Talking with… Stephan Lautenschlager

Interview by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Lauren Malin and Harry T. Jones

This week, we got in touch with the man behind the biomechanics. Palaeobiologist Doctor Stephan Lautenschlager talks about his unusual path into palaeontology, his favourite dinosaurs, and the differences between German and British universities.

Stephan in the Lapworth Museum of Geology, under Roary the awe-inspiring Allosaurus.

Hi Stephan, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. First things first, could you let us know a little about yourself?

“Sure. I am a Lecturer for Palaeobiology at the University of Birmingham and my research focusses on the digital reconstruction and functional morphology of fossil vertebrates. I’ve been in Birmingham for about four years now, after having done a PhD and a post-doc at the University of Bristol. In my free time, I am a keen wildlife photographer, and if possible, I try to combine this with fieldwork. I also like to create artwork, both digital and on paper, including some palaeoart (but far from a professional level).”

You started out in computers, so why the change of scenery? When did you decide you wanted to be a palaeontologist?

“I would say fairly late. I was always interested in dinosaurs and fossils, and more generally in natural sciences, but I had never considered this as an actual career option. I had worked as a software engineer for a few years but was not very happy in the job – partially due to the atmosphere in the company but also because I didn’t feel content with the work. That was when I decided to do an undergraduate degree in Geology and Palaeontology. I wasn’t sure if this would actually lead to a career in palaeontology, but it seems to have worked out in the end.”

You focus on functional morphology and biomechanics, specifically computer modelling. Could you briefly explain what this all means and what it involves?

“Functional morphology generally refers to the principle that the form (or morphology) of an organism (including its organs) is adapted for a specific function. This means that the study of the morphology can be used to infer an organism’s function. For living animals, this is often a lot easier as their behaviour usually can be observed directly. For fossils, this is a lot more difficult and is often done by comparing specific morphologies to those of living analogues. However, there are many species in the fossil record which have very unusual morphologies for which no modern examples exist. This is where the field of biomechanics comes into play. It refers to the study of functional morphology using mechanical and physical principles, for example, lever mechanics.
A lot of palaeontological studies have used biomechanical principles to reconstruct the function and behaviour of fossil species in the past, but the field has really taken a leap in the last 20 years with the wider availability and use of computer technologies. Most of these technologies have actually been borrowed from other fields, such as engineering. The use of CT and laser scanning is now quite common to create accurate digital models of fossils but has been used in medical diagnostic and engineering long before. Similarly, the use of computer simulations to predict the stability of a dinosaur skull or the fluid flow around an aquatic organism has its foundations in the automotive and other industries.”

What are a few of the big discoveries or projects you’ve been involved in during your career?

“I am very lucky that I had the chance to work with a lot of great researchers in palaeontology which allowed me to collaborate on a variety of projects. One of the discoveries I made as part of my PhD research was how the loss of teeth and the adoption of a keratinous beak in some theropod dinosaurs enhanced the stability of the skull and were major innovations during the transition from theropods to birds. 
For my post-doc project, I had worked on the evolution of early mammals and we found in our studies that getting smaller was a key step for Mesozoic mammals and their ancestors as it helped maintain the function of the skull while a lot of morphological changes took place.
Most recently, I was invited to work on a variety of projects on sabre-tooth carnivores. These were really interesting studies and we found that, although superficially similar, different sabre-tooth species had evolved a large variety of ecologies and hunting styles, including a species adapted to scavenging and feeding on inner organs.
Then there are several projects where I am involved as a supervisor on a variety of topics (e.g. dinosaur biomechanics, fossil brain reconstructions, marine reptiles) and it is great to see all the exciting results from these projects.”

Biomechanical models of Erlikosaurus with and without a keratinous beak, showing the deformation of the bone (based on Lautenschlager et al., 2013).

You’ve researched a lot of different prehistoric organisms, but do you have any special favourites?

Erlikosaurus is probably one of my favourites. It is a therizinosaur from the Upper Cretaceous of Mongolia which I worked on for my PhD and the research done on the specimen has shaped my career quite a lot. A few years ago, I was invited to contribute to a study on the biomechanics of Stegosaurus based on a specimen housed at the NHM in London, nick-named Sophie. Apart from being an exceptionally preserved specimen, it is nice to see that it is on display and not hidden in the collections so other people can enjoy it as well. Over the years, I have worked on a variety of different groups and species. Working on all of these, I have really come to appreciate that every fossil has something interesting to tell.”

A 3D print of the reconstructed skull of Stegosaurus stenops.

How would you compare studying in Munich to the UK?

“A really interesting question. I did my undergraduate degree at a time when Germany had not yet fully adopted the international BSc/MSc system. The Diploma degree I did was quite flexible and allowed for a versatile combination of courses. In order to take the final exams, we were required to show a range of core and optional courses that we had taken and passed, but there was no strict time limit when these had to be completed. This meant that I could take a variety of courses and field trips each semester including some from different departments and build my timetable according to my interests. A degree usually took between 8 and 12 semesters so there was less time pressure and one could take the final exams once the required number of courses, field days, and thesis projects had been completed. However, this required a good deal of organisation. For example, automated timetables did not exist, but students would pick their courses from the list of offered lectures on the department’s notice boards.
My experience with UK undergraduate degrees obviously comes from the perspective of a lecturer, not a student, so I don’t have a direct comparison. A critical difference is the tuition fees. These are either substantially lower or non-existent at German universities (depending on the different states). I feel a bit ambivalent about tuition fees as I see how they pay (among other things) for teaching and research staff, infrastructure and equipment. Permanent teaching/research jobs are rare in Germany and the system lacks the entry-level positions, such as lecturers, so a lot of the teaching is done on fixed-term contracts or sometimes by PhD students and post-docs. However, the commercialisation of education is clearly not without problems as recent events have shown. Ideally, access to education should be free so that graduates do not have to pay off debts when entering an already difficult job market.”

Do you remember how it felt when you got your very first paper published? (See [2]).

“Publishing the first academic paper is really exciting. Quite often it is a culmination of months or years of work, so I was very pleased to see my first publication in print. I had learned a lot in the process from my co-authors and supervisors. However, looking at some of my first papers is quite strange, noticing a lot of things I would do differently now.”

You’ve attended many talks and conferences as a speaker. How do you feel when you get invited to attend these?

“I still get nervous before a talk and this is probably something that will never go away. However, by now I’ve enough practice to stay relatively calm when things go wrong (e.g. faulty microphones, pressing the wrong buttons, missing slides, etc.). I hated giving presentations in school or speaking in front of people, but I am okay with this now. Talking about my own research or a topic I am relatively knowledgeable about helps a lot with building confidence.”

Getting into the field is something most scientists love, so what was your best fieldwork experience?

“I have been lucky to take part in a few field campaigns, including going to Argentina and South Africa to look for dinosaurs. I think I enjoyed South Africa the most. It was my first trip outside of Europe and I enjoyed seeing the wildlife and different landscapes and people were incredibly hospitable. Given my research focus, I don’t get to do fieldwork as often as other colleagues, but I equally like doing field trips with students. This mix of different activities is what makes this job really enjoyable.”

Fossilised vertebrae of an unidentified dinosaur found during a field campaign in South Africa.

What’s one thing you’re looking forward to in the future of palaeontology?

“I expect that the collection and availability of data will play a major role in future studies. Collecting data, be it obtaining fossil occurrences from the literature or scanning fossil specimens, is time-consuming for individuals. However, more and more datasets are being made available via online repositories and a lot of museums have started digitising their collections. This will lay the foundation for large-scale studies including hundreds or thousands of data points, permitting more accurate reconstructions of evolutionary trends, for example. A big challenge will be to automate the processing of data, though. 
Personally, I am looking forward to seeing new technological advances which will allow palaeontologists even more accurate reconstructions of fossil organisms. In the last twenty years, we have seen how new insight can be gained even though the fossils may have been known for decades or more, for example, the possibility to reconstruct colour in some fossils.”

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

“My main advice would be to follow your interests. For students, this could mean to get involved in research or museum activities. This can be via volunteering with a museum or contacting researchers to contribute to studies in the form of summer projects or similar. I had helped out with various tasks, such as screen washing samples, photographing specimens or collecting literature data, during my time as an undergraduate. This gave me a good look ‘behind the scenes’. Undeniably, the job market for palaeontologists is not the easiest. Being aware of this fact is important but should not stop you from following your interests. Rather, it means having a plan B if things don’t work out as initially planned as careers are not necessarily linear.”

Finally, what’s a weird palaeo fact you think people should know?

“We know that the Earth’s rotation has been slowing over the last four and a half billion years. This means that a normal day for a dinosaur in the Jurassic would have been a bit shorter than today, somewhere between 22 and 23 hours.”

I’d like to finish with a massive thank you to Stephan for getting involved with the series. For more information about Stephan or to find out how to contact him directly, click here to see his Twitter and his website.

Papers Mentioned
[1] Lautenschlager, S., Witmer, L. M., Altangerel, P., and Rayfield, E. J. (2013). ‘Edentulism, beaks, and biomechanical innovations in the evolution of theropod dinosaurs’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110 (51), pp. 20657-20662. Click Here.
[2] Lautenschlager, S., Rayfield, E. J., Altangerel, P., Zanno, L. E., and Witmer, L. M. (2012). ‘The Endocranial Anatomy of Therizinosauria and Its Implications for Sensory and Cognitive Function’, PLOS ONE, 7 (12), p. e52289. Click Here.