Andrei Zinoviev always dreamed of seeing long-extinct animals in the flesh.
Today, as a Fulbright Scholar at LSU, Zinoviev is making extinct birds "walk" again. Don't worry, these aren't Frankenstein birds. Zinoviev is reconstructing in three-dimensional (3D) models how some extinct birds would have looked and moved thanks to sophisticated computer scans and simulations. These models, built from a combination of fossils and knowledge of existing bird muscle structures, can be applied to understand how birds that look very different from the birds we know today would have moved, including birds with tails and, perhaps, even dinosaurs.
"We can now have movies of these fossils, flying and walking. We bring to life the fossils," said Dominique Homberger, Andrew Clinton Pereboom Honors Professor in the LSU Department of Biological Sciences. Zinoviev is the head of the Department of Biology at Tver State University in Tver, Russia. This year, he is studying in Homberger’s lab as a Fulbright Scholar.
Zinoviev studies the morphology and locomotion of birds, including extinct birds. He has traveled throughout Russia finding new bird fossils to "bring to life" with the power of computer simulations. He has been working to create 3D reconstructions of these birds in order to better understand their morphology and how they move or would have moved in the past. This technology can also help researchers today study specimens globally with greater ease. Instead of taking specimens found in one country to another, researchers could scan a specimen and record observations such as length, weight, etc. within a computer simulation for analysis anytime and anywhere.
Zinoviev's favorite bird that he has reconstructed is in the genus Hesperornis, a type of flightless aquatic bird that existed roughly 80 million years ago.
"The intertarsal joint [in the foot] of Hesperornis possessed a high degree of rotational freedom. In this way it resembled that of loons, showing a loon-like manner of tarsometatarsal movements. This was, however, combined with grebe-like movements of the toes, which undoubtedly had asymmetrical lobes. Hesperornis regalis shows its own independent way of mastering underwater locomotion, which led to the appearance of what became the most specialized avian foot-propelled diver ever known." - Andrei V. Zinoviev
We sat down with Zinoviev to learn more about his research and experience as a Fulbright Scholar at LSU.
College of Science: Where did you receive your degrees and in what fields?
Zinoviev: I received my PhD at Lomonosov Moscow State University in Zoology.
College of Science: Tell us a bit about your research.
Zinoviev: My research is related to the hindlimb morphology and locomotion of birds. Three-dimensional modeling of the hindlimb structures, such as bones, muscles and ligaments, allows me to reconstruct long-extinct bipedal animals, such as ancient birds and some dinosaurs, “in flesh and motion."
College of Science: When did you first realize that you were interested in birds?
Zinoviev: My father was an ornithologist. That is how I got to know and appreciate birds and nature as a whole. It was from the very time I remember myself. Probably from the age of 4 years old.
College of Science: Why did you decide to study extinct birds?
Zinoviev: I have always admired the life of the past, regardless of the group, whether it was dinosaurs, mammals, invertebrates or birds. Since I have mastered the morphology of birds, I feel I have the highest level of expertise in this group to be able to come up with reliable reconstructions.
College of Science: You've created a book that contains beautiful illustrations of birds that no longer exist. This work is truly a marriage of science and art. How does your artistic talent help advance your research?
Zinoviev: My artistic talent helps me a lot. First of all, it helps me to visualize the extinct creature and then put it on the paper or in a computer program. By being able to create nice images helps attract colleagues and lay people to my research.
College of Science: The illustrations are extremely detailed allowing us to see each layer of muscle of the birds. Why is it important that we know such details? What will these details teach us?
Zinoviev: The more details you have, the better. You can use more information to understand, let’s say, the structure and locomotion of birds. Each minute feature in the morphology is the result of certain adaptations that can be reconstructed as a series of evolutionary steps.
College of Science: Creating these illustrations requires an in-depth analysis of bird fossils. Where have you travelled to find these fossils? What has been your most exciting find so far?
Zinoviev: I have travelled quite a lot in Russia. The middle and lower riches of Volga (river) are quite productive in terms of fossil vertebrates. There I found some bones of extinct passerines, which are still waiting to be studied. Passerines are the toughest birds for reconstruction due to their generally small size and vague traces of soft tissues on the bones.
College of Science: In addition to the illustrations, you are also creating 3D images of the birds. What software are you using to create the images and what will the 3D images tell us that the illustrations can not?
Zinoviev: I use Avizo 3D Software to create 3D images of avian structures, primarily bones. 3D images have one more dimension (than drawings or 2D models) which is essential for better understanding bird structures. It is also much more practical to have a 3D image. You don’t have to carry with you the real object. Very substantial information, including lengths of the elements, volumes, etc. is stored in the virtual 3D image.
College of Science: You are on a Fulbright fellowship at LSU working with Dr. Homberger. How will this collaboration advance your work and Dr. Homberger’s work?
Zinoviev: Dr. Homberger is doing research related to 3D imaging and functional analysis of the head, neck and shoulder girdle of birds. I add to her research analysis of the hind limbs. This way, we have entire birds analyzed in 3D.
College of Science: What is the next phase of your research?
Zinoviev: The next phase of the research is 3D reconstruction of muscles of one of the recent birds based on the skeleton alone. By comparing the results of the reconstruction to the real object, I will be able to tell the percentage of reliance in the reconstruction of the past life.
College of Science: Are there possibilities for an exchange program between your university and LSU? What could this program look like?
Zinoviev: There are possibilities for an exchange program. In fact, we've already started some preparations for such a cooperation. With this program, scientists and students can go to the U.S. or Russia to conduct research by dissecting and 3D modeling birds as well as learning the language and the culture of both countries.
College of Science: What do you anticipate will be the biggest takeaway from your Fulbright experience at LSU?
Zinoviev: The biggest takeaway is the creation of the running International Ornithologist’s Union Working Group on Avian Morphology, of which I was elected a Chair.
College of Science: What have you enjoyed most about being at LSU/in Louisiana?
Zinoviev: The most amazing thing is how the university with its buildings constructed in the style of Italian Renaissance is incorporated in the beautiful nature of Louisiana with splendid live oaks covered by the Spanish moss. Swamps, bayous, gators and Cajun cuisine create an unforgettable experience.