Archive for July, 2009



A general request

A lot of my blog posts come out of photos that I have taken. Not just the odd pictures of specimens or museums displays that I use for quick posts, but I’ll take a close up of say a humerus or tail and then realise that it illustrates a good point and then build a post around that (long or short). However, having not got out of the office as much as I would have liked while in Beijing combined with having been blogging for well over a year has actually left me rather short of images. In short, unless you are all happy to read a ton of posts without images, I’m going to have to get me some photos from somewhere.

I don’t like taking them off other sites (even with permission or from open source like Wikipedia) I want things I can use and edit and play around with freely (and it’s always a bit of a hassle as well) so for the first time ever (and since I now have more than three readers) I’m opening up and asking for photo submissions. If you therefore have any photos of specimens, models, casts, displays or even living archosaurs and are happy for me to use them, please send them in. If I use them I’ll of course credit you as the owner / photographer and link to any site you might have / use / run etc. Please keep them small (i.e. 500 x 500 pixels or so, to save both our inboxes) or send me a link to a Facebook collection / Flickr etc. and MAKE SURE THESE ARE YOUR IMAGES AND THEY CAN BE PUBLISHED – even if you took them with permission / in a museum etc. the image copyright of the specimen may not be yours to distribute or publish and I don’t want either of us to get into trouble. Almost anything fossil-y is welcome, though I have enough pictures of Tyrannosaurs and Pteranodon mounts, but not enough close-ups of skulls, hands, vertebrae, specimens, prep labs etc. I’m also very stocked on palaeoart, life reconstructions and drawings etc. so fossils, mounts, casts and so on only please.

And a last thing, my e-mail address is here on this site though few people seem to be able to find it. I’ll leave it there for you to have fun searching as an extra treat / hurdle / intelligence test.

A brief Musings Respite

I’m having a bit of interent trouble here in China so please bear with me if there is not much on the site this week. I should be able to get a couple of posts up, but noting too exciting. Should be fine by the weekend if not before and regular daily service will be resuming shortly.

Feather colours and patterns

I have been writing (in my actual job, you know, the bit I do between posts) a fair bit about feathers of late and as with many posts on the Musings thought I would highlight what I hope is an oft overlooked* aspect of their biology. As mentioned on here before, feathers were potentially much more useful to early birds and theropod dinosaurs than as just providing insulation or flight surfaces and while ‘communication’ (in all its guises) is regularly brought up, feathers are quite interesting in a number of ways. The thing I wanted to highlight here is just how much variation you can get into even a single feather in terms of pattern and colours, let aslone when extended across an animal. While there are of course plenty of flamboyant reptiles and mammals (and the odd amphibian), you really can’t beat a bird for colour and patterns. Both of the feathers shown here are from a single peacock and while the ‘eye spot’ is almost iconic in biology as a signal, it is important to note just how many different colours make it up and the variation seen in the intensity and iridescence of the feather, not to mention the shift in structure (fine filaments, in places coming together so you get both large blocks of colour and in others lots of volume without much intensity).
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The other feather shows the details of banding and disruptive patterns but even here there are a large number of colours as well. I guess the short version of this is to make sure you take in the details of even soemthing you have seen hundreds of times and try to look for other ways of seeing it – peacocks have these amazing eye-spots, but how are they made, what goes into them, what else is there in terms of colour, pattern, structure and so on. I doubt many people would realise that even something as flamboyant as a male peacock has feathers that on any other animal would be called cryptic.
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*Overlooked not in the sense that people don’t know it, but they don’t necessarily think about it.

The things that happen to a palaeontologist

Despite my still infact career as a palaeontologist some odd things have already happened to me that I am increasingly having to adapt to as normal – I’ve had dinner with the governor of a Chinese province (him in a DJ, me having come direct from the field), fallen asleep in a dinosaur nest, done a radio interview about a paper I haven’t read, been to meetings where no-one spoke English and I didn’t speak the native language, cast footprints from a road, had my field jackets stolen and had a hundred strong audience for an excavation.
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However while many of these things get sprung upon you, you can at least do something about them (usually). This picture sadly does not really convey the difficulty of the excavation but it should be clear that we were excavating a very large jacket. The trouble was that there was a large and very fast sandstorm blowing that filled in the trench as we dug it and blew dust back over the areas we were trying to clear. As a result I retreated to the trench to try and escape the whipping sand and actually clear the dust off long enough to see what it was we were trying to dig up. Memo to readers: don’t try and dig in a sandstorm.

Field kit

Since I’ve been covering work in the field a bit here I thought I’d deal with the kind of kit that I was taking out every day during my time there. This looks like quite a bit, but to be honest it’s mostly small and light and of course not all of it would be taken every day (I rarely took the shovel out unless I knew I’d need it), and several things are effectively duplicates. It is therefore not exactly a model for others to use when going out into the filed, but should give an idea of what you might need and what you would do with it when out there actively searching for fossils (and not necessarily collecting them, hence the lack of plaster, picks and shovels etc. this is for prospecting, not digging). Of course this is purely the ‘palaeo’ gear and you need to take other things with you according to the conditions like clothing, water, suntan lotion etc. So:
Continue reading ‘Field kit’

Extremes of locomotion

amis-athousedoorOne of the things I like to highlight on here is the problems of trying to extrapolate the present into the past, or to put it another way, reconstructing fossil animals based on living examples. Of course this is the way we have to do things and far more often than not those inferences are reasonable and accurate. However it is also worth highlighting the bizarre and unusual exceptions in biology both to reinforce the idea that we are not always right, and to show off the remarkable diversity and adaptability that is life. Last time out on this theme I dealt with arboreality and ther remarkable abilites of some non-arboreal animals to climb trees. This time it’s the far less predicatable world of bipeds.

Continue reading ‘Extremes of locomotion’

A last bit of Limusaurus – theropod diets and herbivory

Limusaurus - not predatory (compare with Ceratosaurus below)

Limusaurus - not predatory (compare with Ceratosaurus below)

Well I had said I was all Limusaurus-ed out, but then that stuff was written a month ago, so I do have a bit more Limusaurus left in me right now. This post is odd in a couple of ways as it covers something that is not mentioned in the paper, and also something that I would like to write about in the future myself (something I’d normally avoid blogging about). I have not spoken in detail to my co-authors but I rather think the point I am going to make here didn’t get into the paper because we simply didn’t think of it, rather than not having the space to include it. While the point itself is simple enough the potential caveats and explanations that surround it are complex, so bear with me.

In short Limusaurus seems to be unusual not just because it is a basal herbivorous theropod, but because it is so profoundly different to the other members of its clade (the ceratosaurs) that are so obviously carnivorous. The other theropod lineages that yield herbivorous / omnivorous taxa are pretty uniform in their dietary approach so this appears to be a quite an exception. Continue reading ‘A last bit of Limusaurus – theropod diets and herbivory’

Early pterosaur reconstructions

As noted on here before the first pterosaur specimen to be discovered was rather special and wonderfully detailed and complete. While obviously comparative anatomy was still a developing field in the 1700’s and there were still thousands of exotic and bizarre animals to be discovered or at least studied properly that we now somewhat take for granted (like giraffe or platypus) one would have hoped that the scientists of the day (Cuvier aside) would have recognised it as a reptile.

I’ll happily admit that it doesn’t look much like a ‘typical’ reptile but then, it doesn’t look much like a bird or a mammal either, but with only these two groups known to have produced flying species at the time, the comparison was perhaps inevitable. Certainly there were some bizarre theories flying around at the time for the true nature of pterosaurs, even after other specimens and other species were known. While most of them died a quiet death (with the exception of Harry Seeley’s ‘bird ancestors’ hypothesis which persisted, if only by himself, into the 1900’s) there were still occasionally new interpretations put forward or old ones revived.
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One of the most famous (and indeed most reproduced) is that of Edward Newman from 1843 where he suggested that pterosaurs were actually flying marsupials. And here it is in its rather limited glory. One thing to note which is quite common with these kinds of pictures (and indeed of much palaeoart both in the past and, irritatingly / worryingly in the present) is just how many things are fundamentally different to the actual bones. OK, if he thinks they are furry and had little ears then fine, add fur and give them ears – you can’t see otherwise in the skeleton (even if you can infer it if you realise it’s a reptile). BUT you can’t just make the head half the length of that of the body, or make all the toes the same length, or add extra fingers when this is clearly not seen in the fossil (though the ones in the background look far more pterodactylus-y). These kinds of things happen and it’s a horrible conflagration of ignorance or wilful manipulation in most cases. Anyway, enjoy it for what it is, an interesting, if largely now irrelevant part of palaeontological history.

A quick bit of schadenfreude

When writing a piece as a science journalist attacking scientists for calling your reporting lazy and inaccurate, best not fill the report with cliches and incorrect information. Information that was available on the website of the person you are accusing. And one who writes in a national newspaper. Yes, Ben Goldacre strikes again. Enjoy.

Edit: and while we are on the subject, try this piece of satire as well.

Wall jackets

IMG_4566I have covered already making field jackets for palaeontological specimens and the unusual practice of making jackets inside boxes. This time out there’s a really odd one, making a jacket in the face of a cliff. Continue reading ‘Wall jackets’

Bones in the field

IMG_4527Having now covered things that aren’t bone in some detail, (well more than enough for my tastes anyway) here are a few photos of actual bones in the field. As you can see, at range at least, they can be hard to tell from the various not bones out there and look similar and indeed weather out of the rocks in similar ways and can form similar patterns of the surface. Here then are some scattered pieces on the surface, and a partly exposed Protoceratops skull (after it had been cleaned up a bit) and some dinosaur eggs (the latter as part of a nest I was largely sleeping in before I realised, yes, really).*

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*No eggs were harmed in this incident.

Some more ‘not bone’ photos

Encrusted salt / minerals

Encrusted salt / minerals

Following on from the few photos I took in Henan this summer that fitted my ‘things that look like bone but on closer inspection turned out not to be’ post last year, I was able to scoop some more from Bayan Mandahu this summer for your education / amusement / something or other.

This is a bit tricky as if I just show off long-shots then it’s very hard to see anything much at all, but if I get good close-ups then these things are obviously not bone which rather removes the point. Hopefully I have judged things right and you can see that they look like bone, but are not, but can appreciate that form just a few feet further away they might compellingly look like fossil bone. Anyway, have some fossil wood, salt crystals, reprocessed fossil bone (that is bone, but not worth collecting) and this time some concretions that are not eggs as well.

Some gypsum (bottom left) and reworked bone (genuine, but worthless) top centre

Some gypsum (bottom left) and reworked bone (genuine, but worthless) top centre

Fossil wood, with an excpetionally bone-like suface.

Fossil wood, with an excpetionally bone-like suface.

Some not dinosaur eggs

Some not dinosaur eggs


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