A passion for palaeontology
Passionate about palaeontology since childhood, an invitation to help excavate the Rutland Sea Dragon was a dream come true for Emily Swaby
“My family have always supported my passion for palaeontology and my goal to pursue a career in this field. I owe a lot to them, especially my late grandad who bought me my first mineral collection.”
Emily’s enthusiasm for palaeontology was first ignited during family holidays to the North Yorkshire coast, where she’d spend hours scouring the beach for fossils.
“The first fossil I ever found was a fragment of a Gryphaea (a bivalve commonly referred to as a ‘devil’s toenail’) on Scarborough beach – while this fossil is nothing much to look at, it takes pride of place in my fossil cabinet at home, as a reminder of where it all started.”
During a school work-experience placement at Doncaster Museum and Art Gallery in 2012, Emily met Dr Dean Lomax, the museum’s then Curator of Palaeontology, who would later become her mentor and colleague.
Following completion of her undergraduate degree, Emily enrolled on a master’s degree programme at the University of Manchester working with Dean and Dr John Nudds. Her thesis focused on Temnodontosaurus crassimanus, a large, ~180-million-year-old ichthyosaur – a type of extinct marine reptile, which superficially resembles a dolphin – that was unearthed near Whitby, Yorkshire in 1857. This research formed the basis of Emily’s first lead-author scientific paper, published with Dean in 2020.
“It’s incredible to see things come full circle, from being inspired by Dean and his own path into palaeontology, to working alongside him as a colleague and producing scientific research.”
Emily explains that the only known specimen of T. crassimanus is displayed at the Yorkshire Museum in York. Previously understudied, some had assigned it to the species Temnodontosaurus trigonodon. However, through re-examination, Emily and Dean highlighted several morphological features of the skeleton that show the species is distinct from T. trigonodon.
Emily’s knowledge of the anatomy of both species of Temnodontosaurus led to her inclusion in the team of palaeontologists who excavated the Rutland Sea Dragon – an approximately 180-million-year-old, ten-metre-long ichthyosaur that probably belongs to the species T. trigonodon. Even larger than the specimen displayed in the Yorkshire Museum, this Jurassic giant made headlines around the globe when the discovery was announced to the public in January 2022. The find had been made by Joe Davis at the Rutland Water Nature Reserve in 2021.
“The chance to be part of a small team that excavated the largest, most complete marine reptile skeleton ever unearthed in Britain was quite literally a dream come true! The excavation is by far one of the most incredible palaeontological projects I’ve had the pleasure of working on in my career to-date and I’m honoured to have been asked to play a small part in such a dedicated team of palaeontologists.”
Also useful for the Rutland dig were Emily’s excavation skills, honed during a summer internship at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center, USA, in August 2018. These skills were tested again in 2022 following the chance discovery of a Jurassic-aged marine ecosystem site at a farm in Stroud, Gloucestershire. The excavation revealed organisms from across the food chain, from ichthyosaur bones to exceptionally preserved fish, molluscs, and even rare insects – the last of which are important for Emily’s current research.
Extreme environmental change
Emily is now in the third year of her PhD at the Open University, exploring the effects of extreme environmental change on insects during the early Jurassic, around 183 million years ago. The Toarcian Oceanic Anoxic Event (T-OAE) was a sudden and severe global event, associated with increased temperatures, high atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, enhanced chemical weathering rates, rising sea levels, and widespread marine anoxia and extinction.
“On land, global warming, wildfires and acid rain resulted in a decrease in the diversity and richness of land plants, which then had significant effects on the rest of the trophic web. My research is investigating what influence the T-OAE had on insects, in addition to the diversity and distribution of these organisms during this time.”
To gain insight into how modern-day climate change is and will affect insect communities, it is important to explore how extreme environmental change affected them in the past.
Outreach and communication
Emily also devotes much time to science outreach, including giving lessons on palaeontology and geology at primary schools, and talks on her research at various science conferences and events.
“I started writing popular science articles and blogs during my undergraduate studies because it was a great way to support my studies and hone my skills – it helped to improve my writing and allowed me to learn more about specific areas within palaeontology.”
She has some advice for those seeking a career in science communication, or those simply hoping to communicate their work more broadly:
“Don’t be afraid to reach out to popular science magazines to ask if you could contribute – there are lots of people out there eager to learn more about cool aspects of geoscience!”
Emily Swaby is a PhD student in the School of Environment, Earth & Ecosystem Sciences at the Open University, UK, and is the 2023 recipient of the Geological Society’s Wollaston Fund.
Interview by Amy Whitchurch