Tell us about yourself

Anjali Goswami’s research revolves around the contrasts between the early evolution of placental mammals (e.g. humans, cats and whales) and marsupials (e.g. kangaroos, wombats, opossums)

What did you study?

Anjali’s research interests have evolved with her career, starting with how early whales moved from land to water while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in 1998. Following this she spent two years working in wildlife conservation in Bandhavgarh National Park in India, looking at the effect of tourism on wildlife and local people (while also enjoying hundreds of close encounters with tigers). After her PhD in Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago, in 2005, she worked at the Natural History Museum, London before moving to a lectureship in Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Since 2009 Anjali has been a researcher at University College London.

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What do you do?

Palaeobiology and palaeoecology have been a key focus of Anjali’s research, and she uses many techniques including 3D geometric morphometrics to look at body forms, sizes and shapes in reconstructing the evolution of biodiversity, and using a scanning electron microscope to study the minute scratches on fossil mammal ancestors’ teeth to decipher their diets. These creatures date back to the Triassic period, some 220 million years ago, and the fossils are now found in Madagascar, where she has conducted fieldwork.

At UCL, where she runs her own lab, Anjali’s research continues to be split between the field, lab and museums, and she herself is part of both the Department of Earth Sciences and the Department of Genetics, Evolution and the Environment, showing how inter-disciplinary the modern science of palaeontology is. Her work compares animals alive today and fossil evidence of animals alive millions of years ago to answer some of the big questions of evolutionary history. She still gets out into the field, most recently sifting through Early Cretaceous to Early Paleocene (145-66 million years ago) fossiliferous sediments from the badlands of the Cauvery Basin in the south east of India. Recent discoveries by Anjali and her team include vertebrae, a humerus and a scapula, possibly belonging to a dinosaur group, as well as teeth from theropod dinosaurs and crocodilians. One tooth belonged to some dinosaurs that shares a close ancestry with birds, and were not known to have lived in the great southern continent of Gondwana that India was part of during this time.

Anjali will present her work on how the marsupial reproductive strategy (short gestation and long parental care) has shaped their evolution, from the diversity of their skeletons to the sizes of their brains.

Can you describe a few challenges in the line of your work?

A decade ago, as an enthusiastic graduate student of paleontology, Anjali Goswami decided to embark on a road trip to India’s most storied fossil sites. Goswami, a paleobiologist at University College London, was accompanied by her future collaborator G.V.R. Prasad, one of the country’s foremost vertebrate paleontologists. They decided to revisit sites from the Late Cretaceous, 66 to 100 million years ago. Their itinerary included spots where Prasad made many of his best discoveries in the 1990s, including the first Cretaceous mammal to be found in India. They also planned to visit fossil sites first excavated in the early 19th century. This was the largely accidental heyday of Indian paleontology, when great hauls of fossil bones were unearthed by military officers during lengthy cross-country marches, or by East India Company engineers while supervising landscape-churning work.

For her first pit stop, Goswami decided she couldn’t do better than Jabalpur in the badlands of central India, where the British paleontologist W.H. Sleeman discovered the first ever dinosaur to be found in Asia. He did so in 1844, three years before Sir Richard Owen even coined the term dinosauria. “Besides, it had the added advantage of being close to my bua’s (father’s sister’s) house,” she recalls with a laugh. When she got there, she was horrified by what she found. “The outcrop was entirely covered in garbage,” she says. “You could walk around, but it was pretty gross. Given that such a huge number of dinosaurs come from this site, you’d like to think they’d get some protection.”

The rest of her journey did nothing to improve on that inauspicious start. All five sites she visited across the southern state of Karnataka—some first explored by colonial officers, others by Prasad—were given over to farmland. She concluded that what she’d witnessed was the inevitable damage of more than a century. But once she began fieldwork in 2007, she realized just how rapidly the depredations were taking place.

“Is the state under an obligation to preserve all such places of beauty? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

When she first started work on her chosen field-site, the Cauvery basin in the southeast of the country, she worked in shallow ravines surrounded by gently undulating hillocks. During the next six years, while she and Prasad unearthed the remains of turtles, dinosaurs, and a strange snub-nosed crocodilian species between 67 and 100 million old, the hillocks got bulldozed and flattened into cotton fields. When she visited her “best shark site” last year, she was bemused and horrified to see the unmistakable spiky silhouettes of shark teeth poking up between the rows of planted cotton. “That was so frustrating!” Goswami exclaims. “They had survived for 100 million years—and now they’re gone. And they’re completely irreplaceable.” They’ve since found newer sites to move onto, but everywhere they go, fields, settlements, and quarries are quick to catch up.

The pace and certainty of the destruction made Goswami delay her departures and spend a few days screen-washing—pouring fine gray sediment from the site through running water and scouring the contents for flecks of fossils under an electron microscope. “It’s totally out of panic, because I never know how much will remain when I return,” she says. “For paleontologists, all our data is unique. And if we don’t get it out of the ground quick enough, that’s one branch of the tree of life gone forever from human knowledge.”