‘Quick for a palaeontologist is painfully slow on human time scales!’

13 Feb 2019

Prof Mike Benton. Image: University of Bristol/NI Science Festival

Highly accomplished palaeontologist Prof Mike Benton of the University of Bristol gives insight into the life of a ‘dinosaur hunter’.

Prof Mike Benton has worked at the University of Bristol since 1989 where he set up the master’s in palaeobiology in 1996. He writes extensively about dinosaurs and geological time, and has published more than 400 academic papers and 50 books.

His latest book, Dinosaurs Rediscovered, comes out in April 2019. Benton will be hosting an event called ‘Were Dinosaurs a Victim of Climate Change?’ at the 2019 NI Science Festival on Tuesday 19 February.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I’ve wanted to be a palaeontologist since the age of seven when I got my first dinosaur book, so you could say I was a late developer; kids now start at age three or four. I never doubted this was the career for me and that somehow I would find a job where they paid me to study fossils.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

Our current topic is feathers in dinosaurs. We started working with colleagues in China in 2007 and I have gone back to China every year since then, sometimes twice in a year, to do fieldwork, collaborate on research projects and teach short courses.

One of our first projects was to determine colour in fossil feathers and we did this, announcing in 2010 how to do it and showing evidence that the early theropod dinosaur Sinosauropteryx had ginger feathers and ginger and white stripes down its long thin tail, which would have looked something like a barber’s pole. This demonstrated dinosaurs used their feathers not only for insulation, but also for display – ‘Hey, look at me, girls, and my nice stripy tail!’

Our current project is between Prof Baoyu Jiang and his students at Nanjing University and Prof Maria McNamara at University College Cork. We have just published evidence that the flying reptile pterosaurs also had feathers, just like dinosaurs and birds.

The point about this is that it shifts the origin of feathers back from 170m to 250m years ago. Feathers originated long before birds and they mark a time of quickening of life, back in the Triassic, in the aftermath of the biggest mass extinction of all time at the end of the Permian extinction when 95pc of species were killed.

In the sparsely populated new world, the larger land animals all bucked up and evolved to be warm-blooded and fast-moving. Mammal ancestors got hair and bird ancestors got feathers.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

These kinds of studies have a broad popular appeal – after all, it’s pretty smart to be able to tell the colour of dinosaurs. But the importance is more profound than that, in two ways.

One: we are showing that the study of the Earth and life in deep time can be scientific – you don’t just have to speculate. We can reconstruct ancient climates and, now, ancient life in a lot of detail and based on firm, objective reasoning.

Two: we are addressing textbook examples of evolution, such as the origin and huge success of birds, and the major stages in the history of life on land. Our work shows that birds did not spring from a reptile egg fully fledged, so to speak, but they had been acquiring all the special innovative features that make birds so successful over a span of between 80­m and­ 100m years.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Finding time and funding for people. Our work isn’t that expensive – although we use scanning electron microscopes, mass spectrometers and supercomputers – but we really need people to do the fieldwork, collecting and analysis. We commonly CT scan our fossils and often go to the synchrotrons in Switzerland or the US to map the chemical composition of the fossils in minute detail.

How do you engage with the public about your research?

Our work is great for engagement with schools and the public because it’s about time, evolution and climate change. There’s a bunch of topics that can be widely misunderstood, or even deliberately twisted by some, so we are always keen to speak and write about what we do.

Dinosaurs and ancient birds are a great hook, and of course collaborating with colleagues in China is great, too, showing the world is all one, and we are better off to collaborate rather than fight.

But, when you show the amazing fossils and what modern technology and computational methods can read from the fossils, people are amazed, and then some. We also use our public discussions as a way to encourage kids to consider careers in science and technology.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

In my field, there are fundamental questions about how evolution and global change work, and how we can learn from the natural experiments on Earth in the past to predict the future.

Already, palaeontologists and geologists are learning rich lessons about extinction and drivers of evolution from the past. We can study global warming episodes of all kinds of magnitudes; for example, to determine which kinds of species are most at risk, and how life recovers afterwards.

It’s important, though, to remember the way geologists talk about time. We might say ‘recovery after the mass extinction was quick’, by which we mean life recovered in less than 500,000 years. ‘Quick’ for a geologist or palaeontologist is painfully slow on human time scales!

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.