In most of the places I’m traveling to, English isn’t the main language (though it’s fairly common in some and the scientific community I interact with will speak it). But it feels so much better to be able to get the gist of things on your own than to smile awkwardly and act like a mute. Plus it’s just polite to make an effort to learn local languages when you travel.

Classes–You can take classes at a university. I took Conversational Chinese I and II here before going there in 2010 and it was a huge help. The teacher made sure my pronunciation and tones were so good that people I talked to on the street there got excited and started trying to have full conversations with me because they assumed I was fluent.

Duolingo–This is a free website where you can learn other languages that’s fun and works well. They currently only offer Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portugese for English speakers (fewer if your native language isn’t English), but they’re constantly working to add more. I’ll be brushing up on my French verbs and learning basic German for my upcoming trips.

Airline computers–Some international airlines offer basic language instruction via the computers in the seatbacks. You can work on that instead of watching movies. I was able to pick up a few phrases of Thai this way, but they really aren’t as useful as they should be. The program focused on nouns I wouldn’t be using in daily conversation and didn’t discuss tones at all.

Guidebooks w/audio– If you buy a book to learn from, make sure it has audio. They won’t necessarily describe the pronunciation well via descriptive text.

And unless you’re fluent in the local language, it might be useful to carry a book of useful phrases around with you so you can point to them if need be.


Etiquette and Culture Clash


When you travel internationally, it’s a good idea to learn some of the common customs and cultural perceptions. You can find some of the basic ones by doing a simple Google search. Being mindful that what your culture perceives as normal or polite can be considered unusual or rude by others will reduce inadvertent insults on your part as well as failure to correctly perceive whether you’re being treated well or badly.

For example, before I went to Thailand, I found out that it’s considered rude for the bottoms of your feet to face anyone because they’re considered unclean. I had to curb my dance habit of sometimes flexing my feet to stretch my calves while sitting.

Below are some of the customs and cultural perceptions I’ll need to keep in mind during my upcoming travels. And if you’re from any of these countries or have lived abroad in them, please let me know if you have any corrections or additions you feel should be addressed.


Small talk with random strangers is considered superficial (whereas we consider chatting to be friendly).

If a random stranger of the opposite sex smiles at you, they’re probably hitting on you. Keep a blank look, then turn away (unless you’re actually interested in that sort of interaction).

Restaurant checks are usually split evenly, regardless of who ordered what.

Greet clerks when entering/exiting shops

If you need to ask a stranger something, lead with “Excusez-moi de vous déranger” (sorry to bother you).


Jaywalking isn’t illegal, and quite common.

Patiently wait in queues. Don’t complain about it.

Most pubs don’t serve dinner or have dedicated waitstaff. Go to the bar, order your drink and meal, and tell them where you’re sitting.

You’ll need to request more to drink at restaurants. No free refills here.

Be aware that many shops close after 5 or 6 o’clock.

Leave a small amount of food on your plate.


Don’t put your hands in your pockets. This is going to be a tough one for me…it’s pretty common in the Southern hillbilly culture I’m from and I do it all the time.

Finish all the food on your plate.

Belgian culture is heterogenous. Find our whether French, German, or Dutch culture influence the area you’re visiting. Choose the language you use to address others in the same way. Speak English if you aren’t sure which is appropriate.

The American “OK” sign means “zero” in Belgium.

Subtlety is preferred over directness.


Have good posture.

Don’t point your index finger at your head (it’s an insult).

Eat everything on your plate.

Again, don’t put your hands in your pockets [while talking to people].

Don’t chew gum or clean your fingernails in public.

They don’t really do lines here.


No lines here either.

Whistling is rude (*sad face*)

It’s polite to hold your plastic or money with both hands when giving or receiving it.

Point with open hands, not your index finger. Likewise, beckon by making a scratching motion with the palm down instead of palm up and curling your index finger.

It’s better to ask someone you already know to introduce you to another person that they already know than to approach them yourselves out of the blue.

“Saving face” is big there. For example, if you ask for directions, you might be given good ones or you might be pointed in a random direction if the person doesn’t know the answer. They don’t want to be perceived poorly, which seems counter-intuitive to us because our cultural norm is that admitting shortcomings is fine, but lying is bad. Thankfully, on my previous trip, I found that I could usually tell based on the generality of the answer and facial expressions/body language whether the person was giving me correct directions or not.

Be prepared to haggle prices at markets and be more insistent than you think you should be. The cost you’re verbally given when shopping is going to be way overpriced because you’re a foreigner (and therefore assumed to have more money). Try countering with 1/10th that amount. If they reply by offering a price lower than the original, continue bartering with them. If they don’t, they’re probably unwilling to go lower for a foreigner because they work in a market frequented by foreigners who don’t know better, so say “tài guì le” (that’s too expensive) and shop somewhere else. In some markets, they’ll be very insistent that you buy from them, going so far as to follow you or pull you into their shop.


No hands in pockets when talking to someone here, either.

The American “OK” sign is a rude gesture.

Don’t point your index finger at your head here, either.

If someone corrects your behavior, be gracious. It’s a social duty.

Stand when an elder or someone with a higher rank enters the room.

Common differences and American mannerisms

Chatting with strangers and loud, jovial conversations are very American and not widespread in other cultures.

Our idea of personal space is pretty big, comparatively. You may find that people stand uncomfortably close to you because they don’t know your ‘bubble’ is bigger than theirs.

We say “thank you” a lot more than many cultures. One of my Chinese colleagues told me we’re the only ones he’s ever known to say “thank you so much”. Note: “please”, “thanks”, and “sorry” are also commonplace in England.

When to show up to appointments, meetings, etc…differs substantially between cultures. Americans often show up 5-15 minutes early. In some cultures, you’re expected to be there right on time. In others, you’re expected to show up late. Find out what the typical time difference is for the country you’re in. Take that into consideration when showing up for or planning meetings.

We tip a lot. In some cultures, tipping (or tipping too much) comes off as showing off or insulting the employers. Find out what the local tipping customs are and tip accordingly.

Some cultures have gift-giving customs. Find out what they might be interested in and bring some small gifts along with you if you foresee being in a situation that would warrant it.

Business cards are commonly exchanged in many cultures. If you can, make double-sided cards with the local language version on one side and English on the other.

If you have any special dietary needs or restrictions, let any dinner hosts know beforehand. I’m a teetotaler, so I make sure to let local colleagues know if I may be in a situation where it would be rude for me to refuse alcohol without prior warning.

It varies across the US, but many Americans see certain physical contact as friendly (hugs as greetings, congratulatory back-slapping, etc…). Other cultures may not be comfortable with physical contact between people who aren’t close, or may have alternate gestures (“cheek kissing”, which is really more kissing the air beside the cheeks).


Depaysement and Culture Clash

One final thing I want to point out–culture clash is a valid thing. I’m not invalidating the differences here, just pointing them out. You’ll tolerate them better if you’re aware of them going in than just thrown into the fray.

There were times in China when I hated the place and other times when I loved it just because there were a few things that really got on my nerves (e.g., being stared at nonstop by people standing right next to me on the bus, or being stalked by someone who was curious about how Americans live but not very tactful about it). I just made an effort to avoid contact with people when I was grumpiest, both for my sake and for theirs. And sometimes I had to act in a way that I’m used to thinking of as rude (e.g., shoving and squeezing my way onto the subway), which I then had to unlearn when I got home because I got used to it after two months of doing it.

Overall, just be mindful. If you’re there long enough, you will develop depaysement (a French word for the feeling of being a foreigner) in a bad way at some point. Awareness of cultural differences helps dampen it and helps you recover more quickly. And makes it more pleasant for locals to interact with you.

Finding Transportation and Lodging


I utilized a lot of sources in trying to come up with the best prices, timing, and locations for transportation and lodging. I hope this list helps some of you.

Student Universe–plane and train tickets, lodging

Google Maps–Type “lodging loc:<insert address of workplace>” or use public transit directions. I also check walking directions from my places of lodging because I prefer to go on foot when possible.

Groups one is already a part of–For example, I’m in the SCA, a living history group that’s international in scale. Whatever group you’re a part of, you might be able to find locals willing to put you up and/or show you around.

Collections managers–They have a lot of experience with people coming to visit and can often tell you which places are the best to stay at (or if any should be avoided), an possibly what public transit to take to either get into town or get around town if you aren’t staying nearby.

The Man in Seat Sixty-One–This is a great little collection of information on trains around the world. Includes handy information about which routes are cheapest, most scenic, liable to be late, etc…

And of course there’s going directly to the airline, train, ferry, or lodging companies if you know who services the area you’re going to.

Museums I’m Visiting


Actually seeing the group you’re studying is kind of important. Pictures and descriptions in papers can only get you so far. Seeing the fossils themselves helps you get a better understanding of them. Plus, there’s always the chance that someone, somewhere interpreted something incorrectly.

Some researchers can get by with collecting their own fossils or getting specimens on loan. The amount of material I need to look at is substantial, though, and getting international loans is much trickier than just traveling there yourself. Which means I need to visit a lot of collections to see their alligatoroid material.

If you’re like me and need to travel extensively, I recommend taking advantage of the “create map” feature on Google Maps. It helped me place collections geographically and plan out my trips.

Below are the collections I’ll be/have been visiting as part of my dissertation studies (English translations of the names). Collections I’ve already been to have been struckthrough. I’m still in the process of contacting collections managers, so museums I haven’t visited may be added or removed throughout the course of my dissertation. There are others I would like to visit later, but won’t be able to before graduation.

United States

  • American Museum of Natural History- New York City, NY
  • Carnegie Museum of Natural History- Pittsburgh, PA
  • East Tennessee State University- Johnson City, TN
  • University of Florida Museum of Natural History- Gainesville, FL
  • Field Museum of Natural History- Chicago, IL
  • Museum of Comparative Zoology- Cambridge, MA
  • North Carolina Museum of Natural History- Raleigh, NC
  • New Jersey State Museum- Trenton, NJ
  • New Mexico Museum of Natural History- Albuquerque, NM
  • Smithsonian Institution Natural History Museum- Washington, D.C.
  • Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, Claremont, CA
  • University of Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory- Austin, TX
  • Yale Peabody Museum- New Haven, CT
  • University of California Museum of Paleontology, Berkeley, CA
  • Science Museum of Minnesota- St. Paul, MN
  • Burpee Museum of Natural History- Rockford, IL
  • Utah Field House of Natural History- Vernal, UT
  • John Day Fossil Beds National Monument- Kimberly, OR


  • Sirindhorn Museum- Wat Sakkawan, Kalasin district
  • Maha Sarakham University- Maha Sarakham, Maha Sarakham district


  • Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology- Beijing
  • Shanwang Paleontology Museum- Linqu, Shandong Province
  • Sun Yat-sen University School of Life Sciences- Guangzhou, Guangdong Province

United Kingdom

  • Natural History Museum- London, England
  • Dinosaur Isle- Isle of Wight, England


  • National Museum of Natural History- Paris
  • Marseille Museum of Natural History- Marseille


  • Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences- Brussels


  • Natural History Museum of Basel


  • Natural History Museum- Berlin
  • Senckenberg Museum- Frankfurt
  • Hessian State Museum- Darmstadt
  • Paleontology Museum- Nierstein
  • State Museum of Natural History- Stuttgart
  • State Museum of Natural History- Karlsruhe
  • Paleontology Museum- Munich
  • Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg- Halle

Research Methods



There are several methods commonly used to figure out how species are related to one another: maximum parsimony, maximum likelihood, and Bayesian inference.

Parsimony is basically Occam’s Razor–the simplest answer is the most likely. This is standard in analysis of morphological data. Maximum likelihood and Bayesian inference are both model-based methods. They work great if you’re able to model the chances that one thing will evolve into another, which makes them standard for molecular data since scientists have actually determined the rates at which one base pair changes to another. But for morphological data?….not so much.

Phenotype doesn’t follow mathematical models of which molecule fits best to another or what amino acid they’ll code for. It’s completely dependent on interactions with the environment, which is complicated and changes all the time. This is far from being a perfect analogy, but using model-based methods for morphological data is almost like trying to set up a model for whether a horn will become shorter or longer, only to have it turn blue.

That’s not to say that they can’t be used for morphological data at all, but they do have a very strong tendency to overestimate confidence levels, which is worse than underestimating because it means the people using your phylogenetic hypotheses may very well be making incorrect a priori assumptions. Better to say “we aren’t sure what happened in this part of the tree”, which is what parsimony is more likely to give.


I’ll be using several different morphometric methods. There’s traditional morphometrics, which is the use of linear measurements, angles, and ratios; then there’s geometric morphometrics, which uses landmarks, semi-landmarks, and outlines. In most studies, geometric morphometrics is preferred because it removes size (except for allometry, which can be tested for and informative in its own right), which leaves shape as the only thing being analyzed.

I’m quantifying the evolution of snout length relative to body size. Since this is a size variable more than shape, I’m using traditional morphometrics for it. I’ve already presented results of this at two meetings, and will add more data this summer and fall.

I have an undergraduate assistant using my photographs to digitize outlines of the back teeth and/or their alveoli. We’ll be doing Fourier transform to quantify these data.

I’ll also be looking at the morphological evolution of other aspects of alligatorine skeletons, and this will be through landmarks and semi-landmarks, which are point data that capture shape.

Biogeographic methods

There are two camps of biogeographic methods: pattern-based (e.g., TreeFitter), and process-based (e.g., dispersal-extinction cladogenesis). I’ll be using both to study alligatorines in the context of phylogeny.

Diversity measures

There are a lot of different ways to illustrate diversity through time. You can look at how many originations (speciation events) there are in a set period of time, how many extinctions, presence/abscence counts of lineages, etc… I’ll be doing a variety of these and comparing them to climate throughout the Cenozoic.

Why Study Alligatorine Evolution?


Many people think of alligators and other crocodylians as “living fossils”, which is completely untrue (The phrase “living fossil” really just needs to die in a fire because it’s completely useless, misleading, and damaging, but that’s a discussion in and of itself). They have changed quite a lot in the course of their evolution and that’s what I’m studying. My research is on quite a few evolutionary concepts: phylogeny & taxonomy, ecomorphology, biogeography, and diversity in relation to climate change.

Phylogeny & Taxonomy

All of the “big picture” questions I’m looking should be approached in a phylogenetic context (how species are related to one another). Taxonomy (what species and higher units are named) goes hand in hand with that because taxonomy can change if our understanding of phylogeny does. Phylogeny is the documentation of how lineages split and gives scientists a framework to ask other questions.


One of these other questions is how shape and size change, and what that has to do with ecology. Modern American alligators are really weird–if you look at basal alligatorines and other species just outside the alligator-caiman split, they’re all these short-snouted, small (~6ft) animals with big, bulbous, crushing back teeth. I’m quantifying how shape and size change over time and through lineages and how this relates to changes in ecological niche.


Modern alligators have a disjunct distribution, with one species in the southeastern US and the other in southeastern China. Crocodiles have disjunct distributions too, but they also have physiological attributes that make them tolerant of saltwater which alligators lack. Alligators are mostly restricted to freshwater. They can enter saltwater for small periods of time and will be fine if they can make it back to freshwater before dehydrating, and often do (there’s a set of studies on Georgia island gators on this). But these are mostly adult or large juvenile individuals–and remember that most extinct gator species were small as adults. Small individuals lose water through their skin at a much quicker rate because of the surface area to volume ratio.

This all means that dispersing across continents is hard for gators. They need land bridges or island chains with freshwater supplies. But these would only be present in high latitudes during alligators’ existence, so climate is an additional limiting factor. I’m trying to figure out what routes they may have taken and when.

Diversity & Climate Change

As “cold-blooded” animals, alligators are geographically restricted by ambient air temperature. As crocodylians go, they’re actually pretty cold-tolerant, and can survive freezing temperatures by staying underwater with only their noses above the surface, but this can only last for so long. They need warmer temperatures to feed, breed, and hatch.

This means that they’ve been used as “paleothermometers”–indications that the climate in the place and time their fossils are found fell above certain climatic parameters. They’ve been around for all or nearly all of the Cenozoic, and the climate has changed substantially since it began. The early Cenozoic, the Paleogene, was much warmer and wetter. At this time, alligatorines ranged as far north as Ellesmere Island. But when it cooled off and dried out in the Neogene, their range became much more restricted and their number of species fell. It’s been a while since anyone examined how their diversity changed over time and they used simple species counts rather than considering phylogeny (which accounts for unsampled lineages that had to of been around based on who’s most closely related to whom). The taxonomy has also been revised quite a lot since this was last done. I’ll be updating it and analyzing how closely alligatorine diversity matches climate change through time.

When did Alligatorinae Evolve?

Source: Geological Society of America

The Alligatorinae-Caimaninae split is actually one of the best-constrained divergence dates for vertebrates. The two clades diverged from one another somewhere between 71 and 64 million years ago (Ma). This was either shortly before, during, or just after the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary, which is currently placed at 66 Ma. This point in geologic time is best known as when the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct.

This means that alligatorines have been around for the entire (or almost the entire) Cenozoic, which takes up the leftmost column in the picture above. If they diverged from caimans shortly before the K-Pg boundary, they would have also been present in the Maastrichtian, which is the last age in the Mesozoic.