A new-found dinosaur: discoveries from the Jurassic

Interviewer: Sam Walter (Interviewer, Ideas Lab)
Guest: Dr Richard Butler
Recorded: 18/06/2014
Broadcast: 01/07/2014

Intro VO: Welcome to the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast from the University of Birmingham. In each edition we hear from an expert in a different field, who gives us insider information on key trends, upcoming events, and what they think the near future holds.

Sam: Today we’re with Dr Richard Butler who is a Birmingham Fellow and Vertebra Palaeontologist in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences and Academic Keeper at the Lapworth Museum, here at the University of Birmingham.  Hello Richard. 

Richard: Hello.

Sam: So can you tell us a little bit about what you do at the university?

Richard: So as a Birmingham Fellow I’m primarily research focused, so my research is in the area of vertebra palaeontology.  I’m particularly interested in vertebras around the Permian-Triassic time periods. I’m also involved in a number of other aspects here at the university, so I’m also involved in some undergraduate teaching within Geology, Paleobiology and Environment courses and I have this role within the Lapworth Museum of Geology as Academic Keeper. 

Sam: So you’re particularly interested in the Triassic period, following the Permian-Triassic mass extinction about 248 million years ago.  What’s so interesting about this period to research?

Richard: The Triassic really is an incredibly interesting period in earth history. What’s unique about the Triassic really is that it’s book-ended by two of the largest mass extinctions in the history of life. So right at the start of the Triassic, about 250 million years ago we had the Permo-Triassic mass extinction. This wiped out more than 95% of life on earth and it seems to have been caused by massive global warming resulting from volcanic eruptions in Siberia and then at the end of the Triassic, 50 million years later, 200 million years ago, we have another major mass extinction, the Triassic Jurassic mass extinction. Again, it seems to be the result of massive outpourings of volcanic lava which led to rapid climate change.  So we have this 50 million year period of time which is book-ended by these two mass extinctions. At this time we have all of the continents joined into a single super-continent called Pangaea and we have a hugely exciting time during the evolution of life.  We see lots of evolutionary lineages appear for the first time which go on to be very successful, so we see the first dinosaurs. We also see the first representatives of many modern groups of vertebrates such as amphibians, lizards and so on. Really the most significant events in terms of the vertebrates is the origin and the evolution radiation of dinosaurs. They go on to become the most important group on land among the vertebrates for the next 150 million years or so. They include the largest land animals of all time and they also eventually give rise to birds which are the most species rich group of modern terrestrial vertebrates. So this is an incredibly important evolutionary event and this is really the part of the Triassic that I’m most interested in, understanding this evolutionary radiation of dinosaurs and their close relatives. 

Sam: So what was the long term impact of the extinction?

Richard: The extinction really had the role of kind of resetting ecosystems in some ways.  It wiped out much of the ecosystem that was there previously and some of the evolutionary lineages that survived were then able to radiate and diversify and really become the dominant evolutionary lineages for much of the next 150-200 million years.  One of the groups of animals that really prospered as a result of this extinction is the lineage which led to dinosaurs, so we don’t have any dinosaurs prior to this extinction event. We have some of their ancestors and those ancestors evolve into the earliest dinosaurs, quite soon after this extinction and dinosaurs of course go on to become of the most successful land living vertebrate groups of all time; they’re the dominant vertebrate on land for the next 150 million years, they’re the largest land animals of all time, so they really did well out of this extinction. Perhaps without this extinction we wouldn’t have had the dinosaurs. It cleared space and allowed them to evolve and diversify.  

Sam: What was it about that extinction, do we know, that allowed these dinosaurs to thrive that wasn’t there before the extinction?

Richard: It may be as simple as the fact that before the extinction you had other vertebrate groups that were dominant. The extinction wiped out most of those vertebrate groups and so there was space for new groups to diversify, for new groups to become important. So dinosaurs replaced another group of animals as the dominant vertebrates during the Triassic. 

Sam: So it sounds like a fascinating period to have your research in.  What is it exactly that your research focused on?

Richard: So my research and my research group, we’re particularly interested in this origin and diversification of dinosaurs. We’re working on early dinosaur evolution in a number of different ways. So one of the things we do is we do fieldwork in various parts of the world to collect fossils of early dinosaurs and their relatives, we’re just planning fieldwork to South Africa, we’re going to be looking at rocks there that are about 240 million years old. This is about the time that we see the very earliest dinosaurs. They’ve never been discovered in South Africa from rocks of this age before but we’re hopefully that we’ll find the first ones.  They’re known for rocks of similar age in other parts of Africa such as Tanzania. We also work with colleagues around the world studying fossils of early dinosaurs and early dinosaur relatives that have been previously discovered, so we’re travelling quite regularly to places such as Russia, China, South America. One of my students is from Argentina and we’re collaborating with his colleagues in Argentina. We’re using the data from these fossils to try and build up an evolutionary tree of dinosaurs and their close relatives which allows us to understand more about patterns of evolution.  So how did things such as body size change through this radiation of dinosaurs? How did the diversity of dinosaurs change through time?

Sam: So you’ve recently made a very exciting discovery in Venezuela. 

Richard: Yes, so we’re working together with colleagues from a number of institutions in America, Switzerland and London, on a new dinosaur from Venezuela. It will be the first dinosaur to be described and named from Venezuela; the first from the northern part of South America, and it comes from rocks that are about 200 million years old. They’re from the earliest part of the Jurassic period and it’s very interesting because this is immediately after the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction which may have been very important in the evolution of dinosaurs. So it potentially tells us something about what dinosaur faunas were like immediately after this extinction event. 

Sam: Does it have a name yet?

Richard: At this stage it doesn’t have a name. We’re in the process of doing that, so to give a new species a name you have to publish a formal scientific paper which erects the name for the first time and which describes the diagnostic features of this new species. So we’re currently working on that and we have a paper that’s going through scientific peer review and we’re hopeful that that will be accepted in the next couple of months or so and that the paper will be out before the end of the year, formally naming this new species. But at this stage I can’t tell you what the name’s going to be.

Sam: How big is this dinosaur that you’ve discovered?

Richard: Well you might be quite disappointed to know that it’s quite a small dinosaur. We think of dinosaurs as being giants but the first dinosaurs would have been 1-2 metres in body length, weighing just a few kilograms and most of that length would have been made of tail. So actually although something that’s a metre or two metres long sounds quite big, it actually would have been pretty small. Some of these things were pigeon sized or just a little bit bigger. So this is an animal that’s probably about a metre in length, would have weighed maybe 1-2 kilos, so a couple of bags of sugar at most.

Sam: And do we know yet what made that dinosaur particularly special to survive the extinction or is that still to be discovered?

Richard: Well it comes from a group of dinosaurs called Ornithischians. Ornithischians are plant eating dinosaurs and they include many of the most familiar types of dinosaurs, so the plated stegosaurus, the horned ceratopsian dinosaurs like triceratops. We don’t really have many Ornithischians prior to this extinction event and they seem to have been extremely rare and this is one of the earliest members of this group that we know of and it shows us that Ornithischians actually responded to this extinction event by becoming much more diverse. So they survived and they were able to expand in diversity following this extinction event. It shows us that the extinction had quite a profound impact on dinosaurs. They didn’t actually suffer – they don’t seem to suffer particularly from the extinction, so dinosaurs don’t seem to lose much of their diversity, and actually probably as a result of the extinction of other groups, some dinosaur groups expanded in diversity following this extinction event.

Sam: That’s all really exciting stuff so we look forward to hearing more about the dinosaur in the future, including its name and a bit more about its life. Dr Richard Butler, thank you very much for joining us.

Richard: Thank you very much

Outro VO: This podcast and others in the series are available on the Ideas Lab website: www.ideaslabuk.com. There's also information on the free support Ideas Lab has to offer to TV and radio producers, new media producers and journalists. The interviewer and producer for the Ideas Lab Predictor Podcast was Sam Walter.