HK Profile: Dr Michael Pittman – Vertebrate paleontologist

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Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus rex – Jurassic Park had them all, and more, squalling and roaring. But have you ever wondered how the film’s producers knew what dinosaurs sounded like? “We know a little bit about how dinosaurs made sounds, because their larynx (vocal box) looks quite similar to their closest relatives – birds,” explains Dr Michael Pittman, research assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Earth Sciences and the city’s only dinosaur expert. “But we actually don’t know exactly what dinosaurs sounded like. So all the sounds you hear in Jurassic Park are completely made up,” he says – bursting all our childhood bubbles.

Born in London and raised in Hong Kong, Pittman was not always fascinated by these creatures of prehistoric past. “I guess I don’t fall under the category of someone who has loved dinosaurs from a young age,” he says. “I wanted to be a footballer, Formula One racer, mountaineer, lots of different things I experienced as a kid. I used to watch Indiana Jones and be like ‘oh, I wanna be an archaeologist!’”

After completing a bachelor’s in geology at University College London, Pittman went on to do a master’s in geoscience, uncovering his passion during a project on dinosaurs. He eventually went on to do a PhD on the biomechanics and evolution of vertebrate and theropod dinosaurs – admittedly a handful for anyone, let alone a T-rex.

Since 2008, Pittman has been part of several fossil-hunting expeditions around Asia. “It’s very important for my research to actively find new fossils,” he says. “I’m trying to answer the details of how birds evolve – how did they assemble their bodies to allow them to fly?” Thus, for the past three summers, his team has headed to the Gobi Desert in northern China, an area known for its complete fossils of carnivorous dinosaurs, with the hope of finding something to fill these gaps in science’s understanding.

Field palaeontologists like Pittman have been actively discovering new species for over a hundred years. In the 1990s, excavators in northeastern China discovered the first skeleton of a feathered dinosaur. “This was really important – it was crucial evidence to support, and eventually prove, the theory that birds are a type of carnivorous dinosaur,” he explains. “It helped to form our modern understanding of birds.”

All of Pittman’s efforts paid off in 2010, when he and his team discovered a new, exceptionally well-preserved, species of dinosaur in the desert – Linheraptor exquisitus. “Linheraptor is related to Velociraptor. They look different in many ways, but the fossil tells us a lot about how these animals were evolving at the time,” he explains of the two metre-long predator.

It’s evident that there is a keen interest in the subject of dinosaurs in Hong Kong, if the immensely popular Legends of the Giant Dinosaurs exhibition, held at Hong Kong Science Museum last year, is any indication. “That was attended by over a million people, which is pretty amazing,” says Pittman, who hopes the government and museums latch on to these signs of enthusiasm. “As a local who grew up here and as someone who knows that not many Hong Kong people know about palaeontology, I feel like I have a responsibility to help develop that area.” Although we have – yet – to discover any dinosaur fossils in Hong Kong, last year one of Pittman’s students uncovered the city’s first ever fossilised vertebrate, a 4cm-long fish called Paralycoptera, which roamed the Jurassic waters of Sai Kung over 150 million years ago.

Thus, Pittman urges younger enthusiasts to pursue their passion of palaeontology by digging up books from the Hong Kong Public Library and at their school as well as visiting Lufengosaurus, the complete dinosaur skeleton from Yunnan, China, on permanent display at the Hong Kong Science Museum. In addition to this, the Education Bureau conducts an extracurricular palaeontology course for talented secondary school students. Although no institution in Hong Kong currently provides a degree in palaeontology, Pittman has launched a Massive Open Online Course on geology, dinosaurs and evolution, the first part of which is to be published this summer on coursera.org and will be free to view. 

“It takes a lot of work to get the MOOC into an attractive video format, so having a strong inspiration for it was very important,” says Pittman, who is en route to creating Chinese subtitles for the online course. “As well as teaching people about evolution, my desire is to give people who are interested in this more pathways to learn about it. In that way I can ensure we’re building palaeontology in Hong Kong. Obviously understanding the evolution of life is not a frontline field, it’s not like medicine, but it’s basic fundamental human knowledge – and that’s why it’s important.” Krshna Moriani

Find out more about Dr Pittman’s work at bit.ly/DrPittman.

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