Matthew Bonnan is a vertebrate paleobiologist and an Associate Professor of Biology at Stockton University in New Jersey. His research focuses on the evolution of locomotion in sauropod dinosaurs and more broadly on the evolution of forelimb posture in reptiles, birds, and mammals. His research combines traditional anatomical approaches with computer-aided modeling, and recently XROMM (X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology) to reconstruct the three-dimensional movements of limb bones in live mammals and reptiles. He lives in Hammonton, New Jersey, with wife and fellow academic Jess Bonnan-White, his two children, Quinn and Max, and several pets.
You are one of my heroes in the field of paleontology. Who did you admire growing up?
Hi, Gary. I’m flattered to be considered someone’s hero – it’s an honor! Have you met me? =) Growing up, I suppose several people who authored books on science and paleontology would vie for that title, including Bob Bakker, Greg Paul, and Carl Sagan. Honestly, though, it was Dougal Dixon who would prove to be the most inspiring because he responded to a type-written letter I sent him. I was thirteen and had read his book, Time Exposure. In that book, he made the argument that Tyrannosaurus rex was probably not fast and likely a scavenger. This did not sit well with me, and I wrote him, marshalling what data I could from the books in my bedroom, to explain why he was wrong. He not only responded, but was kind and encouraging even though he disagreed with some of my “theories.” It taught me a valuable lesson – in science, we can disagree without having to be disagreeable.
At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?
I was five when I decided to be a paleontologist, but I don’t actually know why I decided that – I didn’t really have an “aha” moment like some people describe. Instead, I just got to really liking dinosaurs and reptiles in general, and that was how it went. Also, my fascination for dinosaurs waned like it does for many kids. Truth be told, I was also very fascinated by sound effects in movies and how soundtracks are edited. As a little kid, I would buy the records (I know, right, vinyl before it was cool!) of movies like Star Wars and listen to the music passages over and over until they were part of my DNA. Then if I saw the movie again, I would mentally note how they changed the music to fit a scene, and would try to replicate that on my cassette player at home. In college, I even did a stint as a DJ and got to edit and remix music for a show. I still do that as a hobby, so music production and editing might have won out.
But in middle school, out of boredom, I picked up a book on a bookshelf that Barrie Jaeger, a friend of my mother’s, had given me when I was five. It was John C. McLoughlin’s book, Archosauria: A New Look at the Old Dinosaur, and I was now old enough to read and understand it. And it blew my little mind. Here were dinosaurs that could be covered with feathers, or warm-blooded! His descriptions of herds of sauropods being following theropods was just so arresting to my middle-school mind, and I realized dinosaurs were actually pretty cool. It was around this same time that the books by Bakker and Paul were published, and I read those cover to cover, and was insanely jealous of the artwork. So, by the time I entered high school, it was pretty clear I was going to be a paleontologist for real … at least in my mind.
What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?
My favorite dinosaur growing up was Apatosaurus, although I did like Deinonychus and Velociraptor before they were cool. =) Something about sauropods was always fascinating – the size, the long necks, the image of these giants migrating across the landscape. My favorite dinosaur now is Aardonyx – I did help discover and name it, so there is some bias there.
Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?
Paleontology is interdisciplinary, so you have to be flexible and open to different experiences. I think it’s important to identify your strengths and weaknesses and your likes and dislikes, and that’s why volunteering and internships are so important. You will never understand any science until you do it, so any experiences are valuable. For example, I think we give young people a skewed idea of what modern paleontology is about. There’s this an unspoken assumption that all of us are great in the field and spend every summer digging out new specimens. Some of us certainly are, but I am not among those who do. I found that anatomy and functional morphology (how the shape of the skeleton informs us about how it works) were my strengths and where my excitement in research lies. I have had the privilege of going to the field many times, but my strength is not in geology and field work. The discovery of Aardonyx, for example, was a team effort, and my role was assessing the anatomy and functional morphology of the dinosaur. But other members of the team helped us figure out when in time it was and the geological context – Johann Neveling, for example, is an outstanding field geologist, and were it not for his expertise we might not have any good idea about when and under what circumstances Aardonyxcame to be buried. Adam Yates is an outstanding taxonomist, and so he was able to establish the species based on his expertise. And we were blessed to work with AnusuyaChinsamy-Turan who did the bone histology work which showed us Aardonyx was young and still growing. I guess what I’m getting at is that modern paleontology is diverse and requires integrated teamwork. Ideally, you all bring your joy and expertise to a problem or project, and the end result is bigger and better than the sum of its parts.
I suppose my strongest advice is go where the opportunities are and study the things that fewer people are looking at. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself too early and be flexible. There are so many things to study, and a great strategy is to study the organisms that fewer people are interested in at that time. In this way, you become a rare expert on a group of organisms or a part of their anatomy that few other people are, and that opens doors because it makes you a more valuable collaborator. As I found for myself, almost any organism or anatomy or evolutionary history is bound to have mysteries and questions to solve.
Going to college these days and then on to grad school has become a daunting task. Many people are unaware of how long it takes to make it to the finish line. The rewards are great, but what would you say to someone pursuing professional studies after college?
To me, the most difficult part of going to graduate school was watching my peer group get jobs, settle down, have families, and all of that other life stuff. I think it can be emotionally trying even if you are steadfast in your pursuit of research and you are doing something you love. You’re spending most of your 20s and in some cases part of your 30s earning very little, living paycheck to paycheck, and playing a game of calculated risk. After a while, it feels like your family and friends are looking at you like, “what are you doing with their life?” Sometimes people tell you something like that to your face.
I wrote a recent blog post on this topic, so to reiterate that a bit, I would say there is no one path to success. In the sciences, there can be this unspoken (or spoken) assumption that success is defined narrowly by landing a research job in a big lab with lots of graduate students. But there are many opportunities for those who can combine teaching and research. And you often end up working in teams these days, so many of us partner with different people in different labs or field stations, collaborating to use all sorts of equipment and supplies that would not be available to any one individual.
The good news is, once you manage to land a professorship, you often find that you will catch up with and in some cases surpass your peer group in terms of the life stuff. But there is no doubt going to graduate school is a difficult choice and a commitment. This is why you have to love what you do to get you through the difficult and financially poorer times. And to come full circle back to being flexible, don’t limit yourself in terms of what jobs you will or won’t take. Certainly, know your value and be true to yourself, but if you only wait for a particular type of position, you are often severely limiting your job prospects.
What was or is your favorite research project? What are some of your current projects?
I suspect I am like a lot of scientists I know in that the current project tends to be the favorite project because that is where your mental energies and excitement are directed. To be fair, the discovery and description of Aardonyx was a highlight I will forever treasure. But since graduate school I have had nagging questions about forelimb posture in dinosaurs that were just not getting answered to my satisfaction using shape analysis and anatomical study. I felt I had sort of reached the end of what I could learn with morphometrics and comparative anatomy about four or five years ago, and wanted to do something I had always dreamed of doing since graduate school: x-ray movies of live reptiles and birds to see how their bones moved when they were alive.
I am grateful to Beth Brainerd, Stephen Gatesy, David Baier, Peter Falkingham, and the XROMM practitioners at Brown University for providing an unbelievable opportunity to learn their technique. For those who don’t know, XROMM allows you to reconstruct three-dimensional moving X-rays of live animal skeletons! One of the lessons that has slowly but surely sunk into my head is that when doing science, especially something new to you, start simple and get complex over time. Ideally, doing X-ray movies of alligators would have been fantastic, but the logistics of doing that right off the bat would have been daunting and dangerous. But then it occurred to me that forelimb posture in early mammals is debated (it seems early mammals had a less-than-erect forelimb posture), and so far as I could tell there were few studies on live bone movements (in vivo kinematics) on rat forelimbs. So what I’ve been up to the past three years has been learning XROMM and filming and analyzing rat forelimb skeleton movements. And it’s been fascinating. And I can’t say too much more because we’ve got a paper on this very thing that will come out sometime later this year, so you can all find out then.
I was fortunate in the meantime to receive internal support and support from various New Jersey funding streams to begin assembling my own XROMM lab at Stockton! Our lab director, Justine Ciraolo, is just the best and has been so supportive in getting our lab setup. It helps as well to work with an amazingly friendly and helpful animal caretaker, John Rokita. I also have this fantastic physics colleague, Jason Shulman, who has been a great collaborator – there’s a lot of physics involved with any analysis of movement! We (my undergraduate students and I) currently have bearded dragons and monitor lizards, and we’re training those to run on a treadmill – that’s so they stay in front of cameras and X-ray equipment long enough to capture their step cycles. Yes, I know, lizards are not archosaurs and they’re not anywhere close to the size of sauropods, but they are in the size range of many of the early ancestors of dinosaurs and the earliest archosaurs had a non-erect forelimb posture. So we’ll see what we find. Bone form and function go together, and my hope is that once we learn more about how the bones of the forelimb move in living reptiles, we can compare the shapes to fossil reptiles and start putting some brackets on what was and was not possible in terms of movement. It’s all very exciting for me!
Jurassic Park was the movie I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?
Honestly, it was the Star Wars trilogy and the Indiana Jones movies that were my favorites growing up, and Jaws was in there too. I was a bit too old for Jurassic Park to fuel my passion, but I do remember being blown away by what were then amazing special effects. But I was also interning for Jim Kirkland, Dinamation International Society, and the Museum of Western Colorado that summer (1993), and so I was already being skeptical about what was projected on the screen.
I remember meeting my first professional paleontologist. Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck?
I was in 6th or 7th grade when I met my first paleontologists at the Field Museum in Chicago – I grew up in Roselle, Illinois, which is in the Northwest suburbs around Chicago. I remember my mom took to me to a special kid and adult event on dinosaurs at the Field Museum and there was a lecture on dinosaurs by Bill Simpson and some other paleontologists at the museum. I nervously raised my hand and asked a question about coelurosaurs being related to birds (this was ~1986) and I was relieved that my question was answered professionally and seriously! I think none of us realize the effect we have on others and how what seem simple gestures at one time can have profound and lasting impacts on someone’s life.
Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?
I think dinosaurs stir the wonder and mystery that enthralls all of us. A dinosaur skeleton confronts you with the realization that on this same planet were different times and pasts that were alien but also very, very real. It’s that vertigo sense of deep time – that things have not been static but have and continue to change. Dinosaurs put things in perspective – there is no such thing as a typical time on Earth. I know many paleontologists grow weary of answering questions about the death of the dinosaurs (well, the non-avian dinosaurs), but I think that does play a role in their popularity. Here you had these amazingly diverse and successful animals and then in a geological blink they were gone, perhaps under fairly catastrophic circumstances. If non-avian dinosaurs could go extinct, what about us? It’s fairly deep and heady stuff.
As a kid in the 1980s, I “knew” that birds had to be dinosaurs from reading books like Bakker’s Dinosaur Heresies, and so I think what has been mind-blowing to see is how much the acceptance of birds as dinosaurs has changed. When I was a Kindergartener in the 1970s, everyone “knew” the dinosaurs were gone for good. Now, we see them all around us – you can reach out and touch a live dinosaur! But I think it also shows us that dinosaurs were animals, and to truly understand them, we have to understand, preserve, and respect their living relatives and the great diversity of creatures that we co-inhabit the planet with.
What is your favorite time period?
Well, that’s a hard one. Not too long ago I would have told you the Jurassic period because that is when sauropods first became huge. But the Triassic is really pulling my heartstrings lately –that’s when the forelimbs of dinosaurs and mammals began a transition from a less to a more erect posture, and I want to know more about that. The Cretaceous gets all the press, and for many good reasons, but I have come to value the beginnings of the Mesozoic to be equally intriguing because that is foundation upon which the great Cretaceous diversity was built upon.
Question 11: Where can folks go to learn more about your research?
I have a blog called The Evolving Paleontologist: http://matthewbonnan.wordpress.com/
You can also follow me on twitter: @MattBonnan
What’s your favorite drink?
Bourbon and coke.
Gary: Thank you!