Courtesy of Adeiyewunmi Osinubi

Yale postdoctoral fellow Armita Manafzadeh was presented the Romer Prize by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, one of the organization’s top awards. 

Manafzadeh’s abstract and presentation focused on the research on joint poses and functions that she did as part of her dissertation at Brown University — work that she is continuing at Yale. The goal of her research is to figure out how joints and their functions have evolved over time and to construct the evolutionary history of vertebrate motion from that information.

“She’s very clearly among the absolute top people in the field at her career stage,” said Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, an associate professor of Earth & Planetary Sciences at Yale. “Her research is unique, it’s productive, and it’s advanced — I think she’s decades ahead of other people trying to do similar work.”

The award was based on an abstract that Manafzadeh submitted to the SVP and her oral presentation during the annual SVP meeting, which was held in Toronto between Nov. 2 and 5. 

Manafzadeh’s project focused on figuring out how joints worked in extinct animals. According to Manafzadeh, the difficulty with studying joints of extinct animals is that when an animal fossilizes, most of the time only its bones are left while the soft tissues like ligaments — which connect one bone to another — and cartilage — which cover the end of bones and reduces the friction between them — decay. 

It has therefore been a challenge for scientists to deduce how an animal moved and walked while alive based only upon the dry bones that remain. For a long time, the way paleontologists did this was by simply picking up the fossil bones, moving them around with their hands and working out which joint poses looked right.

“Armita came to my lab interested in understanding more about how joints work in the vertebrate skeleton,” Stephen Gatesy, Manafzadeh’s dissertation advisor at Brown, said. “Trying to reconstruct an extinct animal’s joint mobility is central to how paleontologists interpret fossil evidence. Did Australopithicus afarencis (“Lucy”) walk like a modern human? Could Archaeopteryx perform flapping flight or only glide?  How fast could T. rex run, or was it restricted to a slow walk?  Bringing dead remains to life literally requires reanimation, and joints offer some of the best information about movement we have.” 

At Brown, Manafzadeh took a similar approach but with data-driven computer simulations so that the results are quantitative and mathematically rigorous. First, she took CT scans of birds to produce 3D models of their bones. The models were then run through a computer animation software to quantify how the bones fit together based on their shapes. 

Manafzadeh then studied several species of live birds to see if the model predicted the joint poses correctly in each case, producing a mathematically rigorous method for predicting joint poses from only their constituent bones, which could be used to deduce how the joints, and therefore the live animal, moves. 

The same method can then be applied to extinct animals to figure out how they moved when they were alive. 

“Our entire understanding of how vertebrates’ motion has evolved over deep time, even how our own locomotion came to be, relies on the reconstruction of the locomotion of specific animals in the fossil record,” Manafzadeh said. “And, so, to have a method to reconstruct the locomotion of those extinct animals lets us piece together that picture of evolutionary history.” 

Since joining Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies this summer to work in Bhullar’s lab, Manafzadeh has been using the same technique to study the fossil of the dinosaur Deinonychus, whose bones currently reside at the Class of 1954 Environmental Sciences Center. 

The dinosaur was discovered and named by Yale Professor John Ostrom in 1969 and helped advance the field’s understanding of the relationship between present-day birds and extinct dinosaurs. 

The name Deinonychus means “terrible claw,” owing to the large claw on the second toes of its hind legs. For decades, scientists have mulled over what the claw was for, theorized to have been used for hunting down prey, and how the animal moved with it. Manafzadeh is trying to use simulation to figure out exactly that. 

Bhullar says that he was not surprised that she received the Romer Prize.

“This award, it’s a pretty big deal in the field of vertebrate paleontology,” Bhullar said. “The way paleontologists view it is that it is given to someone who will someday lead the field, and I have to admit, I thought there was a good chance that she’d get it.

Gatesy shared Bhullar’s sentiment.

“She cares about pushing our field forward, she cares about fairness, and she cares about helping others,” Gatesy said. “She already has an international reputation, and I see her going far.”

The Deinonychus skeleton that Manafzadeh studied hangs by the stairwell in the Class of 1954 Environmental Sciences Center at 21 Sachem St.