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Disease in the Early Cretaceous-A Comparitive Study of Iguanodon and Hadrosaur Paleopathology

Disease in the Early Cretaceous-A Comparitive Study of Iguanodon and Hadrosaur Paleopathology


Outline, including interdisciplinary dimension

Palaeopathology, the study of disease and injury in fossilised material, is a burgeoning field within dinosaur palaeontology. Palaeopathological features may provide unique insights concerning the behaviour of dinosaurs and the physical stresses that they faced. Healed fractures and bite marks in theropod dinosaur fossils have been cited as evidence of intraspecific combat, for example, whereas developmental conditions such as spondylosis deformans and neoplastic tumours have also been noted. Furthermore, wear marks on dinosaur bones and teeth have helped shed light on long standing behavioural queries, such as the viability of head butting between male Pachycephalosaurus, during times of sexual competition.

This project proposes a comprehensive examination of the palaeopathological lesions apparent in the Early Cretaceous herbivorous dinosaur Iguanodon, based primarily on the >38 specimens discovered at the Bernissart bone bed in Belgium, and currently held at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels. Using established palaeopathological techniques the project hopes to improve understanding of the physiology and behaviour of these animals. Of particular interest would be the examination of the specimens for puncture wounds potentially created by the large thumb spike of another iguanodon; the use of this feature has remained unclear since its initial discovery in the late 19th century, and intraspecific combat has been well supported in a host of other dinosaurs. Comparisons of injuries and diseases in Iguanodon, to those of the closely related Asian hadrosaurs, would provide an unrivalled opportunity to compare the different behavioural and physiological stresses experienced by two animals of similar morphology, but living in different environments.

A key result of the project would be the establishment of a standardised method for the examination and recording of pathological lesions in dinosaur remains that will form a baseline and help establish the study of health and disease as a mainstream aspect of dinosaur palaeontology.        

Key words/descriptors

palaeopathology, palaeontology, dinosaurs, bernissart

First supervisor

Dr Eileen Murphy - School of Natural and Built Environment

Secondary supervisor from a complementary discipline

Dr Alastair Ruffell - School of Natural and Built Environment

External supervisor - Pascal Godefroit (Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Brussels)

Supervisors’ track record of PhD completions, plus excellence and international standing in the project area

Dr Eileen Murphy has been the primary supervisor for 5 and secondary supervisor for 3 successfully completed PhD projects since 2005. She is currently supervising 4 PhD students, 3 of whom are due to submit within the next 6 months. She is a specialist in human and animal palaeopathology and has published widely on osteological collections from Ireland and Russia and has active collaborations in the field with colleagues in France, Russia, Ukraine, the Philippines and the USA. She is an invited external expert on the 'Reopening of the Bernissart Iguanodon Crime Scene' project, funded through the BRAIN-Be scheme of the Belgian Science Policy Office.

Dr Alastair Ruffell has successfully supervised 14 PhD students since 1996. He has been an External Examiner at 11 universities, including Mons (Johann Yans) on the Cretaceous infills, including Bernissart. He has undertaken collaborative Cretaceous work with colleagues in Russia, Argentina, Canada, France, Belgium and Germany.

Dr Pascal Godefroit has supervised 8 PhD projects since 2004. He is a vertebrate palaeontologist who has been studying fossil marine reptiles and dinosaurs for 25 years. Since 2013, he is the Head of the Directorate 'Earth and History of Life' of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences and, since 2015, a member of the Royal Academy of Sciences in Belgium. From 2008 until 2013, he was guest professor at the Jilin University (Changchun, China). He is a recognised specialist in iguanodontids and hadrosaurid dinosaurs and has conducted fieldwork in Europe, but also in Mongolia, South Korea, Russia and China. He has published more than 130 papers in peer-reviewed journals, including Nature and Science. He is the leader of the BRAIN-Be project entitled 'On the Reopening of the Bernissart Iguanodon Crime Scene'.

Intersectoral exposure and/or international mobility

(e.g. secondments to/collaboration with partner organizations)

The student will have a background in palaeontology but will gain expertise in palaeopathology, an approach which is more typically applied to archaeological humans and animals. He or she will spend at least 6 months working on dinosaur collections in the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, and also in several Institutions in Russia (Institute of Geology and Nature Management, FEB RAS, Blagoveschensk)and China (Paleontological Museum of Lioning, Shenyang; Jilin University, Changchun), based on the official bilateral  co-operation agreements between the RBINS and those institutions. The internal supervisors also have collaborators in other institutions around the world that can assist with access to further collections of herbivorous dinosaurs.

Describe briefly the international profile of the partner

The Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences is the third largest natural history museum in Europe. Its huge collections house about 37 million specimens, including 6 million fossils.  As a member of the EU Synthesis program, those collections constantly attract many researchers worldwide. For the last three years, RBINS has been involved in about 500 research programmes and the supervision of 216 Master theses and more than 200 PhD theses. RBINS also houses the Bernissart Iguanodons, one of the largest collections of complete dinosaur skeletons worldwide.

The directorate ‘Earth and History of Life’ of the RBINS is a large multidisciplinary research department including archaeologists, geologists, mineralogists and palaeontologists.  It is involved in 132 research projects with external funding, and scientists in the department currently co-supervise 54 Master theses and 24 PhD theses (2013-2014). In 2014, this directorate published 326 papers, including 3 articles in Nature and 2 in Science. Since 1995, the Palaeontology unit has organized palaeontological expeditions in dinosaur localities in Europe and Asia and has therefore direct access to important palaeontological collections, especially in China and Russia. A well-equipped laboratory for the preparation of specimens is available, as are a Scanning Electron Microscope and numerous tools for mineralogical, geochemical, biochemical, and palaeohistological analyses.

Training that will be provided through the research project itself

The student will be provided with training in the identification of palaeopathological lesions and injuries in archaeological osteological collections by Eileen Murphy. Alastair Ruffell will provide training in the geological analysis of dinosaur-bearing successions. He can also provide support in the identification of dinosaur remains by training on specimens and through a field class to southern England. Pascal Godefroit will provide the student with up-to-date information about the Bernissart iguanodon discovery and key developments in palaeontology in China and Russia. The student would have the opportunity to gain training in the recovery of dinosaur remains through participation in expeditions to China and Siberia. This rare combination of palaeopathological and palaeontological skills should enable the student to be highly competitive in gaining research posts on completion of their project.

Examples of additional training in non-research transferable skills

Development of transferable skills is important for the future independent research career prospects of the student. By attending appropriate training courses the student will undergo development in a number of transferable skills - presentation skills by practically engaging in developing presentation material and its dissemination to wider audience, writing skills by supervision and mentoring of the process of writing research papers, communication skills by dissemination at national and international scientific and general public events. The student would be encouraged to attend training courses in a variety of areas, including statistical analysis, small group teaching, public speaking and academic writing.    

Expected dissemination of results: peer-reviewed journals, seminars, workshop and conferences at European/international level

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

The student would be expected to prepare papers for publication in academic journals, including the International Journal of Paleopathology, PLoS ONE, and the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. They would also be expected to attend at least one international conference per annum - these would include the annual conference of the Paleopathology Association and the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. The student would be required to present a lecture in the School of GAP's evening seminar series which encourages PhD students and post-doctoral students to share details about their research projects.

Expected impact activities

(e.g. public talks, visits to schools, open days, QUB impact showcase)

Palaeontology is a highly compelling subject with dinosaurs being studied by P4 primary school children throughout Northern Ireland. As such, there is much potential for the student to deliver presentations to local school groups. Indeed, the School of GAP is currently developing other projects which feed into the NI primary school curriculum and may feature in the School's REF impact statement. The student would also be required to run a session for the School's Young Archaeologists' Club for 8-16 year old children. There is also potential for them to run a session for the Ulster Museum and to give a talk to local geological groups, such as the Belfast Naturalist History Society or the Belfast Geological Society. Significant results from this PhD will be integrated into the permanent Bernissart Iguanodon exhibit of the Dinosaur Gallery at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences.