PhD, Columbia University 2011
Dr. Balanoff uses a combination of descriptive morphology, phylogenetic methods, and innovative imaging techniques to study phylogenetic relationships of maniraptoran dinosaurs and how our understanding of those relationships affects the way we reconstruct the deep history of character systems. Although digital imaging technologies are now prevalent in vertebrate paleontology Dr. Balanoff was one of the first researchers to apply high-resolution CT to the study of fossil embryonic specimens and has continued her research along these lines by using μCT to study the evolution of the brain in extinct and extant dinosaurs. Relatively little is known regarding the evolutionary origins of the hyperinflated brain that distinguishes birds from other living reptiles and is thought to provide the important neurological capacities required for flight. Dr. Balanoff has been working at reanalyzing earlier studies of volumetric relationships with an expanded taxonomic sampling of non-avian maniraptoran dinosaurs that pre- and postdate the origin of avian powered flight. Her research so far has found that a brain roughly equal in volume to that at the base of Avialae (the clade that includes Archaeopteryx and all living birds) evolved before the origin of avian powered flight. These new data reveal that the relative size of the cranial cavity of the first “bird” Archaeopteryx is indicative of a more generalized maniraptoran volumetric signature and in several instances actually smaller than that of other non-avian dinosaurs. This work is highly collaborative and involves researchers from around the country, bringing together disparate types of data such as novel staining techniques, µCT scanning, geometric morphometrics, molecular developmental biology as well as PET scanning to address questions related to the evolutionary origin of the avian brain. Dr. Balanoff also studies the evolutionary relationships within a bizarre group of extinct, bird-like maniraptoran dinosaurs, oviraptorosaurs. Despite almost one hundred years of study and intense popular interest, the evolutionary relationships among oviraptorosaurs and their position within Coelurosauria has remained contentious. Resolution of this dilemma is crucial to our understanding of the phylogenetic relationships of derived coelurosaurs and the transformation of characters around the origin of flight, including that of the bird brain. She has done extensive fieldwork in North America, Mongolia, and Romania in order to shed light on these important questions.