Home A Vision for Dinosaur Palaeontology: Model Organisms from Deep Time

    A Vision for Dinosaur Palaeontology: Model Organisms from Deep Time

    Research at the Sander Lab focuses on dinosaur palaeontology and what this tells us about evolutionary biology and the history of life.

    The Sander Lab has a unique perspective on dinosaur palaeontology, seeing it as a fundamental part of evolutionary biology, with vital applications in society such as medical research and science teaching.

    Dinosaurs were fascinating and important creatures, and almost all all dinosaurs were huge (except for the living ones, the birds), with sauropod dinosaurs being the largest animals to ever inhabit the land and ichthyosaurs being the second largest sea creatures to ever evolve (after today’s whales).

    The time span these animals lived in, and left their fossils, is documented in rocks spanning over 180 million years of geologic time, from the Early Triassic (248 million years ago) to the end of the Cretaceous (66 million years ago). Dinosaurs of the land and the sea – including the marine giants of the Mesozoic – invented virtually all lifestyles seen in modern tetrapods (land animals), and thus represent evolutionary experiments which allow us by comparison to understand the modern world. Ecosystems inhabited by dinosaurs compared those after the dinosaurs went extinct also followed this theme, representing different runs of parallel evolution. We posit that by understanding the parallels, we understand the specifics of each lineage, grounded in its evolutionary history.

    Dinosaur anatomy: from old bones to living animals

    By studying dinosaur anatomy, observing the excavated fossil bones, studying their microstructure, and inferring the (mostly) missing soft anatomy, we can learn much about our own history as warm blooded, fur-clad creatures. We learn to put specifics of our anatomy such as the much maligned intervertebral disk (IVD), into perspective, realising that the IVD evolved early on in the history of land animals and that better solutions were found by other animals than mammals but that these solutions were not open to our remote ancestors. Only the comparison of major evolutionary lineages such as sauropod dinosaurs, meat-eating dinosaurs, bird-hipped dinosaurs, ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mammals will lead to a profound understanding of their respective histories. Research about sauropods dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs of the Mesozoic teaches us that dinosaurs science should no longer be viewed as satisfying curiosity about lost worlds but as an integral part of evolutionary biology, a profound aid to medical research, and as a major vehicle for science teaching. We thus take a very different and novel look at dinosaur palaeontology and its uses for society than what society is used to.

    About Dr Sander

    Dr P. Martin Sander has been at the Department of Paleontology of the Institute of Geosciences of the University of Bonn since 1990. Since 2007, he has been head of the Goldfuß Museum and professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology.

    After his undergraduate work at the University of Freiburg in Germany, Dr Sander obtained a master’s degree at the University of Texas at Austin in 1984 and a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich, Switzerland, in 1989. Since then, he has divided his research interests between the more traditional work in palaeontology such as excavating and studying Triassic marine reptiles around the globe, and a more biological approach to extinct vertebrates.

    More recently Dr Sander has used the microstructure of fossil bone as a clue to life history and evolution, an interest he developed as a postdoc in Paris in 1990. A spectacular application was the proof, published in 2006, that like the Channel Island mammoths, dinosaurs were subject to island dwarfing. The study of dinosaur life history eventually led to the recognition that the largest of them all, the sauropod dinosaurs, represent a challenge to evolutionary biologists trying to understand their unique body size.

    From 2004 to 2012, Dr Sander was able to obtain major funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) for the study of this topic, heading the DFG Research Unit 533Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs: The Evolution of Gigantism“. This research unit has brought together expertise from all over Central Europe on topics as seemingly unrelated as materials science, animal nutrition, and biomechanics with a palaeobiological question to focus on: What were sauropod dinosaurs like as living animals and how did they get so large?

    Since 1987, Dr Sander has authored about 240 scientific papers and books on his research. He is the senior editor of “Biology of the Sauropod Dinosaurs. Understanding the Life of Giants” (Indiana University Press, 2011) and “Fossilization” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021) as well as the editor of the eBook “Sauropod Gigantism – A Cross-Disciplinary Approach” (PLoS 2013).

    Dr Sander’s research also encompasses the evolution of gigantism in marine reptiles of the Triassic period, with spectacular new finds from the desert of Nevada (USA). But amazing finds are also coming from his native Germany, for example the dwarf sauropod dinosaur Europasaurus which he described in 2006 and the oldest and only Triassic plesiosaur Rhaeticosaurus which he and his team named in 2017. Since 2018, he has headed the DFG Research Unit 2685 “Fossilization”, inspired by the realisation that we do not understand the material nature of dinosaur bones, of insects enclosed in amber, and of fossil plants, although we are able to isolate more and more organic remains and soft tissues from these fossils. Ultimately, understanding how fossilization works helps us understand dinosaurs as living animals.

    AREAS OF EXPERTISE:

    • Vertebrate Palaeontology
    • Evolutionary Biology
    • Comparative Anatomy
    • Paleobiology
    • Taphonomy and fossilisation
    • Histology of fossil hard tissues
    • Dinosaurs as model organisms

    RESEARCH INTERESTS:

    • Dinosaur biology and evolution
    • Fossil vertebrate hard tissues: bone histology and enamel microstructure
    • Mesozoic marine reptiles: Evolution and biogeography
    • Fossilization of animal and plant tissues
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