Archive for October, 2011

Osaka Aquarium again

I’ve written before (and posted lots of photos) about Kaiyukan, the aquarium in Osaka, but on my last trip to Japan I took the opportunity to go again. In fact, I took an extra day simply to go, so delighted had i been the first time. Of course not that much had changed in the intervening years (they rarely do in such places and especially when the place is dominated by a few major tanks). Even so, there were new delights and new species to see which was a pleasant surprise. Here are some new additions and some old favourites.

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Tokyo Botanical Gardens

My recent short trip to Japan was about as intense as it could have been for someone who loves their biology, two museums, two zoos, two aquaria, a wildlife preserve and a botanical gardens all in about 7 days. The Botanical Gardens of the University of Toyko are out in the city’s suburbs, but aside from a few views from the tops of a hill where the cityscape interrupts you could be forgiven for thinking you are in the heart of the countryside. While some areas are given over for study and experiments, the grounds as a whole are well laid out for visitors and in addition to obviously introduced things like the koi, there was an abundance of wild insects and even vertebrates that had made the place their home.

Here then is a taste of the grounds and their contents, both animal and vegetable.

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Oh, a croc

Whatever your definition of an archosaur, crocs fall within it and yet they’re almost never covered on here. The simple reason is while I do find them interesting, I know little about them (compared to dinosaurs and pterosaurs at least) and those who know the history of the Musings will be aware that the name was bestowed upon me. Even so, I do feel bad about rarely writing on crocs, and this is a token effort, but hey, the picture is nice.
It’s a specimen of the Eocene Dyrosaurus and it’s housed in the marvelous dislays in Oxford. While far from complete as a specimen, the skull is in magnificent condition and the prep job is superb.

From the horse’s mouth

Yesterday I was able to get out and into a school in Dublin to do some direct communication to the kids there. I genuinely do like doing this kind of direct outreach as while the Musings and AAB can reach vast numbers of people, there really is noting to match direct interactions with people and be able to talk to them and engage in real conversations and discussions. It’s certainly nice when you can see you have piqued an interest and get some great questions.

I was hosted by Humphrey Jones who runs the superb ‘Frog Blog‘ which is basically a science news feed for kids and even gave a small write up to the event, as well as posting a gallery of images here. My thanks to him and his school.

Tokyo Aquarium

The Musings is clearly long overdue a zoo review and this summer brought me to two new places to explore – the Osaka Zoo and the Toyko Aquarium. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get round to covering the former as while it was, on the whole, perfectly satisfactory, it had little that was truly novel or exciting except a giant but underused free flight aviary and then a superbly designed Hagenbeck-type African savannah exhibit. The aquarium in Toyko however, had numerous exciting and interesting exhibits and I enjopyed my visit there immensely, so that’s what you’ll be getting today.

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Post no. 1000

Yep, it’s taken a while but I really have now hit 1000 posts on the WordPress edition of the Musings. This is, I have to admit, not much of a spectacular way to celebrate but I’m still proud. I’ve produced really quite a body of work on here, of course generously bolstered by numerous guest posts, art interviews and donations of time, photographs or even just permission for me to talk about certain subjects or show off fossils.

The site is, I hope (and the stats and comments suggest this is true) is not just about my Musings on palaeontology, science communication, my research and bits of news and oddities like the zoo reviews. Instead I hope that, as a whole, it has built up an archive of things that are and will for a long time, be useful to students and others trying to build their interest and knowledge in palaeontology and science in general.

When I first started blogging (more than 4 years ago now) I don’t think I came into it with much more motivation than having a few moments to spare and thinking I could actually contribute some of my knowledge, experience and perspective to the pool of information that is the web. I’m not sure that motivation has ever strayed far and while my back catalogue has grown, and I’ve had to diversify on occasion, the only core ‘ideal’ I’ve had (if you can call it that) was to simply talk science and palaeo and how it fits into the academic world and with the general public. The Musings would be about actual research and it’s interactions with the world and while there would be personality (I’m writing it) there would not be much ‘me’ there to see – aside from my digital voice, there’s not much of me on here.

Well that’s it for now. I genuinely have no idea how much longer this will keep going. I must confess that I’ve come very close to quitting a couple of times and while I’m certainly not going to bow out just yet, yet alone because I’ve reached an arbitrary milestone, I do wonder if I’ll be doing this some 4 further years down the line. For all the frustrations and difficulties I have, overall, enjoyed this a lot. I can only hope it’s brought a decent amount of pleasure and knowledge to the readers.


Since we seem to be in the midst of a lot of Tyrannosaurus posts (like this and this) it seemed the right time to finally dig out these pictures from Oxford and post them up on the Musings. So here you go.

Evolution and music

A great many moons ago I put up a post with a (possibly laboured) analogy between memory and the fossil record. Prepare to be possibly enlightened with my next ‘great; brainwave – drawing parallels between music and evolution (and a little ecology).

Music doubtless started off very simply and grew more complex over time. Various styles developed and became more clearly defined (lineages emerging) initially perhaps with quite a lot of overlap (common ancestry and interbreeding still possible) but then became more and more different. Each developed new features (instruments, rhythms etc.) and perhaps even came to occupy specific ‘niches’ (dancing music, reflective music) though of course given time, any style can adapt to provide any kind of feeling or go back to its roots (reversions, convergence). Occasionally entire genres get lost (extinction) and certainly individual aspects get changed or lost or replaced (modification). But just because new things come along, doesn’t mean the old ones die – there is space for all (adaptation) and ideas can be shared (lateral gene transfer perhaps, or even mutualism). Over time, new ideas split off and can become different enough to warrant their own term (speciation). Some can become incredibly popular for a while (novelty and invasives) only to die back later, or dominate for huge periods of time. Certainly each generation influences the next (descent with modification) and adapts to the styles and interests of the day (selective pressures) and it’s hard to separate quite where one thing ends and another begins because ultimately it’s all part of one interconnected continuum and while we may have trouble piece together the dim and distant past, there are certainly excellent signs that ultimately everything is related to everything else.


Ah Allosaurus, probably the dinosaur with the greatest discrepancy between how good the same sounds and what it actually means. Rather a disappointment on that front really isn’t it old chap? Still, I’ve got some decent photos and it’s been a good while since Al has anything like a look in on here despite his iconic status as a ‘classic’ dinosaur, so here he is.


Another Archaeopteryx

This has been doing the rounds for a few days so I’d be very surprised if any regular readers didn’t know this already but a new Archaeopteryx has turned up. There’s little information on it right now but it is apparently, and sadly, in private hands. It’s mostly complete and with a cracking set of feet (and nice curvature to the tail) though there’s only a few bits of skull preserved.

Helmut Tischlinger has been kind enough to send me high-res copies of the photos of the beast and to put them up here. They are rather clearly tagged as his copyrighted material and they are ‘on loan’ to me so to speak. Please do not copy, download, link directly too, or use without *his* permission.


Traps for journalists to avoid

Quite some time ago I put together a post advising journalists on how to not screw up their coverage of palaeontology. It seemed to have mixed results but at least it’s out there. Recently a friend of mine asked me if I had any more general advice (knowing who to write clade names is not really much use in a story on physics) and I decided to have a crack at it. Some of what I had put first time around is still relevant, but here I though I would focus on how bad stories make it into the news – or rather stories that should never have been reported.

Any researcher will tell you that there are regular stories on the media that are built on nothing but hyperbole and BS. Now this is not necessarily the journalists fault – he’s chasing a good story and here is one on a plate. It sounds good, has enthusiastic backing from the researcher who is giving up their time to promote it, let’s run with it. So what’s wrong with it? Here are a few tell-tale warning signs.


Is there actually a proper paper? If this story is coming from a conference abstract, grant proposal, self-published manuscript, website etc. then simply leave it be. If this thing cannot get past peer review, or has not tried, it’s not even passed the most basic test of the scientific process. You’re simply asking to be taken in by a nutty idea that has simply slipped, unreviewed, into a conference (and quite possibly sneakily – the content to a talk can be quite different to the title). If there is at least a proper paper in a proper journal that’s a good start. (Note: even some ‘proper’ journals publish non-reviewed papers occasionally. It’s dropping away but this does happen).


Does the content of the paper match what you are being told? Again, a dishonest researcher can easily publish a paper on say ankylosaurs and talk about their taxonomy, but then push a press release about his amazing new hypothesis on how they could run at 50 mph backwards. So, read the press release and read the paper. Do the two match or are you being pushed something that’s not really supported or even mentioned in the supposed ‘groundbreaking’ research paper.


Is this really odd? For sure some amazing papers appear on occasion and can we well supported and taken to heart as it were. But if something looks very odd, and if it’s only appearing in a very short manuscript with little text and few figures or references then I’d be smelling a rat. This seems to good to be true, something this cool and new yet it can all be explained away in just a few hundred words and a drawing? Hmmmm. If so, call / email a few people. Ask around. And try to avoid regular collaborators of the person in question – their friends might well support them. But if you keep hearing “he said that? really?” then be careful. This might have got through peer-review but no-one seriously buys it.


Stick to these and you should be able to avoid a mountain of stupid and disingenuousness. Sure, some other guys are going to report on these stories and very occasionally you might miss out. But ultimately if your job is to inform the public you are doing them a far great disservice by putting out confident and supporting articles on utter nonsense that you are in occasionally missing something. If a major % of what you tell people is wrong (and let’s face it, these big, exciting stories are really appealing because they are so shocking or seemingly impossible) then you might as well not bother. So stick to the well-reviewed papers and make sure they match what you’re being sold. It’ll benefit you, the reader and the researcher.

Guest Post: Love the Tyrant, Not the Hype

Tom and, shock!, *not* Tyrannosaurus....

Today Tom Holtz brings his piece to the table. Well, I say piece, Tom has promised me three (though he also originally promised to do a guest post about 2 1/2 years ago…) and this is a pretty big first one. Although he’s not a blogger, Tom is renowned for spending a lot of time online and handling questions from the public and getting involved in debates, so he’s very active on the outreach side of things. His recent dinosaur book featuring Luis Rey’s art really is an instant classic (and Tom maintains a great online species list for this). Anyone who knows Tom’s work knows about his fondness and affiliation for tyrannosaurs, so having just covered this little critter, it’s great timing for him to dive into tyrannosaurs for us:

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