The role of cranial biomechanics and feeding in clade diversification and early dinosaur evolution

Lead Research Organisation: The Natural History Museum
Department Name: Earth Sciences

Abstract

Novel anatomical adaptations and mechanisms for feeding are often postulated as 'key innovations' that spark the diversification of major clades. However, the mechanics of these adaptations are rarely quantitatively or rigorously tested, seriously undermining the validity of these hypotheses. Moreover, the majority of biomechanical analyses are carried out on single exemplar organisms, whereas a comparative phylogenetic context is critical to understanding the impact of feeding on evolutionary history and testing macroevolutionary hypotheses.

Dinosaurs dominated terrestrial ecosystems for >130 million years, exhibiting a tremendous range of body sizes, shapes and ecologies. The earliest dinosaurs and their ancestors were generalists and minor faunal components. Dramatic increases in body size, diversity and abundance occurred during the Late Triassic-Early Jurassic (230-180 million years ago), and various factors have been implicated in dinosaur success. It is thought that the appearance of novel feeding adaptations permitted ecological diversification. However, this engaging 'functional story' has not been tested in a quantitative, hypothesis-driven comparative framework and previous work has focused on derived dinosaur taxa with extreme morphologies (e.g., Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus), ignoring forms close to the base of Dinosauria.

For these reasons, dinosaurs are an ideal model system for integrating data on feeding biomechanics with phylogeny, allowing more rigorous investigation of the relationship between functional diversity and clade dynamics. In this project we aim to comprehensively understand the consequences of functional changes in dinosaur skull biomechanics during the origin and early evolution of dinosaurs, a key moment in life's history. The proposed project is particularly timely given the availability and integration of cutting-edge computational methods for biomechanical analyses and new discoveries of early dinosaurs and their ancestors.

We will integrate principles and methods from palaeontology, biology and engineering to reconstruct skull anatomy and function in 15 early dinosaur and dinosauriform taxa. CT scans and visualization software will be used to create 3D computer models. Information from the original fossils and living crocodilians, birds and lizards will be used to reconstruct head musculature. Using these reconstructions and multi-body dynamics analysis, we will model jaw motions during feeding, estimate bite forces along the tooth row and calculate maximum jaw closing speed. We will integrate results from dynamic models with finite element analysis and geometric morphometrics to test how the skulls respond to feeding-induced loads. In addition, we will run simulations on three living species to ensure model predictions are accurate. Results from these analyses will provide evidence for the jaw function and potential diet of early dinosaurs, and whether they became more specialized in terms of feeding performance during their evolution. Finally, we will compare the appearance of feeding characters to dinosaur diversity patterns to determine what role feeding had in their early evolution and success.

Palaeontologists, anatomists, biomechanists, evolutionary biologists and engineers will benefit from this work, which will set new benchmarks for performing evolutionary biomechanics in living and fossil animals and will establish new UK, European and overseas collaborations. This project will also generate new methodological advances that can be applied to other clades and other functional questions. Finally, the technological and visual aspects of this work and its focus on early dinosaurs will appeal to the general public, offering numerous engagement opportunities and media interest that will contribute to increased public understanding of scientific principles and methods, and will ensure wide dissemination of this work.

Planned Impact

Dinosaurs are tremendously popular with the public; however, attention is usually focused on later species that dominated life on Earth. General audiences are often surprised to learn that early dinosaurs were small, rare and shared their environment with other vertebrate groups. Moreover, people are fascinated by how scientists know how long-extinct animals lived. The primary aim of our impact plan is to educate and engage potential beneficiaries in early dinosaur palaeobiology, evolutionary processes, and new methods for understanding how animals work by showcasing exciting, cutting-edge UK science.

1. Who could potentially benefit from the proposed research?
The main non-academic beneficiaries of this research will be the general public (including children of various ages, adults and amateur scientists), educators, museums, and media organisations.

2. How might the potential beneficiaries benefit?
The general public will benefit from an enhanced understanding of how fossils help us understand evolutionary processes (including our own origins), how environmental changes impacted life in the past (and consider the implications of current environmental changes), and how methods from other disciplines such as mathematics and engineering are important for understanding how animals work. Fossil animals - especially dinosaurs - capture the imagination of the public and serve as a gateway to inspire audiences of all ages to better understand the world around them and the scientific principles underpinning it. Museum collections will benefit from enhanced knowledge and CT scans of their specimens, while museum exhibits and outreach programmes will benefit from new information on early dinosaurs and the evolution of feeding, as well as the project's highly visual results. The UK educational community will be another significant user of the information generated by this research, as it is of direct relevance to core topics in the National Curriculum for Science; specifically, teachers will receive new information for courses on biology and engineering to engage with their students. UK and international media organisations are key stakeholders given high levels of public interest in dinosaurs, natural history and science. Finally, this project will strengthen the UK's competitive advantage and its leading role in palaeobiology and animal biomechanics, result in lasting international partnerships and showcase how science is a multidisciplinary enterprise.

3. What will be done during and after the project to increase the likelihood of the research reaching the identified beneficiaries and maximise the likelihood of the identified benefits being achieved?
The greatest impact of the proposed project will be felt through the Natural History Museum's (NHM) public and educational outreach programmes. The NHM hosts over 5.4 million visitors per year and provides an excellent platform for broadcasting project results. We will contribute new information as well as interactive 3D digital models, videos from computer simulations and life-size physical models to NHM outreach and education programmes that cater to all ages and abilities. We will work closely with museum educators to identify and pursue opportunities for citizen science and volunteer programme tie-ins to the project, and support professional development of museum personnel. Working at the NHM will provide opportunities to present our research at venues across the UK, including regional fossil shows, amateur geological and natural history societies, and in NHM touring exhibitions. Distribution of digital dinosaur skulls and digital dissections of extant taxa through social media and a dedicated project website will extend this research programme's reach even further. Lastly, working closely with the NHM's proactive press office will ensure that project results are disseminated to the widest possible audience - see Pathways to Impact for further details on Point 3.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Findings are being used to explain general STEM principles to broad audiences composed of the general public and schoolchildren. The results of the project are visually appealing and can be interpreted intuitively, enabling links to be made between engineering, physical and biological principles using the familiarity of both dinosaurs and of how we eat as a gateway. We have contributed to a large number of public outreach events at the Natural History Museum, Royal Veterinary College and elsewhere, engaging with a wide variety of audiences, including UK and overseas tourists, though both talks and hands-on displays of specimens, replicas and computer models.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Education,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

 
Title Generation of new CT data sets 
Description Thus far we have collected CT data on a variety of early dinosaur taxa and their close relatives that have not yet been investigated in this way. All of these taxa will feed into the analyses planned downstream. Thus far we have secured new data on the following: Adeopapposaurus, Euparkeria, Hypsilophodon, Lesothosaurus, Heterodontosaurus, Scelidosaurus, Pantydraco, Melanorosaurus, Leyesaurus, Herrerasaurus & Coelophysis. We have also acquired new CT scan data for pigeon and Uromastyx (the latter with information on muscle architecture due to iodine staining). 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact These are the first CT scans available for these taxa, which in addition to providing the raw material for our models will also yield useful comparative data for other studies. These data are embargoed at present but will be shared at the time of publication. The models of the extant taxa will also be useful for teaching purposes. 
 
Description Kimi Chapelle 2020 onwards 
Organisation University of the Witwatersrand
Country South Africa 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Provided CT scan data for material in another South African museum, adding to our comparative sample.
Collaborator Contribution CT scan data for further biomechanical analysis and taxonomic expertise.
Impact Generation of new CT data; publication of results to follow.
Start Year 2019
 
Description Richard Butler (2020 onwards) 
Organisation University of Birmingham
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are providing biomechanical data arising from our work that will be combined with dental microwear data arising from this new grant to provide a broader synthesis of early dinosaur palaeoecology.
Collaborator Contribution Providing complementary data on dinosaur diets as inferred from study of dental microwear.
Impact Thus far still in early data collection phase of the project.
Start Year 2020
 
Description Stephan Lautenschlager 2020 onwards 
Organisation University of Birmingham
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Pooling of research data from different dinosaur groups to create a larger sample for further evolutionary analyses based on biomechanical data.
Collaborator Contribution This partner donated biomechanical data on the small dinosaur Psittacosaurus and discussion on analytical procedures.
Impact Sharing of data; joint work still in preparation.
Start Year 2020
 
Description DAWNDINOS event (10/4/19) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Participation in a publicly open event focused on dinosaurs hosted at the Royal Veterinary College. This evening event ran for four hours and we presented our work using 3D prints of dinosaur skulls and computer models. We engaged with a very diverse set of visitors, including the public, students and media representatives.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description ICVM Symposium (24/07/19) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact We used the project as a basis for organizing a one day symposium as part of the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology (ICVM) in Prague, July 2019. This included a broad selection of international speakers, as well as team members, and was attended by many international conference delegates.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Linnean Society talk (1/5/19) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A talk on the project (45 mins) given to a very mixed audience in a lunchtime slot as an invited part of the Linnean Society events programme.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Nature Live presentation (13/10/19) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Two talks delivered back to back as part of the NHM's scheduled Nature Live series.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Nature Live presentation (16/11/19) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Two back-to-back talks given on the project as part of the NHM's scheduled Nature Live series.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Nature Live presentation (29/06/19) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact One talk (delivered twice) to two audiences on the project as part of the scheduled Nature Live talks at the Natural History Museum.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Nature Live presentation (4/4/19) for A-level students 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact 30 min talk, with questions, on the science underlying the project aimed specifically at an audience of A-level Biology students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Public talk (Nature Live, NHM) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A talk on the use of computer modelling in unravelling dinosaur behaviour attended by a mixed audience of schoolchildren and the general public (around 60 participants), with questions and discussion afterward. Attendees reported positive learning outcomes as a result.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
 
Description Schools event on dinosaur evolution (Aylward Primary School) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact A workshop was arranged at a local school (around two classes of around 50 pupils). Problem solving exercises on dinosaur diet were presented. The pupils engaged actively and showed an increased understanding of STEM principles relating to the testing of hypotheses and weighing of evidence after the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
 
Description Schools event on dinosaur evolution (Ringsfield Primary School) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact A workshop was arranged at a local school (one class of around 35 pupils). Problem solving exercises on reconstructing dinosaur lifestyles were presented, including determining dinosaur diets from tooth and skull shape. The pupils engaged actively and showed an increased understanding of STEM principles relating to the testing of hypotheses and weighing of evidence after the event.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018