Integrating Research and Education > Advances in Paleontology > Morphology

Morphology

This page was written by Ewan Wolff, Montana State University Geoscience Education Web Development Team

An ostrich skull. Details

Morphology is the study of animal form. In paleontology, this primarily refers to the study of bone anatomy and function, and muscle reconstruction from evidence of muscle attachments on bone. During the past few years, paleontologists have also begun inferring the presence of superficial structures from bone surface anatomy, such as trunks, horns, and fleshy patches.

Morphology Pages

These image galleries and videos are excellent resources for learning more about form and function.
  • California Academy of Sciences- Skulls (more info)
    This page concerns various aspects of interest with skulls, and has numerous 3D animations of skulls which can be rotated around to look at different sides.
  • Digital Morphology at the University of Texas (more info)
    The digital morphology lab is the state of the art three dimensional imaging lab in the country. At this site the user can browse through the site by scientific name, common name, or cladogram to see spectacular imagery and animations, as well as details on the morphology of many representatives of the Earth's biota.
  • 3D Museum (more info)
    This online museum is constantly growing with the addition of more 3D renderings, and includes manipulateable images of invertebrates and vertebrates.
  • Functional Morphology and Biomechanics Library- Video Library (more info)
    This page has several videos of reptile movement which are worth looking at. Try the terrapin one, and watch how the legs move in reference to the shell.

Teaching Resources

The following are some ideas for teaching about morphology in the classroom.

  • Analyzing Fossil Morphology This Journal of Geoscience Education article describes an introductory laboratory activity that outlines some of the common statistical techniques used to describe the shape and form (morphology) of a fossil.
  • Evolution Telephone This Journal of Geoscience Education article describes a short class activity that can be used to illustrate evolution through the childhood game "telephone."
  • Analyzing Fossil Morphology; Cladism This Journal of Geoscience Education article describes an activity to teach about cladism, the relationships among shared characteristics of groups of organisms, by using cladograms.

Scientist Profile: Tim Rowe, 3-D Morphologist and Paleontologist


If you have browsed through these pages, you have probably seen how much you can gather from three dimensional images and CAT scans. One trend in recent years has been the popularity of broad scientific surveys, and one of the biggest of these contributions to the field has been undertaken by Dr. Tim Rowe.

Dr. Rowe is the founder of the digital morphology lab at University of Texas at Austin. The lab specializes in various methods of three-dimensional scanning, analysis and reconstruction. He has created and overseen numerous CT scans of modern animals, the three-dimensional examination of Tyrannosaurus Sue, and the uncovering of the Archaeoraptor forgery, one of the greatest fossil scandals since the Piltdown Man. The work of the Digimorph lab under his direction has provided a resource for all levels from the public to the academic community.

Learn more about Dr. Rowe and the Digimorph Lab

  • Digimorph Lab - The Digimorph lab website is a gateway to learning about skull anatomy. The site has several portals through which skull CT scans can be accessed; the common names, popular searches, and scientific names. Once inside of the specimen lists, the user can choose to view a variety of scans, depending on the availability for the specimen. The most dramatic view is probably the cutaway scan which combines an external view with the internal CT slices. On many of the scans, additional information about the specimen is included below, including related papers, and sometimes x-rays.
  • Dr. Rowe's faculty website
  • Listen to this NPR story on the Digimorph Lab.
  • Read a University of Texas article about Digimorph
  • Read this BBC coverage of the Archaeoraptor forgery

Scientist Profile: Lawrence M. Witmer, Functional Anatomist


Dr. Witmer originated the concept of the extant phylogenetic bracket in paleontology, or the idea that inferences about the structure and function of soft parts, like trunks, or noses, in ancient animals made from bony remains should be compared to similar structures in living related animals. The majority of Dr. Witmer's research concerns these types of soft-tissue reconstructions, and the research at his lab is based on extensive dissection of structures, mostly on donated animal cadavres, that overlie the bone in the skull like horns, and ear canals.

Learn more about Dr. Witmer and his research

  • Look at his faculty webpage
  • Read this abstract on Nostril Position in Dinosaurs and Other Vertebrates from the scholarly journal Nature
  • Listen to this NPR story on the Witmer Lab