3d modeling

Yale postdoc wins Romer Prize for 3D modeling of extinct animal joints

Armita Manafzadeh’s unique data-driven approach to analyzing the joints of dinosaurs and other extinct animals at the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies has been recognized by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Iffat Zarif

1:36 a.m., November 16, 2022

Collaborating journalist


Courtesy of Adeiyewunmi Osinubi

Yale postdoctoral fellow Armita Manafzadeh received the Romer Prize from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, one of the organization’s top honors.

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

“She is very clearly among the absolute best people in the field at her career stage,” said Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, associate professor of earth and planetary sciences at Yale. “Her research is unique, productive and advanced – I think she is decades ahead of other people trying to do similar work.”

The award was based on an abstract Manafzadeh submitted to the SVP and his oral presentation at the SVP’s annual meeting, held in Toronto from November 2-5.

Manafzadeh’s project focused on understanding how joints work in extinct animals. According to Manafzadeh, the difficulty of studying the joints of extinct animals is that when an animal fossilizes, most of the time only its bones remain while soft tissues like ligaments – which connect one bone to another – and cartilage — which cover the ends of bones and reduce friction between them — decay.

It has therefore been difficult for scientists to deduce how an animal moved and walked while alive based solely on the dry bones that remain. For a long time, the way paleontologists proceeded was simply to pick up fossil bones, move them around with their hands, and figure out which joint poses seemed correct.

“Armita came to my lab to learn more about how joints work in the vertebrate skeleton,” said Stephen Gatesy, Manafzadeh’s thesis supervisor at Brown. “Trying to reconstruct the joint mobility of an extinct animal is central to how paleontologists interpret fossil evidence. Did Australopithicus afarencis (‘Lucy’) walk like a modern human? Could Archeopteryx perform a flapping flight or just gliding? How fast could T. rex run or was it limited to slow walking? Bringing dead remains to life literally requires resuscitation, and joints offer some of the best information about movement that we dispose.

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

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

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

“Our entire understanding of how vertebrate movement evolved over time, even how our own locomotion came about, relies on reconstructing the locomotion of specific animals in the fossil record,” Manafzadeh said. “And, therefore, having a method to reconstruct the locomotion of these extinct animals allows us to reconstruct this picture of evolutionary history.”

Since joining the Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies this summer to work in Bhullar’s lab, Manafzadeh has been using the same technique to study the dinosaur fossil. Deinonychuswhose bones currently reside at the Class of 1954 Environmental Science 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”, due to the large claw on the second toes of its hind legs. For decades scientists have wondered what the claw was for, theorized to have been used to hunt prey, and how the animal moved with it. Manafzadeh is trying to use simulation to figure out exactly that.

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

“That price, that’s a big deal in the field of vertebrate paleontology,” Bhullar said. “The way paleontologists see it is that it is given to someone who will one day rule the estate, and I have to admit I thought there was a good chance she would get it.

Gatesy shared Bhullar’s sentiment.

“She cares about advancing our field, 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 studied by Manafzadeh hangs on the stairwell of the Class of 1954 Environmental Science Center at 21 Sachem St.