Dinosaur experts Prof Paul Barrett and Dr Susie Maidment on expeditions to the Morrison Formation - Paul in Wyoming in 2019 and Susie in Utah in 2015

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Meet the Museum's dinosaur hunters

We've been calling them 'dinosaurs' for nearly 200 years, but what does it take to study these amazing reptiles that once ruled Earth?

Meet the Museum's dinosaur experts, Prof Paul Barrett and Dr Susie Maidment. They work behind the scenes, searching for clues to help them understand more about this extraordinary group of animals. 

Prof Paul Barrett and Dr Susie Maidment work in the Museum's Department of Earth Sciences, which is home to one of the world's most important dinosaur collections.

Prof Paul Barrett

Senior dinosaur specialist Prof Paul Barrett joined the Museum in 2003. Paul is a world-leading expert on the evolution and biology of dinosaurs and other extinct reptiles, and has published more than 200 papers and books.

Prof Paul Barrett

From books to bones

To become a world-leading dinosaur expert, you have to start somewhere. Paul's interest was piqued when he first read Dinosaurs, a book published by Ladybird, when he was six years old.

He says, 'It's actually something I rediscovered at home recently - I still have a very battered copy.

'I was always super keen on animals in general, and dinosaurs just struck me as really cool animals. The fact that they're extinct and take a little bit of detective work and puzzle-solving to work out how they looked and lived, those were things that really appealed to me.'

Paul went on to attend the University of Cambridge and graduated with a bachelor's degree in Zoology, although he did consider becoming a veterinarian or astronomer at various times. But he carried on at Cambridge to complete his PhD on dinosaurs and hasn't looked back.

The holotype skull of Hypsilophodon from the Museum's collection is one of Paul's favourite specimens

Working with Museum collections

Paul joined the Museum in 2003, after working in academic positions at both Cambridge and Oxford universities.

Paul says, 'I started off my dinosaur career by working on feeding, very specifically looking at feeding in plant-eating dinosaurs, which is what my PhD was about. I spent a lot of time talking about teeth, jaws and diet and how these impacted the evolution of dinosaurs, how dinosaurs interacted with plants and questions like that.'

But Paul's research areas have since expanded. Nowadays he focuses less on the specifics of feeding and more frequently on other aspects of dinosaur biology, such as hearing and locomotion.

'I started looking at the taxonomy of dinosaurs - how they're related to each other - and also on big evolutionary patterns - where do they come from, what are they related to, how did they start taking over, how did they spread around the world.'

Dinosaur family tree gets major makeover

Paul has worked on almost all of the major dinosaur groups, but it's herbivores he looks at most often.

'My favourites are still the plant eaters. I always find myself coming back to work on ornithischians or sauropodomorphs.'

One of Paul's favourite specimens in the collection is the holotype skull of Hypsilophodon, a small, plant-eating dinosaur that lived around 125 million years ago in what is now southern England.

'It's a fairly complete skull, it's clear what it is, it fits in the palm of your hand and it's just cute. I have a very soft spot for that particular specimen - it's the first thing I worked on when I started working on dinosaurs. It holds a little bit of sentimental value from that point of view.'

The Museum's Stegosaurus, affectionately known as Sophie, is another of Paul's collection highlights.

'It's such a big acquisition - a huge skeleton coming in and the first we had of Stegosaurus in Europe. It's something I fought very hard to get for the Museum and it felt like a major achievement.'

Paul with the Museum's Stegosaurus skeleton, Sophie

Travelling the world

One of Paul's earliest fossil finds was in his primary school playground: a piece of fossilised mud containing shells of an extinct species of the small mollusc Teredo.

These days, dinosaur hunting takes him much further afield.

'I've been very lucky to do fieldwork in various places around the world, but my favourite trips have undoubtedly been in southern Africa. The natural landscapes there are just stunning and you're often doing fieldwork in areas where you are actually surrounded by amazing wildlife.

'For example, in Zimbabwe you're digging while surrounded by elephants and hippos, and watching a huge variety of beautiful birds perching nearby. It was remote fieldwork in a way that is not that common these days.

'In general, those were the most enjoyable trips, particularly when at the end of a hard day of excavating, after getting the specimen out of the ground and down the hill, you stand on that hill at sunset, looking out onto these amazing landscapes. That's a really good, satisfying feeling.'

Dr Susie Maidment

Six years after working here with Paul Barrett as a postdoc, dinosaur researcher Dr Susie Maidment returned to the Museum in 2018. Susie is a world-leading expert on armoured dinosaurs and works extensively on one of the most dinosaur-rich areas of North America, the Morrison Formation in western USA. 

Dr Susie Maidment on an expedition to Utah to study the Morrison Formation

Princess or palaeontologist

At the age of seven, Susie made a big decision: whether she wanted to be a princess or a scientist.

'My Grandpa said to me, "Well, what are you going to be when you grow up?" At the time I was wavering between princess and scientist, and obviously he wanted to strongly encourage me towards being a scientist rather than a princess,' explains Susie.

'I didn't realise there were different types of scientists at the time, but I really liked dinosaurs, so he said, "Why don't you be a dinosaur scientist, then?"'

With that little bit of encouragement, Susie was set on a career in palaeontology.

Susie often spent family holidays on beaches in Charmouth hunting for fossils, such as ammonites

After taking A-levels in chemistry, geography and biology, Susie went on to graduate with a degree in geological sciences, then completed her PhD in palaeontology.

Susie moved to Vietnam soon after, where she worked as an exploration geologist for two years.

'At the time I was writing up papers from my PhD and grant applications with Paul, and we got a grant. So I moved back to work as Paul's postdoc for three years at the Museum.

'After that I got a fellowship at Imperial College London to do research on the Morrison Formation, and I ended up being there for over four years.'

Susie then worked at the University of Brighton as a senior lecturer in geology for a year, before finally returning to the Museum as a dinosaur researcher.

Susie's favourite Museum specimen is an armoured dinosaur, a skeleton of Dacentrurus that was found in Swindon in 1874.

'It was the first stegosaur ever described. Half is on display and the other half is in the collection. It's far less glamorous than some of its American cousins, but I studied it a lot for my PhD. I spent many hours looking at it though the glass.'

The Dacentrurus specimen is on display in the Museum's Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery

The bread and butter of dinosaur research

One of Susie's key areas of research is the systematics and taxonomy of the ornithischian (bird-hipped) dinosaurs, with a focus on armoured dinosaurs, such as Stegosaurus and Ankylosaurus.

'I try and work out how the dinosaurs are related to each other, as well as describe new species and their anatomy.

'It's sort of the building blocks of absolutely everything that we do. It allows us to do broader studies on palaeobiology, life on Earth and what the environment was like. This sort of work is our bread and butter - it's what we have to do to understand the past.'

Susie also studies dinosaur locomotion, looking at how the ancient animals moved and, particularly, how they evolved to be four-legged. 

Mission Jurassic

Studying rocks

Stegosaurus, Allosaurus and Brachiosaurus are just some of the well-known dinosaurs that have been found in the Morrison Formation. These rocks date to the Late Jurassic (about 163-145 million years ago) and palaeontologists have been hunting for dinosaurs in this fossil-rich area since the late 1800s.

However, scientists don't yet have much detail on exactly when these animals lived. That's where Susie's research comes in.

'Were they all the same age or were some a couple of million years older? We don't know how they all relate to each other in time because those rocks are not very well dated.

'What I've been doing is trying to date that formation really accurately. So I've been studying the rocks more than the fossils, but with an aim of better understanding that ecosystem and the diversity within it.' 

Susie is working to gain a better understanding of the age of the Morrison Formation rocks

A competitive field

Although it's not impossible, palaeontology is a tough career to get into, with relatively few openings. There are certainly more women in science today than ever before, but compared to other fields there are relatively few.

Susie says, 'When I was a PhD student, I would say it was 50-50 or even slightly more women. But what we really see when we go up the career ladder into postdocs and more senior positions is that there are far fewer women than men. I can't say I've seen a massive change in the time that I've been in the field.

'The reasons for that aren't entirely clear - they're probably many and complex. There are lots of women who are curators and if we looked at palaeontology more broadly, there may be different patterns.

'But among people who are specifically researching dinosaurs, I am one of only a handful of women in the world that do that.'