Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan – Palaeo What?

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Palaeobiologist
Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan is a scientist, mother and leader in her field. Her daunting list of accolades include Anusuya being named South Africa’s Woman of the Year in 2005 (she nabbed the Science and Technology category and was overall winner), and the Department of Science and Technology’s Distinguished Woman Scientist Award in the same year. This University of Cape Town professor and head of department of Biological Sciences is a palaeobiologist. That’s why she’s authored three books on dinosaurs and published various academic papers. Yet Anusuya’s warm nature and eagerness to share is what stands out most when you meet her. “It’s important that we do scientific research but it’s equally important that the public understands science and what scientists do,” she says. That goes some way to explaining why she won the Sub-Saharan Africa Regional Prize for the public understanding and popularisation of science from the World Academy of Science in 2013.

Palaeo is a bit of a buzzword these days, thanks largely to the recognition of the Cradle of Mankind archaeological sites at Sterkfontein and Maropeng in recent years. The cradle has popularised human evolution in palaeontology, the study of prehistoric life, but there is more to South African palaeontology than human history. Palaeobiology is a more specialised area of palaeontology research, where scientists look at reconstructing the biology of extinct animals or other prehistoric life forms.

Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan

To understand the differences, Anusuya says a palaeontologist is mainly interested in removing fossils from the ground and identifying them. But as a palaeobiologist, her primary research interest is not in the excavation of fossils – that’s a side story – but rather in reconstructing these animals as they once lived, by studying sections of their bones under a microscope. Within those ancient bones there are records of an animal’s life history. “Once the bones are excavated from the surrounding rock and prepared, then scientists like me work out what we can say about the biology of these animals. Examining thin bone sections under a microscope to see their microstructure, we can make deductions about the animal’s age, any possible diseases, the effect of its environment, and how it functioned and grew,” she explains.

As a vertebrate palaeobiologist, meaning she works on animals that have an internal body skeleton, Anusuya has published extensive research on dinosaurs, and also on their relationship to early birds. “Most palaeontologists consider dinosaurs to be ancestors of modern birds, so I’ve studied early birds, and tried to work out how the transition from non-avian dinosaurs to birds evolved,” she says. Anusuya has also studied the fossilised bone microstructure of flying reptiles called pterosaurs.

The common thread in all her research is in trying to unravel the biological signals recorded in fossil bones. Age and environment aside, these bones can provide information about whether a bird was moulting, laying eggs or diseased, before it died millions of years ago.

Anusuya studied a science degree at Wits, with the intention of doing a postgraduate Diploma in Education to become a teacher. But in the final year of her science degree she discovered palaeontology – and continued with an honours degree that included a palaeontology module.

“I liked the idea that there was no animal sacrifice, that I was working with animals that were long dead, and that with my knowledge of biology I was able to reconstruct animals we know so little about,”

She continued with a Masters and PhD degree in Science, specialising in palaeontology.

Normally any academic has both a research and teaching component in their work. Anusuya loves both aspects of the job (she completed a Higher Diploma in Education to qualify as a teacher too, but it isn’t a requirement). “Of course, as head of department I have extra admin responsibilities,” she says. “But being able to lecture and to do the research is really wonderful. I thoroughly enjoy engaging with my students and being able to give them cutting-edge information. So when I teach it’s not only from a textbook but also from our lab research, or from a new published paper.”

Palaeobiology is a career that involves both laboratory and field work, so if you don’t like lab work it isn’t a sensible career choice. The amount of field work usually depends on an individual palaeobiologist’s scientific specialisation. But all fieldwork samples have to be collected and laboriously prepped for further study, and that only ever happens in a lab itself.

It all matters though. Without Anusuya’s palaeontology studies, we wouldn’t know about the existence of many African dinosaurs. She was part of a group that discovered the Nqwebasaurus dinosaur in the mid-90s, for instance. “My colleague studied the fossils to discover the identity of the bones. I provided the information about how old the dinosaur was. We put that together and wrote up a description of the animal,” recalls Anusuya. “We now know it’s a small-bodied sub-adult or adult. From the red-grey mudstone rocks in the Kirkwood area of the Algoa Basin where we found this dinosaur, we know these animals were about 130 million years old. The Karoo basin was home to earlier-aged dinosaurs of about 190 million years old.”

anusuya, david attenborough and yasmin tule (my postdoc)

Anusuya and a colleague with world-renowned naturalist
and celebrity David Attenborough.

Science is something people should talk about more around the dinner table, if Anusuya has her way, and she recognises the need for scientists to communicate their research better.

“Science is so important; it impacts on every aspect of our lives,” she says. “There is enormous scope for scientific research in South Africa. So when I’m talking to the public it’s about science, and not just about dinosaurs. Of course it’s often through dinosaurs that kids get excited about science. Yet even with dinosaurs, kids are learning about classification, age or geological time, or about interactions between different organisms, so unwittingly they’re learning about science and to think in a scientific way.”

Anusuya is married to a materials engineer and their two sons also love science (one is completing matric, the other is 15). Avid readers, both sons also enjoy music and play a few instruments. Anusuya is encouraging her matric son to make his own career choices – her only advice is that he should study something he enjoys. “I’m originally from Pretoria, from a family of three girls. We’re all well-educated professionals,” she says. “Growing up, my parents saw education as a stepping stone to overcome the barriers that apartheid imposed on us as black women. It was a way for us to become self-reliant.”


Anusuya’s Top Tips

Young people should access information online and research science subjects. You can reach out much further and become part of a global network that isn’t restricted to South Africa.

 Our Biological Sciences department often hosts school groups for workshops (a teacher usually contacts us). We’ve also had school learners doing job shadows in our department to understand the working life of an academic.

If you love science, follow your passion. In the end it’s not about how much money you make, it’s about doing what you love. Academics have a comfortable life. The best thing is that we get paid for what we love doing.

When presenting your work – even as a student – make sure it’s the best you can do. You never know who might be listening. When I finished my PhD I travelled to Oslo, Norway. After I presented two papers from my PhD research, I was offered two postdoctoral fellowships. I accepted one at the University of Pennsylvania in USA.


prof fake fossilWhat is Palaeobiology?

A palaeobiologist is primarily interested in removing fossils of animals or plants from the ground, and then reconstructing them to understand them as once-living organisms. There are different branches within palaeobiology. A vertebrate palaeobiologist specifically works with animals that have an internal body skeleton i.e. any animal with bones. Other palaeobiologists work solely on fossil insects, fossil plants or even fossil pollen.

A vertebrate palaeobiologist (such as Anusuya) uses the bone microstructure to unravel biological information from the fossilised bones. They make a thin section of a fossil bone and study it under a microscope, to provide clues about the animal’s age, diseases, environment or how it grew.

Vertebrate palaeobiologists have discovered that in some dinosaurs – a Tyrannosaurus rex, for example – you will find rings within their bones (similar to the rings found inside a tree) that can be counted to determine the age of that dinosaur. It’s a little like piecing a puzzle together. If you have a number of T.rex individuals, say a juvenile, a sub-adult and an adult, a vertebrate palaeobiologist can reconstruct a growth curve for different stages and work out the overall growth dynamics for T.rex.

prof 7Study to be a Palaeobiologist

UCT and Wits offer excellent programmes because they have specialists working in palaeontology. – BSc (three years) with Biology as a major (Geology is a useful subject) – Honours in Biology or Geology with specialisations in Palaeontology (one year) – Master’s in Palaeontology (two years) – PhD in Palaeontology (three years) TIP: You can fast-track and upgrade a Master’s to a PhD so you can finish in only three to four years. Talented Master’s and PhD palaeobiology students often have overseas travel opportunities for on-site excavations, research or conferences.

For more information visit our Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology and Geology Career Page


Did you know?

>> Very good fossil records tell us that some of the earliest evidence of life on earth dates to about 3.5 billion years, with actual micro-organisms represented in rocks dating to about 3 billion years. If you’re still questioning evolution, there is now so much evidence to support it.

>> Africa has the largest meat-eating dinosaur of all time. Larger than Tyrannosaurus rex, Carcharodontosaurus was a predatory dinosaur (its triangular teeth resembled those of a great white shark) that prowled over much of North Africa 97 to 90 million years ago.

>> Anusuya was involved in the exhibition on African dinosaurs for the Iziko South African Museum. Anusuya and her students have done a lot of work on the vertebrate collections displayed.

>> The plant-eating Massospondylus dinosaur was the first African dinosaur to be formally named in 1854. It’s the best-represented dinosaur in South Africa, ranging from embryos-still-inside-eggs to juveniles, teens and adults, mostly found in the red beds of the Karoo basin. Anusuya studied the micro-structure of juvenile bones and worked out it took about 15 years for these individuals to grow to adult body size.

>> SA has the only isiXhosa-named dinosaur, called Nqwebasaurus thwazi. It’s a small meat-eating dinosaur found in Nqweba, the isiXhosa name for the Kirkwood region of the Eastern Cape. Thwazi means fast runner.

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