Archive for March, 2009

The mysteries of museums

imgp2354Despite having been working in and around museums for ten years now, so far at least, I have not ceased to be amazed at what you can find lying around in obscure corners, backrooms, cellars, cupboards and storage spaces. It can often be worthwhile a quick rummage as you might well find something interesting and occasionally even important that others have overlooked or simply didn’t know was there. Mostly it’s just a bit of academic curiosity as with this little pile of mammal and bird bits that I found in Karlsruhe. OK, nothing too fantastic to get excited about in that lot but with them was something I never though I would see in a museum, or perhaps to be more precise, I had never conceived could exist so wouldn’t think to imagine that I would find it in a museum. I found this:
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Pseudofossils are an interesting aspect of palaeontology that crop up from time to time and can make life both interesting and frustrating. I have already commented on the problems of identifying fossil bones in the field but these are a bit more specialised. Of course if you has as many different shapes as are available for all the fossils out there (think of the various shapes of the bones in just the human body, then add to that all other vertebrates and their variations, then add in shells, tracks, eggs and the rest) and the sheer number of rocks and pebbles that have odd shapes and can end up looking like fossils and you can probably see where this is going. Basically there are lots of bits of rock out there that are not fossils, but do look just like them.
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The science behind the story

I have just come across this great little site which searches for research papers based on media stories. The media rarely give the details of the papers they have based their reports on and this gadget will hunt them out for you based on the information available (since they often name at least one auhtro and the journal’s name). Should prove useful for fact checking.

Wellnohfer volume update

Just a quick reminder to those who might have missed it that the Zitteliana volume of pterosaur papers devoted to peter Wellnhofer is still (of course) available. However, it now appears (thanks to a comment from Christopher Collinson) that the publishers are now accepting payment via the magic of electronic payment for anyone who has been having trouble. All the relevant contact details etc. are on the original post here for those who are interested.


Back to the dinosaurs for the first time in a while in an AABQOTW. Rather a frivolous one, but it’s one of those things that normally make it only into a pub debate in palaeontolgoical circles (and with good reason) but that doesn’t mean it’s not talking about in public if only becuase it is fun and a great excerise in ‘what if…’ science.

So this time out, assuming we could, why should we clone dinosaurs? To see the answers provided, follow this link.


p1160891This is a rather nice life reconstruction of Caudipteryx (an oviraptorosaurian) that stands in the Museum of Geology in Beijing. Caudipteryx is one of the better known feathered dinosaurs to have come out of Liaoning with a number of well preserved and complete speciemns known (six at the last count I believe, though there are almost certainly others hiding out in private collections or that remain unprepared in collection basements). I have seen four of these and each is in very good condition and preserved in an almost identical postures and each with a good selection of feathers, especially those long vaned feathers on the arms and the classic ‘tail-fan’ both of which are shown off on this model to good effect (though you can’t see the latter from this photo, sorry).

I do have rather an affection for these kinds of life reconstructions which seem to be quite common in Asian museums. They provide a nice compliment to the fossils themselves and help to show how the animal would look rather better than 2-D artwork often can, especially when the original fossil itself is flat and hard to mentally interpret if you have not seen them before. The more the merrier as far as I am concerned and this is a great example.

The media vs science, yes, *again* – sigh.

My apologies for the recent lack of in depth posts, I do have some coming but for right now work has to (shock, horror) take priority and I just don’t have the time free that I usually do to write ‘proper’ posts. Anyway, I can vaguely compensate for that by linking to a nice long article for you to read on that subject that vexes me the most, the media distortion of science. If you have any interest in this and science communication as a whole, then you really should read this piece in the New Scientist. In this case the primary movers seem to be the editors rather than the journalists themselves (at least initially), but that hardly excuses the responsibilty of the organisation as a whole, or the journalists for not demanding accurate coverage of their own story. After all, what is the point of them getting it right if it then appears under a banner headline that says the opposite? Especially as then inevitably other papers picked up on the wrong message and rebroadcast it.

One thing that certainly makes it different is the fact that the primary target of the article is the British newspaper The Guardian. What is interesting is that The Guardian is the host of the superb Bad Science which I mentioned several times before and goes out of its way to trash just such reporting. I can hardly complain that they are good enough to actually host Bad Science and as such promote good science and accurate and responsible science reporting (this is more than any other paper in the Uk that I know of), but when they then splash nonsense on the front page no less (and apparently follow it up with more inside), it does *rather* diminish the effect and appear to be crass hypocricy and double standards.

The Guardian is, in my opinion, one of the best papers that I know of for science reporting, and of course not only do they have Ben Goldacre on their staff but freely let him criticise everything, including the paper he is writing for, on a regular basis (I actually picked up on this article from his feed). It therefore, I think, empahsises the point of just how bad these things can be in terms of distortion, manipulation and general stomping over reality in order to make a ‘good’ story. Researchers can always do a better job of communicating their research, but those who criticise the researchers for these mistakes in their dealings with the media really need to look at the huge plethora of these stories that just keep on coming and see just how extreme these things can become depite the best efforts of scientists and even the journalists themselves.


Sinraptor is one of those dinosaurs which is very well known in professional circles, but largely unknown outside of it. While this might sound pretty obvious (how many of the general public can name more than Tyrannosaurus-Triceratops-Stegosaurus-Diplodocus?) the point is that Sinraptor *should* be a bit better known. This is because it is a near complete specimen (apart from the arms and bits of the tail and a few ribs it’s pretty much all there) in excellent condition and has been described in great detail relatively recently. That makes it an excellent source of information for anyone wanting to describe theropods or analyse them and this is a service it regularly provides.


I’m going into any more details here at this time, I really just wanted to put up this nice photo of the mount that was made of the skeleton and is on display at the IVPP (inside I should point out, this was when it was wheeled out for Oliver Rauhut and I to have a look at it). The mount is, in theory, great – really dynamic, dramatic and nicely showing off the idea of a skeleton being discovered entombed in rock. In practice however, it’s a bit of a nightmare to say the least with bones actively trapped in the damned fake rock so you can’t see them properly, something that is surprisingly common.

A visit to Down House

imgp2132I mentioned recently that I took the opportunity to visit Darwin’s home, Down House, while I was in the UK. While it was obviously a great thing to have finally done (and for a man obsessed with the natural world I really should have done it years ago) I have to say that it was very disappointing. I say that not just as a professional biologist, but I suspect it is true of most people attending since frankly there is simply very little there to see or do, and no explanation of the significance of what is there. That might be understandable in what is effectively just a big house with a big garden (you can’t make a museum out of it), but given the cost of getting in (around 8 GBP for an adult) and the colossal amount of money paid to upgrade the entire thing only last year, it’s poor. Anyway, there is more to say, so read on:

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Wow it’s nealry the end of March and a quarter of the way through the year and I have yet to mention the fantastic Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science and the fact that 2009 is their Year of Science. Between the Darwin celebrations, a trip to Japan, then the UK and Germany, not to mention the traditional fundamentals of actually doing some work I have completely forgotten to write about this despite regualr e-mails from them (Ask A Biologist is a member). I really probably do not need to tell you much more than that since the name kind of gives away what it is they are doing and of course their website explains it far better than I can.

I would add that this kind of thing is a great idea though, too many people have good idea about various things and start off independently of a number of simialr small groups all kiond of doing the same thing in the smae way but not quite overlapping and no one talking to anyone else. A registry and organisation like this really does help bring people together, allow them to trade ideas and expertise and provide a genuine force when tackling big issues – we could do with a few more of these umbrella type groups in my opinion.

Anyway, the main COPUS website is here, you can see their colossal list of collaborators and promotors here, and the Year of Science website with all of its bits and bobs is here.

It would be funnier if it wasn’t so close to the truth

Anyone interested in biology / science in general really should read this short courtesy of the ever excellent The Onion (note, contains some rude words). The title above says it all really – we are facing a double crisis in biolgoy right now (I’m not saying what to avoid giving away the gags) and this piece hits them home beautifully and humerously. Perhaps unintentioanlly it does also make the point that just ploughing all the funding into medical research is only good up to a point if it relies on the rest of biology to back it up.

The complete works of Peter Wellnhofer

One thing that ultimately did not make it into the Wellnohfer pterosaur volume of papers (through lack of space eventually) was a prepared list of every paper that Peter has published (well, every one we could find, I am sure there are a few missing that perhaps even he has forgotten about). It seemed a shame to leave this simply left unpublished and inaccessible and so I thought I might as well stick it up here, so while it might be in an obscure place, it is at least accessible and available online. Of course most of these are already listed on Chris Bennett’s pterosaur index, but Peter published on many other subjects, most notably Archaeopteryx, so it is good to have such a comprehensive list. I should point out that I did nothing to compile this list, Ushi Goehlich (of Juravenator fame) provided me with one that ran well past 2000 and then Stephan Lautenschlager finished it off for me, my thanks to them both.

I’ll put the actual list below the fold because not everyone will want to see it, and well, it’s huge. The formatting is as for Zitteliana which was it’s intended destination. Those who like their  pterosaurs German should keep reading:

Continue reading ‘The complete works of Peter Wellnhofer’

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