Blandine Hautier, Vertebrate Paleontology Master’s graduate

Tell us a little bit about yourself. Hi! My name is Blandine, and I am a master’s graduate in vertebrate paleontology. I specialise on dinosaurs (taphonomy, histology). I did my geology bachelor’s degree in Lille (France) with an Erasmus+ mobility in Tomsk (Russia), followed by a master’s degree in paleontology done in Lille for the first year, and an Erasmus mobility in Bonn (Germany) for the second, with my master’s thesis. Outside of paleontology, I am interested in modern Japanese literature, gothic fiction, taking care of plants and animals. But to be honest, I’m having the most fun when I’m in a museum! 

Posing in front of (from the left to the right) Diplodocus, Camarasaurus, and Edmontosaurus skull casts, on display at the “Big, Bigger, Dinosaurs” exhibition in Bonn (Museum Koenig).

What kind of scientist are you and what do you do? My career is only beginning, and I like to try out everything related to paleontology. 

For my master’s thesis, I had a research project on green-colored dinosaur bones from Utah (USA). The remains belonged to several diplodocines (large long-necked dinosaurs), and an unusual fossilization turned them green. Histology (study of bones microstructures) is a technique which has many uses, one of them being the determination of the age of an animal by the observation of its bone tissues. This method is particularly useful in bonebeds where dinosaur remains have been mixed because of river flows (for example). Through the observation of bone sections under the microscope, I could determine that the diplodocine remains came from animals of different ages, which meant several dinosaurs’ carcasses were mixed in the quarry.

Before that, during my bachelor’s, I learned dinosaur bone preparation in the vertebrate paleontology laboratory of the Tomsk State University. It’s a tedious work, but you really learn a lot by preparing the fossils by yourself. There are so many details you can miss when you observe a bone taken out of its context! The surrounding sediments, the geometry of the deposition, the state of preservation of the remains… all those clues are very important when doing a paleontological investigation! I see things in this way: a vertebrate paleontologist is often like a medical examiner in a murder case. When the body is removed from the crime scene, they are able to tell the cause of death, but not who killed the victim. To get the whole picture, we need the crime scene as well. For paleontologists, this corresponds to the quarry/bonebed, or at least the sediments around the bones. This is what field excursions, and thorough documentation on excavations are for!

Sitting on the left of a Titanosaurus vertebra (circled in orange) we discovered with my friend Lisa Garbé (on the right) in Russia with the paleontological laboratory from the Tomsk State University

During the bachelor years I had in Lille, I worked as a curating assistant for the geology department of the Museum of Natural History, and helped organising several public outreach events, giving talks on the need of paleontology in our societies to understand today’s climate emergency.

A few months ago, I helped dismantling the “Big, Bigger, Dinosaurs” exhibition at the Museum Koenig in Bonn, and returning to this kind of environment after a 3 years break felt really good. Since then, I occasionally help setting up and dismantling exhibitions around dinosaurs, and it is so much fun! (PS: I created an instagram account to try to share the behind the scenes of dinosaur research and exhibitions… @dinosaurs_forensics 😉 )

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science? When I was a child, I developed an interest for bones early on. I would collect bones and skulls from diverse animals I would find in the fields, clean and sort them in different categories. As my mother thought this was a horrible hobby for a little girl, she got rid of my collection as soon as she found out it was not a short-lived interest. I then moved on to snail shells, but this collection was really stinky, and ended up in the trash like the former one. To me, keeping those bones and shells were like preserving memories of what once was. I wanted to understand what had happened to those animals, and their remains were a way to find out. One day, a friend of my parents showed them a plant fossil. It was a trace of a thing that lived in the past, it was beautiful, did not stink.. and my parents liked it? From that moment on, I started asking questions about fossils and collecting them. My dad brought me to the Museum of Natural History in Lille, and there I could show my treasures, get answers about them, and see which stories could be uncovered through fossil remains. I decided I would become a paleontologist one day. Growing up, I received a great support from my dad, one museum curator, and three school teachers who encouraged me to follow my passion, despite everyone around saying that I would “never make it” in paleontology.

My favorite parts about being a scientist are to question the current knowledge, go on field excursions to look for fossils in places where nature has been untouched, and also try to close the gap between scientists and the public. In the same way older people made me want to do paleontology and pushed me to follow my dreams, I want to transmit the knowledge and will to understand our world to younger generations. I love speaking to kids, grandparents, families who want to know about what was, and what  extinct forms of life can tell us about our present and future.

How does your work contribute to the betterment of society in general? Dinosaurs make kids and adults dream and wonder, and even if this field of paleontology can be considered as “less meaningful” regarding climate change than micropaleontology as an example, I like researching about them just for the sake of knowledge. Why did they look this way? What were their habits? Why were they so big?

Holding a real piece of a limb bone of the “Arapahoe” sauropod during the dismantling of the Museum Koenig’s exhibition

I believe there is nothing wrong in trying to answer questions which do not appear as  “useful” for today’s societies. All questions deserve to be answered. On the other hand, understanding dinosaur’s ecology, biology, environment and habits definitely help us refine the knowledge we have about evolution and other aspects of the living.

Dinosaurs are also useful in another way: as they are part of the worldwide pop-culture, they are very often the first step into paleontology for many people. Through dinosaurs, it is possible to speak to people about fossils, geology, evolution, extinction events. As a result, for public outreach, scientists (including me) use them as an introduction to topics such as climate change. That’s why so many scientific articles use “dinosaur” in their title, even when those animals are not involved in the paper.

What advice do you have for up and coming scientists?  “Do or do not. There is no try.” if you want to do science, go for it. Do your best, always, and if it does not work, you won’t have any regrets because you did all you could to make it happen. And when obstacles will come along the way, never forget that for each problem there is a solution. If you have passion, you will get to meet similar-minded persons who will help you reach your goals, and you will end up finding your spot in this field. 

If you are a LGBTQ+, disabled, POC or woman-identifying person: there is space for you in science. Together, we should and will make this environment a safer place, where we all can grow equally. We need diversity, please don’t give up on your dreams. 

Follow Blandine’s updates on Research Gate and Instagram.

Taking a break to observe the landscape during a field excursion in Siberia.