Archive for November, 2008

A palaeontologist’s work is never done

A few weeks ago I did some basic cleaning on a specimen I am working on. It’s an old one, and as I commented on recently, not all specimens are in the pristine condition that if often seen in museums on display or in the pages of journals. While there are reasons that this happens (mostly age when people simply didn’t know how to handle material) this one is quite exceptional. On a single vertebra (and I have about 25 to clean, plus parts of several limbs and a pelvis) I found, wait for it, ten different resins, glues or other things attached to my specimen.

no-restYes, presumably several different people at several different times had used a total of nine different things to mark, repair or alter this one bone. There is a basic coating of consolidant glue to help support the bone (fair enough) and some form of superglue to fix a few breaks (less good, that stuff is hard to remove), then there is plaster to complete the missing parts (annoying, but this used to be on display) and paint to cover the plaster that got on the bone. So far, no great surprises, but that is still only four. Then we have both red and black paint on top of the original brown (six – and actually some white with the specimen number, but I’m not actually counting that, it’s essential and normal practice) some resin and rubber cement also used to fix breaks (there are awful glues – eight – and actually a possible ninth). Finally nine and ten are two kinds of plasticine lingering on that I assume once held then bones in place while people worked on them – again quite normal, but not only was it not removed, it was often painted over.

So there you have it, ten types of paint, glue, gum, plaster and more used on a single vertebra, and one that is actually largely complete bar a bit of wear and missing zygopophyses. Not only is this a nightmare to clean off, but parts of it obscure what I want to see and of course with so many things on the bone there is a worry that whatever solvent I use to clean most of them off with, might react with one of the others and make things worse. Happy days.

Never organise a scientific meeting…

and if you do, don’t agree to edit a volume of papers on it. And if you do that, for God’s sake don’t do it on pterosaurs. And if you do, then you clearly didn’t read this. You have been warned.

Gigantspinosaurus – the ‘lost’ Chinese stegosaur

As promised a second guest post, this time by Susie Maidment and on the incredibly elusive Giganspinosaurus. So few people know about this stegosaur that despite being described in 1992 it didn’t even make it into that dinosaur encyclopedia that is ‘The Dinosauria‘ in 2003:

Studying dinosaurs inevitably involves a great deal of travel. During my four years studying stegosaurs, I visited 32 institutions on three continents, adding up to a total of about five months in dark basements looking at bones. I visited China for a month in 2004 in search of a number of illusive stegosaurian specimens with names that proved almost impossible to pronounce correctly, along with a fellow PhD student. Half way through our month-long trip, we arrived in Zigong, a small (by Chinese standards) city in Sichuan Province. Zigong achieved worldwide fame, at least in palaeontology circles, in the 1970s and 80s due to the discovery of a vast collection of dinosaurian fossils from the Shaximiao Formations, dating from the lowermost Middle Jurassic to the Late Jurassic. The area was at the time a lush flood plain, but periodic floods, droughts and other natural disasters led to the accumulation of large numbers of extremely well-preserved dinosaurian fossils. The discovery of a bone bed just outside Zigong led the authorities to build the imaginatively named Zigong Dinosaur Museum over the site, and today tourists can view a large collection of dinosaurian remains still in the ground, with additional specimens on display.


I was in Zigong to study one of the most interesting ornithischian dinosaurs ever discovered: the basal stegosaur Huayangosaurus. Although clearly a stegosaur because of the parallel rows of dermal plates extending vertically from the back, it bears a number of features that link it with much more primitive armoured dinosaurs, and it has helped to elucidate the order of acquisition of certain features in the evolutionary history of these ornithischians. At Zigong, they found at least one almost entirely complete specimen of Huayangosaurus, including a complete, articulated skull. Only one other complete stegosaurian skull is known from anywhere in the world: they are incredibly rare.

The road out to the Zigong Dinosaur Museum (ZDM) is a narrow strip of tarmac with a lane of dirt either side. Enormous trucks with wheels the size of your average Toyota thunder down the road and taxis weave in and out, onto the dirt and back onto the tarmac again, gambling with your life at every corner. Car travel throughout Asia is the same: there is one simple rule – don’t look out the front. Having mystifyingly defied certain death on multiple occasions, we arrived at the ZDM and were introduced to the curator, who claimed to have no knowledge of our visit and of many of the specimens we were interested in seeing. However, a few calls back to Beijing and all was sorted out: we were assigned an English-speaking guide and taken to the collections.

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Bony claw ≠ actual claw

Just a quick post that ties into several themes previously explored here on the musings such as climbing dinosaurs, pterosaur soft tissues and interpreting fossils. This is one issue that often comes up in the palaeontolgoical literature and is well worth mythbusting in public. This is the idea that a bony claw of a skeleton provides and accurate representation of how that claw would look in life.

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A few bits and bobs (OK, mostly links)

A few things have cropped up in the last couple of days that are worth commenting on, but not necessarily needing a whole post each, so I’ll just cram them all together here.

Having just put up a bunch of posts on the importance of science communication and science education I have been directed to this little site: ‘why science’ which seems to be dealing with the same issue directly from academics. It’s clearly not been going long and will soon add up to quite a resource, but it well worth checking out.

In a similar vein, a contributor to why science, Dr Adam Rutherford is the presented of this great half-hour feature on teaching evolution in UK schools, based at the Guardian newspaper (home, of course, of bad science). I found it most interesting and there were some great ideas in there of interest, I think, to any teacher of evolution.

That piece in turn featured

Finally, coming up shortly this week, a guest post on a little known stegosaurian by my friend Dr Susie Maidment. And just to make sure this post isn’t completely dull, have a photo of a nice picture of an IVPP shipping crate with a little theropod stencil on it. It’s actually vaguely relevant as it’s from the IVPP’s storage site out in the Beijing suburbs that I hope to visit again this week to collect some pterosaur skulls, check soem dromaeosaur teeth and take a few photos of sauropod bones. No rest for the wicked.dsc_0032

Congratulations to Luis Rey

My friend the palaeoartist Luis Rey (a number of whose images have adorned this blog from time to time, including the wonderful banner) has reminded me that he was the recipient of the Lazendorf Award for 2-D artwork at this year’s Society for Vertebrate Paleontology meeting (just gone) for the best piece of palaeoart for 2008.

Of course my congratulations go to Luis for his superb artwork, and my thanks for allowing me to use his images for free (quite a privilege given that he has to earn his money through his work, so he is basically giving it away). In this case he is happy for me to show off the award winning spread that shows an Alectrosaurs attacking a Gigantoraptor nesting ground.

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Actually I quite liked ‘Pantydraco’

I have before now had a pop at dire and unoriginal dinosaurian names (back on the old Mk. 1 musings), but it seems that my friend Adam Yates has come in for rather more flack than you might expect for his renaming of Thecodontosaurus caducus as Pantydraco caducus. Perhaps I am just more used to bits of the Welsh language, or it’s becuase I know the history of the name and the fossil, but still I am surpsised just how much this is disliked.

So too is Adam by the looks of things and he has mounted a defence of the name. Well, actually more like a list of excuses that it’s not his fault – it might be his paper, but not his name. Still it’s interesting to see a bit of what can go into coming up with new names. It’s also worth pointing out that while the first author of a paper has to shoulder responsibility for any problems or errors in his manuscript, he is rather by definition part of a team and did not actually write or come up with everyhting on the paper. Criticism for the name seems to be directed at Adam himself, when he is not even the first author on the paper or the originator of the name in question.

Black and White dinosaurs follow up

Recently I put up a post about the general lack of dinosaurs in palaeoart that are black and white in colour, and gave a few examples of just how common this can be in extant species and the various reasons that an animal might evolve such colouration. Fortunately I put in the proviso that there might be quite a few examples that I was not aware of or had forgotten. Which was handy because then I started finding more, or was directed to them by various colleagues.

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That troublesome pteroid

Anyone who has been keeping up with pterosaur research in the last few years will have spotted the various exchanges going on over the pteroid bone. I am not sure I ma giving anything away or bringing something private out into the open air when I ‘reveal’ that the pterosaur community is petty small and there are some fairly big disagreements that have been going on for what seems, to a relative newcomer, like decades and this is simply the latest one. However it is one of great interest as this relatively innocuous bone is actually very important in pterosaur research.

“But what is a pteroid?” I (possibly) hear three or even four of you (possibly) ask. Come this way and all will be (possibly) revealed (possibly)….

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Making mistakes

One obvious problem with having a blog is that any mistake on your part is going to be massively magnified, especially if you have just pointed out how bad that mistake is. I wrote recently about the missing leg feathers of the Berlin Archeopteryx and how there was only the scantest record of the fossil before the rather hatchet job of repreparation took place.

So of course today I was literally leaving my office to take a specimen down to the prep labs before I realised that there were no photos of it in the IVPP records apart from the original publication. I went back in, took a dozen photos and then asked the prep guys to make a cast before doing the work. Phew.

Getting young people into science

Since I seem to be on a bit of a roll right now with science communication and education posts I thought it time to bring this up from a couple of weeks back. British readers will know that recently the science minister (Lord Drayson, apparently) publicly suggested that the UK should invest in manned space flight to inspire children into taking up science. Perhaps a great idea on the surface, but consider the idea for more than about five seconds and it’s not so great.

How exactly will this inspire people into science? Physics, certainly. Technology, probably, and some engineering too. Maths, chemistry, and biology? probably not so much. So already it is actually only covering half the sciences. How much will this actually inspire people though? I think space travel, exploration and astronomy as just as important as other branches of science and fascinating in their own right, but just how much will sticking a man in space with a union jack on his helmet really make more kids do A-level science exams? Don’t forget, the British have already had astronauts on American and Russian missions (six in fact, from 1991 to 2008, though most had to adopt American citizenship to fly, they were British born and raised) and I don’t remember any great jump in interest in science then. How would this different? These people already exist and are not being promoted as British astronauts, so why set up an entire mission to promote something you already have?

More importantly though there is the simple issue of cost. This would be (ho-ho) astronomically expensive and surely it can be spent elsewhere. The concept is that by getting more people into science the economic benefits would be enormous in the long run. This is true, but there are other obvious alternatives.
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The importance of science education for children

One of the features of wordpress is a list of what web searches have led people to your blog (or at least hits anyway) and they themselves can be fascinating glimpses into what people are interested in or what information on (mostly Tyrannosaurus and Jurassic Park). A recent one was the title of this post and it is a very interesting question (precisely it was “what is the importance of teaching science to children?”). Apart from the fundamental answer (well, everyone should know a bit about biology, chemistry and physics, much as they should know a bit about history, geography, art and maths) it is a good question. What does science bring to the table?
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