Female palaeontologists of the present and future

To mark Women’s History Month, we’re looking at several women at the forefront of modern palaeontology, and looking ahead to the next generation of future palaeontologists!

Professor Judy Massare

Professor Judy Massare is a palaeontologist based at the State University of New York College. She is regarded as the leading expert on marine reptiles from the Mesozoic era, mainly ichthyosaurs.

Judy mostly focuses on Lower Jurassic ichthyosaurs of the UK, and Upper Jurassic ichthyosaurs from the Sundance Formation, in Wyoming.

By exploring how marine reptiles interacted with each other and changed over time, Judy’s research has developed our understanding of how these prehistoric creatures moved and what they ate.

In 2015 Judy and fellow palaeontologist Dr Dean Lomax discovered a new species of early Jurassic ichthyosaur within the collections of the Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery. This newly discovered species was named Ichthyosaurus anningae, honouring the pioneering British palaeontologist Mary Anning.

Mary contributed many important specimens to the scientific community, including the first ichthyosaurs. This was the first new Ichthyosaurus identified for almost 130 years, and the first fossil to be named after Mary!

Professor Emily Rayfield

Emily Rayfield is a British palaeontologist, who is a Professor in Palaeobiology in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.

Her research focuses on the anatomy of living and extinct animals, understanding how their skeletons worked. Emily uses a method called ‘finite element analysis (FEA)’. This is a computer technique that calculates stress and strain patterns in bones. It allows us to understand how strong certain bones are and where we may expect to see fractures.

In 2001, Emily and a team of fellow researchers published a paper on using FEA on the skull of the large carnivorous dinosaur Allosaurus fragilis.

This resulted in the most complete and detailed FEA model of the skull of any extinct or living animal. It allowed us to understand how this dinosaur caught and ate their food.

The research also demonstrated how FEA could be used to learn more about the movement and feeding behaviours of other fossils.

Professor Maria McNamara

Maria McNamara is an Irish palaeontologist, who is a Professor of Palaeontology at the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University College Cork.

Her current research is on the preservation of colours in fossils, especially insects and feathers, and what this tells us about the biology of ancient animals.

In 2022, Maria was part of an international team of palaeontologists who reported extraordinary new evidence about pterosaurs. Pterosaurs were a group of flying reptiles that are the sister group to the dinosaurs. The evidence showed that pterosaurs could control the colour of their feathers using melanin pigments, just like modern-day birds.

The study was based on a fossilized headcrest of the pterosaur Tupandactylus imperator from the Early Cretaceous of Brazil. It suggests that colouration was a critical function of even the earliest feathers to exist.

Cariad Williams

Cariad Williams is a Welsh palaeontologist, based at the Prairie Research Institute Center for Paleontology, and is pursuing a PhD in entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in America. Her PhD research is on fossilised grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets which are preserved within amber from the Dominican Republic and Mexico.

Before her PhD studies, Cariad obtained a BSc and MRes in Palaeontology at the University of Portsmouth. In 2021, Cariad and a team of palaeontologists used computerised imaging techniques, including X-ray computed tomography (CT) and 3D modelling, to examine what the inside of a pterosaur vertebra looked like.

This vertebra belonged to an animal known as an azhdarchid, which is a large pterosaur from the Early Cretaceous of Morocco. The team found that the vertebra was filled with several 1mm thick spikes, or trabeculae.

These trabeculae crossed each other like the spokes of a bicycle wheel, forming a complex internal network. They surrounded a central tube, where the animal’s spinal cord would have been located. This research helps us to better understand the anatomy and behaviour of these animals, including what prey these pterosaurs may have been able to eat.

Abigail Selvaratnam

Abigail Selvaratnam is an eight-year-old budding palaeontologist, who has a natural curiosity for nature, the outdoors and how the world works. Abi found her love for all things prehistoric at just a few months old after her dad, who also has a passion for dinosaurs, bought Abi her first stuffed dinosaur and an A to Z book of dinosaurs. Eight years later and her interest in this fascinating field still exists.

She is now an avid reader of palaeontology books, her favourite of which is Steve Brusatte’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs’. Abi was asked about her favourite aspect of the subject.

‘Palaeontology is about piecing together a giant puzzle but not all the pieces are available yet. In the future, I believe I could have a role in piecing things together’.

Jude Rivers

Jude Rivers, also eight-years-old, is a promising young palaeontologist who, like Abigail, has a passion for all things prehistoric. Jude’s interest in palaeontology began at the age of five when she started watching Dino Dana’ during lockdown. Three years later, she can usually be found performing her own scientific experiments, drawing dinosaurs, or reading palaeontology-related books. One of her favourites is Prehistoric Pets, by Dr Dean Lomax. Jude is always keen to get out in the field to search for fossils and loves to meet other inspiring women within palaeontology.

Jude and Abigail connected through their Instagram accounts (run by their parents), to share their passion for palaeontology. They finally met up during the unveiling of the Mary Anning statue in Lyme Regis, Dorset in May 2022, and have been inseparable ever since.

Both Jude and Abi’s parents have supported their interests in palaeontology by taking them to museums and science festivals together, to help them to learn, grow and meet like-minded people.

The future of palaeontology definitely looks bright with both Abigail and Jude in it.