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RE: The (long) future of paleontology
I think we will continue to see increased digitization of fossils, with
increased hype and only moderate benefits. For those who attend SVP and
other meetings, sit down at a talk hyping CT or FEM. Ask yourself "Is
anything gained by digitizing this specimen?" In about half of the cases,
there is absolutely no benefit. I've been to more than a few talks where
people digitize or CT scan a specimen, spin it on the screen, and leave it
at that. A spinning T. rex head is cool, but when all you have is a digital
version of the surface of the actual fossil, you've squandered a lot of the
potential benefits of the technology. In fact, the digital version is often
much less informative than the original (is that bump on the laser scan real
or plaster?). Heck, I'm guilty of this myself, occasionally. ;-) The people
who will rule the world in paleo are those who 1) work with digital data and
2) take it beyond pretty graphics.
That said, let me throw my two cents in, on topics more suited for the lab
than for the field. Of course, this comes with the cynicism of a Ph.D.
candidate working on his dissertation proposal (defending next month, with
any luck!). It also comes with the bias of someone who is doing a
dissertation on the functional morphology of things that aren't even
The big advances in vertebrate paleontology, and particularly dinosaur
paleontology, will be in functional morphology. Phylogenies are nice, and
new taxa are always cool, but it's only a small piece of the puzzle.
To understand dinosaur functional morphology, we need a much better
understanding of how modern things work. As I read more in the literature,
the less I believe that we've got extant animals figured out. Heck, the
"bones optimized for their loads" factoid (i.e., "Wolff's Law") doesn't even
work anymore (which really sucks for trying to interpret dinosaur
structures!). We really have little to no idea of how cranial kinesis, if it
even exists for most taxa, works in modern animals. Heck, we're only just
starting to understand the growth and metabolic strategies of some animals.
Are those pneumatic foramina on skulls and vertebrae even pneumatic
The big advances in paleontological functional morphology will come from
those who a) really investigate and understand and test modern systems; and
b) test how these systems might be applicable to dinosaurs. This may sound
pessimistic to some (and believe me, it'd be much easier to cite one paper
on bone strength in rhinos and apply it directly to dinosaurs), but it's
actually pretty darned exciting! There's a world of non-phylogenetic work
out there! Heck, you can even publish in non-paleo journals. Let someone
else do the phylogeny--I'll just use it as context for my funky morph work.
Back to the dissertation,