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Author Spotlight: Interview with Joseph Sertich and Mark Loewen

This week we would like to shine our spotlight on Joseph Sertich, from Stony Brook University, and Mark Loewen, from the University of Utah.  Mark and Joe have published their first PLoS ONE article on A New Basal Sauropodomorph Dinosaur from the Lower Jurassic Navajo Sandstone of Southern Utah so I asked them if they could tell us a little bit more about themselves and their research.

JL: First, a bit of detail on your scientific background – what got you interested in studying dinosaurs?
ML: When I was a kid I always loved dinosaurs, as most kids do.  As an undergraduate chemistry major I was lucky enough to land a summer research internship looking for fossils in the Eocene of Wyoming and really got hooked on paleontology.  I only started working on dinosaurs as a Ph.D. student after finishing a master’s in sedimentology and paleoecology. 

JS: I have always been excited about earth history and evolutionary processes. Working in vertebrate paleontology allows me to address some of the large-scale evolutionary questions that have always interested me. My educational background lies in the geological and biological sciences, which provide the tools necessary for paleontological investigations.

Mark Loewen with Seitaad
Mark Loewen and Seitaad ruessi

JL: Have both of you worked together before?
ML: Joe and I first worked together in the Cretaceous of the Turkana Basin of Kenya in 2004 where he saved me from being eaten by a man-eating rabid crocodile with sharp pointy teeth.  We have since done fieldwork together every year.

JS: Mark and I were both graduate students at the University of Utah. He has since finished his Ph.D. and become an instructor at Utah while I have moved on to my Ph.D. work at Stony Brook University in New York. We are still involved in several projects together and have spent a lot of time in the field together everywhere from southern Utah to Kenya.

JL: How did you discover the specimen?
ML: The great thing about the discovery of this specimen was that it was not made by a paleontologist, but by Joe Pachak, a local historian and artist who was out exploring for petroglyphs and pictographs.  He alerted the Bureau of Land Management, who contacted us at the Utah Museum of Natural History.  Because fossils are extremely rare in the Navajo Formation, we immediately went down to see the specimen and collected it the next month.

JS: The area where the fossil was discovered, Comb Ridge, is a striking 120 mile long ridge straddling the border between Arizona and Utah. The bones were exposed on the surface of a sandstone cliff, and required substantial effort to remove over the course of several weeks.

JL: What makes Seitaad different from other prosauropods (sauropodomorphs)?
ML: One of the striking unique features of Seitaad is a plate of bone projecting from the scapula and paralleling the coracoid inside the chest.  We have not seen a plate of bone like this in any other dinosaur.  Bones of dinosaurs are much more common in many Mesozoic marine deposits than they are in the terrestrial Navajo Sandstone, so getting to excavate and describe an articulated dinosaur from the Navajo was a real treat!

JS: Prosauropod remains have been known from the Navajo Sandstone for well over 80 years, but none were complete enough for a proper diagnosis. Seitaad represents not only the most complete prosauropod yet recovered from the Navajo Sandstone but also one of the most complete fossil vertebrates recovered. It is distinguished by a number of features, or autapomorphies, that no other prosauropod possesses. This includes several unique features on the scapula (shoulder girdle) and hand. The really interesting aspect of this specimen is that it preserves the skeleton in near perfect articulation.

JL: What was the most interesting part of your research?

Sertich with Seitaad Fossil
Joseph Sertich with Seitaad fossil

ML: Personally, I really enjoyed comparing our animal to other known sauropodomorphs when we were working out the evolutionary relationships of Seitaad.  We [Joe and myself] had a lot of interesting discussions about how the animal was deposited, standing on its head, and whether it was dead or alive when it was buried.  In the beginning we were convinced that the animal was probably alive when it was buried by a collapsing sand dune.  It wasn’t until a year ago when we CT scanned the block at the University of Utah Hospital that we realized that Seitaad was missing a single toe and the fibula.  This led us to realize that though the specimen was held together with soft tissue, it was probably dead when it was buried.

JS: The preparation of the specimen from the large blocks of sandstone was very exciting. Originally, the specimen had been identified as a large pterosaur (a flying reptile from this time period) but as we uncovered more and more of it, we could tell it was something different. It took an extraordinary amount of time and patience to clean the soft bones from the iron-like rock by one of the museum’s best preparators, Jerry Golden. Once we knew what we had, we were very excited; we had the first really well preserved prosauropod from the Navajo Sandstone, and one of the oldest dinosaurs from Utah!

JL: What made you decide to submit to PLoS ONE?
ML: Our submission to PLoS ONE was based on several factors.  The first was the rising impact and recognition of PLoS ONE within the paleontology academic community.  The second factor in our decision to submit was the rapid turnaround.  Our third consideration was the lack of limits to figures and unrestricted use of color.  The use of color was a major concern during the preparation of our manuscript when it became clear that black and white photos were not revealing proper contrast between our white bones and the pink sandstone.  Finally, we chose PloS ONE because it is an open-access journal, which is particularly appropriate given that the fossil specimen was collected from public lands.

JS: The open-access format and rapid turn-around attracted me to PLoS ONE. The opportunity to reach a broader audience is one of the great things about the journal. Plus, in the few years that it has been in publication, PLoS ONE has become a very well respected destination for some very exciting research.

JL: Since this was your first PLoS ONE paper, how did you find the submission experience?
ML: This has been a great experience.  Everyone at PLoS ONE was very professional, and the turnaround time was phenomenal!  Our paper went from initial submission to publication in less than two months.

JS: The entire submission process at PLoS ONE is very professional and simple. I was very impressed with the speed and quality at every step in the process.

Figure 11 of PLoS ONE article e9789
Figure 11 of PLoS ONE article e9789

JL: Which figure in the manuscript is your favorite and why?
ML: I have to go with the block diagram showing of the orientation of the skeleton in the cliff (Figure 11).  This is a figure that probably would not have been included if we had a strict page limit.  I think it adds a visual element to the taphonomy of the specimen that would have been much less accessible through a text only description.  The unrestricted use of color illustrations in PLoS ONE is awesome, its one the things I really enjoy when reading an article.

JS: This is a very difficult question to answer because I think all of the figures for this publication really came together beautifully. Figuring an articulated specimen still embedded in matrix can be a very challenging task. The ability to use color allowed us to tie all of the figures together in a way that I hope can really assist the reader.

JL: What is your next big research project?
ML: I am currently working on a multi-year project on horned dinosaurs along with Scott Sampson, Andy Farkeand Cathy Forster.  We are trying to understand the evolutionary relationships of ceratopsid dinosaurs, along with the pattern and timing of their evolution and radiation across the island continent of Laramidia (western North America).

JS: I am currently working on several new dinosaurs and crocodiles from the Late Cretaceous of Africa, a time interval for which we have very little knowledge. Understanding the biogeographic history of the African continent is important for addressing a number of hypotheses surrounding the sequence and timing of the fragmentation of Gondwana.

To read Mark and Joe’s freely available  paper, as well as over 50 other dino papers  please visit our Paleontology Collection.  Also, be on the look out for Stacy’s upcoming post where she will highlight some of our most popular dino articles.

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