Archive for October, 2010

National Museum of Ireland: Natural History

I’ve now been in Dublin long enough to have taken a quick trip to the natural history building of the National Museum of Ireland. It is a classic Victorian style museum, lots of wooden cabinets and specimens behind glass – no computer terminals here. The downside is naturally that things can look a bit run down and crammed in, the upside is that there is a huge collection of material in a small building and if you like classical anatomy and bones then this kind of place is fantastic.

Sadly the upper floors and balconies are currently closed (and could be for a long time) awaiting repair but the main floor of Ireland animals and first floor of mammals of the world are open and great. There are great things in there like the giant elk Megaloceros, a stuffed basking shark, a bowhead whale and more. For me though it was great to see w hole raft of rarities and unusual animals that even big museums and good displays don’t always cover.

Highlights include thylacine skulls, skeletons of a golden mole, aye-aye, Gangees river dolphin and a giant armadillo. There are skins and stuffed animals too (and quite a few birds) but if you like bone and have a couple of hours to spare, it is well worth the time. I’ll be back and there were some nice little features around the place that will crop up in posts on here I’m sure.

Palaeo Project Challenge reminder

So last month Andy Farke and I set up the PPC Mk II for you all to join in and get your palaeo-related projects under control and motoring. We deliberately launch these just before the big SVP meeting in order to have a platform to jog and cajole our friends and colleagues into joining in. Now that this has finished, it’s time to take stock, remind people of their promises and get them to sign up formally on the site.

So head over to Andy’s pages and put your name down!

Loss and systematics

Having covered both character loss and (supposedly) irreversible characters before, there’s only one obvious issue less to cover about these kinds of characters. And that is the effect such losses have on systematic relationships, or perhaps rather, how people can perceive them. It may seem intuitively obvious to readers here (because most of them here clearly know their biology) but just because whales do not have fur does not make them not mammals and just because penguins can’t fly does not make them not birds. However, if you are not aware of how such relationships are assessed or what these characters mean and how evolution works.

The most obvious point is that at least some of these characters are not really used by biologists. ‘Flight’ is not really something you can use in itself since it’s as huge combination of anatomical and physiological characteristics so it’s a poor choice. Secondly, losing a couple of characters is normal over the course of an organisms’ evolutionary history – snakes have lost their legs, tyrannosaurs lost a few fingers, kiwis got rid of their arms and so on. This doesn’t change the rest of them, and it’s really very common.

Finally, as an extension of the second point, single characters don’t really count for much when it comes to assessing relationships. As I have stressed before (and indeed as others have before me) details matter and you have to take into account all of the available evidence. Whales are still mammals because despite the loss of the hindlimbs and hair, they still have mammary glands, a mammalian inner ear and various other characters. Penguins can’t fly, but they do have air sacs, beaks, feathers and more. To get fixated on a single character is to assume that the others are either not important or less important and to ignore the other evidence.

Things change over time and some animals have become modified to quite a profound degree from the ancestral condition, but this is ultimately what is important. Ancestrally mammals had hair and this remains a useful character to define the clade even if some don’t have it anymore. Snakes, though they may not look it, are still tetrapods.

Guest Post: When ‘Flesh’ was new: Art communicating palaeontological science ahead of science journalism

Today Jeff Liston gets to talk about his recent paper on a series of comics covering dinosaurs that appeared in the UK in the late seventies. One nice thing about science is that you can sometimes explore the history and cultural side of your research subjects as well as the scientific. Here Jeff dives into 2000 A.D. which, for those who don’t know, is a fairly well known comic label in the U.K. most famous for bringing the world Judge Dredd. Take it away Jeff:

Continue reading ‘Guest Post: When ‘Flesh’ was new: Art communicating palaeontological science ahead of science journalism’

Dave on dinosaurs II

Readers might remember the little podcast thingy I did a fair few months back with Mike Taylor over at the 21st Floor. Well we’ve been invited back and this time it’s much bigger and much better. Thanks to some judicious badgering on our parts, we managed to rope Jeff Martz, Tom Holtz, Paul Barrett, Suzie Maidment and Jerry Harris into joining in.

While most, if not all, of my usual readers will be familiar with the basics of dinosaur biology this should serve as a nice little review of, well, everything really. Dinosaur origins, evolution, diversity, major clades, ecology and the evolution of birds, all wrapped up in about an hour. So head back to the 21st floor and enjoy.

Variation in footprints

I’ve written a bit about the variation inherent in footprints before, but now I can show quite a nice example I spotted on the beach recently. These two tracks were left by a dog running on the sand. Now I’m not sure if they are two hindfeet, two forefeet or a fore and a hind, but given the normal footfall pattern I suspect one of the former. It doesn’t really matter too much in any case given the fundamental similarity between the feet of a dog – you’d expect them to be pretty much identical.

As you can see through, it’s quite obvious that one foot has left a track rather different to the other with the two lateral footpads effectively missing. This might be down to ow the animal was running, some subtle variation in the substrate or something else (other tracks confirmed that the foot itself was normal as elsewhere there were normal tracks). Quite simply, tracks will vary and you want a decent set of them to make sure that any variations are accounted for, and therefore one must be especially careful with unusual, isolated tracks.

Tooth breaks

It seems to be commonly recognised that theropods shed their teeth pretty much as a matter of course. Any breaks will soon no longer be a problem as the broken tooth will fall out when it’s time comes. It’s no surprise that shed teeth are common for theropods and there are some nice records of teeth having broken off in the bones of things they were biting.

One might think that mammals would be somewhat immune to this issue. Without the ability to infinitely replace their teeth they would evolve bigger teeth or heavier levels of enamel or something like this. They quite probably are stronger (I’m not sure they have been directly compared to each other) but mammalian predators are not immune from tooth breaks and some species have been recorded as having more than 10% of individuals with broken teeth. Naturally the relatively long canines that are being used in predatory strikes are rather more vulnerable that say the molars.

And here’s an example. A big cat skull with a nicely cracked canine on the posterior face where presumably it bit a bit too hard on a bone at some point and split the tooth. Not the sole preserve of the theropods.

What ING should mean for natural history TV

Darren Naish has been praising Inside Nature’s Giants again with tomorrow night’s upcoming special on the giant squid. He’s doing so with good reason, the programs are truly superb. One of the few shows I can watch and not feel talked down to and generally learn something as well*. But what it really does for me is demonstrate the poor quality of far too much other shows.

*Well, when you are a professional biologist, it’s perhaps not surprising that most things sail under your knowledge level. I still watch and enjoy most natural history shows, but ING is special.

Because ING has won awards (like a BAFTA!) for the quality of the series. It gets great write-ups from critics and biologists alike. And it gets good viewing figures. So, the audience like it and the critics like it. Critically (for me, and others) it gets technical. It genuinely provides real education on anatomy (not the most obvious documentary subject) and evolution and even a bit of biomechanics. And people are watching it and enjoying it. You can make documentaries that educate and entertain, so can people start making a few more now please?

Giant eyes

Life on Earth is not infinitely variable, but at times it seems to get pretty close. Even within the relatively conservative vertebrate body plan we see extremes such as whales, sauropods, hummingbirds, eels and bats. That’s pretty good all things considered. The extremes are fun and interesting and give us an insight into just what evolution is capable of. For palaeontologists this quite handy – it’s not uncommon to come across something that looks totally implausible in a fossil and then realise that actually there is a living animal with a similar feature out there. That can give a bit of confidence that the interpretation of the anatomy or function is correct.

Of course not every extreme is usual and not every exception to the rule is one to follow, but it is a good idea to have a grasp of what is out there. A case in point here (and a chance to drift off from archosaurs just a little and show off a cool mammal skeleton) is the truly colossal orbits of a bushbaby. It could be easy to look at the orbits of say, an anuroganthid pterosaur, and think that they can’t *possibly* have had eyes that big. And yet, in comparison to this little critter, they are not actually that big.


There are plenty of myths out there in science – things that persist in the public imagination long after science has moved past or shown them to be inaccurate. As such, researchers tend to be a bit careful about taking things for granted that they think they know when the source might not be entirely accurate. Even so, we are only human and it is natural that everyone has a couple of false-facts in their repertoire that require someone come along and pop every so often. This is one of my favourites that has actually come up in discussion with colleagues more than one to their incredulity. The aye-aye, does not have a long 3rd digit in the hand.

Ok, so all the fingers of the aye-aye are very long, but while most people (who know a bit about aye-ayes) seem to know that the 3rd finger is the specialised thin finger used to extract grubs from trees and the flesh from coconuts, many think it is the longest in the hand, putting it at odds with other primates. Not so. This idea is surprisingly persistent and I’ve had to furnish photographic proof to more than one colleague about this.

Happily, I was able to get a nice photo of an aye-aye skeleton here in Dublin. They could be better and the hand is mounted gripping a branch, but hopefully it is clear the third finger is quite simply not longer than the fourth. Simple proof of a very simple point. Still, it hopefully serves as a bit of a warning to others not to take ‘common knowledge’ for granted.

Barriers to Publication

The discussion about non-professionals publishing papers rumbles on (see my last few posts and those over at SV-POW!). In the comments of a post at the latter, I made the following comment

“Reading these comments I think the real issue here is that people are hitting these barriers and not realising that actually these barriers are either not hard to breech (getting hold of papers), non-existent (not being ‘allowed’ to publish) or are only an occasional hazard (bad refereeing). In this case, what it seems we need to do is get people to realise how easy it can be to get started (if getting something finished can be really hard!).”

This seems worth repeating (in addition to various things I have said on here before). Research is just research, and while I strongly recommend some training, guidance and experience to help you, anyone can publish. Science is open to anyone and scientific publication is open to anyone. You can do it if you want to. Those barriers that you may thing exist are either not there, not what you think, or really quite minor or infrequent and something that all of us face, not just those who feel they are ‘outside’. If you want to publish you can, just do it right.

Playing the game

I’d been thinking of writing this post when I discovered that the theme I had intended to expand upon was rumbling on itself over on SV-POW. That theme is on amateurs publishing in palaeontology. Yesterday I moaned about poor papers and the effect they can have by generating huge amounts of awkward work for researchers to set the record straight. Here I want to make the point about why, or perhaps how, this happens.

Science and scientific research is open to everyone. It is supposed to be open to everyone, if you have an idea or some research and can back it up with evidence, you should be able to demonstrate it in some form of public forum. Now researchers prefer peer-reviwed journals as this does result in some basic weeding out of poor practice (mistakes in methods, data collection etc. etc.) and ensures that people are likely to find your work and able to publish replies and so on. However, any book, magazine or journal should be OK in theory.

In practice it is another matter of course, because of this very openness. By opening ourselves to any work of any form then we risk the presence of poor work: inclusiveness at the expense of quality control. The simple fact is that we want everyone to participate in the game of research we really don’t set rules and simply expect (or perhaps rather, hope) that people follow the protocols that most of us do. It is those who want to play the game, and indeed are joining in, that have not bothered to learn the rules, or don’t know they are there, or deliberately snub them, that cause the problem. Since we don’t enforce those rules by say deliberately setting prescedent that only peer-review counts, or can’t in the private games outside of peer-reviewed journals, then all manner of problems surface and are allowed to surface.

Ignorance can always be forgiven, but it generally takes at least some decent form of basic knowledge of the process of both science and scientific publication to even try. Thus one cannot help but suspect that in many cases, perhaps most, or even the great majority, the reason the rules are circumvented is a combination of laziness, overconfidence or deceit. Such poor papers are being produced by those who want to take part in the game, to be seen to be taking part in the game, but are simply not playing by the rules.

Unless science makes a concerted effort to shift the rules or enforce them in a different way (and I think it neither will, nor should) we will have to put up with these issues. But it would help a great deal if these people would both realise what they are doing and the problems they are causing. The game would be more enjoyable and go faster without these intrusions and that should be possible. It is great that anyone, everyone, can get involved in real science, but there is a significant difference between doing it right, and just doing it. Sadly there are far too many people who seem not to get this, but one hopes things will improve.

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