Palaeontologist says you have to be good at maths if you want to work with dinosaurs

Palaeontologist says you have to be good at maths if you want to work with dinosaurs

Move over Ross Geller, palaeontologist, Matt Lamanna, explains why numbers are so important when studying the prehistoric

The prehistoric world is filled with intrigue and incredible natural history, but there is still a lot yet to be uncovered about the time when dinosaurs walked the earth.

Films, TV shows and popular culture are full of references of the prehistoric but how much do we actually know about the discovery and study of dinosaurs? In popular culture, often palaeontologists are depicted shuffling around dusty museums, meticulously re-arranging displays (we’re looking at you, Ross Geller), sometimes venturing out in to the middle of deserts to take part in digs if they’re feeling adventurous.

In the real world, palaeontologists are incredibly intelligent, skilled professionals who rely not only on their deep-rooted knowledge but also on mathematical skills to further their work.

So, next time you find yourself gazing up at the skull of a Triceratops at the Natural History Museum or settling down with some popcorn to watch Jurassic Park, you might begin to realise the role that mathematics has to play in a palaeontologist’s career.

Matt Lamanna, palaeontologist and the principal dinosaur researcher at Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, spoke to Discovery Education on the relationship between mathematics and palaeontology.

Lamanna’s role includes the study of dinosaurs, the exciting job of naming new species and travelling to uncover dinosaurs.

The laboratory work associated with the role involves studying dinosaur bones and determining firstly what dinosaur they belong to and also what the dinosaurs are related to.

Speaking of the world where palaeontology and mathematics combine, Lamanna said: “One of the reasons I did well in math when I was at school is because I knew that it would help me as a palaeontologist.”

One of the simpler ways that basic mathematical skills are relied on is in order to decipher budgets for teams heading out into the field. He said: “One huge part of palaeontology is getting funding to continue your research and so when you’re putting together a budget – in other words figuring out how much an expedition is going to cost – you use relatively basic math to do that.

“For instance, if I have a crew of ten people and they’re going to be in the field for 30 days, I need 300 person-days worth of food, so figuring out how much of a particular supply we’re going to need for the field, how much it’s going to cost are common uses of maths in palaeontology other than in direct study of dinosaurs.”

Of course, maths is a skill that is also utilised when it comes to measuring and understanding the physical forms of these prehistoric creatures. Lamanna said: “Taking accurate measurements is critical in palaeontology, especially when one is estimating taking indirect measurements.

“For instance, if I mess up the circumference of the femur of a Tyrannosaurus Rex by even maybe ten centimetres, I could end up with a weight estimate that’s either way too big or way too small, so those errors would be magnified once I plug that into the equation.

“So taking very good, basic measurements is critical, math is critical for dinosaur palaeontology. When you study a dinosaur, one of the fundamental things that you do is to measure each bone in the skeleton, often taking several measurements from a single bone.

“Measuring bones can tell us a lot about the dinosaurs that we’re interested in. The size, the weight, the species that they belong to, how fast they’re moving, potentially how old they were when they died.”

Palaeontologists are even able to discover the speed at which dinosaurs would have moved around and travelled through certain accurate measurements. Explaining this, Lamanna stated: “Palaeontologists believe that we can estimate the speeds of dinosaurs from their fossil trackways.

“A trackway is a set of footprints made by a single dinosaur. You have to use an indirect measurement to get that particular aspect of dinosaur biology. Once you take a stride length from a fossil track way, you can estimate the hip height of the dinosaur that made those tracks and with the hip height and the stride length, you can plug both of those figures into an equation and get an estimate of how fast that particular dinosaur was moving.”

As an example, if a palaeontologist measured the circumference of a femur (the thigh bone) belonging to a Tyrannosaurus Rex, they would be able to work out a weight estimate (usually around five tonnes).

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The use of maths can be found in various other aspects of the study of dinosaurs, many aspects that you might not otherwise consider.

Talking of the excavation process, Lamanna continued: “The process of dinosaur excavation also involves some measuring and some mathematics. For instance if we find a particular dinosaur fragment of a dinosaur bone on the ground then we search for the layer that it’s coming out of and if we’re lucky, there’s more bone actually in place in the rock.

“So we clear off as much as we can and we expose as much as we can and at that point we set up a grid, usually one metre by one metre squares. The point of that is to establish the position of each bone in the quarry, not only in absolute position but in position relative to each other.

“In addition to that, we’ll often take angles of orientation of the bones…are they all parallel to each other…are some perpendicular to others, and all of this keys into when we reconstruct the environment that the dinosaur was living in, or in particular, that it died in.

“Whether it be measuring the bones or measuring aspects of the quarry or the rocks that they’re found in, this can tell us about the way that dinosaurs lived which is one of the most important things one can aspire to study in dinosaur palaeontology.”