Thomas Dudgeon, Vertebrate palaeontology student

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favourite part about being a scientist is the constant thrill of discovery, and understanding more about the world we live in. I have always enjoyed learning new things, particularly about the natural world, and a great part about science is that it provides an environment full of people who are also just as interested in learning and understanding as I am.

An aspect of palaeontology that I find most exciting is that palaeontologists cannot simply study these animals in ‘the wild’ to see how they were behaving and interacting with their environment when they were alive. Instead, palaeontology is sort of like puzzle solving, where you need to look for clues in the fossil record to piece together the bigger picture of what these animals were like. It often astonishes me just how much detail researchers are able to pars out from the fossil record with new computational techniques, and paint an incredible picture of the diversity and complexity of the history of life on earth.

Champsosaurus CT scanning

What do you do? My current research focuses on the extinct reptile Champsosaurus, which lived from about 90 to 55 million years ago in what is now North America and Europe. These animals would have lived in freshwater rivers, and at a glance would have looked a lot like modern crocodiles, although they’re quite distantly related to one another. I recently completed my Masters degree studying Champsosaurus at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where I used medical X-ray computed tomography scanning (usually just called CT or CAT scanning) to describe the skulls of these animals in fine detail. This technology allows us to look inside the specimens without damaging them, just like how a doctor may use CT scanning to look inside a person without having to operate. With CT scanning, I described the bones of the skull of Champsosaurus in 3D, and identified some features that had never been seen before, such as an unusually structured middle-ear bone that was specialized to support the skull, rather than detect sound vibrations.

It also allowed me to describe the cavities that once held the brain, inner ear, nerves, and blood vessels, structures that had never been described before in much detail. I then used statistical comparative techniques to compare the inner ear of Champsosaurus (the organ that gives us the sense of balance and the ability to sense movement) to a variety of modern and extinct reptiles in order to get an idea of how Champsosaurus may have been moving when they were alive.

I found that the brain was typical of other closely related reptiles, and that the inner ear was very similar to modern aquatic reptiles, which provided new evidence that Champsosaurus spent most of its time in the water. Since graduating, I have been using computer modeling techniques to describe the geographic range of Champsosaurus in North America during the latest Cretaceous period to give us a better idea of where these animals may have lived at that time, even in areas were there are no sediments of the right age to preserve their fossils.

Dorsal view of a Champsosaurus skull


Dorsal view of a segmented virtual Champsosaurus skull

How did you get interested in your current research project? My interest in Champsosaurus arose through a combination of a few things. Since I was a kid, I’ve always been interested in natural history, evolution, and life on Earth, but as with most kids, I had a particular interest in dinosaurs. When I began my Masters degree, I was entering the first phase of my life were I could finally study dinosaurs. I was enamoured with the topic that I was initially working on, describing the skull of the famous armoured dinosaur Ankylosaurus using CT scanning. Unfortunately, when we CT scanned the specimen about 4 months into my program, the specimen was just too large and dense for us to get usable data, and we couldn’t see any structures inside the skull at all. This meant that I needed to find a new project in order to finish my degree. My supervisors and I discussed several topics, most of which were also on dinosaurs, and my initial urge was pursue another dinosaur-related project. However, I was also intrigued by a similar project to my initial Ankylosaurus work, describing the skull of a small crocodile-like reptile called Champsosaurus using CT scanning. This was the first time I’d even heard of Champsosaurus, but after reading into the variety of topics more, I decided to go with Champsosaurus because I was fascinated with understanding the anatomy, evolution, and behaviour of these extinct animals, particularly because they are a relatively understudied animal when compared to some of their contemporaries like the dinosaurs and crocodilians. I was also excited by the tools I would get to learn in this project (working with CT data, and using computers and stats to describe shape variation in the inner ear). Although I am absolutely still interested in broadening my research into dinosaur palaeontology down the road, I’m glad I decided to go with the Champsosaurus for my Masters because it has given me an avenue to pursue exciting research in the future (and it also taught me the valuable lesson that palaeontology is far more than just dinosaurs!).

Champsosaurus CT scanning computer

If you are writing about your research: What are your data and how do
you obtain your data? In other words, is there a certain proxy you work
with, a specific fossil group, preexisting datasets, etc.?
For my Masters thesis research on the skull of Champsosaurus, the data I worked with primarily consisted of CT scans of specimens that were already in museum collections. The bulk of my work involved CT scans of two well-preserved skulls housed at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Canada, but for my analysis of the inner ear of Champsosaurus, I used CT data from 60 different species of modern and extinct reptiles and birds to compare the shape of their inner ears with Champsosaurus. These CT data came from museums and universities around the world, and I acquired the data either directly from other researchers, or from online databases like Morphosource ( and Digimorph (, two great resources for accessing CT data. Once I acquired the data, my work mostly took place on computers where I digitally reconstructed the inner ears of these animals so I could compare them with Champsosaurus.

How did you learn about the palaeoVC? What do you take away from the
I first heard about the PalaeoVC through my primary Masters supervisor, and a few other graduate students at my university. The first year of the conference I unfortunately wasn’t able to present because I was finishing up my degree, but this year I was able to, so I jumped at the chance. I thoroughly enjoyed the ease of the presentation submission, and I was happy to see the wide diversity of interesting projects happening around the globe. One aspect that impressed me was how interested the community was in engaging in conversation with one another, even though everything was online, and how supportive and positive people were of each other and their work.

How does the corona crisis affect your research and academic life? This summer, I’ve been working for the Canadian Museum of Nature as a student research assistant, and I’m fortunate enough that my work (scanning and transcribing field notes, and segmenting fossil CT data for the museum’s palaeontologists) can be done from home. In terms of my own research projects, the pandemic has certainly slowed things down. Some projects that I am involved in have been completely frozen until museums reopen, but it’s a necessary sacrifice to help flatten the curve. Those projects that have not frozen have slowed dramatically, but this is inevitable given that everyone’s lives have changed significantly since closures were put in place. One thing that I do miss is getting to see my friends and colleagues in person, but technology has thankfully allowed us all to keep in touch and caught up with each other, even if it’s not ideal.

Carrying a fossil in the field

What advice would you give to aspiring scientists and other early
career researchers?
For aspiring scientists, I would tell them to follow their passions and go down an avenue that they would want to pursue for their career. If there is something you love doing, and you can make a career of it, it’s the best of both worlds. I’d also add that they shouldn’t be afraid to reach out to researchers, professors, or current students if they have any questions on applying to universities, or how they can enter the academic and research fields. Most people are happy to answer these questions, and aspiring scientists shouldn’t have to feel like they’re walking in the dark when trying to find out how to get started.

For other early career researchers, I would first and foremost ask them to please take care of themselves. I think we all know that academia naturally encourages people to push for a heavy workload, which is certainly a good thing in that it fosters an environment full of passionate and driven people. But if you work yourself to the point that you’re no longer getting enjoyment from what you’re doing, then you need to take a break. Most researchers and academics went into their field because they love doing what they do, and you want to make sure that you can hold on to that enthusiasm and excitement so that you can continue to enjoy your work for the rest of your career.

Follow Thomas’s updates on Twitter.

Marie Boirot, Biologist & M.Sc. candidate in Palaeontology

What is your favorite part about being a scientist? My favorite part is discovering something no one ever discovered before. It is exciting to know you are the first person seeing what you see ! There is so much left for us to discover. Something we take for the absolute truth today may be proven inaccurate in ten years. Science is constantly evolving, so we will always have a job! Also, the scientific and academic background are really helpful to develop the critical mind and not fall for answers too simple to be true (conspiracy theory, yay!).

What do you do?
I am finishing my wildlife management master’s degree under the supervision of Richard Cloutier at the Palaeontology and Evolutionary Biology Lab (at the Université du Québec à Rimouski, in Québec, Canada). My project consists of scanning fossil fishes skulls to see what’s inside! I work with super cool fishes, the lungfishes, that still exist today and are closest relative to all terrestrial vertebrates (amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds)!  My species are more than 380 million years old, that’s more than 130 million years BEFORE the first dinosaurs! I work on 3D-preserved skulls, which is relatively rare in fossils. I scanned them to see if their braincase was ossified or not, and their description helps untangle the relationships between fossil lungfishes !

How did you get interested in your current research project?
I met Richard during an undergraduate evolutionary biology class and he mentioned that he worked on lungfishes. I’m a big fan of lungfishes, particularly Neoceratodus, the Australian lungfish (it is too cute, it looks like it smiles all the time !) and I really enjoyed Richard’s class and way of teaching. As a joke, I told my brother that I would do a master with him (I wanted to do an oceanography master’s degree initially), but eventually I did ask Richard to join his lab! I followed my instinct rather than the thing I “was supposed to do” and I don’t regret it. He offered me several projects and I chose this one! I had never done palaeontology before, it is really challenging but so much fun to learn a whole new biology discipline.

What are your data and how do you obtain them? My material is five skulls of the lungfish Scaumenacia curta, endemic to the Escuminac Formation, in Miguasha, Québec, Canada, and one Pentlandia macroptera specimen, from the Orcadian Basin, in Scotland. I scanned the specimens with a micro-CT scan, which uses the same technology as a X-ray scanner at the hospital. Then I segmented on a computer my scans, which basically means I colored the interesting structures with a graphic tablet, and I extracted a 3D-model. For Scaumenacia, thanks to a peculiar preservation process called pyritization, I had enough information on the braincase to code for phylogenetic characters and add it to a matrix. The matrix is from Clement et al., 2016, and we modified it a little bit. It is really fun to do the process myself, from the enigmatic skull to a phylogeny including my data on the inside of this skull.

(Clement, A. M., Challands, T. J., Long, J. A., & Ahlberg, P. E. (2016). The cranial endocast of Dipnorhynchus sussmilchi (Sarcopterygii: Dipnoi) and the interrelationships of stem-group lungfishes. PeerJ, 4, e2539)

How did you learn about the palaeoVC? What did you take away from the conference? I learned about it during a lab meeting in January I think, and since I was finishing my results it was a wonderful opportunity to present them, even more with the coronavirus resulting in all physical conferences cancelled. I learned that it is possible to use palaeontology as an education tool for children and that it actually works! We often think fundamental science is “useless” in everyday life but it is really important to continue to expand our knowledge and more importantly to share it with non-scientist people! Also, the idea of a virtual international congress was really ahead of its time! Beside the corona crisis, the carbon impact of an international meeting is enormous, and we often don’t have time to see all the presentation we want. It is really clever to do this virtually.

How does the Coronavirus pandemic affect your research and academic life?
I finished writing the first complete draft of my thesis during the first two weeks of lockdown! All my social implications being cancelled, I had no other choice than write all day ! I did not have to go to the lab anymore so it did not stop me from working, even if I missed the university routine and separating work from home. I don’t have to complain, because many of my colleagues had to stop their researches because they did not have access to the equipment, and I can only imagine how frustrating it can be. Another meeting I was supposed to go to was cancelled, I am disappointed but it could have been much worse ! I could present here and it was a wonderful opportunity.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists and other early career researchers?
My first advice would be: do not do that for anyone except yourself. Science and research can be really challenging and you have to have a motivation and desire to learn to get through an entire 2-3-4 years project. Do not do it to prove something to someone, but because you really want to try it. On the other hand, if you really want to try doing research, go for it and do not let anyone tell you you are not good enough ! Passion is the only fuel, and there is no feeling like seeing your first results, getting a R script to work, or presenting your research!

Follow Marie’s work through her lab’s Facebook Page, her ResearchGate, or contact her via email (marie.boirot@

Marie is one of three early career paleontologists who won for best presentation at the 2nd Palaeontological Virtual Congress in 2020. Read more about the Congress here!

2nd Palaeontological Virtual Congress

This year was the second iteration of an entirely online conference, Palaeontological Virtual Congress, open to abstract submissions from anyone studying paleontological sciences. A broadly accessible conference as the digital means provides increased access to scientific content. There is flexibility with file format, presenters can be visible on camera augmented by images and slides edited into the video, upload their slides without an overlaying audio, or walk through their slides while providing audio narrative. 

Talks can be uploaded as recorded .mp4 and like files by the presenters prior to the conference and then the content is available for two weeks for attendees to view and comment on through the WordPress site. The organizers answered some questions for us on the event:

Who organized this event? The organising committee was formed by 10 people, with 3 professors (Carlos Martínez-Pérez, Evangelos Vlachos and Paolo Citton), 3 post-doc, and 4 pre-doc students. In the first iteration of the congress, it was expected there would be around 100 participants, and the final attendees were near 376. This year there was a total of 161 projects presented and 398 participants from 44 different countries.

Were there any issues with the COVID-19 crisis? This congress was first made having in mind only online mechanics, so the Corona crisis did not change how the congress work. But we have noticed an increase in the media exposure that this congress has achieved, and also, a biggest interaction in the participants during the congress and outside the congress. Specially, the congress has been very active in Twitter and the interactions with the palaeontological community in this social media has increased in this edition.

What do you take away from the congress? What did you especially like, and what would you do differently next time? We created this congress as an opportunity for those palaeontologists that do not have enough resources to go to most (or any) palaeontological congress. For that reason, the members of the organizing committee don’t take anything away from the congress… apart form stress! We are proud of the work we have done these two editions, and we are awfully glad of the way the palaeontological community has welcomed this congress, so we can say that that is our award.

Some of the aspect that we like the most about the congress are the video presentations and the virtual field trips. People can be highly creative when given the opportunity to present their work with the video presentations, and the virtual field trips are a nice way to expose interesting places that would not be known otherwise.

We are still struggling making the interactions between the participants as “natural” as possible. This edition, the comment section for the different works have been very active, and we have seen very interesting debates in some of them. This is a problem if you think that we have participants from all around the globe, and our time zones don’t match; but we are sure that we will be able to overcome this for the next edition.

Will there be a 3rd PalaeoVC? Yes, of course!  We want to rest for a bit, so it is most possible that we will have the 3rd edition by 2021, although we still cannot tell for sure about the dates.

Click here to read the Nature Ecology & Evolution paper on “Virtual conferences are the future” by Abel Barral.

This year, there was an Early Career Session to highlight the work of early career paleontologists. Time Scavengers team member, Jen Bauer, was invited to aid in judging the session and as a result the winners selected from this session will be promoted via Time Scavengers Meet the Scientist blog.

Congratulations to Marie, James, and Thomas! Follow the PalaeoVC tag on Time Scavengers to see their posts.

Follow the updates for future PalaeoVC events on their website, Twitter, or Facebook.