Pia Viglietti, Centre of Excellence Palaeosciences Postdoctoral Fellow As a 2nd year Geology undergraduate at the University of Cape Town, I got offered a summer job doing a fossil scoping study for the Karoo National Park. After realising my skill and passion for finding fossils, I decided to pursue an honours project with Professor Roger Smith based at Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. This evolved into a Masters project where I investigated the origins of mysteriousLystrosaurus bonebeds preserved in rocks of the post-extinction world of the the earliest Triassic. This work instilled a passion for extinction events and I continued this work on the Permo-Triassic extinction event for my PhD working under Professor Bruce Rubidge at the Evolutionary Studies Institute where I investigated the events occurring in the Karoo Basin just prior to this major biotic catastrophe. For my postdoctoral studies I have joined Professor Jonah Choiniere's lab to help answer questions concerning another equally important extinction event preserved in the Karoo Basin at the Triassic-Jurassic Boundary. My multidisciplinary skills will be used to conduct a "palaeoinformatics" investigation which will incorporate a vast but dispersed database of Karoo vertebrate fossil spatial, temporal, and other metadata (e.g. morphometrics and taphonomy) into a large-scale database to statistically test a number of phylogenetic, palaeoecological, and palaeoenvironmental hypotheses related to the position of the Triassic-Jurassic boundary, and its inferred effects on terrestrial tetrapod ecosystems.
My passion for dinosaurs and fossils started at an early age, at around six or seven years old, precisely when I opened, in my parent’s bedroom, the National Geographic of August 1978, and contemplated the double page illustration on the dinosaur diversity through time. I instantly wanted to become a palaeontologist the moment I was informed that there was a profession consisting of studying dinosaurs. Completing a BSc degree in geology at the University of Liège, Belgium, a Master in palaeobiology at the University of Bristol, England, and a PhD in vertebrate palaeontology at the New University of Lisbon, Portugal, allowed me to realize this dream of becoming a professional palaeontologist. My research project on meat-eating dinosaurs in Portugal lead to the discovery of embryos and adult material of Torvosaurus gurneyi, a cousin of Tyrannosaurus rex and one of the largest terrestrial predators from Europe. Currently, I am doing a postdoc at the University of the Witwatersrand, enjoying my time studying the evolution of the dentition in gomphodont cynodonts and theropod dinosaurs. This specialization in the teeth of carnivorous dinosaurs now allows me to identify with a high degree of confidence several isolated theropod teeth offered by my mother when I was a little boy more than twenty years ago! While theropod dinosaurs gave rise to birds, gomphodont cynodonts are one of the closest cousins of the ancestors of modern mammals, and investigating the evolution of their dentition is crucial for understanding their dietary preferences and their evolutionary success throughout the Triassic.
Kimi Chapelle, PhD candidate, former MSc student (distinction, 2016)and Honours Student (distinction, 2013) Massospondylus carinatusOwen, 1854 is a basal Sauropodomorph from the late Triassic to the Early Jurassic (220-183 million years ago). It was one of the first dinosaurs ever described and is emblematic of the importance of South African palaeontology to the study of dinosaur evolution.Massospondyluswas the dominant large herbivore of its time and is known from an array of well-preserved specimens, mostly found between the mid-Elliot Formation to the lower Clarens Formation (theMassospondylus range zone). The vertebrae ofMassospondyluswere described as of 1854; however the braincase was only briefly described in 1990 and the skull in 2004. In fact, there are no cranial autapomorphies which have been set to clearly differentiate Massospondylus from its sister taxa. A dedicated CT scan and 3D digital representation of aMassospondylus skull has not yet been done (a preliminary scan was done for comparison toNigersaurus) and would allow for the establishment of a more detailed skull and braincase description, as well as the internal cranial structures. My project entails doing a CT scan of a Massospondylus carinatus skull followed by the virtual reconstruction of the braincase, brain and other internal structures. The aims of the projects are to obtain a detailed description of these cranial structures, as well as the establishment of cranial autapomorphies of the genus, the phylogenetic position of Massospondylus and its comparative anatomy.
Kathleen Dollman, MSc candidate I discovered my interest in the ancient when I did a brief stint as a journalist in Beaufort West, where I did a piece about under-privileged school children getting the chance to see their archeological heritage. I completed my commerce degree in financial journalism from the University of the Free State in 2010. At that stage I had already started working for the administration offices for the three primary game reserves in Swaziland, Big Game Parks. Conservation and the outdoors became a part of my life, and I knew I wanted to pursue something that involved all of the above. A few years later has seen me starting my honours in paleosciences. My project is a study of Protosuchus haughtoni cranial morphology. We have very limited knowledge of what characteristics defined early crocodylomorphs, and to date the majority of studies this group have consisted of external descriptions. Relatively recent work on morphological evolution on crocodylomorph using CT technology (Holliday and Witmer, 2008) has shown its potential in understanding key transitions within the group. With this CT scan we will delve into an almost untouched are of the internal cranial characteristics of basal crocodylomorphs. Of particular interest is the pneumatization of the braincase in Protosuchus , a feature that is common in basalmost crocodylomorphs but is still poorly understood. My aim with this project is to complete a study of Protosuchus haughtoni cranial morphology which will enable us to determine polarity of key characters that change along the phylogenetic lineage leading to modern crocodilians, as well as to open further research options in a developmental study between juvenile and adult specimens, a potential environmental study as well as further research on the development of pneumatisation of the braincase in basalmost crocodylomorphs.
Casey Staunton, MSc candidate I have had an interest in the palaeontology and geology of our planet since I was a child and spent most of my time outside with my animals. Palaeontology combines the two things I find most interesting - geology and biology. My project focuses on basal sauropodomorpha, specifically, the changes that occur in the forelimb during ontogeny and the changes that occur as the animals move from a more bipedal posture to a quadrupedal one over evolutionary time.
Katherine Clayton, MSc candidate Through lithofacies description, ichno-studies and sauropodomorph fossils, and quantitative palaeoclimate reconstruction, our research team is exploring interaction between the terrestrial fauna and dynamic landscapes of the Karoo Basins. My project focuses on interpreting the palaeoenvironments of the Karoo Supergroup with a focus on the Triassic Elliot Formation, in the Lembombo-Tshipise basin. By comparing data collected in the Lebombo-Tshipise Basin to research published from the Main Karoo Basin, we can examine palaeoenvironment conditions and faunal distributions across South Africa during the Late Triassic dinosaurian radiation in Gondwana.
Cory Dinter, MSc candidate Growing up in Utah, a state filled to the gills with rocks displaying over two billion years’ worth of geologic history, it came as no big surprise to anyone when I started studying palaeontology. I received my Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Utah in 2014 and have since moved on to pursue a graduate degree at The University of the Witwatersrand under the supervision of Professor Jonah Choiniere. My MSc project centralises around a basal sauropodomorph recently discovered from the lower Elliot Formation in South Africa and aims to sort the taxonomic affinity, taphonomy, and stratigraphic context for this early dinosaur with an overarching goal of adding to the understanding of life in the late Triassic.
Gina Viglietti, BSc Honours The first "fossil" I found was a brick-encrusted block of cement that I dug up in the garden with my fathers' work tools at the age of five. I grew up being taken on trips to Namibia, the Karoo, and places along the South African coastline with my family. My parents did a lot to nurture my curiosity for the world, and worlds beyond it. During that time I took for granted that I would become a natural scientist, whether it was a paleontologist, a botanist, a marine biologist, or an astronomer. But life took me on another path for a while.
I attained a Bachelor of Arts in 2007, and for most of my twenties I worked as a freelance illustrator and visual development artist in games and animation. I always enjoyed being creative, however, after some years I found the life of an artist on its own unfulfilling. I realized I needed to find a way back onto the path I had truly always wanted to follow. In July 2016, I was given that opportunity by the Evolutionary Sciences Institute at the University of Witswatersrand where I am now an Honours candidate in Paleontology. My research involves studying the inner ear morphology of Prolacerta broomi. The morphology of the inner ear has proven to provide solid phylogenetic data. In collecting this data from Prolacerta specimens, with the help of CT scanning technology, I hope to decipher the phylogeny of the basal most archosauromorphs and their connection to the crownward nodes of the archosaur tree: the Crocodilia, Pterosauromorpha, Dinosauria, and Aves.
Viktor Radermacher, BSc Honours For as long as I can remember, I have always held a deep reverence for natural history. I grew up in South Africa’s garden route fascinated by the strange things that would wash up on shore, the colossal folds in the region’s geology, and the majesty of Wilderness’s forests. I was, and still am, in awe of the natural world we evolved in, and the startling diversity Natural Selection has produced. Dinosaurs were my first love, and as I grew older and learnt more about evolution, I began to see just how important they were as evolutionary models. Dinosaurs managed to achieve an incredibly diverse range of forms and are a great example of the diversity that extinction events produce. I have been particularly interested in resolving basal ornithischian phylogeny and I was offered a project that scratches that very itch! I will be describing the postcranial material of a new Heterodontosaurus specimen. This specimen contains many features that are unexpected in an ornithischian and sheds new light on the timing of key evolutionary events within dinosaurs. I have also recently attended a month-long programme at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France where I performed phase contrast microCT tomography scans on the basal ornithomimosaur Nqwebasaurus thwazi.
I am an undergrad Archaeology student at the University of the Witwatersrand. I will be pursuing an Honours degree in Palaeontology in 2017. For my research project, I will be looking at a Cynodont cranium from Cynognathus subzone C with intent to answer questions about Southern African biostratigraphy from the mid-Triassic.
Cebisa Mdekazi, Honours student Palaeontology is something that I have been interested in for a while now because it combines the two subjects that I've always loved, Natural Sciences and History. My honours project is on the ankle of Litargosuchus leptorynchus, a basal crocodyliform.
I started studying for my Bachelor of Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2009, where I majored in Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences and thus became very interested in Palaeontology and Form and Function. I completed my BSc honours and MSc in Palaeontology under the supervision of Prof. Kristian Carlson and Prof. Fernando Abdala. Currently, I am completing my PhD in Palaeontology, under the supervision of Prof. Kristian Carlson, Prof. Fernando Abdala, Prof. Frank Kienhofer and Prof. Jonah Choiniere. I focus my research on understanding the form related to the function or vice versa of prehistoric species. This allows me to expand my abilities by studying a variety of species in different environments. My PhD thesis incorporates a modelling approach for researching postcranial functional morphology of Thrinaxodon liorhinus and more broadly cynodonts This proposed research builds on my honours and masters studies. As those two projects were the first attempt of using Geometric Morphometric statistical analyses to quantify fossoriality of the postcrania of Thrinaxodon. My PhD is a multidisciplinary approach combining Palaeontology and Mechanical Engineering by usage of Finite Element Analyses. Demonstration of successful usage of this method will facilitate its application in similar future studies of the evolution of limb postures.
Midas, Senior Puppy Chow Inspector I'm an important lab technician. Currently I'm investigating how to maximize puppy chow intake by splitting time between Dr. Choiniere and Dr. Kelsey Glennon's labs.
Mella, Executive Assistant to Dr. Choiniere I joined the team in 2012 and greatly enjoy the chance to work with enthusiastic young minds!