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How did birds become birds? An interview with Jingmai O'Connor

The paleontologist and soon-to-be curator at the Field Museum on excavations, being a party animal, and imposter syndrome


Jesse Goldberg, courtesy of Jingmai O'Connor

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Sixty-six million years ago, the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event caused three-quarters of the living species on Earth to die out, including nearly all the dinosaurs. For Jingmai O’Connor, what came before is more interesting. Birds are the only surviving lineage descended from dinosaurs, and O’Connor studies the dinosaur-bird transition: in other words, how birds got to be birds. After spending over a decade working in China, O’Connor is starting a new stage in her career as the associate curator of fossil reptiles at the Field Museum of Natural History. O'Connor chatted with Massive about paleontology, imposter syndrome, and her sick tattoos. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Maddie Bender: How would you describe what you do to different audiences? A child versus another paleontologist, maybe?

Jingmai O'Connor: If it's to a little kid, I would tell them very simply, "Did you know birds are dinosaurs? I study how birds evolved from bigger dinosaurs." I think that research question — how did birds evolve from dinosaurs — is something that can be understood by almost all ages. If I'm talking to somebody who's a paleontologist, well, then I wouldn't have to tell them what I study, because they would just know. I'm kidding, but I would also talk about the Cretaceous evolution of birds, and the evolution of modern avian conditions.

Modern birds are so highly specialized. Their biology has just been transformed by evolution in order to make them able to achieve powered flight, which is the most physically demanding form of locomotion utilized by any living animal. Their respiratory system has been modified, their digestive system, reproductive system, everything, has been modified in some way. We try to figure out how and when those modifications appeared. The interesting thing is we find is that everything unique to modern birds is either something that's inherited from a more inclusive group of dinosaurs, or it's a feature that was absent in the earliest birds. We don't really have any features anymore that are purely avian.

How do you be a scientist, in whatever way you interpret the question?

First, there's being a scientist and there's a career in science. There are lots of science careers, but then there's academia. To be a scientist in academia, you have to be able to work really, really hard. You have to have very tough skin; people stab each other in the backs, and they're overly competitive. That's just something that's not for everybody. The last thing that I think is really important is the ability to admit that you're wrong. I recently had a paper retracted, so I was wrong. Those are the most important things, but also if you love it, it's much easier to overcome all these painful experiences.

A fossil of Eoconfuciusornis, an ancient bird species

Eoconfuciusornis showing ovarian follicles and other soft tissues

Courtesy of Jingmai O'Connor

It’s always interesting to hear what scientists think of their respective fields. I know that within mine, there are quite a few people who are full of themselves and think they’re very smart.

Yeah, that's the worst thing though. Once you think you're smart, that's when things start to go downhill. I’ve been gone from America for 11 years, but I’ve been hearing all these buzzwords, and one I kept noticing was “imposter syndrome.” I was like, "What is that? I have no idea." So I googled it, and I was like, "Oh, I totally have that." But I also think that as soon as you don't have it, you start being a bad scientist. As soon as you stop second-guessing everything you do, stop worrying that you're not good enough, that's when you start being not good enough. You kind of have to keep that fire underneath you somehow. Maybe there's a healthier way to not be so hard on yourself, but to also be ultra-careful.

A baby enantiornithine with pin feathers

A baby enantiornithine with pin feathers

Courtesy of Jingmai O'Connor

What, to you, are the most interesting unanswered questions about the dinosaur-bird transition? 

We still don't know exactly which group of dinosaurs birds evolved from. This transition has been changing a lot in the past five years: we went from thinking that there was one group of flying dinosaurs to now realizing that flight evolved in dinosaurs multiple times. I also think that what we're calling birds right now is probably different groups of flying dinosaurs being stuck together as birds because they've converged on the same body plan and an aerodynamic body shape. 

What does a day excavating at a field site look like?

It depends on where you are and who you’re with. Where do you want to go — China? North America?

Jingmai O'Connor sitting on a rock drinking Veuve Clicquot


Courtesy of Jingmai O'Connor

Let’s go with China.

The Chinese don't like camping, so if they can avoid it, they'll stay in hotels or in a farmer's house. And a hotel's fine, but a farmer's house is like, "No, thank you." I'm not the best person in the field because I'm very picky. The last time I went to the field in China, we were just there for a few days to check out what everybody was finding. And yeah, and then you go to the outcrop and for things like birds. Bird fossils are very small, they're very delicate, and they get smashed very easily, so you have to have a very low-energy setting, like an ancient lake. Ancient lake deposits have very fine layered bedding. So you just rip out chunks of rock and then you turn it on its side so you can see the bedding plane, and you just tap it with a chisel. Where there's an impurity in the rock, like some kind of biological inclusion, there will be a plane of weakness in the rock. Ninety-nine percent of time the fossils are plants or insects. Birds, and vertebrates in general, are extremely rare. Basically you sit there for eight, nine hours doing that and not finding anything in the sun. And it's not fun at all.

A lot of paleontologists drink a lot, so a good expedition usually has a lot of alcohol. We drink what's called baijiu in China, it's this distilled rice liquor that tastes awful. But it's nice, you can see the stars, and you build up camaraderie. When we were in Mongolia, every night we would do "Feats of Strength," like who can throw this tire the furthest, let's make piles of our camp gear and see like, who can jump over it and add more stuff to it until somebody eats shit trying to jump over it.

Some of Jingmai O'Connor's tattoos, including the phrase "life is life."

Some of Jingmai O'Connor's tattoos, including a plesiosaur, coelacanth, and the Pokemon Omanyte

Courtesy of Jingmai O'Connor

What do you do on a day off?

I used to be a party animal, which I'm not so much anymore, though I'm really hungover right now — it was my birthday this weekend! Now my days off are not really true days off, I'll still probably be doing a little bit of work and just being a normal adult. I’ll take my dogs on a long walk, tidy things up, maybe make something special for dinner.

What are some of your favorite tattoos that you’ve had done?

My favorite paleo tattoo is a plesiosaur that wraps around my ankle. The other one I'm really rocking is this combination, where I have my Guanyin and my Monkey King. My newest is a Pokemon, an Omanyte. It's the fossil Pokemon, but I've gotten all my tattoos in the last 10 years in China. My Chinese is not good; my tattoo artist's English is not good. And so pretty much every tattoo, there's something that I'm like, "I really thought you understood what I wanted, but clearly you did not." I showed him the picture of Omanyte and I was like, “This is what I want.” He does it in all different colors.

What’s next for you?

My husband and I are about to move to Chicago. I was in China for 10 years, so I'm excited for a new chapter. My research might have to shift because it's impossible to travel to China right now and all my fossils are there. There are a lot of big transformations for me and I was really worried about them, but then I figured I'd take things a day at a time. I think that's really important for people, not just in science, but in your whole life also, to not take things personally, to not worry about things that haven't happened yet. Just be in the present, enjoy things, but be a good person and take responsibility for your actions. If you do that, you'll be a good scientist, and you'll be a happy person.

Editor's note: We removed a question and answer about O'Connors advisors which did not accurately reflect the context of O’Connor’s statements. We regret the error. - Dan Samorodnitsky, senior editor.

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