Archive for February, 2009

Guest post: The shape of pterosaur evolution

It would not be a huge surprise if you had missed the release of this paper, since it has only been published online so far, and does not seem to have been picked up by the media or any other bloggers as yet:

Dyke, G.J., McGowan, A.J., Nudds, R.L. and Smith, D. 2009. The shape of pterosaur evolution: evidence from the fossil record. Journal of Evolutionary Biology (Online February 2009: DOI: 10.1111/j.1420-9101.2008.01682.x).

The crux of this paper is the idea that, contrary to oft published belief, there was no great battle between birds and pterosaurs in the Mesozoic and that they co-existed with no major ecological problems. My old friend Al McGowan (one of the authors, and a real AAB mainstay) has kindly penned this extended guest post to cover in some detail, what they did, how and why, and what it means.

Pterosaurs and birds not competing. Image courtesy of Todd Marshall, used with permission.

Pterosaurs and birds not competing. Image courtesy of Todd Marshall, used with permission.

Continue reading ‘Guest post: The shape of pterosaur evolution’

Kaiyukan Osaka Aquarium II


Well, I want to show off more of this amazing place, so you get a second dose of aquarium photos. The first lot are here for those who missed out:

Continue reading ‘Kaiyukan Osaka Aquarium II’

Kaiyukan Osaka Aquarium

crabIn a break from tradition (well, archosaurs), here are a bunch of photos from the amazing Kaiyukun Aquarium in Osaka. I have long wanted to visit this place and finally got my chance with my recent research trip to Japan. I have long been a keen amateur aquarist keeping all kinds of fish and inverts (and the odd amphibian) and actually did some work on fish locomotion as part of my Batchelor’s degree, so this was always going to be special. I have been to a large number of zoos and aquaria over the years, but almost all of them in Europe meaning that often the diversity and size of exhibits was limited. In a few hours here I probably saw well over a hundred species I had not seen before, and many of them are not on display anywhere else in the world. Overall the design was clever and original, the tanks were small in number but huge in size, well laid out, well lit, brilliantly set-up (decor, structure, plants, etc.) and well signed. I’ll let the photos do the speaking for me, but suffice to say it was an incredibly memorable day. If you don’t already know, it also contains the single largest tank in the world, all 11 000 tons of it and houses whale sharks, manta rays and many others. Enjoy:

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On ‘experts’

How do you define an expert? Relative to the average palaeontologist I am an expert in dinosaurs, relative to the average biologist, the average palaeontologist is probably an expert in dinosaurs, and relative to the general public, the average biologist is a expert in dinosaurs, even someone with an A-level education in biology probably knows a bit more than average (the median or modal average) about dinosaurs. We do pretty much all know the difference between a genus and species, understand the basic principles of evolution by natural selection and so on. I know it’s a bit more complex than that, but you can see where I am going with this – it’s all relative, but there are certain fundamentals to any field that anyone with a passing knowledge of the subject should be familiar with. I posit this question about experts as I recently came across a large a sprawling online magazine who claimed that their entire content was written by ‘experts’. I read through a few of their dinosaur and palaeontology posts and fond them to be disappointing at best and full or errors at worst. Mostly they were simply reviews of basic issues (like what stegosaur plates may have been used for) and even then based on research papers, yet they still (and repeatedly) managed to get simple things wrong. There are three or four people writing these columns and only once did one of them italicised a Latin binomial and often they capitalised the species (i.e. they put Tyrannosaurus Rex and not Tyrannosaurs rex) as well as other basic errors like mixing up family and species names, capitalising names that should not be and vice versa, ‘Brontosaurus’ rears it’s damned head *again* despite another article in the dinosaur section on why the name isn’t valid!, and *honestly* one article cited as it’s only source the ‘New book of dinosaurs’ and while it was written by Mike Benton, was also aimed at kids and came out in 1986! This is a source for a magazine article aimed at a general audience written in 2008?! Surely an expert would have access to better sources or understand that this is not an appropriate or up-to-date source. Frankly I would hope most normal people would know this.

Anyone with high school biology should understand about the use of Linnean names, and even many lay people at least know the name Brontosaurus is problematic, enough one would expect to at least check it out before committing it to paper. One article discussed whether or not Herrerasaurus was a dinosaur or archosaur. On the face of it this is an interesting point (where exactly does this animal fit) and allows one to expand on a further issue (how exactly are larger groups like dinosaurs defined). However, the article seemed to me to imply that while this was a debate over position, it was not one of definition. That is, it was written as if groups of taxonomists were bickering over where Herrerasaurus fits in the archosaurian tree, and NOT where exactly the line for dinosaurs should be drawn. We know where Herrerasaurus goes – it’s either a very basal dinosaur or a very derived dinosauromorph. In other words, depending on exactly how you define dinosaurs, and how you interpret the fossil, it may or may not be a dinosaur, but at the very worst, it is a very, very, very close relative of dinosaurs. To ask “is it a dinosaur or an archosaur” rather implies that it could be linked to anything from a crocodilian to a pterosaur which is very far from the truth, and misses the crux of the matter entirely. It also suggests that the authors does not know or understand the issues at hand. This is important. The website has presumably gone out and deliberately hired these people (they are paid to write articles for them) which implies some kind of selection / application etc. and specifically refers to them as experts. Experts who apparently did so poorly in biology they can’t write a species name correctly. This is bad. It especially concerns me because with a site like AAB (to pick a pertinent and non-random example) we specifically advertise ourselves as experts, since everyone on there has (or is working for) a PhD, or is specifically employed in science communication, yet apparently these people are ‘experts’ too. I am well aware of the fact that no-one can be an expert in everything, but my endless berating of the media is based around the fact that they are supposed to be experts at transmitting this information, or at least should be able to repeat the words of real experts correctly. Even then I can understand some mistakes – the science writer for a newspaper will (one hopes) have a degree, but probably did not cover all of biology, palaeontology, chemistry, medicine, physics, geology, biochemistry and engineering in great depth at university. Even then, they still get the italics right on species names, (and certainly should copying them correctly out of published papers) which is more than this lot manage between them. I suppose the central point is this: the public have a hard enough time to decide who to trust on certain matters, (and often enough make terrible choices) without making their jobs harder. Who on earth though that these people were ‘experts’ and what qualifies them as such? I do not know who hired them, or on what grounds, or based on what qualifications (and one suspects that they have been shunted in and told to make a decent fist of reviewing a few dinosaur papers when they should be doing something else) but they are clearly not experts. To advertise them as such is disingenuous and it not only misleads the public as to the quality and accuracy of their work, but also does a disservice to the word (and indeed the person) ‘expert’ when so little knowledge is required to apparently fulfil the title.

An angled Anhanguera

Just a photo-post this time out, with a picture of the skull of Anhanguera piscator from the Museum of Nature in Tokyo. Some may recognise it as the individual written up as a large monograph by Kellner & Tomida, and it is one of the best preserved and most complete 3D skeletons of a pterosaur out there.

This is a photo I took is a kind of half-scientific, half-general interest photo, since while it does show off the anterior teeth at a nice angle, it also shows just how proportionally long and thin the skull is as it disappears into the distance and soft focus. Too often you only see things like this side on, either in scientific illustrations, or life reconstructions which does not really give you the sense of scale or (obviously) three dimensionality to the animal.


I have had special permission to publish this image, so my thanks to Makoto Manabe in Tokyo, and as ever please don’t go using this without permission etc.

A ‘how to’ summary.

This latest week-long series of posts on ‘how to’ do various things (combined with other earlier ones) seems to have generated a few comments (overwhelmingly positive, I am pleased to see) and have been read by a great many people (hits over the last week in general, and for the specific posts have been way above my normal averages). Between these points and few other things that have cropped up, it seemed well worth adding a short off the cuff summary to what all of this has been about and what I tried to achieve with these posts (and I hope to have more in the future). Continue reading ‘A ‘how to’ summary.’


This is a rather odd one, but I like it as it shows off exactly why (I think) AAB as a whole works and that just about everyone in the world has one biology-based thing they have noticed that they can’t work out and can’t easily find any information on it. In this case it’s the issue of why ducks and other aquatic birds float at different heights in  the water. Those who know their sauropods are hopefully familiar with this paper by Don Henderson dealing with a simialr issue.

How to arrange a meeting

Munich, 2007

Flugsaurier: Munich, 2007

As part of the big stream of ‘meeting’ based posts, it seemed worthwhile to talk about how to go about arranging a meeting or conference. This will be the last one the in current run (with a summary / review coming tomorrow after your normal dose of AABQOTW)so enjoy it while you can! The Wellnhofer meeting was in hindsight not too bad, but the sheer number of details, the lack of preparation time (11 months is *not* enough) and the fact that it was in Munich and basically I don’t speak German made it all the harder. I did get a considerable amount of help from my institution but I basically had to do everything on my own in terms of planning and basic execution. If you have a years run up, speak the language of the country you are in, and get some decent help it should be fine. However, a check list and a few dos and don’ts probably won’t go amiss:

Continue reading ‘How to arrange a meeting’

Things to do at a meeting

So you have sent your abstract in and prepared your poster or your talk, but what else should you do at a meeting? This might sound like a facetious question, and the answer might appear to be so blindingly obvious as to almost be insulting, but I think many people waste opportunities at their first few meetings because they are afraid of making a mistake in public, or are even overwhelmed by what is going on. I often see groups of students hanging around together and discover they are all from the same university or research group – you might only get one chance in the next two years to speak to a researcher five feet from you but you spend the time with guys you see every day. This then should provide a few ideas, or at least act as a reminder as to how to get the most from a meeting:

Continue reading ‘Things to do at a meeting’

How to give a talk

rey-symposium_munich_231Although meetings and conferences are about far more than just giving public talks, they are of course a central theme. For the scientist, it’s a chance to present his information to his peers to disseminate his ideas and research, and of course trigger feedback and new research. For the audience, it’s an opportunity to gain access to information and ideas perhaps years ahead of their formal publication, (and some will never be published) and to get access to people and branches of research far outside what they can get in their own institutions of even countries or continents if it’s a big meeting. It seems odd then that I had had to sit through a great many talks that were obtuse, dull, confusing or apparently pointless. It seems a simple enough skill (especially in a profession at the core of which is communication and for which lectures and teaching form such a prominent position) yet is clearly one to be valued and improved if possible. (Image courtesy of Luis Rey).

There are naturally good and bad speakers, and it’s always going to be hard for someone who works on gastralia in theropods to interest someone working on the behaviour of Permian fishes, but the simple errors and mistakes we can at least try to deal with. As ever in these guides, most of this information is simple, straightforward and probably obvious – but enough people don’t seem to realise it so I might as well put down my 2c:

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How to make a scientific poster

Conference posters are in theory really simple – stick a few words and pictures about your work on a bit of paper, print it out, stick it on a wall and be done with it, but I have seen a great many terrible posters that need not have been terrible. As with the rest of this series, many, if not all, of the points raised might seem obvious, but then if so, why are there often so many awful efforts out there? This should therefore at least serve as a reminder and with luck will also provide some advice and hints to at least a few people.

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How to write a scientific conference abstract

Continuing with my “How to” posts (also known by some as “Dave states the bleedin’ obvious”) this time I want to take a few wild swipes at abstract writing. The conference season will soon be upon us, so these next few posts will all be about various aspects of meetings, conferences and symposia. Abstracts are of course critical to meetings and conferences, whether small internal ones, or major international ones. As ever, most of these points should be pretty obvious, but that does not seem to stop endless numbers of people ignoring them and making major mistakes or having their abstracts rejected. I’ll actually be posting about presenting posters and talks in the future, as well as another list of blindingly obvious things to do when you are actually at the conference. Right, onto the abstract:

Continue reading ‘How to write a scientific conference abstract’

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