1. Geological Society Events, 2017 Year of Risk
The Geological Society, Burlington House, London
Using mechanics and engineering analysis to understand feeding behaviour and skull evolution in dinosaurs and other extinct animals
How fossil animals lived, moved and fed has fascinated scientists and the general public for decades. The fossil record provides us with behavioural clues from remnants of the skeleton and other hard tissue remains, and the occasional exceptionally preserved fossil. With respect to feeding behaviour, bite marks, stomach contents, coprolites, tooth shape and skull form offer us direct and indirect evidence of extinct animal feeding ecology and behaviour.
Even so, the historical nature of palaeontological sciences has led to a surfeit of behavioural inferences and just-so stories of extinct animal function that are central to our perceptions of extinct animal behaviour, but remain unchallenged and untested. That said, animal form and function is dictated by the physical properties of biological building blocks and the external environment. In order to run at a certain speed, or bite with a particular force, the animal must be constructed in a particular fashion.
We know from studies of living animals that form and function of the skeleton is intrinsically linked to the loads the skeleton experiences: increase or decrease loading and the skeleton changes shape accordingly. Because the laws of physics have not changed in deep time, we can apply these same physical principles to understanding the function of extinct animals, and in doing so construct testable hypotheses of function that allow us to better understand the behaviour and evolution of extinct animals.
The focus of this talk was on Emily's uses a combination of computational palaeobiological methods such as computed tomography (CT) scanning to capture digital fossil form, and then apply biomechanical principles and methods drawn from engineering structural analysis to understand the feeding function of fossil vertebrates. Emily discussed how these digital methods are reshaping how we conduct palaeobiological science, and focused on studies of feeding behaviour and skull evolution in dinosaurs, fossil mammals and the earliest tetrapods to occupy land.
Professor Emily Rayfield is a palaeontologist at the University of Bristol who’s research focusses on how skeletal mechanics influences morphological evolution and the relationship between form and function in hard tissues. In particular her research focuses on how we can use mechanical principles and the engineering method finite element analysis to understand the function and behaviour of animal skeletons, living and extinct.
She is interested in the evolution of the skull and its relation to feeding behaviour in dinosaurs, birds, crocodiles and more recently, mammals, alongside other problems of form and function in living and extinct animals.