The Head Bone Connected to the… – Science Cafe Fall 2020

By Morgan Spehar

Image from Oct. 5 Science Cafe

Larry Witmer, along with several of his undergraduate and doctoral students, hosted the Science Cafe on Oct. 5 from the comfort of WitmerLab in the Life Science building at Ohio University.

Witmer is the Chang Ying-Chien Professor of Paleontology and an anatomy professor at Ohio University. Surrounded by skulls – both real and fake – during the Science Cafe he discussed how he and other researchers learn about the lives of organisms

that went extinct millions of years ago. His lab focuses on dinosaurs, specifically studying their skulls and the skulls of related modern-day species.

Because all that remains of the dinosaurs are fossils, he explained, scientists look to modern animals that they can dissect and study the behavior of. Birds are the closest surviving relative of the dinosaur, but crocodilians and even mammals can offer valuable insight to researchers.

“All of these projects [in the lab] are trying to give us a sense of the history of life on our planet,” Witmer said.

WitmerLab broadly studies “the functional morphology of vertebrates,” or why animals are built like they are. Many research papers have come out of the lab in its almost 20 year history. Witmer said that he had collected the largest number of dinosaur skulls in Ohio, although he admitted that the bar for that particular achievement was low.

Some of the specimens in his collection are real fossils, while others are exact replicas that Witmer created from the actual skills that museums lend out. Real or replica, those in WitmerLab are able to study the small details of the dinosaur skulls and learn about their lives. 

By looking at the shape and texture of one dinosaur skull, for example, researchers are able to better understand how the dinosaur’s skin and soft tissue could have interacted with the bone and then figure out its features. The dinosaur, Majungasaurus, shared some similar skull features with the modern rhinoceros, so Witmer’s research team spent a lot of time studying the rhino. 

Witmer noted that one of the benefits of studying connections between the past and present is that scientists can actually discover information about modern animals as well. 

“That sort of is what our lab is devoted to: trying to understand what each of these threads in the history of life mean when we try to weave them into an evolutionary tapestry,” he said. “And indeed all of these animals shed light on other animals.”

By learning about the function of certain body parts from modern day animals, researchers like Witmer can infer more about the lives of dinosaurs. They can figure out how the dinosaurs’ senses may have worked by looking at the skulls and skull cavity, the size and shape of the brain and the size of different features like the dino’s nose.

All of this lends itself to understanding the behavior of the dinosaurs. By figuring out their muscle structure and how they moved, it becomes easier to deduce what they ate, how they hunted and how fast they grew. This gives researchers insight about animals they never would have been able to study otherwise. 

The talk had great timing; it took place on the 115th anniversary of the naming of the Tyrannosaurus rex. Witmer said that all the discoveries about these animals, from the naming of the species to learning how its neck muscle functioned, contribute to our modern understanding of dinosaurs. 

“There’s stories everywhere you look here,” he said. “The reality is that all of these modern day animals, all of these dinosaurs, they all have stories.” 

Watch Witmer’s full talk, “Random Acts of Anatomy,” here.

Related: Check out Witmer being featured in the October 2020 edition of National Geographic

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