Archive for October, 2009



Oh look, my new book is out.

FishOK, so you probably all know about this already since I suspect I have few readers who don’t read Tetrapod Zoology religiously (and if not, why not?) and yes, this indeed the same book that Darren is promoting. I really can’t take much credit for this – I was basically filling in a few gaps and did something like 12 entries of dinosaurs and pterosaurs in a 500 page encyclopedia covering all of prehistoric life.
However, my copy has been sent to my UK address so I’ve not actually seen the thing yet and can really only tell you that at least 12 of the entries are very good. I hope that it is and I hope people enjoy it, but really this is all I can offer apart from a link to Amazon. Feel free not to tell me if it’s terrible, ignorance being bliss and all that (meaning a great many mainstream media people should be the happiest on Earth ho-ho-ho).

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Pterosaurs in the media

A while back I wrote this piece on  what I suggested my have been the worst media coverage of all time. However, Darwinopterus has ensured that everyone has jumped on the pterosaurs-are-cool bandwagon and most of them have, inevitably screwed up. However, there is one outstanding candidate for ‘getting as much wrong as it is possible to in the lest words while massively misrepresenting the science and introducing a ton of irrelevant nonsense that the researchers never commented on or mentioned at any point in order to try and ramp up the interest levels’.

If you can stomach the stupid, go here.

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One hell of an intermediate – presenting Darwinopterus

The skull of Darwinopterus - courtesy Dave Unwin

The skull of Darwinopterus - courtesy Dave Unwin

I do so dislike the term ‘transitional fossil’, like ‘missing link’ and ‘ancestor’ these words and phrases have been warped by the media (I think) to the point where they seem to be accepted as technical scientific terms for what were largely informal general concepts and the whole things has become a bit of a minefield. When you add to that the willful misuse and manipulation of the terms by some to try to challenge evolution then it gets even worse. However there are times when something is so obvious and clear and simple that it is hard to use any other term. No, I don’t like ‘transitional fossil’, and this is not a ‘transition’ in the sense of an ancestor because, well that’s not how palaeontology works, BUT, if you want an example of ingtwo separate body plans and shunt them together into some kind of 50-50 version, this is it. Yes, today saw the publication of the new pterosaur Darwinopterus and as the title of this post and introductory paragraph gives away, it is a real intermediate between two groups of pterosaurs.

Continue reading ‘One hell of an intermediate – presenting Darwinopterus’

Misquoted at best – science vs the media

I really do wish I didn’t have to write this kind of stuff. And in this case I don’t since Ben Goldacre wrote about this over at Bad Science and I am simply linking to it. It’s about the new cervical cancer vaccine and the supposed words of a doctor criticising it on ahuge front page splash on a UK national newspaper.

Quick version:

Their headline: “Jab ‘as deadly as the cancer'”.

They say: The cervical cancer vaccine may be riskier and more deadly than the cancer it is designed to prevent, a leading expert who developed the drug has warned. She also claimed the jab would do nothing to reduce the rates of cervical cancer in the UK.

The same expert says: “I did not say that Cervarix was as deadly as cervical cancer. I did not say that Cervarix could be riskier or more deadly than cervical cancer”.

Good work there. Could this actually be any more inaccurate? Actually yes, I’ve not included all that Goldacre notes is wrong with the article or that the expert said (and she herself has complained to the UK Press Complaints Commission), there is even more wrong with it. Nice. As I have said plenty of times before, there is only so much you can do to make some things clear to some journalists if this is the kind of result you are going to get. I think it would be very hard to get something this simple this wrong, but apparently it’s quite easy. Oh, and as a bonus, this was written by the ‘health journalist’ on the paper.

Underprinting and more tricky tracks

A recent discovery of ‘giant’ sauropod tracks in France has got the media all of a flutter and it seemed a pertinent opportunity to return to the concept of ‘tricky tracks‘ and the misinterpretation of fossil footprints. The media are especially impressed that some of these impressions are nearly 2 m across and while I have not seen anyone *directly* claim that these match the feet that left them (and nor have I looked that hard), I rather imagine most people will jump (not at all surprisingly) to that conclusion. But is this really the case? Are there sauropods out there with a pes six feet across?

Well once again that rhetorical question at the end of the first paragraph has a pretty obvious answer – no, not really. While I have not seen any researchers quoted on the French tracks or indeed seen any decent close-ups, I find it hard to credit that there were sauropods with feet this big, since frankly they would have trouble getting their feet past each other when the walked, and scaling up from the bones of sauropod feet an animal leaving tracks that big would be getting on for a size that is hard to comprehend. Hundreds, even thousands of tons I imagine – in other words, beyond credible. So what’s going on here?

One explanation is that the tracks as preserved are showing the effects of the substrate they were made in. In short, a heavy animal walking across very soft mud will gunge and slop the stuff everywhere and will leave a wide area affected by its passing at each point that a foot hits the substrate. In other words, big feet and soft mud can make for even bigger tracks.

However I suspect the answer is another related but somewhat different artefact – underprinting. Imagine a nice heavy sauropod putting its foot down on some relatively soft, but still firm, sediment that lies in multiple layers (like lots of mud layers that have built up on a tidal flat over a few weeks for example). Now the actual print the animal leaves on the surface of the mud will likely be quite clear and deep, and will indeed match the foot that left it. But as we move down through the layers the force will dissipate and spread out. On the second layer the impression will be less deep, less clear and, crucially, rather bigger. Go down a few more layers experiencing the same effect and what you are left with might well be recognisable as a sauropod footprint, but this undertrack might also be several times bigger and not very distinct. You might well have a 2 m wide sauropod track, but not a 2 m sauropod foot. An incredibly important, and hardly subtle distinction, but one rarely, if ever, discussed in the media or even some palaeontology textbooks.

Fossils, fact and fiction

The title of this post is taken directly from a discussion given at the Royal Society on Monday that I was lucky enough to attend. Even better you can watch the recording of this event (and many others) directly from their website, so mosey on over and take a look. The discussion was between Dr Richard Fortey FRS (of ‘Trilobite!’ and ‘Life – an unauthorised biography’ fame) covering fossils and Tracy Chevalier (who wrote the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ and recently and pertinently ‘Remarkable Creatures’ on the life of Mary Anning), and the whole thing was chaired by Dr Alice Roberts.

The discussion centers around different kinds of truths in the sense that a scientific truth from the perspective of a researcher might differ from that of an author (like Chevalier) who uses know historical documents as the basis for works of fiction. It combines history, science, palaeontology and bit of philosophical musings on science communication and well worth an hour of anyone’s time with an interest in fossils.

Return of the PPC, post SVP (& SVPC), OK?

I’m sure I can get a few more acronyms in there is I try but for now I’ll leave it. Anyway, despite setting this in motion with Andy Farke, I have avoided writing about the Palaeo Paper Challenge before now since it will be confusing if two of us are advertising simultaneously, but since other bloggers have been joining in (and that is a good thing!) and directing people to Andy’s site, it seemed a good opportunity to revive it on here – so if you have not done so already do head over to here and sign up.

The principle is simple – palaeontologists at all levels almost always have a paper or two floating around that never quite gets off the desk (or hard drive these days) and off to a journal. So by signing up you can try and pressure yourself with a little self-motivation to get a paper finished in time for 2010 and with some friendly support and  rivalry from people sharing your pain and frustration. I am delighted to see the interest this has generated and I’m especially pleased with the diversity of work on the line (and hopefully soon in print). So do jog along and put your name up and get cracking, only another 84 days to go…

Guest post: a new tyrannosaur – Alioramus altai.

Those of you at SVP will have already been aware of this new critter and I get to be smug and say that Steve Brusatte (formerly a guest poster on here with Shaochilong) showed me the photos months ago. However the paper is now out and Steve has been kind enough to write up another post for the Musings on his next groovy Asian theropod. Take it away please:

Continue reading ‘Guest post: a new tyrannosaur – Alioramus altai.’

The complete ‘how to’ guide for young researchers (so far)

It seems that recently some of my various ‘how to’ posts have been found by various search engines and readers and since I don’t have much to write about today and that these are, I think, some of the most important and beast things I have written, it seemed a pertinent time to resurrect them under a single banner for any more recent followers who have yet to0 find them. For those who have missed out, I wrote an extended series of posts covering all the basic skills of research such as writing and reviewing papers, giving talks, editing work and so on. These I hope have been and will continue to be of use to students and young graduates trying to break into science or generally improve their skills during their education, so here I have bundled them all up into one single slot to make it more accessible and easier to link to as well as hopefully bring this to the attention of new Musings readers.

Basic advice to young researchers

How to complete a PhD

How to get hold of papers

How to write a paper (and get it published)

How to contribute to a paper

How to review a paper

How to edit a volume of papers

How to write a conference abstract

Things to do at a meeting

How to give a talk

How to make a scientific poster

How to arrange a meeting

A ‘how to’ summary (contains various updates and links to other sites)

And finally don’t forget the ‘science basics‘ section on here which contains all of these and more.

Do make use of these and feel free to pass them on to your colleagues / friends / students and do add comments to help keep them thorough and up-to-date. The feedback I have had on these has been very good, so I’m happy to be confident that they are doing some good.

Tyrannosaurus is a tyrannosaur, but not all tyrannosaurs are Tyrannosaurus

The title of this post is perhaps blindingly obvious to the vast majority of the readers here – we all know that bongo are antelope, but not all antelope are bongo, mackerel are fish, but not all fish are mackerel and well, ad infinitum for the whole of biology really. Now, I do appreciate that with palaeontological names (and those in general without ‘common’, non-Latinised names) this can get trickier (so zebras are indeed within the genus Equus and are equids, though of course, not all equids / equines / equoids are in Equus!) and those little endings (-inae, -ines, -ids and more) complicate things but still, there does seem to be an annoying and unending confusion that somehow family etc. names are basically synonymous with species and generic names. This is no more obvious than with that most ubiquitous of dinosaurs in the media, Tyrannosaurus.

I really could not even begin to try and count how many times I see reports that refer to Tyrannosaurus, when they mean tyrannosaur. It is annoying as it can confuse things (tyrannosaurs have a good distribution in time and space, Tyrannosaurus does not, so saying you have an Asian Jurassic Tyrannosaurus is out). This for me (in terms of writing this piece) has come to a head with the reporting on Raptorex which for those who missed it is a new, small Asian tyrannosaur. In addition to the age old and very annoying ‘ancestor issue’ an unending stream of media reports called this animal “a new Tyrannosaurus” (italics and ‘rex’ are optional, see various reports for examples).

To go back to my well worn ‘rant hat’ and lay into the media once more, I really do understand that even many science journalists are not, and cannot, be experts in every field of science. However, this is absolutely basic biology and thus I think reasonable to expect them to get it right. I did the basic KPCOFGS stuff at school aged about 10, and while obviously taxonomy is more complex than that, journalists should be able to distinguish between a Latin binomial and an anglicised family name. They should be able to of course, but clearly almost none of them can. This is not hard and in the UK at least is taught as basic science to kids who are not yet teenagers. Getting it wrong therefore is pretty near inexcusable – if you can’t tell the difference between a species and a family, I’m not going to be brimming with confidence that you can tell an electron from an atom or a county from a country, let alone absorb, digest and accurately regurgitate the latest papers on quantum theory or cancer research.

Whether you are nodding in agreement at this point or shaking your head matters not as you can head here and listen to both sides in a debate on science journalism and its effects between Ben Goldacre of Bad Science and the UK minister of science, Lord Drayson. And in a similar vein, check out this handy little guide to reading and understanding media stories on health.

SVP art and congratulations to Julia Molnar

Launch_myology5So with SVP (and SVPCA) well and truly over it’s time for me to try and cover at least some of the goings on there. In general on here I try to avoid covering specific papers and bits of research since a great deal of other bloggers and the media tend to do just this, and for something like a meeting much of the work in unfinished or under embargo or both. However, some aspects are quite public and this includes the various awards and prizes. Of particular importance and interest to the Musings is this year’s winner of the Lazendorf Paleoart Prize in the Scientific Illustration category, Julia Molnar, since it features a very nice pterosaur and is based on the work on Musings occasional contributor, Mike Habib. Julia’s piece shows an Anhanguera taking off under Mike’s hypothesised quadrupedal launch mechanism for pterodactyloid pterosaurs. It is very nice indeed and my thanks to Julia for letting me show it here, for more on this and others, do check out her website.

P1000864Also art related, there is a general tradition at SVP for people swapping their name badges on the last day of the event. I managed to persuade longtime friends and palaeoartists Bob Nicholls and Luis Rey to draw on each others’ name cards, so Bob had an original Rey art on his name badge an Luis got to walk away with an original Nicholls. Here are close ups of the pictures and the two of them showing off their work

P1000866

Attenborough on Wallace

attenboroughFor those who missed it at SVP, or indeed missed SVP, Sir David Attenborough FRS gave a public talk on Alfred Russel Wallace and the birds of paradise. Sir David has a particular interest in these avians so it was a real pleasure to hear him speak on the subject and to answer questions at the end of the talk – he’s a quite exceptional lecturer. For those who want to hear him, the talk was one of a series celebrating 100 years of the University of Bristol, and the whole thing is available to watch online here, so go and enjoy it.

(Image taken from the UoB site).


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