Earth and Environmental Sciences (SEES)
Dr Mark Witton
Honorary Research Fellow
School of Earth & Environmental Sciences
Making myself a little like part of the furniture in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, I studied for a degree in Palaeobiology and Evolution between 2002 – 2005, conducted my PhD research here from 2005 – 2008, and now work in the department as a Research Associate. I specialise in the palaeobiology of pterosaurs and recently spent most of my time manufacturing several life-sized giant pterosaur models for display at the Royal Society’s 350th Anniversary bash in 2010.
I’m primarily interested in pterosaur lifestyles – how they flew and walked, how they fed, their preferred habitats and whathaveyou – and have assessed direct fossil evidence of their feeding habits, attempted to model their body masses and used these estimates in flight models, and compared functional anatomy of pterosaurs to proposed modern functional analogues to assess their suitability to certain feeding habits. My speciality, I suppose, is making pterosaurs boring: my research suggests that many crazy ideas about pterosaur palaeobiology – that they skim-fed, lived almost exclusively along ancient shorelines, were hyperlightweight aeronauts that spent all their time in the air and ate nothing but fish – are incorrect. In the course of this research I’ve also described new pterosaur material and reappraised historically important specimens, identifying new types of pterosaurs in Brazil and Britain. Currently, I’m working on the flight capabilities of giant pterosaurs, and, in the near future, hope to reappraise the terrestrial capabilities of basal pterosaurs.
Before my memory started working properly I picked up a pencil or crayon and started drawing dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties, and I haven’t really stopped since. Somehow or other, this palaeoart-thing has ended up being my main job at the university with the design and construction of life-sized models of giant (4 - 5 m tall, 10 m wingspan) azhdarchid pterosaurs for display along London’s Southbank in 2010 being my primary responsibility. The models have been designed based on my PhD research and 2D illustrations and will, when displayed, hopefully demonstrate the latest insights into pterosaur anatomy, posture and habits. In addition to our full body models, I am also working with SEES students to generate a series of pterosaur busts that demonstrate the diversity of shape, sizes and feeding habits across different pterosaur groups. Interested parties can follow the development of these models with videos at the BBC website, the first of which is posted here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8179056.stm
In addition to all this sculpting and feeling like something of an imposter among other palaeoartists because of my lack of artistic training, I’ve somehow managed to compose several press-release images for pterosaur and dinosaur studies. Working for the University of Portsmouth and several other institutions, these include pterosaur crest-growth; studies in pterosaur skim-feeding; azhdarchid palaeobiology; new pterosaur species from Brazil and China, a new sauropod from Morocco, new insights into pterosaur breathing apparatus, the enriched fauna of the Lower Cretaceous Wessex Formation; sauropod neck posture and, most recently, giant marine reptiles. These pictures have featured in such organs as Science, The Sun, The Times, The Telegraph, The Guardian, The Week, The Metro and The Economist and other daily newspapers; featured on websites of the same publications as well as National Geographic, Science Daily, The Daily Mail and others. They also feature in a number of books and, recently, my work has made it onto the small screen in the History Channel series Evolve, featured on BBC News at 10 and has been splashed across the walls of various museums across Europe and North America.
An online gallery of these works can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/markwitton and, if people are suitably impressed, I will consider commissions of new work: please E-mail me at the address above for details.
- 2008 – Research Associate, University of Portsmouth
- 2005 – 2008 PhD in vertebrate palaeontology, University of Portsmouth (thesis title: The palaeoecology and diversity of pterosaurs)
- 2002 – 2005 BSc (First honours) Palaeobiology and Evolution, University of Portsmouth
- 2005-present: Demonstrator
- Level 1: Introduction to Sedimentology (1GS133); Palaeontology (BGS279); Planet Earth (1GS141)
- Level 2: Stratigraphy and Sedimentology (BGS268); Palaeotechniques, Palaeobotany and Micropalaeontology (BGS279)
- 2007 - present: lecturing
- Level 2: Palaeoart lecture in Palaeotechniques, Palaeobotany and Micropalaeontology (BGS279)
- Level 3: Dinosauria (); Vertebrate Palaeontology II ()
- All levels: Technical drawing (lecture and practical sessions); palaeoart practical (lecture and practical sessions)