A Long-past-due Introduction to my Research

In about August I began working on my research project for graduation and I realized that I haven’t been sharing the excitement and frustration. A lot has happened since August on my project, but obviously it would be best to introduce the project first.

Three of the students in the graduating class a year ahead of mine did their research projects with the help of University of Chicago Paleontologist Paul Sereno. Now, I’ve been a dinosaur nut ever since I was a kid, so of course I couldn’t let an opportunity to work with a paleontologist pass me by. I’m not working on a dinosaur though. Even though I am still a dinosaur nut, I have somewhat more recently become interested in mammals, thanks to a mammalogy class I took at UVM, so instead I am working on an ancient mammal called a multituberculate.

Multituberculates have no extant (surviving) relatives, so most people don’t know much about them, but they first appeared in the late Jurassic and lasted until the early Oligocene. That makes them the longest surviving group of mammals (even though they aren’t around today)! They were very rodent-like, but had somewhat unusual shoulder girdles that were transitional between “modern” therian mammals and more primitive mammals like monotremes (echinda and platypus). This has, of course, led to a wide range of speculation about how these little guys moved around. The two more popular theories are 1) they had near-parasagittal movement like extant therians (like an opossum) or 2) they moved more sprawl-legged similar to an echidna. It is possible, however, that they could have bounded or been climbers too.

This is where my research project comes in. The purpose of my study is “to illustrate the standing (neutral) posture and create a step cycle animation using 3D animation tools of the extinct mammal, Kryptobaatar dashzevegi, based on bone morphology and comparisons with small extant mammals.” Basically, the objective here is to create an animation of the most likely step (walk) cycle that I can come up with for a mammal that has a shoulder girdle unlike any animal alive today. I should also mention that this will be for the forelimbs only, since the posterior half of the specimen I’m using is gone.

How am I going to go about doing this? There’s actually quite a lot involved, but I’m still planning on having it all done in July (a tall order). First I got CAT scans of the fossil, which is still embedded in matrix, and I had to go though slide by slide trying to figure out what was bone or not to extract 3D models. This part is done. Now I need to go through and clean up the models that were extracted, such as repairing breaks and missing pieces. When I have that done I can start to position the bones in a “neutral” position. This is where the research comes in. I’ve been spending time at the Field Museum’s specimens collection trying to identify small marsupials that have the most similar bone anatomy. Once I identify some good contenders (extant analogs) I start looking into literature about their posture and locomotion. Movies, x-rays, and cineradiographies (x-ray movies) will come in quite handy if I can find them. Then using this research, possibly a Virgina Opossum dissection, and the anatomy of the bones themselves, I’ll create an animation… which will then have to be rendered and edited in post-production.

In short, I have a lot of work cut out for myself and sometimes I’ve wondered if I haven’t bit off more than I can chew, but no matter how stressed out I get, I am doing something that I REALLY enjoy. This is the sort of thing I have always wanted to do with my life! I’ve also discovered some pretty cool things. For example early mammal-like-reptiles or reptile-like-mammals, or whatever the popular term is now, are so completely awesome! Look up cynodonts if you don’t believe me. I think I’ll be doing a cynodont sculpture for myself someday when I have the time (aka, not until after graduation). I’ve also had some pretty cool experiences exploring the specimens collections, but I’ll save all that for another post. There is so much more to talk about, but I’ll leave it at this. Perhaps eventually I’ll post my research proposal for anyone who might be interested in reading  it.

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One thought on “A Long-past-due Introduction to my Research

  1. Pingback: Research Update: rigging and animating | A Biologist's Canvas

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