindlimbs and head of Dimorphodon make me imagine it like a little yappy
pterosaurian dog, the sort of thing that would squawk at the postman, rip the upholstery off your sofa by climbing all over it and then sit in the mess of fabric, wagging its tail and looking innocently at you when you came in front work. Anuroganthids look like nervous little critters that would have a heart attack when handled but, by the same token, try to stroke a male Pteranodon and he’d tear at your clothes, chase you around the room, snap at your arms and then stab you with his overbite before he got really mad. Giant azhdarchids, by contrast, are the wise old beings of the pterosaur world: at that size, they move relatively slowly compared to other pterosaurs and are unconcerned with the matters of animals scampering around their feet or beneath their enormous wings. They did, after all, have a lot to think about: as virtually the only pterosaurs left at the end Cretaceous, they were trying to figure out how to carry on the pterosaur mantle through the impending KT extinction event. That’s a lot to think about.

Er… where were before we ventured into Mark’s Plastic Fantastic Fantasy Pterosaur Theatre? Ah yes: it’s worth noting that many characteristics of expression are universal across animals - cocking the head to the side and looking closely at an object can suggest inquisitiveness; large, exaggerated movements of the limbs but a rigidly held head and neck can suggest uncoordinated, panicked movement – and these can be applied to pterosaurs as much as anything else. Thing is, they very often aren’t because, nine times out of ten, pterosaurs are drawn lazily flying over oceans or clifftops: that doesn’t leave much room for expression. I make efforts to show that pterosaurs were diverse, existing in a variety of environments and interacting with their surroundings and other animals. Hence, if my pterosaurs do have any personality, it’s probably because I depict them engaging in rarely shown activities that give them more dramatic scope. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that, but it’s very nice of you to comment on it!

What aspects of pterosaur evolution do you think have the most potential to add to our general knowledge of evolution?

Broadly speaking, the pterosaur fossil record is probably too poor to tell us much about evolutionary processes. I mean, there’s Darwinopterus, the pterosaur that shows us that pterodactyloid evolution was a very modular process – and this is, in itself, an important demonstration that evolution can work in this way - but we don’t really know many specifics about its evolution. How quickly did its pterodactyloid features occur? How many genetic modules are represented by different body parts? These sort of questions are very difficult to answer with the patchy pterosaur fossil record. Studies have shown that we really know bugger all about trends in pterosaur evolution: current pterosaur diversity curves correlate precisely with the abundance and richness of pterosaur localities for a given geological level, so our diversity curves are entirely artificial. Our relatively recent discovery of azhdarchoids, a major clade of Cretaceous toothless pterosaurs, is a great example of how little we know about pterosaur evolution. Pterosaurs were first unearthed in the latest 1700s but, prior to the late 1980s we knew of something like three genera that would eventually be termed ‘azhdarchoids’. However, in the last few decades, we’ve amassed more than 20 new genera that can slip into this group. Who knows what other pterosaurs await discovery? There are plenty of scrappy remains that don’t fit neatly into any existing groups, so I’m sure some surprises are still to come. With such an incomplete record, we’re hard pushed to even talk about pterosaur evolution let alone what light they can shed on evolution itself.

Pig on the wing?
A Dimorphodon steals his meal.

What questions about pterosaurs are the most compelling to you right now?

I really, really want to get to grips with basal pterosaur terrestrial locomotion. There’s three reasons for this: 1) since Kevin Padian’s ideas of bipedal pterosaurs were dismissed in the late 1980s, no-one has looked at basal pterosaur terrestrial locomotion despite plenty of research focusing on the terrestrial competence of pterodactyloids; 2)there’s a lot of diversity in basal pterosaur limb bone structure, phalangeal development and pelvic girdle morphology, suggesting they weren’t all moving around the ground in the same way and, 3) there really is no current consensus on how basal pterosaurs stood or walked – all people will tell you is that they were a bit rubbish at walking, and that’s it. I’m sure we can work out a little more than that!

That aside, there are lots of other things I’d like to do. I’d like to follow up my work on pterosaur mass estimation with a more precise method of estimating pterosaur skeletal mass, which can then be used to work out overall body mass. There’s buckets of work to be done on non-flight related aspects of pterosaur functional morphology: analysis of stress distribution across their skulls when biting, suitability of their pterodactyloid anatomy for climbing and so fourth. In addition to the quandary of basal pterosaur locomotion, there’s clearly lots of diversity in locomotory styles across pterodactyloids: there’s good evidence that azhdarchids were columnar limbed ultra-efficient walking machines, but what about the fingerless, limb-disproportioned nyctosaurs? How did they get about? Actually, the more I think about it, the more projects I can think of starting. I’m busy enough as it is: best stop this train of thought here.

Besides the Mesozoic, which era or eras of the Earth's history most interest you?

The Cainozoic (known to Americans as the Cenozoic - ed.) is undeniably interesting because you can really trace the development of modern ecologies and environments across the fossil record. You can watch mammal lineages bed-hop between different ecological niches – different feliformes vying for the hypercarnivory niche, hyena-like dogs, hippo- and horse-like like rhinos, tapir-like elephants, giraffe-like camels, that sort of thing. Cainozoic fossils haven’t had so long to be chewed up by destructive geological processes and this means we have a much greater insight into what was going on and this allows surprising glimpses into even epochs of 20 million years ago. Plus, mammal teeth are very identifiable, hardy and abundant anyway, so we can get a really good idea which groups were around in different places and times. As such, while the familiarity of some fossil mammals means that they may be somewhat less spectacular or intriguing than the more outlandish Mesozoic and Palaeozoic forms that preceded them, the depth of information available about them makes them equally compelling critters to learn about. The Cainozoic is, therefore, a particularly detailed chapter in Earth’s history and it’s hard not to be really sucked into learning about it once you start digging around.


  1. Great interview.
    Mark's comments on the stereotyped portrayal of pterosaurs got the creative ideas flowing instantly.
    The animator in me instantly wanted to make a Dimorphodon and have him yapping around.

  2. "Mark’s Plastic Fantastic Fantasy Pterosaur Theatre" is a great place for a laugh and a trip to the ER. I'd totally go there and buy souvenirs.

    Great interview!


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