The Tyrannosaur Chronicles – now in paperback

So nearly a year has passed since the book launched and that now means that the paperback is due. I’ve been fielding a few questions about it (and of course I want to promote the new release – due on April 20th) so this seemed like a good opportunity to do a quick blogpost on it.

As you can see the paperback has a switched-up colour scheme from the original purple hardback but that’s one of the biggest changes. The book has really not been updated and while there are some corrected typos (and the annoyingly switched around phylogenies in Chapter 4) these are the only real alterations. There are some more notes in the introduction, but that’s it – I didn’t have the opportunity to revise and update the book as a whole and I’m not sure I’d have taken it if I had, so please don’t invest thinking this is a new version, it is not. The paper quality is good on the paperback and the Hartman figures and drawings do not suffer at all, and the glossy photos are all still there in the middle.

One year on is a decent time to reflect on things and I’ve been amazed at the positive response to the book. I always expected it would go down well with dinosaur aficionados but it has sold in numbers that show it has gone well beyond any fanbase I might have, and even that tyrannosaurs might have, and there’s been loads of responses and reviews from more ‘normal’ people who simply enjoyed it as a book on popular science. Amazon.com is especially good averaging 4.6 from 28 reviews, but Amazon.co.uk is hardly bad (4.0 from 7 reviews) and it’s done well on Goodreads as well (3.93 from 114 ratings with 34 reviews). I’ve yet to see a review below 3/5 (though I’ve hardly been hunting down bad ones!) and that is really nice since it’s impossible to appeal to everyone, but clearly it’s coming across well generally.

That’s it really. I’m obviously delighted with how things have gone and hope it continues to do well. It naturally is already dated (damned new species being named!) but the fundamentals I hope will be relevant for many years to come and continue to be enjoyed by readers.

Buried Treasure – Dave Hone

I could hardly expect everyone else to write about their own papers without taking a turn myself at some point. In may case it’s a fairly recent paper that I’d like to cover, my paper in the Journal of Zoology on sorting out hypotheses for behaviour when dealing with fossil species. OK, so it’s only a few years old and things take time to accrue citations, but it does seem to have had very little impact given the raft of papers I have seen that (I think) would really benefit from taking a look at what I and my coauthor Chris Faulkes proposed.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly invested in looking at definitions and how they are used. When you are trying to look at multiple species and compare them, or get a sense of something of the state of play for an issue like the ratio of different life stages of animals, it’s enormously helpful if everyone is using the same definitions. Unfortunately the opposite is true, people use different words to mean broadly the same thing (without ever clarifying it), or the same word to mean very different things depending on context (again, without ever providing an explicit definition) and the whole situation becomes a bit of a mess. My paper on defining juveniles and adults for dinosaurs is a case in point and similarly, there’s lots of unhelpful use of the term ‘social’ with out reference to other works (especially on living taxa) as covered in my paper on Protoceratops and what it means to be ‘social’.

In short, we need to be careful about how things are defined because that’s important for making data comparable, but it’s also an issue for testing hypotheses. If it’s not clear what you mean by ‘juvenile’ then it’s very hard to say whether or not this is the correct assignment, or using it to assess a growth pattern etc. The other side of this, is whether or not a hypothesis is really credible in the first place. I think with palaeontology we are so used to dealing with incomplete specimens and limited data generally that hypotheses based on little evidence is the norm, but it does seem that when it comes to behaviour (and / or ecology) these can get erected based on almost nothing at all, and really only add to a long list of vague statements that don’t really add anything to our understanding of how animals lived. I won’t pick on any specific examples, but it’s not hard to find hypotheses like ‘this animal may have been a piscivore / scavenger / hunted in packs / migrated long distances’ and so on based on the flimsiest of lines of evidence. Statements about the sociality of whole clades of taxa based on a set of footprints of two individuals together is not something that should be taken seriously, but too often it’s not only published but then picked up and carried forwards.

So my paper on establishing hypotheses was designed to be something that could help provide guidance towards making hypotheses stronger. What lines of evidence would likely be useful to support a case, which would be weaker, how can that evidence be best integrated with available data or our understanding of the behaviour of living animals? Taken together, is an idea even supported by enough data to make it worth evoking as a formal hypothesis and if so, how can this best be formalised to the species or specimen in hand in a way that is supported by the evidence and is most amenable to further support or even formal testing later on?

I think this is really important. We as a field have become so much better at being rigorous when it comes to assessing ideas about descent, relationships, ages, functional morphology, evolutionary patterns and many more, but I do think that behaviour really lags here. Too many vague and unsupported hypotheses are not just in the literature, but are entering the literature and I do hope that the ideas in this paper will help slow up some of this and get people (authors, referees and editors) to take a more critical look at terms and how they are used, and in particular the support for hypotheses about behaviour.

Hone, D.W.E. & Faulkes, C.J. 2014. A proposed framework for establishing and evaluating hypotheses about the behaviour of extinct organism. Journal of Zoology.

Buried Treasure – Andy Farke

Sometimes, even research that gets a fair bit of press can get overlooked–particularly for little tidbits in the paper that might get obscured by the “big picture” stuff.

One of the coolest fossils I’ve ever worked on is a “baby” Parasaurolophus from southern Utah. The fossil–the smallest, youngest, and most complete of this kind of duck-billed dinosaur (hadrosaur) ever discovered–was found in 2009 by one of my high school students. The resulting 2013 paper received international press and has racked up a decent number of citations since. The fossil was even invited to travel to Japan as part of the 2016 Dinosaur Expo, where it was viewed by nearly a million people!

I am incredibly proud of the work, a collaborative effort with high school students, myself, and bone expert Sarah Werning, and consider it one of the best pieces of research I have ever published. Yet, there is one tiny angle that seems to get overlooked by a lot of people: the beak.

The skull on our baby Parasaurolophus is accompanied by an impression of the horny beak that lined the front bones of the upper jaw. Notably, it shows that the skull was not a terribly accurate representation of life appearance–the beak itself extended far beyond the bony anatomy.

Importantly, the baby Parasaurolophus was not the first hadrosaur to show this, either. Fossils of Edmontosaurus, reported as far back as the 1920s, revealed a similar structure, and strongly indicate that an elongated horny beak was pretty typical across “duck-bills”. In fact, they weren’t really duck-bills at all, but more like “shovel-beaks” (Brian Switek has a great post on this topic). The beak extension created a big scoop that was perfect for mowing off vegetation!

Long-beaked sauropod by Panzarin

Long-beaked hadrosaur by Lukas Panzarin

Despite a long history of knowledge about the beaks in these animals, very few artists include the structure in their reconstructions. I’m not sure why this is, but even very recent reconstructions by many talented artists simply follow the bony outline of the jaws. It is just a tiny blow to my ego that this tidbit from our Parasaurolophus paper (and work by others) gets overlooked!

Hadrosaurs looked quite a bit different than usually pictured. So, if you are an artist, or advising artists, give hadrosaur beaks an extra little bit of love!

Postscript

If I have to pick an underappreciated historical paper, I would say it has to be the classic monograph on the anatomy of Protoceratops by Barnum Brown and Eric Schlaikjer. It’s got a ton of careful anatomical description and some really brilliant thoughts on ontogeny (changes during growth). There is unfortunately a bit of a misconception arising that long-ago paleontologists didn’t think about ontogeny in any serious way–Brown and Schlaikjer show this isn’t true. Peter Dodson’s 1975 paper on ontogeny in hadrosaurs is another great one–he was one of the first people to show that what had been split into multiple species of duckbilled dinosaurs were in fact young and old individuals of a single species. This work by Brown, Schlaikjer, Dodson, and others paved the way for ongoing investigations of ontogeny today, many of which are using methods like histology to add another layer of data to the questions.

Citations

Brown, B., and E. M. Schlaikjer. 1940. The structure and relationships of Protoceratops. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 40:133–266.

Dodson, P. 1975. Taxonomic implications of relative growth in lambeosaurine hadrosaurs. Systematic Zoology 24:37–54.

Farke, A. A., D. J. Chok, A. Herrero, B. Scolieri, and S. Werning. 2013. Ontogeny in the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids. PeerJ 1:e182.

Morris, W. J. 1970. Hadrosaurian dinosaurs bills–morphology and function. Los Angeles County Museum Contributions in Science 193:1–14.

Versluys, J. 1923. Der Schädel des Skelettes von Trachodon annectens im Senckenberg-Museum. Abhandlungen Der Senckenbergischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft 38:1–19.

A cornucopia of pterosaur papers

I’ve already covered here at some length my paper on the taxonomy of some of the Asian dsungaripterids as related to the rediscovery of some missing material of Noripterus. That paper is my entry to a volume that I have edited with Mark Witton and Dave Martill* and is the collected works that comes off the back of the 2015 Flugsaurier meeting in Portsmouth. This is being published by the Geological Society of London, an august institute to host this, and a nice hark back to the truly seminal 2003 volume they produced from the back of the Toulouse pterosaur meeting. It will be very hard to meet the standards of that collection (not least as it contained some absolutely fundamental papers on systematics and critical specimens) but I hope not to stand too much in that particular shadow.

Unlike many previous volumes this has the advantage of papers being published online as they come in and so we do not need to wait for the final paper to be sorted before the volume becomes available. That means that a number of papers are already available to read, even though not all of them are yet back from edits by authors and approval by the editorial team. We do hope to have the paper version out by the end of the year, but in the meantime there’s a pile of papers to enjoy.

There’s a diversity of subjects covered here with papers describing new specimens, revisions of existing taxa, new genera being named (or resurrected), a major new phylogenetic analysis, studies on muscles, jaws, and wings as well as various other bits and bobs. I won’t go through them one by one, you can see the list here (and it will continue to update as papers come in). The volume is, sadly, not OA but the production of PDFs means that authors have copies that can be readily disseminated so as with many papers, an e-mail should secure you a copy (and people like to know their work is being read). There should be something in here for everyone (provided of course you like pterosaurs) but here’s a select group of personal highlights so far (and some other important and interesting papers are coming).

First off would be Mark Witton’s excellent review of pterosaurs in food chains – both things they ate and that ate them. This deals exclusively with direct evidence of diet (stomach contents and the like) of which there is a fair bit, rather than so much work which is understandably often built on inferences about these relationships. It’s an excellent foundation for this area which is growing quite rapidly.

Next would be Chris Bennett’s paper with Paul Penkalski on a bizarre Pteranodon that has a striped skull. This isn’t (sadly) colour patterning or soft tissues but remarkably seems to be a pattern of the bone itself. It’s really quite strange and shows that even pterosaurs we know well can pop up with some big surprises.

Finally there’s Colin Palmer’s paper on the properties of pterosaur wing membranes. Although not the first to tackle this subject, since the last major review and set of hypotheses on their performance, we have learned a lot about the structure of the soft tissues, the layers that go into it, and the size and shape and extent of the main wing as well as the orientations in which it likely functions. That makes a synthesis like this very useful as both a review of where we are and what we might expect as well as giving us ideas to test.

I’ll leave that here for now and let readers explore the volume as it firms up. It only remains for me to thank my co-editors and the various referees as well as of course the authors themselves and the people at the Geological Society for their help with producing this volume and  look forwards to seeing the final printed version.

 

 

  • For the record as this kind of thing has caused consternation among some before, I did not have anything to do as editor with my own authored paper. It was handled entirely independently by the other editors and I had no access or input to the process (and nor did they to their own papers). In a small field like pterosaur research it’s hard if not impossible to find referees and editors who are truly independent, and it’s a bit odd to exclude people who have the knowledge to edit a volume from contributing to it, so this is the best solution. This really is common in lots of specialist volumes, but it’s worth noting that it was done as transparently and ethically as possible.

 

Buried Treasure – Jordan Mallon

What is my least appreciated paper? That’s an easy one:

Mallon, J. C., and Evans, D. C. 2014. Taphonomy and habitat preference of North American pachycephalosaurids (Dinosauria, Ornithischia). Lethaia 47:567–578.

This is a paper that I co-wrote with my good friend and colleague, Dave Evans. It’s been published for nearly three years now, and has garnered only two citations—both of which are from Dave and me! Despite this, the paper effectively debunks a widely held meme that North American pachycephalosaurs were mountain dwellers, à la big-horned sheep. This is an idea that gets a lot of play in both the popular media and textbooks (including some that have come out even after our paper was published).

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See what I mean? The belief that North American pachycephalosaurs lived in the mountains is all over the place!

 The idea for the project came to mind shortly after I started my postdoc at the Canadian Museum of Nature in 2013. I was reading some papers by my predecessor here, Charlie Sternberg, and repeatedly came across this notion of his that North American pachycephalosaur skull domes tend to be well worn, “as if they had been rolled down a stream” (C. M. Sternberg. 1970. Comments on dinosaurian preservation in the Cretaceous of Alberta and Wyoming. National Museums of Canada Publications in Palaeontology 4:1–9). For Charlie, the implication was that these pachycephalosaurs must have lifted in upland—even intermontaine—environments, and not in the ancient coastal plain environments where their skull domes are typically found. Others have run with the idea since then.

But was Charlie right? Are these pachycephalosaur domes typically water-worn? No one had done the hard work of looking over the original fossil material to find out. Fortunately, most of the domes that Charlie collected were available for examination at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Dave and I further supplemented our dataset with domes from the Royal Ontario Museum and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. In all, we had a respectable dataset of 187 domes, which is nothing to sneeze at (particularly if you’re a dinosaur palaeontologist). Without going into the nitty gritty of how we assessed dome wear (you can read the paper for that), suffice it to say that we found that domes were not typically worn. We also found that dome wear does not correlate with distance from their presumed origin in the Rocky Mountains, nor are pachycephalosaur remains relatively more abundant in intermontaine deposits, which we could expect if the critters lived there.

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North American pachycephalosaurs almost certainly lived in the ancient coastal flood plains where we find their skull domes today. Image credit: Brett Booth.

Dave and I took this to mean that pachycephalosaurs must’ve been living where we find their remains: in the low-lying coastal floodplains, alongside the more common hadrosaurids and ceratopsids. It’s an important first step in understanding things like dinosaur community ecology and beta diversity. It’s also a good reminder that taphonomic processes like erosion can actually inform our understanding of the habits of fossil organisms, and are not simply information-destroying by nature.

If anyone wants a copy of the paper (which is behind a paywall), please fire me off an email at jmallon AT mus-nature.ca.

 

Buried Treasure – Matt Wedel

I’m not quite sure whether I’m supposed to be talking about my favorite paper out of my little flock, or the one that I wish had gotten more attention. But it’s okay, because the answer in both cases is the same: my 2012 paper on long nerves in sauropod dinosaurs. It’s freely online through Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.
This one is my favorite for several reasons. I think it’s the most personal of my papers, in that there was no obvious need for it, and probably no-one else was ever going to write it. Whereas with pneumaticity I just got in at the right time – that work was going to be done by someone, and probably sooner rather than later. I also like the long nerve paper because all it required was thinking. I didn’t discover anything, and I didn’t do any real work. In fact, at the outset I was basically thinking of it as sort of a stunt paper. If it had any broader meaning at first, it was merely, “Ha ha, I thought of this before anyone else did.”
But that’s the great thing about science – if you pick up any given thread and follow it, you may soon find yourself in a labyrinth of possibilities, like Theseus and Ariadne in reverse. That happened with the sauropod nerve project, which has spun off in a couple of new directions for me. One is thinking more about the peripheral nervous systems of extinct animals, which has attracted almost zero attention so far. It’s pretty esoteric – nerves leave even less of a trace on the skeleton than air sacs – but there are some interesting and useful inferences that we can draw (to find out what those are, wait for the paper!). The second spin-off is that writing the 2012 paper fired my interest in the physiology of neurons, and in fact kicked off some conversations and potential collaborations with neuroscientists. That is a career wrinkle I never anticipated.
Still, I have to admit that it is a paper without a lot of obvious applications. It hasn’t been cited much – about half as many times as other papers of mine from around that time – but I have been happy to see it cited in a variety of fields, including neuroscience, computer science, and linguistics. That’s satisfying because I cited works from a variety fields in writing the paper in the first place. In part that was because cell biology in giant dinosaurs is an inherently cross-disciplinary problem, and in part because the example of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the giraffe has become widely known and referenced across so many fields.
My goal now is to build on the 2012 paper with at least a couple of follow-ups to show paleontologists that, yes, there is some actual science to be done here, beyond the gee-whiz aspects. That was the subject of my talk at SVPCA last year. And as I said at the end of that talk, if you’re interested in the interplay of evolutionary novelty and developmental constraint across multiple levels of biological organization, thinking about the cell physiology and comparative anatomy of large animals is a fertile playground.

Noripterus returns – sorting out some pterosaur taxonomy

New reconstruction of Noripterus by Rebecca Gelerenter. This is a composite based on all the material we have from various specimens (known material is in white).

New reconstruction of Noripterus by Rebecca Gelerenter. This is a composite based on all the material we have from various specimens (known material is in white).

Immediately after the Munich pterosaur meeting ended in 2007, I moved to Beijing to take up a postdoctoral position at the IVPP. Perhaps the first bit of mail I has there was from the now late Wann Langston thanking me for setting up the Munich Flugsaurier (which he had attended) and sending me a photocopy of his notes and some old photographs he’d taken on a trip to China back in the 80s. This was of a superbly preserved pterosaur hindlimb, and one he wanted to know more about but which had since not been seen by any researcher he knew, or been in the literature.

This was a specimen of Noripterus, a small dsungaripterid from China found by, and then named by, C.C. Young back in 1973. The original description of this was both a bit sparsely described, and in Chinese which is a shame as Young mentions a number of specimens, and illustrates or measures only part of some of them. I asked around the curators at the IVPP but no one knew the location of the material and it was suggested to have been borrowed and not returned.

Fast forward a couple of years and while Paul Barrett was visiting the IVPP he had been directed by a colleague to a little used set of cabinets in the collection, where apparently some mislaid dinosaur material was residing. I happened to be looking over a specimen in the collections at the time so inevitably was keen to see what might turn up. On opening the case, Paul found his specimens, but one thing I spotted was immediately recognisable from Wann’s photos – the lost Noripterus foot. Accompanying it was quite a lot of other pterosaur specimens with similar specimen numbers – Noripterus was back.

Since then I’ve been working on and off on a number of projects on these specimens (hampered by my no longer being in China) and the first is finally out as part of the volume from the back of the 2015 Flugsaurier meeting in Portsmouth. A more full description is in the work but this is the first and important step because the taxonomy of the Asian dsungaripterids has been an issue that’s been problematic for quite a while, and much of it hinges on Noripterus.

Things have been difficult to resolve because as noted, the original description doesn’t give that much information on the material (and less if you don’t speak Chinese – I am indebted to my collaborators here as you may imagine). If you want to sort out how various other species and genera relate to it (or not) you really need to know what it actually is anatomically and taxonomically, and so having the specimens available means we can make some significant updates to Young’s identification and how other more recent discoveries might relate to it.

First off the bad news – what was originally designated as the holotype is mostly still missing. Only a fragment of the jaws remain and they are not in great condition. Still, they are diagnostic which helps us to define Noripterus better. On the good news side of things, there is a lot of nice associated material as Young collected multiple specimens from just a few sites and despite the lack of overlap in some areas, there’s some good reasons to think they are all the same thing. Noripterus is known from several superbly preserved specimens including a near complete set of limbs and girdles preserved in 3D. There will be more on this in the future, but obviously it’s very useful material to have.

A superb set of limbs from one specimen of Noripterus

A superb set of limbs from one specimen of Noripterus

Working out quite which specimen was which however actually took quite some time and detective work. The field numbers on the bones and the specimen numbers on the boxes they were in, did not always line up with the identities given in Young’s paper (either illustrations or the few measurements).  Eventually though we got this sorted out and so one part of the paper gives some new specimen numbers and sorts out the various specimens into their (hopefully) correct sets.

The main issue though is the taxonomy itself of these animals. Noripterus was only the second dsungaripterid identified (you may not be shocked to learn Dsungaripterus was the first) and so it might not be a surprise that it’s considered a valid taxon. It is rather smaller than it’s more famous relative, and has straight rather than curved jaws, as well as rather more narrow teeth. That’s the easy bit.

Then we have ‘Phobetor’ from Mongolia, named from some very fragmentary material that has never been described in detail. More recently there’s more Mongolian stuff from 2009 called the ‘Tatal pterosaur’ that was used to link together that material, ‘Phobetor’ and Noripterus all under the latter name. On top of that we have the Chinese genus Longchognathosaurus known from little more than a few bits. Clearly lining these up and working out if there were one, two or three genera was going to prove difficult while 2 of these 4 sets of specimens were fragmentary and most had never been described or illustrated properly. In this context, getting to see Noripterus was clearly very useful in terms of making some meaningful comparisons of key characters.

So, what did we find? Well, actually the Tatal material and the original ‘Phobetor’ are very similar based on the limited descriptions of each suggesting they are the same taxon. However, they have some consistent differences with the Noripterus material which suggests they represent a valid and separate genus and should not be synonymised with it. That also means that ‘Phobetor’ is still lacking a name (it’s preoccupied by a fish). Finally, Longchognathosaurus has at least a couple of the supposedly diagnostic characters present in the holotype of Noripterus and while it’s not necessarily the same thing, it is hard to justify it being unique at this point.

Clearly all of this is provisional, and lacking a good skull for Noripterus (or at least the rest of the holotype) would really help firm all of this up, not least when the Tatal specimens include a good skull and Longchognathosaurus is based mostly from cranial material. In fact given how much good Noripterus material there is, it is an oddity that there’s so little of the head, but hopefully more will turn up. In the meantime, this should help move things forwards and provide a better basis for sorting out these taxa and some curiosities about their relationships to other pterosaurs (in particular Germanodactylus which may or may not be an early dsungaripterid). Now we just need some more detailed descriptions of all the other Asian dsungaripterids (and yes, more on Noripterus too) but this is a start.

 

TLDR: We have a good amount of Noripterus back. ‘Phobetor’ is probably separate and valid and the same thing as the ‘Tatal pterosaur’ material. Longchognathosaurus is probably not valid.

 

Buried Treasure – Tom Holtz

I consider my 2008 paper “A critical re-appraisal of the obligate scavenging hypothesis for Tyrannosaurus rex and other tyrant dinosaurs” to have the highest “underappreciated:applicability” index. (The fact that it took 10 years for the paper to actually come out doesn’t help my appreciation for its unappreciatedness, too…)

It isn’t that other theropod workers ignore it; they do cite it. But since the topic of tyrannosaurid predation is studied by a larger spectrum of workers, many of whom do not have particular expertise in dinosaur morphology or even paleontology, many papers where it SHOULD have been cited do not do so. This is particularly frustrating because it is not a hard reference to find on a scholar.google search, and more importantly because it was specifically written to be accessible to a non-specialist audience. Of course I don’t think that they had to agree with every point in it, but I did collect and address all the major arguments for obligate scavenging in tyrannosaurs proposed up to that point, so it should at least be discussed.

Furthermore, when (often younger) paleontologists respond to the newer (and sometimes non-paleontologically-informed) studies on tyrannosaur predation, they wind up “re-inventing the wheel” (not being aware of my paper from so long ago…)

Holtz, T.R., Jr. 2008. A critical re-appraisal of the obligate scavenging hypothesis for Tyrannosaurus rex and other tyrant dinosaurs. Pp. 370-396, in P. Larson and K. Carpenter (eds.), Tyrannosaurus rex: The Tyrant King. Indiana University Press.

—-

In my opinion, one of the least appreciated papers in dinosaur paleontology is

Janis & Carrano’s 1991 work comparing reproductive turnover in dinosaurs and mammals. The implications for this paper reach into nearly every aspect of dinosaurian ecology (size; evolutionary turnover rates; ontogenetic niche shifts; number of species per fauna; extinction sensitivity; etc.) in comparison to placental mammal ecology. And yet it seems (at least to me) to be underreported relative to its applicability.

Janis, C.M. & M. Carrano. Scaling of reproductive turnover in archosaurs and mammals: why are large terrestrial mammals so rare? Annales Zoologici Fennici 28: 201-216.

Buried Treasure – Mike Taylor

So kicking off the first in the series of favourite / underappreciated papers is Mike Taylor of SV-POW. Here’s his thoughts on one of his own works:

The paper I look on most fondly is Taylor and Wedel (2013) on “Why sauropods had long necks; and why giraffes have short necks”. I like the snarky title, of course — when I give talks about this subject, I just use the second half — and the subject matter is dear to my heart. But it’s how this paper came together that makes me love it the most.

It started out on a car journey in 2008. All three Wedels were staying with us that summer, as Vicki had a leprosy conference in Bradford. Matt and I visited several museums while they were around. I think it was as we were driving back from Oxford that we started listing the ways that sauropod necks didn’t make mechanical sense to us. Since I was the one driving, Matt took out his notepad and started making lists. “What the hell is going on?”, we asked — and so the embryonic project was dubbed WTH, for “what the hell”.

More than any of our other papers, this one went through really significant revisions. The earliest “complete” version was rather formless: it contained a lot of good stuff, but there was no structure to it. We revised it into an unconventional form with three main sections: “Facts”, “Interpretation” and “Speculation”. At this point, the title was still “What the hell is wrong with you? Mechanical design flaws in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs”.

This was also the basic shape of the version we finally submitted to a journal, though by then it had the more sober (and boring) title “Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs”. We had a very bad review experience at that journal, which I won’t go over here; but suffice to say that the result was that, having thoroughly reworked it into a form resembling the one we know today, we sent it to a different journal rather than back to the first one. We were bullish about this submission, and pleased to think we were giving a good paper to a journal that could probably use it. So we were rather shocked to find it rejected with reviews that we couldn’t sympathise with — especially one that said “The manuscript reads as a long “story” instead of a scientific manuscript”, which we feel is praise though it was intended as criticism.

We made some revisions in response to those reviews, but by the time we’d done that PeerJ was on the horizon so we sent it there — and after very quick and genuinely helpful reviews, it was published as part of that journal’s first batch: https://peerj.com/articles/36/

We’re really happy with the “story-like” final form of the paper. Our goal was to make something that was not only informative but also fun to read. I hope the progression of the argument makes sense — Introduction, Long Necks in Different Taxa (finishing with sauropods), Factors Enabling Long Necks, Architecture of Sauropod Necks — and that readers always have a solid sense of where they are in the progressing argument. We’re also really happy with the illustrations in this paper: PeerJ, being an online-only open-access journal, imposes no limits, so this is a lavishly illustrated paper with some comparative illustrations (Figs 1, 3 and 7 particularly) that we’re really proud of: https://peerj.com/articles/36/#fig-3

Finally, I won’t deny it’s satisfying that a paper which was (wrongly, we feel) rejected by two palaeo journals has gone on to be viewed 23,000 times by 17,000 different visitors, and has been downloaded 3,000 times. We very much hoped that that paper would reach a non-specialist audience as well as other researchers, and those numbers suggest that’s happening.

 

Finally, Mike has a pick for an underappreciated paper by someone else is:

Hokkanen, J. E. I. 1986. The size of the largest land animal. Journal of Theoretical Biology 188: 491-499.

New series – Buried Treasure

The Musings has been too quiet of late what with mad work commitments, and my ongoing responsibilities for blogging etc. elsewhere means I have too little time. The old days of a post nearly every day are, I suspect, never coming back but I do want to keep producing material on here. Happily I have a cunning plan (insert your own favourite Blackadder response here) and more happily still, a number of colleagues could be persuaded to write something for me that I can put up here.

Anyone who has read or written a fair amount of scientific papers will know that there are lots of hidden gems out there. Yes, there are tons of celebrated great papers, and tons that all but deserve to be overlooked, but it’s also true that there are many great papers, or even important bits of papers that are glossed over, or simply never spotted. There’s numerous examples of major discoveries turning out to have been already found or worked out years or decades before and even in the modern digital age, people cannot find, let alone read, everything. Important bits of papers, or whole manuscripts will fall by the wayside and key points missed or underappreciated.

With this in mind comes the new series – Buried Treasure (and thanks to Paul Barrett for coming up with the name) where authors talk about papers of theirs or bits of papers which deserve a second (or even a first) reading. Obviously academics are sensitive about their paper and do get annoyed when things are missed or bypassed, so while this isn’t supposed to be a place for axe grinding, (or tooth grinding) it does hopefully provide a platform for people to showcase their work and talk about how papers came about and why they think something is important and might benefit people to revisit it.

The whole thing is supposed to be a bit of fun and rather free from constraints, so people have already suggested they might write about papers that are not their own, but simply one they think needs some more recognition, or just want to write about a paper that has a strong significance for them, or they simply enjoyed writing. Hopefully it’ll be interesting and readers will discover (or rediscover) some nice ideas and see how others look at their own works.

I’ll kick this off with a first entry tomorrow and then it will build up as posts come in, so it is likely to be fairly irregular and I have no idea how long this will run. However, I do already have a small set ready to go, so it won’t die immediately at least and with luck there will be quite a few to come.

 

Two million (and 3500)

It was never my intention for the Musings to fall quite this silent but between commitments for the book (still available in many bookshops, online, as an e-book and audio-book), the ongoing Guardian blog and in particular my teaching, I’ve rather run out of time to write posts. And let’s be honest, even this one is just a holding pattern post and is mostly just self-congratulatory. Even though I’ve all but stopped posting here, the huge back catalogue of posts on here (over 1000) between them still clock up hits at a decent rate and so just this week the Musings hit 2 000 000 total views. Whoo, go me etc.

However, all is not lost for fans of Dave-based web content as I do at least still tweet quite often and happily this week also saw me hit 3500 followers. If you want to join then you can follow me as @Dave_Hone and currently there’s a huge stream of tweets on my recent trip to the AMNH in New York.

I really do intend to post a bit more on here again in the future and new year should see me with a bit more time and also some papers coming out which will provide something to discuss. I also managed to find time to get to the Bronx Zoo while I was in New York and hope to get a review up of this as it’s a place I had not visited before. In the meantime, thanks to those who still use this site, and I hope it will continue to be a valuable resource for a long time to come, even if my output remains at a fairly diminished level. Till next time, bye.

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles is here!

Well it’s been coming of course but today sees the publication of my first book. I’ve always wanted to write one and now it’s done and I can (sort of) relax. There’s lots of PR stuff ahead and the official book launch tomorrow, but there’s not much to do now except let it go free and hope that most people enjoy it.

I’ve been writing about dinosaurs and palaeo one way or another for nearly 10 years now between various blogs and ventures as well as the odd review paper and book chapter that are for more of a general audience than a typical paper, but this is obviously a much bigger and rather different undertaking. It’s also rather different in that I was writing for something of a different audience (certainly compared to here where I generally assume readers know at least a little anatomy, what a phylogeny is, what the main time periods were etc.) and over a long book you want to introduce quite a few topics and aspects of not just tyrannosaurs, but also their contemporaries and major issues like behaviour, anatomy, local environments, extinction and more. It turned out to be a lot to cover and while trying to keep it interesting for the reader.

Hopefully, I’ve managed that but it is nervy letting this out into the wider world with little control over it. That may sound odd given how much I’ve written online, but with a blog (either here, on Pterosaur.net or on the Guardian) you have a fair idea of who your audience is likely to be, and people will soon leave if they don’t like it. Getting someone to pick up and be immediately drawn to, and then stick with, a whole tome is rather different so obviously I am nervous and curious as to how it goes from here.

The book is very much in the popular science mould and so while I would hope even some academics and researchers would get something from it and enjoy it, really it is aimed squarely at the general public and those with little or no knowledge of dinosaurs or paleontology and even biology in general. As a result, despite the fact that the book is around 85 000 words long, it really doesn’t delve into the tiny details of but tries to cover a broad spectrum of tyrannosaur origins, evolution and their biology. Given my interests there’s quite a lot on ecology and behaviour and there’s a few bits of informed speculation or suggestions that I hope are novel and interesting, but also clearly flagged as such.

It was a huge effort to write all of this while keeping up with a full time academic job and try and keep my other blogs ticking over, and it was also important to try and update things. The last few years have seen a near endless stream of new tyrannosaurs being named and some parts of the book I changed a half dozen times to reflect the addition of new species, and with the book going to print in February, it’s inevitably already out of date thanks to the most recent addition to the ranks of this clade, despite my efforts. Still, I have tried to make this a modern take on tyrannosaurs and I hope I have managed to overcome a few of the more persistent anachronisms and misconceptions about these animals. Anyway, enough of the (brilliant) text and its (brilliant) author, and time to talk about some other aspects of the book and to give a minimal amount of credit to other people.

The book is illustrated by Scott Hartman and there’s around a dozen figures of his scattered through the book, with lots of skeletals (especially of tyrannosaurs, but also various other dinosaurs too) and other little bits, a number of which were done especially for the book, but will be popping up on his website if they haven’t already. I’m obviously especially grateful to Scott for finding the time to do these and putting so much time and effort into them, the book benefits enormously from it.

There is also a colour section in the middle with numerous photos of various specimens and some reconstructions. Plenty of these have been in print in various places before but there are some novel shots and views of various things and I’ve been blessed with the generous assistance of numerous colleagues and friends who have sent in pictures and allowed me to use them. While I’m on the subject therefore I must thank Peter Falkingham, Jordan Mallon, Larry Witmer, Xu Xing, Lu Junchang and Phil Currie for providing various images and also the Royal Tyrrell, LACM, IVPP, Hayashibara, Mongolia Palaeontological, Royal Sasketchewan, Carnegie and New Mexico Museums, and also Don Brinkman, Mark Loewen and Matt Lamanna for helping me negotiate to get a couple of the images. Finally I must also thank Darren Tanke and Chisaka Sakata for the photos of me that are on the covers of the paper- and hardbacks respectively.

Finally with regard to the text I had a series of editors and assistants at Bloomsbury though most especially I want to thank Jim Martin for commissioning the damned thing in the first place and also in particular for supporting my campaign for the colour scheme of the cover. Several friends of mine including Marc Vincent (yes, that one) read through an early draft for me and provided useful feedback and special mention goes to Tom Holtz for reading through it looking for errors (and mercifully he found only one, so I’m happy to blame him for any others that slipped through). A whole host of other friends, collaborators, coauthors and colleagues are thanked in the acknowledgements for sharing their knowledge of tyrannosaurs with me over the years and I hope this book helps do justice to these amazing animals.

Well, the book is out now (actually I’ve had reports of it being on sale since Monday) and while I’ve always wanted to say it’s available in all good bookshops actually I have no idea. It is available online (including direct from the publishers Bloomsbury) and it’s in at least a few physical places. I know it’s available in hardback (paperback coming next year) and e-book versions and there’s an audio version coming via Audible, and hopefully a few translations too. The US have to wait till early June, but not long for you to wait and in the meantime you can enjoy me talking about the book here. Hopefully many people will find it one way or another (such as in charity shops for £2 in a few weeks) but more importantly I do hope people enjoy it. Happy reading.


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