22 Century: Pavel Skutchas about the life of palaeontologist

What was the life of dinosaurs during the ‘Russian’ Mesozoic Era? What are Russian experts excavating today? What was before dinosaurs? What is the day in the life of a palaeontologist like? What documentaries are necessary to film and what should school pupils who have set their mind to become palaeontologists do? You can get answers from Pavel Skutchas, Doctor of Biology and Associate Professor in the Department of Vertebrate Zoology at St Petersburg University.

I am a ‘Mesozoic vertebrate’ palaeontologist  

Journalists very often tend to confuse palaeontologists with archaeologists and even anthropologists. Who are palaeontologists? To answer this question, it's easier to tell what palaeontologists are not. What we do not focus on is our material culture. Beyond our scope are ancient settlements, pots, and tools. This is what archaeology specifically focuses on. Studying humans from the past is also beyond our scope. This is the field of anthropology. Palaeontologists study fossils. We have always been fascinated by ancient organisms, mammoths, for example.

Each palaeontologist is to perform a specific role. Among us there are those who deal with the fossils of animals, i.e. palaeozoologists, and those who deal with fossil plants, i.e. palaeobotanists. Additionally, each of us focuses on a certain period of time. We even have jargon to refer to different palaeontologists: Palaeozoic, Devonian, Mesozoic. I study mainly the Mesozoic era vertebrates and I am therefore a Mesozoic vertebrate palaeontologist.

Russia is still our destination

My typical day varies across the year depending on the season. Palaeontologists are 'seasonal' people. December is the most nightmare month for palaeontologists (and for most scientists). Very largely because we're all bombarded with reports! My typical December day is like this: I open my laptop and write reports.

Palaeontologists work either in academic institutions or at universities. I work at the University, and my typical day is like this: I deliver lectures, I work with collections, and I write research papers. In other words, my typical day is about teaching myself, teaching students, and constantly writing something.

In summer I usually go on expeditions. This is the happiest time of the year. I can work, search for something and touch fossils with my hands.

We are travelling more and more with expeditions across Russia. When I just got into the job in palaeontology and was still a student, I was engaged in a paleontological expedition in Uzbekistan. There I initially gained some basic knowledge (yet my first expedition was in Transbaikalia where I was given a sieve to wash the ancient rock in search of fossils). Still, I acquired basic palaeontological skills in Uzbekistan. Then we travelled a lot in Central Asia, particularly Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan ... Though we spend a good deal of time in Russia, mainly in Siberia. Slowly but surely, Siberia became our constant destination. Next summer, if we have luck on our side, we'll dig in the Far East. This is where my vertebral Mesozoic is.

Why you should not throw bones away

Russia is rich in fossils that have the remains of dinosaurs and other ancient vertebrates. Yet they all lie under forests or there are other reasons behind why they are difficult to access. Once my colleague told me that there was no vegetation on the Arctic islands, all the rocks and skeletons of sea lizards lie on the surface. However, it’s just not possible to get to them as it’s a costly and arduous job. This is inevitably a problem.

But there is a more serious problem. We simply do not have enough palaeontologists in our country. To gain success in science the number of scientists is essential. There are many palaeontologists in China, and they have amazing success. In China, palaeontology is, to a certain extent, a national programme as is physics or space exploration. Palaeontologists are funded, and ordinary people are well paid if they have found something. When peasants find bones in the quarries, they don't throw them away. This is truly amazing. Among the most recent discoveries is a perfectly preserved dinosaur embryo found in a quarry in China. Only a few years later it came to palaeontologists. The finding was not thrown away and this is a good luck.

In the same quarries in Russia, the found bones can easily be thrown away to prevent scientists from asking to stop the process of mining, for example. Just to avoid job losses. I have heard stories when workers found a mammoth skull in a quarry, crushed it with a bucket and threw it into a dump so that no one would see or hear about it. This suggests that many of our citizens are far from being self-conscious, they do not understand that fossils may be of great interest and useful.

‘Dinosaurs did not live on empty landscapes’

I study the dinosaur fauna, i.e. dinosaurs and the vertebrates that lived with them. Among them are flying lizards, crocodiles, salamanders, and various other amphibians. So I reconstruct an important component of ancient ecosystems. Dinosaurs didn't live on empty landscapes. They coexisted with a lot of species.

I am truly enthusiastic about how dinosaur faunas had been evolving. In this regard, the findings in Siberia provide incredibly valuable information. Particularly, we have fossils that date back to the middle Jurassic period. These fossils are about 165 million years old. Approximately in the same area, there are fossils that date back to the beginning of the Cretaceous period. They are about 120-130 million years old. Eventually, there are about 40 million years of difference between these faunas! It is fascinating to study how the fauna had been changing. As researchers have found, there was a refugium in the territory of Western Siberia in the Early Cretaceous. Refugium is a location where organisms that have already died out in other places survive. In other words, these are the relics for their time.

Supposedly, the Jurassic Park, which had existed in the vast territory of Western Siberia, migrated to the Cretaceous period. For example, stegosaurs, i.e. herbivorous dinosaurs with spikes, had lived in the middle of the Jurassic in Siberia, but they also had been running in the early Cretaceous. Various mammals, lizards, primitive salamanders have not change during these 40 million years. Nothing has changed in them! This is a curious fact that scientists have discovered while exploring Siberia. When palaeontologists started to study the polar fauna of the Early Cretaceous, they also discovered the Jurassic relics! So the study of even our 'domestic' faunas gives us a good insight into ​​how the biota has been evolving.

The Mesozoic era in Russia

Little had changed on the territory of Russia from the middle of the Jurassic Period to the beginning of the Cretaceous Period. When it comes to citing an example of striking stability in the history of the Earth, I always refer to Siberia during the Jurassic Period and Cretaceous Period. The climate in those days hardly changed. It was warm and comfortable, there were neither falling asteroids nor volcanoes. The ancient Jurassic vertebrates were feeling good and existed until the Cretaceous period.

Russia is a large country and the regions across Russia during the Mesozoic period differed radically. Closer to the Poles it was cool, yet not critical. Yes, we are talking about the ‘polar fauna of the Cretaceous Period'. Yet we should understand that the climate in Chukotka during the Mesozoic Period was rather moderate. It was not cold there, the climate in Chukotka was the same as is today on the contemporary Japanese islands where there are evergreens. There were sub-zero temperatures, but they were not the same as they are now, and dinosaurs survived perfectly. Dinosaurs were mostly warm-blooded, with some of them having feathers, and they were prepared for sub-zero temperatures. Modern birds are descendants of dinosaurs. Look at penguins: they are feeling good at -60℃ in Antarctica. Dinosaurs could also survive in harsh environments. Yet Chukotka was undoubtedly much warmer than Antarctica during those times.

There were many archipelagos on the European territory of Russia. Archipelagos are what make the Cretaceous and Jurassic different from other periods. If palaeontologists want to search for ancient marine reptiles, they just go on an expedition to the European part of our country, for example to the Volga Region. If you are passionate about dinosaurs, you have to go to Siberia.

How many days it took to form a dinosaur tooth

Fortunately, over recent years our research team at the University has been growing. More and more students are being engaged. There are 17 of us in total. This is great! Yesterday, we summed up the results of the year and realised that in 2021 our team prepared 10 serious research articles.

An ‘instruction’ to the crocodylian skull: scientists from St Petersburg University described for the first time all structures in the animal's braincase, having studied more than 70 of their 3D models

I'll tell you about a study in which my colleague Ivan Kuzmin has played a leading role. His project particularly focuses on the brain box of crocodiles. The brain box is the ossifications around the brain and sensory organs. In archosaurs, which include dinosaurs, birds, and crocodiles, it is well preserved and consists of many bones. When examining the brain box, you can study the cavities inside by using computed tomography to explore where and which nerves passed, how thick they were (for example, if the olfactory nerve was thick, the animal, presumably, could sniff). From the cast of the brain box, you can understand which parts of the brain were well developed.

Today, little is known about the brain boxes of modern archosaurs, i.e. crocodiles. Ivan Kuzmin and his group analysed 75 species of modern crocodiles and found out how their brain box worked. Their project is going to become classic, and other scientists will refer to it. I always say that palaeontology is a biological science. Without studying modern crocodiles, nothing will be known about their fossil relatives.

In 2021, our team also continued to explore the Early Cretaceous dinosaurs of Yakutia. We studied the teeth of polar stegosaurs and tried to gain an insight into whether polar stegosaurs had been different from their relatives that had lived in the temperate latitudes. What we first discovered was that the teeth of the polar Yakut dinosaurs wore down very quickly. Second, their teeth changed very quickly. Seemingly, due to adaptation to feeding on rigid polar gymnosperms. To compensate for tooth wear, dinosaurs developed a compensatory mechanism.

How did we discover that the teeth were forming quickly? We made a ground section on the tooth to see the rings that corresponded to the days of dentin formation, just like on the stumps. These incremental von Ebner lines illustrate the daily pattern of dentin deposition. Finally, we found that the stegosaur tooth formed during 90 days, which is very fast compared to the formation of the teeth of modern crocodiles, for example. In my opinion, this is quite an interesting conclusion.

Back in 2021, my colleague Dmitry Grigoriev, an expert in fossil large lizards, i.e. mosasaurs, was a co-author of the article on polar Triassic ichthyosaurs. The lead author of this study is our friend Nikolai Zverkov, a prominent expert in ichthyosaurs and mosasaurs from the Paleontological Institute. The polar theme rocks!

Palaeontology is a team science

What is research today? When scientists discover something interesting, the conclusions should be beautifully presented as a research article. Palaeontologists start to write an article. Sometimes we write for half a year, or even more. Then we submit the article to a journal. It is considered and reviewed, and comments are sent to the authors. Then the scientists again submit the corrected version to the journal. This review process can take a very long time.

What we do can be compared to an assembly line: we write one article and rewrite another ... Our articles may be published in a year. The articles that I have mentioned above were published in 2021, but the studies, which are discussed in the publications, were conducted much earlier.

A little about what will be published next year. Hopefully, in the near future my colleagues from the UK and I will publish an article on ancient salamanders. The ancient salamanders are also on the list of what I focus on. My doctoral dissertation was about them. I was eventually engaged in an international team. My role was to provide information about our domestic ancient salamanders. It was an incredibly interesting team work!

I am constantly in contact with my international colleagues. This year, we have published an article. These palaeontologists excavated a whole dinosaur fauna in the cave deposits of chalk in Germany. Salamander vertebrae were found among the excavated bones! These vertebrae were given to me by my colleague for further study. We twisted the vertebrae on the tomograph for a long time and eventually described a new salamander from Germany.

We collaborate with Germans, British, Canadians. This year we have published a joint article with the wonderful Canadian Jim Gardner from the Royal Tyrrell Museum. Both Jim and I work with ancient amphibians.

There is no Chinese palaeontology, there is a global palaeontology

In my opinion, there is no such thing as the 'Russian palaeontology' or 'Russian science'. Palaeontology is an international science. We can use the phrase 'Russian science' to show what Russian scientists have discovered, what contribution they have made to global palaeontology. If you want your research results and findings to become universally acknowledged, you must publish in English. This is our reality. Before the Revolution, all international publications were in German.

During the Soviet times, many works by physicists and palaeontologists were translated into English, and these works are now widely known. Unfortunately, the results of many studies have been published in small-scale Russian-language journals that only few people could have access to. What they published has not become available to the wider public. I advise my students to publish only in English. Today, it is the language of science. In many Russian-language journals, articles are now published with parallel translation into English.

Chinese scientists are also actively publishing in English, because they understand that there is no Chinese palaeontology, there is a global palaeontology. We must integrate into it. Chinese scientists actively travel to the United States, Russia and other countries to acquire scientific skills, return then to China and promote science at home. Chinese scientists are actively cooperating with scientists worldwide. For example, Stephen Brusatte, who is one of the most prominent dinosaur experts, has participated in the already mentioned article about the dinosaur embryo. Stephen Brusatte is a consultant for the new 'Jurassic World'. Chances are that the movie will be good. Steven is a very open and sympathetic person. He has visited Russia to see the St Petersburg collection of dinosaurs. This is how we met. The second time we met was when I was giving a lecture in Canada. Mr Brusatte seemed to me a very frank and erudite scientist. Little wonder, he has many students and partnerships with palaeontologists across the globe.

In general, collaborating with high-calibre specialists to make publications is good.

Debates and disputes in palaeontology

Today, there are a wide range of debates and disputes in palaeontology. These disputes are resolved in high-quality journals. This is the only, in my opinion, possible platform for discussions. When someone on a YouTube channel says: 'This palaeontologist is just a fool, he does not understand anything,' they are far from being serious. All disputes and discussions should therefore be conducted exclusively in journals.

What are the most common topics palaeontologists argue about? Most of them are about the origin of different groups. In other words, no one argues that birds descended from dinosaurs, but they argue about who is the closest relative of turtles. Turtles are now classified as diapsid reptiles. Diapsids are a large group that includes lizards, snakes, crocodiles, dinosaurs, and ancient marine reptiles such as ichthyosaurs. So, the question is which are turtles closer to? The debates are still on. I know scientists who believe that the closest relatives of turtles are plesiosaurs, marine extinct lizards. Yet other scientists tend to believe the opposite. This discussion is hot. Every year, something new on the topic is published. Sooner or later, a consensus will be reached.

There are other disputes in palaeontology. For example, some researchers believe that there was no decline in the diversity of dinosaurs before their extinction. Stephen Brusatte has published articles where he has come to this conclusion. Yet scientists from Bristol, headed by Michael Benton, constantly publish calculations that prove that the variety of non-avian dinosaurs was falling, and when the asteroid arrived, the dinosaurs were almost dying. In other words, the asteroid flew in and killed them. There are many debates on this topic. There is also a dispute about family ties between large groups of dinosaurs.

These disputes are actually nice to look at. Largely because scientists are constantly publishing new articles, finding new facts, discovering new fossils ... This is how science is advanced! When you listen to pretended 'specialists' who have nothing to do with science and the only thing they do is to insult scientists... This is not science, but a nightmare.

Dinosaurs in films

Dinosaurs are extremely popular in cinema. In my opinion, such films are far from creating new myths about ancient lizards or making the situation better. When ‘Jurassic Park’ was realised in the 1990s, palaeontology reached new heights! Palaeontology grabbed lots of young people, many of them went on to do research relating to dinosaurs. Governments worldwide started to actively finance excavations, which is very important.

Today, a large number of films about dinosaurs are still being released. Everyone loves dinosaurs! I think that there are so many palaeofans worldwide. Even if there are no dinosaurs in films, we will still be enthusiastic about dinosaurs. Largely because today dinosaurs are a kind of brand.

In my opinion, making films about other periods, for example, about the time when dinosaurs had not appeared yet, is also useful. In the 2000s, the BBC's TV series Walking with Dinosaurs was released. This series presented progressive views about dinosaurs and flying lizards from the world’s leading palaeontologists. Even those who were far from palaeontology watched the series with great pleasure. Largely because the series were dubbed by Nikolay Drozdov, who we have known and loved from our early days thanks to the series In the World of Animals.

Following Walking with Dinosaurs, there were series about the Palaeozoic, the Permian period ... It would be great to make, for example, a film Permian Park. We have lots of Permian and Triassic locations in the European part of Russia, when dinosaurs had not yet appeared, but there were many other curious creatures. These pre-dinosaur faunas were amazing! In the Triassic period, for example, there were distant relatives of crocodiles and dinosaurs that had tried to become dinosaurs and crocodiles. Some of them even tried to run on their hind legs! Almost no one knows about this because everyone is obsessed with dinosaurs. Occasionally, people can think of ancient reptiles, or plesiosaurs, splashing in the seas and pterodactyls flying across the sky ... But there had been fantastic worlds long before them! The film about these worlds is what we all are striving for. I would be glad if a good documentary was released, with each period lasting for not half an hour, but one and a half. I want people to watch not the Game of Thrones, but the Game of Periods to gain an insight into how all living things have been evolving.

What to do to become a palaeontologist

People think that ‘there are no dinosaurs in Russia', and few people in our country therefore go into palaeontology. Somewhere in Kirov, a schoolboy may be sad and does not know that fantastic faunas of ancient saurus that had lived before dinosaurs have been found next to his home. Whole skeletons were excavated by palaeontologists! I hope that the situation will change for the better if our economy does not collapse. More people will come to palaeontology, and we will make discoveries on the territory of Russia, and not only those relating to dinosaurs.

In childhood, many boys and girls are passionate about dinosaurs. What about senior school pupils who have set their mind to study palaeontology? What you need to do is to study biology. Palaeontology, as I have said, is primarily a biological science. Of course, colleagues from the Faculty of Geology at Lomonosov Moscow State University will not agree with me as there is the Department of Palaeontology there. Nevertheless, biology is essential. If you want to navigate in ancient times and understand how and where to search for an ancient bone, you must also know at least the basics of geology.

It is difficult for me to give advice to future palaeontologists. Palaeontology is a wide-ranging science. You can be a palaeontologist and at the same time never go on an expedition in your whole life. What you do is just to study the museum collections. You can analyse, collect databases that contain different paleontological data, and study them using different mathematical models trying to understand how everything on Earth has been evolving. Mathematics is essential to be able to make such analysis. Yet if you are not enthusiastic about field life, you can do research in your office. If you want to travel and search for something, you need to be ready to live in tents, for example. Shovels, mosquitoes, deprivation, excavation and the joy of discovery – these will be an indispensable part of your life.

This year, my colleagues and I have been making videos and taking a series of pictures on the topic 'The Story of a Finding'. We are often asked: 'How do you discover fossils? How do you study them?’ In the summer 2021 in Buryatia, we found a big vertebra of a sauropod, that is a long-necked dinosaur. Having found it, we were excavating for several days. Then, the packed and plastered vertebra ‘travelled’ from Buryatia to St Petersburg, where we studied and dissected this vertebra for a couple of months at the University. The day before yesterday, we finally scanned the surface of the vertebra and made its three-dimensional model. After the New Year, we will try to understand which sauropod the vertebra belonged to. It might belong to some previously unknown dinosaur. Who knows? Our results and findings will be published in an article in a journal. This ‘Story of a Finding’ might be of interest to non-specialists and those who dream of becoming a palaeontologist: how we discovered, cleaned, and studied the vertebra.

My participation in popularising science is not necessary

Today, I have less engaged in popularising science. Why? First, I don’t have time: science is not only about sitting at a microscope and making discoveries. We also need to write various reports, submit applications... This year, my colleagues and I did a course in palaeontology. From August to December, I recorded videos and also prepared presentations... I officially have three jobs. I would come home and try to do something for the course. There was absolutely no time left to popularise science.

Second, I am exhausted. Making science benefit the wider public is pointless to a degree. At some point, it seemed to me that this did not bring any results. Additionally, there are lots of those who popularise palaeontology. My participation in popularising science is not necessary.

Third, those questions that are usually of interest to a wide audience are little of interest to me. For example, I'm not particularly interested in lecturing about why dinosaurs became extinct. Much has already been said on this topic ... I am not very interested in discussing the myths that cinematography generates. What is the point of science?

Sometimes I feel like to talk about what is of interest to me. But this may be not interesting to those who are not experts in our filed. For example, I would be happy to tell you about ancient amphibians, salamanders, frogs... But it is unlikely that these topics will be of interest to a wider audience.