Archive for June, 2008



Boney-fide mounted skeletons

Following on from the chimeras post I thought it was time to finally write something about mounted skeletons. For many, if not all of us, a mounted dinosaur skeleton was our first ‘real’ encounter with palaeontology (if not science as a whole) that went beyond books and TV. Here was something *real*, standing there impassively, a relic of a past that seemed unknowable, yet we were told things with great confidence about how this animals lived and died. How did they know that? How *could* they know that? Could we learn these things too?
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Chimeras in palaeontology

I have always been a fan of Roman and especially Greek mythology and especially the mythical monsters. I suppose in a way it is no different to my interest in palaeontology or zoology – all animals (and yes, even plants on occasion) are interesting in a bizarre way. Even human have enough features about them to make them truly ‘bizarre’, it just depends on how you look at things really.

I’d like to make the transition a little more smooth, but I started without thinking it through, and since the title is a bit of a give away, I’ll talk about chimeras now. For those that don’t know the chimera is a beast of Greek mythology which (depending on exactly which tale / translation you are reading) had the body of a lion with a second head of a goat attached behind the lion’s own head, and a snake for a tail. If you are lucky, you might get eagle feet or bat’s wings thrown in for a small surcharge. In other words, it is basically one animal made up of several others, all mixed together. Of which leads me onto fossil chimeras – specimens made up of more than one animal (individuals of a species or multiple species depending on the context), and depending on exactly how they came about and what they are, they can be very handy or a complete nightmare.
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The pterosaur – Raeticodactylus filisurensis

There are a few fundamental biases in the fossil record and they can heavily influence what you are looking for. The older something is, the less likely you are to find it – every million years older it gets is another million years for it to be subducted, buried, eroded or destroyed. The smaller something is, the harder it is to find – 50 metre sauropods leave behind big bones that can be seen on the surface from half a mile away, rodent teeth are another matter. The more delicate something is, the rarer it is – it is more vulnerable to destruction before and after fossilisation, and even if you find it, it might be so badly crushed that all the details are lost. Finally, the rarer something was in life, the less likely you are to find it – a species with billions of individuals is more likely to enter the fossil record than one with a few hundred.

It might come as little surprise then to learn that despite intensive searches, and some very productive areas having been swept, Triassic pterosaurs are exceptionally rare. They are small, fragile, old and probably very rare (the group had jus appeared). Most of the few we have are badly crushed and have much of the animal missing.

However, (and this is a damned big ‘however’, with hobnailed boots on, and a large neon sign with ‘HOWEVER’ written on it round it’s neck), that has just changed. Raeticodactylus filisurensis is almost certainly the best preserved, most complete and generally all round excellent Triassic pterosaur known. It is in wonderful condition and tells us an enormous amount about the early days of pterosaurs. To pile glory upon glory, it is also totally bizarre and contains a number of very unusual features that make it unique in a great many ways. It would be going far too far to say it will revolutionise our understanding of the early days of pterosaurs, but it will add a massive chapter to what is currently a very short book.
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How many elephants?

I do so love The Onion – for those who have missed it, it’s a satirical newspaper in the US that also has a very good online section. I spotted this recently (see it here) and while it raises a good chuckle as a concept, it does also highlight a point about science communication (yes, *that* again, or even, yes, that *again*).

I appreciate then when reporting these kinds of things (how big some new dinosaur is, how deep a new cave goes or whatever) it is incredibly useful to give people a frame of reference. Just how tall is 13 m? What does 50 tons look like? These are tricky concepts for people who are not used to dealing with things like that, so relating them to a familiar concept or everyday physical object will really help to get the point across.

However, the problem comes from the non-standard units being used. OK, so in the UK at least buses are pretty much uniform, but we are forever getting weights in elephants and heights in stories and these are hardly standard measures! I am looking out of a 7th storey windown into one that is on the tenth floor of the building opposite. Oh. So a putative dinosaur that could stretch to the 10th floor could be horrifying visitors in the hotel opposite, or I would be staring at the middle of its neck while it savaged (or not) people about 8 or 10 metres above me. Hmmm. And elephants. Adult female Indian elephants weight about half that of big African bulls. So if this dinosaur weighted the same as 30 elepahnts – which? I could double or halve its weight at a stroke….

Now I know this might seem pedantic (how unlike me), but this does seem to undercut the point of the comparison. The idea is to give people a frame of reference, but instead all it does is add ambiguity. Thirty metres is thirty metres whether Joe Public gets it or not, 10 storeys is not an SI unit. Ok, so it is also unreasonable to ask the press to say “weighed as much a 7 adult bull African elephants” instead of “weighed as much a 7 elephants”, as they just won’t do it, but they could at least find a better comparison. The Times is expecially good at this, using buses, football pitches (which while non standard, vary only a little in length / width) or well known buildings and landmarks like Nelson’s column, so it is certainly possible.

It is handy to get people to appreciate some of the numbers that science throws up, not everyone is au fait with light years, millions of years, tons, kph and the rest, either as absolutes or just concepts. Finding a way of expressing that is useful, it makes science more accessible. But it tends to be at the expense of actually communcating the figures in the first place. What’s the point of trying to show the public what ’30 m’ means if you use a highly variable reference point like the height of a house that leaves people with a frame of reference that could be twice the intended number?

This is a revised Mk.1 post, to see the original with comments etc., go here.

What’s wrong with pterosaurs? – A top 10

Unsurprisingly, the poor life reconstructions and restorations of dinosaurs get a lot of attention – I certainly intend to get my mileage out of them in the future. But pterosaurs suffer just as much, if not far more.

Let’s face it, despite all those minor niggling details that we like to get upset about (the wrong orientation of tails spines in Stegosaurs, spinosaur claw shapes and rearing brachiosaurs) these are actually in the main, pretty minor points. We no longer have to deal with 1930’s style ‘kangaroo’ T. rexes, tail dragging sauropods and ‘two brained’ Stegosaurus – well, less than we used to anyway. Both the public and the scientists, artists, journalists and associated workers have adapted to the modern way of seeing dinosaurs and discrepancies are pretty minor.

But take a look at a pterosaur restored to live and in some ways we might as well be back in the 1850s! Some of them are incredible. Woefully bad. But really it’s just a function of popularity. Dinosaurs are inherently interesting and have a ‘Wow!’ factor that means new discoveries get public attention – find any crappy bit of dinosaur bone and you are guaranteed a spot in the press provided you can spin it well enough. Discover something truly incredible, new, exciting that updates, confirms, or rejects some major part of pterosaur palaeontology and you will be lucky to get ‘New flying dinosaur find’ as your headline. Great. So while the public perception of dinosaurs has changed with time and new discoveries, that of pterosaurs has not. In fact it hasn’t changed to the point that I know of other palaeontologists (who frankly should know better) who still think pterosaurs are pretty much dull brown, leathery gliders and limited to Pteranodon and perhaps Rhamphorhynchus in terms of diversity. Do they really think that we have learned nothing in the last 50 odd years?
Continue reading ‘What’s wrong with pterosaurs? – A top 10′

The importance of science communication

I am really hot on science communication, obviously. In addition to Dino Base (moderator, general discusser and blogger) and Ask A Biologist (admin and overlord) I am working on another new site (details will be announced at the right time). When I can, I contribute to other forums, blogs and send off the odd article to some of the popular dino and palaeo magazines, and while back in the UK I would go out of my way to go along to schools and talk about dinosaurs and zoos and conservation etc. to try and engage kids a bit more beyond looking down a microscope occasioanlly. With a few obvious exceptions (some bloggers just never stop – like the phenomenal PZ Myers) I probably do more than probably 99% of scientists. And for me, that is actually a big problem.
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Why palaeontology needs all the World’s research funding

I do like the odd thought experiment and this is one that cropped up in my mind a while back and I think is worth expounding on. It’s a joke, of course, but the underlying point is both important and true so hopefully it will be illustrative.

So, my contention: all of the World’s money for research should be direct to palaeontology – chemistry, medicine, physics, biochemistry, biology, geology, engineering, the arts, the lot. All of it. Every penny, cent, yen, bhat, and franc. But more specifically, it should go to funding prospecting, excavation and curation.

How can I possibly justify this? Well, hopefully quite easily. The simple fact is that tomorrow there will still be planets to discover, sub-atomic particles to analyses, proteins to sequence, new organic compounds to test, new beds of rock to date, new oil deposits to find, new engines to design, new books to be written and more. But, and it is one hell of a big but. By tomorrow a few hundred or even a few thousand, fossils will be gone forever from the Earth. Built over by roads, used as building foundations, stolen by collectors, eroded from cliffs and more. They will never come back. The only single record of that one organism is lost for all time. And in many cases, we must, pretty much by definition, be losing the only record of species, genera, families, classes, orders, probably even whole *phyla* are being erased from the fossil record and thus Earth’s history. Huge and important parts of the history of this planet are gone forever.

How can we stop this? Dig them up! Go and find them and dig them up. The physicists can look for the Higgs-Boson next year. They don’t need that hundred billion dollar particle accelerator this year. Another probe to Mars? After the last five? For the money from those two projects alone we can dig up tens of thousands of *tons* of fossils. We just need to find them and get them out of the ground. Once we have got them, we have all the time in the world to study them, but right now they are being lost. So there you go. For every fossil that exists on this planet right now, there is a finite time in which it can be collected before it is eroded, buried or destroyed. Since we can’t know which that will happen to and when, we need to get hold of them all now.

So there you have it. Give us the money. For tens of thousands of fossils, this is their one and only chance to be considered as part of the history of our planet. The very history of life is being eroded by the day, by the minute and yet most of us (understandably, perhaps) spend our time in the office, not in the field. What remains undiscovered and soon to be lost? The next Jehol? The next Morrison? The next Burgess? Act now, and not only will we lose this forever, we won’t even know it was lost.

Ok, so as I said this is a deliberate exaggeration and a thought experiment – I can’t really suggest that we should stop urgent research into HIV, cancer, renewable energy and so on, but there is a serious point to be made here. We are losing fossils constantly through all kinds of actions, and while there is a limit to how many Jurassic brachiopods we need in the World’s palaeontological collections, there are doubtless huge things we are missing. Take a look at the Solnhofen, with pretty intense collecting (and including the surrounding formations) we have found two dinosaurs and ten specimens of Archaeopteryx. What else might lie there? It is the right time and conditions that there could be some more important clues to the origins of birds. Thousands of critical specimens are already in private hands and may never see the light of day, what else are we missing? Those places that are not exposed are not being checked and many quarries are being mined for industrial purposes – what bird and dinosaur specimens are being fed through bulldozers on a daily basis? Not to mention plants, insects, fish, lizards, crocodiles, squid and more. It is a genuine and unrecoverable loss.

There seems to me to be a mindset with some people that since these things are made of rock they will last forever, but that is simply not the case. I have seen footprints erode pretty much before my eyes in Bolivia, Fodonyx the new rhynchosaur skull I recently described had the lower jaws almost eroded away. If someone had not collected it by chance in a few weeks there would probably have been nothing left. There are so many examples of only half a dinosaur being found in a hillside because the rest has already been eroded away it is barely worth a mention. Researchers have whole skeletons jacketed in the filed that they cannot remove through lack of funding and it is just a matter of time till the elements get to them now that they are exposed. In a very real sense, this is a race of funding versus geological time and meteorology and we are on the wrong end of it.

This is a modified Mk.1. post, to see the original plus comments etc., go here.

Fodonyx – a new genus of rhynchosaur

Yes my new paper is out (co-authored with my PhD supervisor, colleague and all-round-rhynchosaur expert Mike Benton) and as a result I want to talk about rhynchosaurs. OK, so they are not really dinosaurs, in fact they are not actually even archosaurs, but they are reptilian, lived alongside the dinos and are dead so they more or less count. And given what has passed for ‘dinosaur’ posts by me of late something on some other archosaurs seems appropriate. Besides, it’s not like you lot are going to stop me is it?

So rhynchosaurs then – the chisel lizards – so called because of their bizarre ‘tusks’ at the front of the jaws. These look rather like giant incisors and as a result give them a bit of a rabbit-like appearance, but these things aren’t teeth. In fact they are just modified jaw bones (the premaxilla above and dentary below) that in life would have stuck out through the flesh of the animal to form these pseudo teeth. In fact you can see marks on the bones where the skin would have stopped and the bony protrusion started.
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Pterosaur wings 2: structure

Ok, so following on from part one now we have a ‘broad’ wing with an expanded tip – now to the nitty gritty. The pterosaur wing (as I have previously stressed) is not some sheet of tough leather, but an incredibly complex organ which in many ways is actually quite superior to the equivalent structure in bats (all this ‘pterosaurs as bad fliers’ junk can go too) and would have allowed them superb control over their wings during flight. The pterosaur wing is made up of at least 5 layers and probably more. It is hard to tell as obviously looking at this kind of microstrucutre is pretty difficult and we have to rely on comparing some very different fossils, preserved in very different ways for our information. In addition to an outer epidermis (top and bottom), there are three key features that we do know in quite good detail though and these are worth spending some time over. Some of these might be duplicated (i.e. there could be two muscle layers) and so five is a conservative figure as there could be more, or other layers might interact and be less clear-cut than we think.
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Pterosaur wings 1: shape

Flight is inherently really interesting and really complicated, especially for a flying animal where a single pair of wings have to produce all the necessary thrust *and* lift while also providing most of the steering. It is something humans have singularly failed to come even close to matching with machinery, yet pterosaurs were flying from at least 230 million years ago. For some reason people (and here I can include some researchers who should know far better) seem quite happy to assume that pterosaurs were that great in the air and just sort of glided about on some inferior proto-bat-wings. Oddly enough, I really don’t agree with that interpretation and I will hope to justify that a little here.
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Publications – more effort than you might realise

What exactly do we do as scientists? Well, I know the DinoBase readers are a bit more ‘science aware’ than average (well they seem to be), but I suspect that more than are few are not really aware of the work that goes in to getting a paper published. I’m not here talking about writing a paper – checking up on previous research, collecting the data, doing the analyses, collating the references and writing it in a coherent form is work enough. Getting the damn thing into print is entirely another matter.

My first paper!
Once you have written the paper and you bung it off to a suitable journal the editor will read it. If he thinks it is interesting and is suitable for the journal then it will be sent out for review (and if you are a decent researcher this should happen pretty much every time – the obvious exceptions being Science and Nature). The review process is one of the most import features of scientific study, something often overlooked by the public who assume that we can happily publish any old tosh that gets sent in. It is there to make sure that no one published false or misleading results as well as to check the suitability of the analyses used and the conclusions drawn by the researchers.

The reviews are carried out by at least two experts in the filed that the researchers have written about. The reviewers are also active researchers and so are familiar with the existing work and methods used in this area. They will read the paper very carefully and check everything about it – really. Are the any major mistakes in the introduction about the current state of the subject, has the data been collected properly from the right sources and with appropriate methods, are the statistics correct, is their discussion justified? Reviewers will check all of this in detail and report any mistakes to the journal’s editor – right down to spelling mistakes and missed full stops.

If there are too many mistakes, or some serious problems with the methods and results then the editor will reject the paper and ask the researchers to start again. That is generally not the death of the manuscript, but it is going to take some serious work and lots of time to correct and most often you will have to find a new journal who is interested. However, if the mistakes are not too serious, then he will send the reviewers’ comments back to the researchers and ask them to do some more work to bring it up to scratch. They might need to collect some more data, or look at some other papers on the subject, or just use some extra statistics to back up their arguments. Even this ‘little’ work can take days or weeks. If you missed one critical data point you will have to go and get it, and then redo all the stats, redraw all the graphs and check that it doesn’t affect your conclusions, and if it does start writing again.

Once you have got this extra work has been done the revised paper can go back to the editor. If he and the reviewers are satisfied with the changes then it can be made ready for publication and will eventually appear in the journal. All of this takes time though. Reviews often take several months if the reviewers are busy, and it is not uncommon for a paper to appear in print 2 years after it was first sent to the editor and some can take even longer. One of mine took closer to three and I know of odd one that have taken 3 or 4 years from submission to publication even though there was little wrong with them. Everyone is busy these days, and doing reviews on your own time when you have exams to mark or grant deadlines to meet is rarely anyone’s priority. So, although it might appear easy, it is a mammoth task to get even one paper published. Really. It’s just easier with time and experience on your side, but it is always a challenge to get it right and make it interesting and accurate.

One thing that often annoys me (here he goes again) is often a piece of work is dismissed by others who are unaware of the work that has gone into it (yes I am looking at *you* DML). Yes bad papers get published, and yes, referees and editors make some terrible mistakes, but they are the exception, not the rule. Pretty much by definition anything that gets published has been reviewed by two (and generally more) people in the field of work the paper is about, plus a journal’s handling editor and probably the main editor too. If it is a paper with multiple authors they will have read it (well, you hope so), and generally you will have asked a few friends or colleagues for comments too. To then have someone turn around on the internet the day its published to suggest that your work is wrong and you don’t use the right analysis is pretty galling. Yep we make mistakes. Often. But the idea that about a dozen of us (authors, referees, editors, colleagues) are all completely wrong and failed to spot an enormous flaw is frankly, pretty unlikely. Far more likely is that you have missed the exact nature of the analysis or the reason that it was done, not that so many experts are wrong (and have been checking the work over months if not years) and you are right. Read it again!

Well, apart from a relatively small rant on the side, that’s the process of publication. It is slow, often frustrating, time consuming and apparently unnecessary. But it is also essential, and can’t be ignored so for now we just have to stick with it. Sadly, they won’t just let you publish whatever you want with no justification or data, though I could mention a more than a couple of journals where that does not actually seem to be the case…..

This is a revised Mk.1 post, to see the original with comments etc., go here.

Pterosaur origins – where did they come from?

Now this, this is a tricky one. Like some of the other areas I have (and indeed will) write about, this is one of the ones where many people seem to have dipped their oar in over the years and everyone seems to think they know what’s going on, when the truth is in fact quite a bit more complex when you start digging around under the surface.

Well, I have done a lot of digging and in some rather unusual ways as this subject made up the bulk of my PhD at Bristol and of course as a result I was pretty much immersed in this problem for the best part of three years. I also still have a few things ongoing and have been able to discuss this problem with just about everyone involved at the Wellnhofer pterosaur meeting in Munich. So hopefully this will be as definitive as possible, but prepare for some disappointment – it does not end well.
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