PeerJ Award Winners: ProgPal 2023

by | Jun 29, 2023 | Award Winner Interviews, Awards, Community, Conferences, Societies, Uncategorized

Progressive Palaeontology (ProgPal) is an annual conference supported by the Palaeontological Association, and is run by postgraduate students, for postgraduate students. Every year, ProgPal aims to provide a supportive space for postgraduate students working in palaeontological research to meet their peers and share their work. In 2023, ProgPal was hosted by the PhD students of the University of Liverpool’s Evolutionary Morphology and Biomechanics group. The quality of attendee presentations was exceptionally high and covered a broad range of topics. Delegates were able to learn about the latest student-driven research on mammalian locomotion, environmental changes throughout deep time, newly discovered fossils, museum conservation efforts, and much more. Continuing the relationship from previous events, ProgPal 2023 joined forces with PeerJ to provide prizes for the best full-length talk, best lightning talk, and best poster. Read on to find out more about this year’s winners!

Matt Dempsey, ProgPal 2023 Organising Committee 

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Jake Atterby PhD Student, University of Birmingham, UK. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

My main research aims are to better understand the anatomy and evolution of stem teleost fishes. Despite teleosts comprising more than half of all living vertebrates, the fossil taxa outside of the living radiation are very poorly understood. This is partially because the anatomy of stem teleosts is poorly known. My work involves scanning fossil fish with powerful X-rays in order to visualise their obscured, internal anatomy to describe them much more thoroughly. This will allow us to hopefully produce a much more stable phylogeny that the stem sorely lacks! Outside of fossil fish, I’m also interested in the perception of palaeontology in video games. I recently published a paper which identifies palaeontological themes in dozens of popular titles and examines their value for science communication and tangential learning.

What first interested you in this field of research?

My first foray into palaeontology was my masters project on early Devonian ostracoderms. Ostracoderms are early fishes with no jaws and external bony armour (they are so cool). From here, I decided that fossil fish are infinitely more interesting than dinosaurs and other fossil groups and wanted to continue working on any and all fossil fish I could get my hands on.

You won the Best Full Talk award at ProgPal 2023, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

I presented my ongoing PhD work, focusing on one particular fish I am interested in called Dorsetichthys bechei. It has a very long and convoluted taxonomic history, and it is very vital in understanding this group. However our understanding of its anatomy is very fragmentary – based on flattened, two-dimensional dermal skeletons and disarticulated braincases. At ProgPal I presented a new, previously undescribed specimen of Dorsetichthys bechei that is preserved in 3D. Scanning it allowed us to visualise its complete dermal skeleton and braincase from one individual for the very first time for this genus. This allowed us to massively clarify its diagnosis and reintroduce it into our phylogeny with more confidence than ever before.

How will you continue to build on this research?

By scanning the braincase, you can also render the endocast. This is where you digitally fill in the hollow space within the braincase to visualise how the brain may have looked in life. The part of the endocast I am most interested in is the inner ear – a trio of canals responsible for hearing and balance in all jawed vertebrates. In other groups, the morphology of the inner ear is closely linked to ecology and behaviour. I will soon be conducing geometric morphometrics on the inner ears of the fish I’ve scanned to see if a similar link can be observed.

 

Megan Jones PhD candidate, University of Manchester, UK. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

I’m a mammal palaeontologist, generally interested in mammal evolution, as well as vertebrate biomechanics and functional anatomy. I’m currently working on a joint PhD with the universities of Manchester and Melbourne, studying the locomotion of giant kangaroos. There is some question as to whether the giant Pleistocene species would have been able to hop, or whether they were too big, and I’m hoping to help answer that question.

What first interested you in this field of research?

I’ve been interested in palaeontology from a young age, and have been very enthused about mammalian megafauna since I first learnt they existed. The interests in biomechanics and anatomy were a later development, when I started to learn more about the skeleton, and the ways that animal skeletal morphology could reflect their mode of life.

You won the Best Poster award at ProgPal 2023, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

Previous attempts to estimate the upper size limits of hopping in kangaroos have mostly focussed on the strength of the ankle extensor tendons, such as the Achilles tendon, predicting the size at which they would risk breaking if the kangaroo attempted to hop. My research tested the assumption that the tendons were the structure in the hindlimb most likely to limit hopping ability, by looking at the bones, muscles, and tendons in turn.

I found that the metatarsals—the hindlimb bones which we expected to be most at risk of breaking—were still robust enough in the giant species that they would have been able to resist the forces involved in hopping. The muscles, likewise, were predicted to have been large enough for hopping to remain plausible. Meanwhile, based on these muscle predictions, the tendons that would have been required to hop would likely have been thicker than the calcaneum (heel bone) could accommodate—meaning that the tendons are indeed the structure most likely to limit hopping abilities in the hindlimbs of giant kangaroos.

What are your next steps?

Next for this particular project, I want to look a little more into the ankle extensor tendons. This project treated them as a single unit, but in reality there are three, only one of which inserts directly on the calcaneum, meaning that hopping could have been more plausible for these giant species than my initial results suggested. In terms of the wider PhD project, I’m hoping to move on to looking at the vertebrae of giant kangaroos. Most of the work done to date on these kangaroos’ hopping abilities has focussed on the limbs, but the spine is also very important to animal locomotion, so I’m interested in seeing what extra information studying the axial skeleton could give us about how these animals moved!

 

Laura Kate Devine PhD candidate, University of Portsmouth, UK. 

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your research interests?

My name is Laura Devine, and I am from Northern Ireland. I completed a BSc in Palaeontology and MRes in Science and Health (Palaeontology) at the University of Portsmouth. I have continued onto a PhD programme at Portsmouth and am currently in the 2nd year of my PhD titled; The experimental effects of wave processes on arthropod taphonomy; implications for Lagerstätten and small carbonaceous fossils (SCFs).

What first interested you in this field of research?

My research interests have varied throughout my academic career. During my BSc I studied Devonian trace fossils from the Old Red Sandstone in Dingle, Ireland and carried out multivariate statistical analyses of Palaeozoic trace fossil assemblages to test ichnofacies models. My research continued along an ichnological route during my MRes where I conducted neoichnological experiments to investigate the traces and trails of extant arthropods. My MRes project is what piqued my interest for experimental work and better understanding the arthropod fossil record and evolutionary history. Therefore, when I saw that, Dr. Nicholas Minter, was advertising a PhD project using experimental methods to investigate arthropod taphonomy I jumped at the chance! As I researched taphonomy in more depth, I was fascinated about the different processes involved in fossilisation, and how individual processes can massively affect how (or if) a fossil gets preserved.

You won the Best Lightning Talk award at ProgPal 2023, can you briefly explain the research you presented?

I have dedicated the last two years to understanding, and carrying out experimental work for my PhD project and I was very excited (and nervous) to be given the opportunity to present, for the first time, my research at the Progressive Palaeontology 2023 conference. My presentation detailed the concept of my project, the key points of interest, the methodology and finally, the results of my experimental work so far. My overarching question was, do different arthropods have varying resistance to wave processes that would affect their preservation? I detailed the experimental methods used to investigate the effects of wave processes of the first arthropod chosen for analysis; the modern marine isopod, Ligia oceanica (common sea slater). This taxon was chosen as a modern analogue for trilobites and other segmented, multipodus arthropods. My laboratory work involves conducting repeated measures taphonomic experiments using a wave-generating flume tank to investigate the effects of both the exposure to waves (wave exposure versus static decay) and time (0 to 96 hours) on decay and disarticulation. Through my results, I identified stages of decay and disarticulation for L. oceanica; and I also performed a non-parametric longitudinal analysis (nparLD) that demonstrated overall statistically significant effects of both wave exposure and time, with post hoc tests identifying specific pairwise differences.

 

Set up of the wave-generating flume tank (Laura Devine)

How will you continue to build on this research?

Future work for my PhD project will involve following a similar methodology for investigating the effects of wave processes on different species and groups of arthropods. As mentioned, L. oceanica, acts as a modern analogue for trilobites and other segmented, multipodus arthropods typically seen within Cambrian aged deposits. Additional prehistoric arthropods we see in the fossil record include notostracans and anostracans (arthropods with and without bivalved carapaces respectively). Furthermore, anostracans are less common in Lagerstätten compared to SCF deposits, and recent findings suggest that fairy shrimp (a form of anostracan) have been found in Cambrian SCF deposits however, no confirmed fairy shrimp specimens have been found in Cambrian Lagerstätten. Therefore, my next two modern analogues will be Triops sp., as a notostracan analogue and Branchinella thailandensis as an anostracan analogue. I aim to identify the different stages of degradation for each arthropod species and carry out the same statistical and post hoc tests to identify and determine the overall significance and specific points of significance of my results. Furthermore, I plan to carry out museum based research at facilities housing specimens from selected Lagerstätten and SCF deposits and carry out a comparative analysis of the fossilised specimens with the stages of degradation identified for each of my analogue arthropods and try to answer the following questions: (i) Do different arthropods have different levels of resistance to disarticulation? (ii) Is there a bias towards certain arthropods being preserved as fully articulated fossils? (iii) Is this bias controlled by the duration of exposure to wave action prior to transport and final burial in the depositional environment? (iv) Is this why we see a skewed diversity in the fossil record and in certain Lagerstätten and SCF deposits?

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