Research

Right now I spend a lot of time thinking about how modern birds use their bodies to move through – and interact with – their environment. From climbing, wading, and running to perching in trees, grasping prey, and fighting off other animals or even getting into spats with members of their own species, birds use their legs and feet to do it all! I hope to figure out which of these factors shape leg anatomy and am excited to see what this work can tell us about the ecology of extinct theropod dinosaurs. When I’m not measuring bird legs I also study oviraptorosaur bone histology to figure out how the bodies of these animals changed as they grew from hatchlings to adults (a process we call ontogeny)! In studying oviraptorosaur growth I am also looking for insights into how paleontologists’ understanding of ontogeny may impact our assessments of diversity in the fossil record.

Gallery of images showing two rows of three images each. Row 1 Image 1 – A white woman dressed in all black leans over next to a tyrannosaur dentary on a shelf in the collections area of a museum. She smiles broadly at the camera and points at the specimen, looking very overtly excited. Row 1 Image 2 – A bone thin section image being compiled by nikon software is shown on a computer monitor. A close up of the bone histology can be seen next to an inset that shows the overall photo stitching progress. Row 1 Image 3 – Various hindlimb bones of an oviraptorosaur are arranged on a foam block that has been carved out to fit the bones. A tibia is laid out in three sections and a fibula fragment, metatarsal, and some isolated phalanges can be identified. Row 2 Image 1 – A portion of a museum display informational placard is shown. It houses a cast of a large pair of dinosaur eggs next to images of eggshell fragments. Behind the angled placard is a recreation of a very large dinosaur nest. Row 2 Image 2 – Casts of the tarsometatarus and pedal phalanges of Macrophalangia canadensis, a medium sized caenagnathid oviraptorosaur, are laid out. The tarsometatarsus is on the right and the phalanges of each digit are spaced out in columns to the left of it. Row 2 Image 3 – Jade, a white woman with long brown hair, stands at a precision saw used for thin sectioning. She wears square black rimmed glasses and a white lab coat. Her hair is tied back in a braid and she turns to smile at the camera while holding a specimen next to the saw.

During my M.Sc. work at Montana State University, I used histology (the study of tissue types under the microscope) to reconstruct the nesting environment of gigantic oviraptorosaurs, a group of goofy-looking, feathered theropod dinosaurs that have a relatively short, toothless, beaked snout. Oviraptorosaurs are commonly found with nests of eggs, and some have even been found with eggs in their body cavities! By studying the microstructure of these eggs we know that the largest ones were very strong for their size thanks to an interwoven crystal structure, handy if you have a huge animal sitting on you, and that most of these eggs have a high density of pores. These pores allow the embryo inside the egg to exchange gasses with the outside environment, bringing in oxygen and allowing built-up waste gasses to exit the egg. In modern birds, high pore density is a common feature of eggs in high-humidity nesting environments – either buried in mounds of vegetation or laid in nests close to, or even floating in, the water. Because oviraptorosaur eggs have high porosity, and high gas exchange potential, we know they were most likely nesting in the same high-humidity environments as birds with high porosity eggs. Within oviraptorosaur egg clutches found so far we also see distinct pairs of eggs, which probably means that oviraptorosaurs had two functional oviducts, unlike modern birds that only have one usable oviduct left!

A black and white image of several eggshell fragments set against a black background. Two rows of four fragments each are shown and variable ornamentation on the eggshell fragments is highlighted. Some fragments have thick linear ornamentation, some have a mix of nodes and short lines, and some have an interweaving texture that appears lacy.
Giant oviraptorosaur eggshell fragments, various surface ornamentation types
A photomicrograph (image from a microscope) showing a thin section of fossil eggshell. A two-layered structure is seen and a white bar indicated the boundary between the mammillary layer (ML) on the bottom and the continuous layer (CL) on the top. The image is shown in cross-polarized light and the crystals that make up the eggshell are variable shades of tan, brown, black, and yellow-ish brown
Giant oviraptorosaur eggshell as seen under a microscope

My work reconstructing the nesting habits and reproductive biology of oviraptorosaurs is what sparked my curiosity about their growth and diversity – topics I am now addressing as a Ph.D. student at the Royal Ontario Museum & University of Toronto!