Jordan BestwickUniversity of Leicester
Resolving pterosaur dietary ecology using tooth microwear and biomechanics
Dr David Unwin (University of Leicester), Professor Mark Purnell (University of Leicester), Dr Richard Butler (University of Birmingham), Dr Donald Henderson (Royal Tyrell Museum, Canada).
My project will examine the dietary ecology of pterosaurs. This will be achieved by examining wear patterns on teeth in the form of scratches and pits, with patterns below 0.5mm in size defined as microwear. These patterns are formed when animals process food, and from tooth-tooth occlusion. The ‘toughness’ of different food items (fish, insects, plants etc.) produces particular signals for the type(s) of food consumed. This method is part of a larger on-going research programme at Leicester, but has never previously been applied to pterosaurs. Tooth microwear analyses in the last decade have been applied to extinct organisms such as early mammaliaforms and even dinosaurs. However microwear patterns observed from extinct organisms need to be validated using extant analogues. A great deal of care must therefore be taken in deducing and sourcing suitable analogues with known dietary information. Currently postulated pterosaur microwear analogues include piscivorous crocodilians, omnivorous lizards such as skinks and insectivorous bats. Collecting microwear data from pterosaur fossils will involve taking rubber moulds of teeth from museum specimens in the UK (NHM, Oxford etc.), Europe (Berlin, Karlsruhe etc.) and beyond (USA, China etc.) and filling these moulds with resin to create a replica of the tooth. The replica will then be subject to Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) to obtain a 3D image of the tooth, including any microwear present on its surface. There is also scope to validate the microwear results with biomechanics using 3D mathematical slicing of their complete skulls to create a digital model. If the microwear patterns suggest a potential diet for a pterosaur species, the digital models can deduce the force needed to physically process the food item during feeding and whether the skull could handle them. This interdisciplinary approach allows more representative conclusions to be drawn on pterosaur dietary ecology, which can subsequently be applied to numerous other extant and extinct taxa.
What inspires you?
I’ve been interested in the natural world since I was a child, I was always amazed at seeing the largediversity of animals on television documentaries and rushing out to buy encyclopaedias to learn as much about them as I could. Perhaps I was even more enthusiastic about the prehistoric world, especially dinosaurs, because for all the diversity and wonders we see today the animals which are now extinct were even more captivating. Another thing that intrigued me with extinct organisms is that there is so much that we still don’t know about these animals, whether it be their diet, how they lived or even why they went extinct. These uncertainties essentially stimulated my curiosity to know more and more about the natural world which is still with me to this day.
I did an integrated masters degree (MBiol, BSc) in zoology at the University of Leeds. My final year project consisted of investigating how multi-trophic interactions between parasitoid wasps and their moth hosts were affected by temperature fluctuations. This included examining how population dynamics and life-history traits of both species were affected by these fluctuations to hopefully predict what may happen to all multi-trophic interactions in general in the face of impending climate change. Separate from my zoology degree I also undertook a summer project between my third and fourth years (funded by the palaeontological association) in the palaeo department examining the extinct mollusc fauna of Caribbean hydrocarbon seeps. Seeps are deep-sea habitats along continental margins where hydrocarbon and sulphide gases ‘seep’ out from the sea floor. The seeps I examined are believed to be 25-45 million years in age and this gave me good palaeontological preparation for my PhD.
Why did you choose Docotoral Research?
I felt the best way to become a professional palaeontologist was to go via the academic route which naturally involves undertaking a PhD. Palaeontology is a field which was undergone a rapid transformation in the last twenty with respect to not only discovering more new species than ever before, but with the range of cutting-edge techniques used to examine these extinct animals. Therefore I wanted to do a palaeontology PhD which not only looked at interesting taxa but also provided an intriguing and technical way in which to study them. The project I applied to, and subsequently was awarded, at Leicester ticked both boxes for me.
Why did you choose a CENTA Studentship?
The first thing that interested me in the CENTA studentship was the financial security it provided. Undertaking a PhD involves enough work and stress as it is, never mind trying to keep on top of your finances! The studentship means I can focus more on my PhD project and produce a better result. In addition, the provided training days are appealing as scientific research is continually advancing at a faster rate, whether it be the discoveries we make or the new techniques utilised to find them. These training days/courses will help us keep up to date with the skills and knowledge needed to be on the front line of scientific research and also make us more employable for future fellowships and jobs.
What are your future plans
I feel completing a CENTA funded PhD is the best way for me to become a professional palaeontologist. After I complete my PhD, I will be looking into post-doc positions or research fellowships, possibly taking the work I will have done in my PhD further. My long term plan is to secure a full-time research position as a palaeontologist at a leading university.