“I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else,” said Pablo Picasso. We’re sure Dr. David Evans can agree that the same is true when it comes to building an exhibition. Ultimate Dinosaurs has been years in the making, and it all started with and idea from the ROM’s youngest curator.
Between working with the team to put together this major exhibition and working in the field on new palaeo finds, David sat down to answer some of our ultimate questions.
What make Southern Dinosaurs unique from their northern relatives?
For almost the entire Cretaceous period, the northern (Laurasia) and southern (Gondwana) parts of the Earth were separated from each other. This isolated the northern and southern dinosaur populations, as well as northern and southern ecosystems as a whole, and allowed them to evolve in unique direction in response to local environments.
During the approximately 60 million years of isolation, different groups of dinosaurs rose to prominence on Gondwana and Laurasia, and a huge diversity of new species evolved in each area. Some of the southern dinosaurs took on unusual characteristics that are quite different from what we are familiar with in the northern dinosaurs. For instance, a number of dinosaurs evolve ‘sails’ on their spines independently, like the giant meat-eater Spinosaurus, the plant-eater Ouranosaurus, and as well as the sauropod Amargasaurus- the last two of which are featured in Ultimate Dinosaurs. The top Cretaceous carnivores are also unique- the abelisaurids, which are known almost exclusively from the southern continents, have horned skulls and arms that are even smaller than T. rex. Majungasaurs and Carnotaurus are examples of this strange group of carnivores that are on display in the exhibition.
The exhibition covers a lot! What is your favourite part of the show?
This is a difficult question, but I think that the best part of the show is the story; that the evolution of the Earth and the evolution of the life it supports are intimately related. We use dinosaurs and plate tectonics to illustrate vicariance evolution, and the importance of isolation on the production of biological diversity.
If I had to pick a physical part of the exhibition, I really like the Madagascar display, as the fossils are so exquisite and the fight scene between Rapteosaurus and Majungasaurus is very dramatic.
You’ve made so many discoveries in your career, what would you say is your eureka moment to date?
I played a major role in the discovery of the oldest dinosaur nesting site, found from 190 million year old rocks in South Africa. I was lucky enough to find the first nest of eggs in the cliff wall back in 2006, and many of the dozen or so nests that we found in the few years after that. This turned out to be a major discovery. We actually have very little fossil information about dinosaur reproduction, particularly for early dinosaurs, and this amazing fossilized ‘dinosaur nursery’ gave palaeontologist the first detailed look at dinosaur reproduction early in their evolutionary history. Read more about this major dinosaur discovery.
What are your current research interests?
My main research interests focus on patterns of evolution and diversity of dinosaurs in the Late Cretaceous period, with the goal of understanding how major climate changes and sea-level shifts impacted dinosaur communities leading up to the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous – the end of the Age of Dinosaurs. I hope that this will ultimately provide a better understanding of the causes and consequences of mass extinctions in general, and give insights into the biodiversity crisis that we face today – a mass extinction event induced by human activity. In order to understand these phenomena on a global scale, my research takes me all over the world. One of the most exciting projects I am involved with right now is exploration of the Late Cretaceous of the eastern Sahara desert, because we know very little about dinosaur diversity in Africa just before the extinction event
Where do you think dinosaur research is heading in the next couple year?
Historically, dinosaur research has focused on finding and describing new fossils. This will always be an important part of palaeontology, but dinosaur science is entering a more analytical part of its history. Without a doubt, the future of dinosaur research is that it will become more quantitative, meaning that scientists will incorporate complex mathematical models and rigorous statistical approaches to studying the biology and diversity of dinosaurs and their world. This means the hypotheses about dinosaur evolution and extinction will focus more on large datasets and hypothesis testing, which will be a huge benefit to the field. Because the discovery of new fossils has the potential to change our views on the history of life, fieldwork will continue to be important. I predict that as the arctic ice recedes, we will see a boom in discoveries for the Polar Regions, as there are huge areas of Mesozoic-age rocks that are becoming more easily accessible with climate change and improved logistics. At the ROM, we are conducting research on both of these emerging frontiers.