Talking with… Daniel Cashmore

Interview by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Harry T. Jones

This week, we spoke with brum palaeontologist Doctor Daniel Cashmore and found ourselves talking about his incredible international experiences, his advice for new palaeos, a desk-related prank, and an evil cart.

Hi Dan, thank you for chatting with us today. Could you please let us know a little about yourself?

“I am 28, male, born and bred in the Black Country. Fairly average working-class upbringing I think –but I was a self-confessed nerd from a young age. My holy trinity of interests are sci-fi (Doctor Who mostly), palaeo, and football. Overall though, I would say I’m fairly light hearted, laid back – the sort of person who gets contentment from landing a silly pun rather than actual life achievements. I was an undergraduate at the University of Birmingham from 2010-2014 where I did an MSci in Palaeobiology and Palaeoenvironments, and from 2015-2019 I continued there as a PhD student, assessing the completeness of the dinosaur fossil record. Basically, I can’t escape Birmingham.”

“Me doing the classic ‘palaeo photo’ – associating myself with a cool specimen I had nothing to do with. This is the impressive skull of the Triassic archosauriform Erythrosuchus africanus, housed in the collections at the University of Witwatersrand.”

You say palaeo was one of your holy trinity, so you must’ve decided to pursue it fairly young. When do you think you decided you wanted to be a professional palaeontologist?

“It feels like I’ve always wanted to be one, and I never really gave much thought into trying to be anything else. It’s hard to narrow down exactly why, but my parents always encouraged an interest in cultural and natural things, and I was always interested in dinosaurs and other ancient animals, but programmes like Walking with Dinosaurs almost definitely had a big influence. However, as I’ve gotten older, I think it might have more to do with an escapism of sorts. I really like sci-fi and fantasy and seeing other worldly places and organisms, and I think palaeontology has a lot of those elements. So personally, I think it’s a desire to explore strange old worlds – I can’t do it in a starship, so I’ll have to make do with a quarry in a council estate.”

Your PhD focussed on the completeness of the tetrapod fossil record, what type of research did this involve and what did you find out?

“It involved using specific metrics that were first developed and tested on the sauropodomorph fossil record in a paper from 2010. My work mostly revolved around the skeletal completeness metric, which measures the absolute proportion of the skeleton that is preserved for a species. The data collection was literature-based (desk-bound), so I would score the completeness of each specimen of each species of the particular taxonomic group from literature figures and text. I oddly enjoyed doing this but there are always days when you question your life choices. Once I had all the scores, I would combine them into more inclusive groupings of data, like taxonomic subgroups, geographical regions and time bins. Then I would statistically compare mean completeness scores across the groupings and against other proxies to which completeness might influence and vice versa.
My thesis ended up focussing on dinosaurs, and produced three studies: 1) thorough spatial and temporal assessment of the theropod fossil record; 2) reassessment of the sauropodomorph fossil record after 10 years of new discoveries; and 3) a novel assessment of the diagnostic ‘quality’ of theropod fossil record and how this influences fossil identification.
Essentially, we found few convincing temporal biases but quite strong spatial biases acting upon the theropod fossil record. For example, the vast majority of theropod material comes from the northern mid-latitudes, and most complete specimens come from China and North America. This is potentially a problem if you’re making macroevolutionary conclusions about the global theropod fossil record. For the second study we found that taxonomic and stratigraphic age revisions, rather than newly discovered species, are the drivers of the most significant changes in completeness and diversity patterns through historical research time. The third study hasn’t been published yet so I’ll keep that under-wraps.”

“Links to papers if you’re interested, or want a cure for insomnia”:

You’ve recently finished that extensive part of your life, so what are you up to now?

“Currently, like most people, I think my status is: “getting by”. Even though I have it pretty easy, the pandemic has made things difficult personally and professionally. I remember at the start of this year thinking I would ‘get out there’ and not spend an entire year just sitting at my laptop like I did when writing up my thesis… and it turns out that’s mostly all I’ve done. Absolute classic.
Right now, I am unemployed but hopefully that won’t be the case very soon, but I am still actively doing palaeo research. I would really like to carry on in palaeontology in some form if it’s viable, but at the moment postdoctoral research jobs (in the UK at least) are quite few and far between, and the competition seems incredibly high. But I have a couple of options that will hopefully lead somewhere in the not too distant future.”

We’re all wishing you luck in the job hunt, be sure to let us know how everything pans out. So, continuing on, what would you say was your proudest palaeo moment?

“Can I sneak two in?
1. Finishing my talk at Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting in Calgary (2017) – very nervous beforehand and felt on top of the world after it. It was weird seeing faces in the crowd you’ve seen on TV as a kid.
2. Not really palaeo-related but one of my best moments has to be when my office-mates (Andy Jones, Juan Benito, Emma Dunne) pranked me by building an entire wall in our office blocking up my desk – for the hell of it. It was made of wood, had hinges and cost them about £50. I was very proud.”

Dan enjoying the new doorway to his desk.

You’ve done work in the Netherlands, but what was this opportunity like and what did you learn from the experience?

“So, in February I started an internship at Oertijdmuseum in Boxtel, learning fossil preparation techniques. I learnt to handle pneumatic tools and eventually graduated to help prepare a ‘Diplodocus’ caudal vertebra for display. The specimen is from Late Jurassic Morrison Formation, collected from the Howe-Stephens Quarry, Wyoming, USA in the 1990s.
I was only there a month because the pandemic really started to hit Europe and I had to flee to the ‘safety’ (HA!) of the UK. I felt like I learnt a lot though. My entire undergraduate degree and PhD I barely touched a fossil, let alone learnt the particular methods of preserving, preparing, storing etc… things that I traditionally thought were pivotal to a ‘proper’ palaeontologist’s repertoire. So, I really wanted to learn these. As far as I am aware its quite a neglected part of UK palaeontology education and it is really something that could be improved on. I think it would improve undergraduate satisfaction no-end.
It was really interesting to be the non-native person, I’ve never been that before. Almost everyone there spoke fairly decent English (putting me to shame) but it was striking how even a small language/cultural gap really reduced my ability to express myself. So, I have a new found admiration for my non-native colleagues who speak better English than I do – added to the admiration I already had.”

Dan’s workstation.
The Oertijdmuseum lab.

Between your undergraduate and PhD you worked as a field geophysicist for Stratascan Ltd. How was this, what did it involve?

“I was performing geophysical surveys for archaeological and engineering purposes using magnetic field gradiometers. If you’ve ever watched Time Team (what a show), it was exactly the same as the ‘geophys’ in that. It was good for me at the time because it was a job that had something to do with my degree and it looked good on paper, but it wasn’t the most pleasant job. It involved walking up and down fields all day in any and every(!) weather, and it became quickly mundane as I was too low in the ranks to do any of the ‘thinking’ bits – I was essentially a horse. One time I was having to pull this large makeshift cart (with gradiometers attached) that looked a bit like some old-school plough… just my luck, traffic built up on the road next to the field and a white van became perfectly placed to see me and my colleague. I pretended to not hear the shouts of ‘donkey’ and ‘Eeyore’. I think that was my last job for Stratascan. I enjoyed it for what it was and I met some nice people there. Actually, I knew about the job through meeting an employee at a beer festival… so kids, drinking helps.”

“My nemesis”.

You’ve travelled to many places during your time studying, but what has been your best fieldwork experience?

“I’ve only been on two serious palaeo expeditions – rocking up to Wren’s Nest in Dudley, with my geology hammer mostly in case the locals consider me a soft target, is not proper fieldwork. However, both fieldtrips were to the Karoo basin, in Eastern Cape of South Africa in collaboration with the University of Witwatersrand, and both were incredible for different reasons. 
The first (2017) was essentially an exploratory exhibition. We were searching for archosauromorph fossils in Middle Triassic horizons which have yielded notoriously scrappy material and consequently, we didn’t find too much. However, the trip ended with a visit to a village of Qhemegha, because the trip lead (Prof Jonah Choiniere) had been invited to check out a potentially rich site. Having spoken to the locals and after seeing the site for about 10 minutes we quickly realised there was a pretty spectacular bone bed – with dinosaurs! And turns out it’s one of the largest bone beds ever found in South Africa. So, a year later I tagged along on an expedition to excavate the main assemblages of the Qhemegha site, explore other sites and get a firm stratigraphic age. If you want to know a bit more, there have been a couple of articles written and local news stories covering it (see links below).”

“Group photo around a huge fossil tree trunk on the last day of the 2017 trip after we’d inspected the dino bone bed and surrounding areas for the first time”. Image courtesy of Pia Viglietti.

“That second trip was incredible because of the interactions with the villagers: we were housed in the middle of the village at the local bar, and there was a big party on the last night with a lot of people coming for a chat and a dance. The people were so accommodating, especially considering they really didn’t have very much. I have immense appreciation and respect for them. A colleague and I were probably the only vegetarians in a few hundred miles (I’m guessing) and they always made extra vegetarian options for us – and they were delicious. I wish I could cook like that. Water was also pretty scarce, and so we could only use small amounts for washing etc – I don’t think Jonah actually washed at all. It was truly eye opening, it made me really appreciate how privileged we are in the UK. But it was wonderful to be there with them when there was clear buzz around the place: there were visits from local politicians, national newspapers and TV news channels.”

“The team trying to finish up as a crowd of villagers gather for a special celebratory meeting”. Image courtesy of Pia Viglietti.

“Saying all this I think the first trip marginally wins out: it was my first time out there, I was with my palaeo-possie on a fossil jolly up, and there was a kind of constant sense of optimism that we could always find something spectacular around the corner. Plus, we were mostly searching for fossils on a game farm, so we saw a lot of wildlife (giraffes, tortoises, antelope, baboons etc), and we had BBQs every night under the best night skies I ever seen – it was bliss.”

A stand-off with a herd of giraffes. Image courtesy of Pia Viglietti.

“Also, I must say that both trips were made brilliant because of a truly lovely group of people from the University of Witwatersrand. They are a terrifyingly impressive group of researchers and it was a privilege to see how they operated and get to know them. Just before the first trip I was quite despondent with my PhD, and being there and meeting those people really gave me a boost. There were so many funny moments and crazy happenings, I could honestly ramble for days. In short though, we had a lot of alcohol and lot of time to indulge on the evenings. I can’t remember very much of the last night of the first trip because we unwisely played drinking games – it was great. I feel extremely privileged to have gone on those trips. 10/10, would recommend to a friend.”

What’s one thing you’d like to be involved in or discover in the future of palaeontology?

“I’m always been quite interested in both Hominin evolution. I find it really interesting that there were different species of Homo – basically completely different ‘humans.’ And I’ve always been fascinated by ichnofossils – the fact a singular moment in time can be preserved for millions of years is staggering.
My best thing to discover would be a Paleocene bat/stem-bat. That would be a nature paper straight away. Bats first appear in the fossil record in the Eocene ‘fully evolved’, because most of what we know comes from cave deposits and isolated teeth, intermixed with complete specimens from Lagerstatten. Saying that, considering this ridiculously high bar and my track record of finding interesting fossils, I will accept any isolated scrappy bit of bone that I can legit name an entire new species on. Even a new species of brachiopod, I would accept that at this stage.
I’m sorry, you asked for one thing – I would have failed this exam.”

Do you have any helpful tips or wise words for people who want to become palaeontologists?

“I’m probably not the best person to take advice from as my general attitude towards life is to ‘see what happens’. However, from my experiences of getting a PhD and doing one, I would say:
1. In your studies try to learn specific skills and/or have the aim that you will publish your final year project – might not work out (I haven’t published mine yet), but if you can it looks great. Essentially, you want to get something out of your undergrad studies you can slap on your CV. In my masters I learnt to use different scientific software and got accustomed to R – a programming language. R and similar programming languages are basically a staple of palaeo research now. During my PhD, I don’t think I truly got to grips with any additional software or skills, largely because my research didn’t necessitate it – try to avoid this, you want to continuously learn new things.
2. If the academic route is for you, ask peers (i.e. me) and your tutors for advice on where to go, whom to approach, etc. You don’t want to do something you are going to end up completely hating, and you want to work with people who complement you and your working style/needs. Personality is important – just like in any working environment.
3. If you get a PhD – it’s a job, not some all-encompassing experience that requires your every waking thought. Believe me I’ve made this mistake. It’s a research job with the goal of producing papers.
4. A PhD is not easy. Doing one is incredibly rewarding on many different levels but mentally very challenging. You will mess up and you will be out of your depth at some point (for a short while).
5. Everybody gets imposter syndrome, even some of the best researchers in the field – so don’t look at what other people are doing and do you.”

That’s some really great advice that I, for one, am glad to have heard. And now, our vital final question, what’s a weird palaeo fact you think people should know? 

“I know the Darwin’s Door writers and readers are well read, and I’m fairly sure I don’t know anything that you haven’t already heard of. But here’s my attempt:
There’s actually a palaeontologist called David Schwimmer (same name as the actor who played Ross Geller).
We really are in a golden age of palaeontology – more sauropod species have been discovered and named in the last 20 years than all of the prior ~ 200 years of formalised palaeontology.”

Finally, I’d like to say thank you to Dan for allowing us to have this time to talk, it’s been both insightful and fun. For more information about Dan, or to find out how to contact him directly, follow these links to check out his Twitter and Instagram.