Talking with… Elsa Panciroli

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

This week we sat down (virtually) with Doctor Elsa Panciroli, a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow (Oxford University Museum of Natural history) and Associate Researcher (National Museums Scotland), to find out about her journey from a less academically-inclined teen to a professional palaeontologist with a book on the way. Read on to find out some surprising information about mammals, and how computers are increasingly aiding palaeontology.

Elsa hiking along the shoreline on the Isle of Skye, accessing remote fossil localities.

Hi Elsa, thanks for taking the time to chat. So, could you let us know a little about yourself personally?

“I’m a palaeontologist and writer, born and brought up in the rural Scottish Highlands. I was a pretty feral child: I spent most of my time wandering alone miles from home in the woods, building huts, swimming in rivers and eating berries. I wasn’t really interested in academia as a teenager, so I dropped out and travelled instead, working various jobs. I was always more into literature and art than science, so it’s kind of weird where I’ve ended up. Nature is massively important to me, I’m never happier than when up a mountain or creeping through a forest.”

You say you preferred other subjects to science, so when did you decide you wanted to be a palaeontologist?

“As a child I liked dinosaurs and fossils, but I was more into ancient human culture and origins. It wasn’t until much later during my degree in Environmental Science at the University of the Highlands and Islands that I learned about palaeoclimate models and suddenly thought: wow, palaeoscience is mind-blowing! I couldn’t believe the things we could tell just from fossils, isotopes, and computer models. That’s when I decided to switch disciplines. I think you need to feel passionately about what you do, and palaeo just really floats my boat.”

You’ve focussed on Mesozoic mammals and their relatives, so could you explain what this has involved?

“Mammals are the group we belong to: they have fur, feed their young on milk, and have an elevated metabolism (warm-blooded). So this includes placental mammals (like us), marsupials (like kangaroos), and monotremes (platypus and echidnas). I’m especially interested in what mammals and their closest relatives were doing in the ‘time of dinosaurs’, the Mesozoic. Why were many of them quite small? What roles did they play in their ecosystem and how did their anatomy and physiology change through time?
I’ve worked extensively on Jurassic mammals from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Those fossils are about 166 million years old, so that’s the Middle Jurassic. It’s a time period when lots of animal groups appeared and diverged, so everything we find is important for telling the story of their early evolution.”

Digital segmentations of the petrosal (ear bone) of Jurassic mammaliaform, Borealestes serendipitus. The space for the middle ear (orange), and paths of blood vessels (blue) and nerves (yellow) can be painstakingly traced through this tiny bone thanks to the high-resolution micro-CT scan.

You’ve worked with a lot of digital methods for scientific reconstructions, but which are you using most regularly?

“I really adore doing digital segmentation and reconstructions. That’s when you obtain micro-CT scan data of fossils, and then use software (like Mimics or Avizo) to process those data to create digital 3D models. These can be used to study the anatomy of the animal, including tracing the pathways of blood vessels and other soft tissues. But they can also be used in other analyses like geometric morphometrics (analyses of shape), and finite element analysis (analysing the properties of structures, such as resistance to bending). Although I like the analytical side of things, the challenge of interpreting CT data and presenting these data in meaningful ways to communicate science is probably the most enjoyable part of my work and what I spend the most time doing.”

Mimics is a commonly used digital segmentation software for working with micro-CT data. Elsa uses it for many of the specimens she works on, such as this Jurassic-age mammaliaform jaw.

How did you find these techniques when you first started out? Were they incredibly difficult or more intuitive than people may think?

“It kind of depends on the individual. For me, working with visual data is reasonably intuitive, and I can easily figure out what I’m looking at and how to navigate in 3D space. But I wouldn’t say anything in science is easy. Often I’ve just had to go through the motions following instructions multiple times before one day it just suddenly makes sense. If there’s one thing that will make you a successful scientist, it’s tenacity. You soon realise that there’s no way you can ever know even a fraction of it all – and that’s okay. Most of the top scientists don’t know the answers either, they’re just really good at blagging!”

You’ve recently worked on turtles, salamanders, and even dinosaurs. How would you compare this to your work on mammals? Does it feel very different or quite similar?

“Often the methods are the same, even if the animal is different. I’ve done a lot of digital segmentation on fossils from totally different taxonomic groups, and the principles are the same even if you don’t necessarily know which bones you’re looking at! The weirdest thing is people’s reaction to dinosaurs – they are always more excited if you work on them than any other group. It’s a shame because mammals, small reptiles, and salamanders often tell us a lot more about evolution, environmental change, and ecosystems.”

You’ve been running your own educational website, Giant Science Lady, since 2013, as well as writing for a plethora of magazines and blogs, including The Guardian. How did you first get involved in SciComm, and what inspires you to continue writing?

“I’ve always enjoyed writing, so when I went back to university, compiling reports was my favourite part of studying! I started blogging as Giant Science Lady because I was just bursting to share the incredible things I was finding out about the world. I heard The Guardian were looking for science writers and never really thought I’d get the position – but amazingly I did, and it made me realise how much I liked doing science communication. I discovered I also enjoyed giving talks, so I started doing more of them too.
I’m still inspired by the same thing that started me blogging in the first place: that feeling of amazement about the natural world. I learn lots from doing outreach – people ask the most amazing questions that get you thinking in new directions.”

How did you find these experiences and what have you learned from them?

“Writing about science is my favourite thing to do, so I always find it enjoyable. But of course it can be stressful, especially when you’re doing those things on top of full-time study and research. It’s important to learn not to take on too much, and to identify which projects to take on and which ones to let go.”

Elsa uses an angle grinder to extract fossils during fieldwork on the Isle of Skye, Scotland.

What would you say was your proudest palaeo moment?

“Not sure I really have one! I’m pretty much amazed I’m here every day.”

How about fieldwork, what’s been your best experience?

“Fieldwork is the best bit of my work, especially the work I do on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. One of the funniest moments was when one of the team left their backpack too far down the shoreline while we were searching for fossils… The tide came in and when we were leaving he couldn’t find the bag. After some searching we discovered it floating just offshore. Thankfully we got it back and nothing was ruined (and he had a sense of humour about it), but watching him empty out a litre or two of brine and seaweed from inside it was pretty funny. In 2019, I also got to join fieldwork in South Africa at Qhemegha, and that was utterly fantastic, less for the fossils than the people and the craic. Can’t wait to go back again.”

Elsa joined collaborators in South Africa for fieldwork last year, uncovering fossils from the Late Triassic and Early Jurassic. Image by Josh Luke Davis.

You’ve recently made a deal with Bloomsbury Sigma to publish your own title on the untold stories of mammals. Can you let us know anything about the book, such as what kind of journey readers can expect to go on?

“My book is called Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Origins and Evolution, and it’ll take you right back to the very beginning of mammal evolution. The mammal story is often presented as though they didn’t exist until the end of the Cretaceous, which couldn’t be more wrong! In this book you’ll hear about the really ancient ancestors of mammals – what you read might surprise you! It’ll be out in June 2021 ☺”

We can’t wait to get a few copies. Your progression from rural Scot to fully-fledged palaeontologist has been wonderful to hear about, so do you have any helpful tips or wise words for people who want to become palaeontologists?

“I’ve never been accused of being wise, but the main thing I’d say is keep your horizons open. There are lots of ways to be involved in palaeontology, so get as many different skills as you can and stay open to paths you might not have considered.”

“Finally, we like to ask all of our interviewees if they have a weird palaeo fact they think people should know, so what’s yours?

“The first mammals didn’t have ears – external ones that is. In the Late Triassic and Jurassic you may think they looked like wee hamsters, but there were lots of anatomical differences from modern mammals, and one of them is that they didn’t have ear flaps. External ears probably evolved later as their hearing range increased (thanks to changes in their middle ear structure). The first fossil ear flaps are found in the Cretaceous (Spinolestes, from Spain), but they probably appeared sometime in the Jurassic.”

Of course, a huge thank you to Elsa for being this week’s interviewee, and for the amazing insight into your varied career. For more information about Elsa, or to find out how to contact her, click these links to see her homepage, Twitter, and Instagram. You can also click here to check out Giant Science Lady, and her articles at The Guardian.