Scientists are not only cursed with an overabundance of curiosity and imagination, they all reflect on their works to measure their perceived relevancy -- especially as they cruise through their working life. ‘Is this research from ten years ago,’ one might say ‘properly addressed in today’s climate of research?’ This can manifest itself in seeing the impact of our work on others.
In the late 1980s I discovered amongst the fossil assemblage from one of the sites along the Carrot River in east-central Saskatchewan -- plesiosaurs, fish, shark, and other reptiles -- numerous bones of birds, dating back to about 95 million years ago. Not just any old birds, but from a group typified as ‘non-flying, foot propelled diving birds’ whose dentary and maxilla retained their toothy smile. It soon became apparent that this new group of birds, some I identified as new to science, called Pasquiaornis, was the oldest of their group in the world. A group called Hesperornithiformes. But subsequent study and review was sparse, despite the great interest in bird evolution.
Though related work is still ongoing, things changed in May of this year when a paper by Alyssa Bell and Luis Chiappe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County published in the Journal of Systematic Paleontology “A Species-level Phylogeny of the Cretaceous Hesperornithiforms…Implications for Body-Size Evolution Amongst the Earliest Diving Birds”. Their analysis, comparing all characters of these species show that Pasquiaornis is in fact the earliest representatives known of this group, similar, yet distinct from its closest later relative Baptornis, typically found in central U. S. And unlike almost all species of this toothy group, confirming the notion that Pasquiaornis, (and thus the earliest representatives), had some flying ability. They had yet to adapt fully to an aquatic environment. Their study also suggested that within the group “numerous, independent increases in body size,” across three branches of this evolutionary tree.
The work I was able to establish 25 years ago still has merit. To know that the specimens and the initial study have relevancy is central to the motivation of scientists across the world. We believe with every fibre, that what we do matters. It may be apparent to us soon after publication, or, it may be decades later.