Archive for February, 2012

The more you do…

It is by now, I hope, pretty obvious that I’m rather keen on the old science communication thing and devote quite a lot of time and effort to it. However, there is a rather annoying Catch 22 built into this that for me seems to be coming increasingly prominent and rather awkward. The more posts I publish over more time, the more readers and critically, comments and questions I accumulate (and random e-mails and messages on Facebook etc.). However, the more this happens, the more time I have to commit to dealing with them, when I feel that I’m already reaching my limit on what time I can give over to sci comms and outreach stuff (joining Twitter might turn out to be a major mistake on that front).

Leaving questions unanswered is rude. Leaving incorrect or odd statements unanswered rather gives the impression that I agree with them (potentially confusing other readers). Shutting down comments stifles proper discussions and stops me getting good feedback. Giving a brief answer is often all I feel I can do (not least when I have a whole site setup for Q&As with many more experts on there) but that’s likely to be unsatisfying for the reader.

So what can I do? Blog less to attract less interest? Not really what I want, and what about all those two and three year old posts that still regularly attract new comments? Leave things unanswered? Unhelpful at best and puts people off. Do what I can and hope it’s enough? Also far from ideal but, sadly, probably the best use of my time.

What I suspect people don’t realise is how much time this can take. For them, it’s only one question or comment, but for me it’s just the latest one. A great many of my readers I suspect only know the blog and by extension only think of me through it, so it’s perfectly understandable they want to ask me. From their perspective I’m putting myself out there as a communicator, so I’m by definition willing and able to communicate about this stuff, and by putting up a post I’ve demonstrated at least some knowledge of the issue and a willingness to write about it, and the format of a blog with open comments means that there’s an instant option to leave a question not seen with books of TV even if they reach millions more people. But for me it can be yet another question and it sucks up time I don’t think I have and not replying can make me look unfriendly or unhelpful (despite what I have done) when of course ironically if I did no blogging or outreach at all, I’d merely look hermitic and would probably never get any questions in the first place.

I rather suspect this is true of a number of other bloggers and science writers. Those with truly popular blogs get deluged in comments and questions and thus have the ready excuse of ‘I can’t do everything’. Which for me if how I feel, even if it’s not how it looks. Sorry for the whinge, but there are times when this starts to get on top of me, and it seemed worth at least pointing this out as I’m not sure people realise it.




The top 5 most important pterosaur specimens

Just an idle bit of fun this, but the thought was running through my head and I thought there was a blog post in there somewhere so decided to have a go at it. All very subjective of course and hard to assess but there are issues of completeness, importance, the scientific information held or conveyed by the material and other things. Anywhere, here’s my effort at least (in no particular order):

1. The Dark Wing Rhamphorhynchus.

Specimens from the Solnhofen are not uniquely flat, but the vast majority are compressed into two dimensions. The sheer number of Rhamphorhynchus specimens means that we do have a great understanding of their anatomy and ontogeny, even if it is 2D and there are lots of specimens with bits of soft tissues or unusual details preserving. This specimen though pretty much has it all. It’s complete, the bones are nearly entirely in 3D and it comes with a magnificently preserved set of wing membranes – easily the best out there. Stick all that together and it’s a hell of a specimen.

 2. Jeholopterus holotype

Sure Sordes is nice and already covered in pycnofibers, but Jeholopterus is much the better preserved with more details of both ptero-fuzz and the wings. As a bonus it’s by far the best preserved anuroganthid specimen (well in total, the juvenile Anuroganthus is magnificent but has no softs), an otherwise badly known but potentially very important group.

3. The Tokyo Anhanguera

Probably the single most complete and 3D specimen I know of. Sure there are a few bits missing, but unlike the dark-wing, every bone is free of the matrix and can be picked up, turned around, examined from every angle and checked. Sadly it’s a juvenile and so some of the features aren’t quite what they would be at adult, but it is one hell of a specimen for the actual gross skeletal anatomy.

4. The Darwinopterus + egg combo

This one is a bit fortuitious since it does rather let me get a two-for-one with both a transitional pterosaur (and just how significant that is for a number of reasons) and gives us a bona fide pterosaur egg. Each tells us so much about pterosaurs and pterosaur evolution, it’s an incredible animal.

5. The big Quetzalcoatlus.

Every specimen can tell you something, and there are surprises everywhere. The new Nyctosaurus and Thalassodromeus revealed how huge crests could get, the series of ‘Tapejara’s told us about the integration of soft tissues, Raeticodactylus served a warning about eudimorphodontid-like teeth for taxonomy. But head and shoulders over all of this is the giant specimen of Quetzalcoatlus (even if it isn’t yet properly described). Size is such a crucial aspect of the biology of any organism, but in this case it is simply so big and in a flying animal too, that it really was almost a gamechanger for our understanding of pterosaurs in their own right. That a flying animal could get this big was a shock (despite some of the wild estimates, 10 m is bloody massive!).


And to close out, a few near misses from the list: footprints that showed us how they walked, the Pterodactylus holotype which brought pterosaurs to the world, one of the embryos which proved they did lay eggs and gave us a window into their life history.



Online resources for palaeontologists

I was chatting to Mike Taylor the other day about Cladestore as I couldn’t find the page I needed and was surprised he didn’t know of it. To be fair it did start off well and then rather sank, but the principle is sound and it seemed relevant enough that he might know of it. It is, in short, an archive for the various files and datasets used for phylogenetic analyses. Obviously these are generally published alongside any paper that they feature in, but typing these out again or taking the raw data and formatting it into a useable manner can be a pain, and it’s not always easy to get things out of the original authors. The idea therefore was to create and archive for these files so they were easily accessible to all. Since this does seem little known, it’s well worth advertising. And I should add that despite it’s slight antiquity, I believe they still take submissions so send ‘em your nexus and tre files.

Coupled with my reference to the Paleobiology Database earlier and it got me thinking. It would be nice if there was a single, simple, one-stop-shop for all manner of palaeo websites and online resources that are useful to researchers and those interested in the field. So I’ll try and create one, as it’ll help me learn and I expect, help my colleagues. So, anything you can think of, do submit it below. I’m thinking general stuff – a database of tyrannosaur specimens, or pterosaur papers is fine but it won’t be of much use to too many people so it’s not really worth putting here. I’m thinking of major resources that cover whole fields or are simply so vast with the data collection that they are must-know-abouts.

Here’s the few I can think of, add yours below and I’ll package them all up. And do spread the word please – blog and tweet this. This could, I think be very useful to a lot of people.

VertNet – online registry of vertebrae specimens (recent and fossil)

iDigBio – index of specimens in museums (often with photos)

Cladestore – archived phylogenetic datasets

Morphobank – more phylogentic datasets

FigTree – creates phylogeny diagrams for publication

Palaeobiology Database – data of fossil specimens, deep and wide set of data

Tree of life – phylogenetic tree of the whole diversity of life

Palaeotology Journals – Jerry Harris’ lists of journals, major and minor, that publish palaeo papers

Rankings of Palaeo Journals – Kenneth de Baets’ list of journals and things like IF, SJR, OA etc.

Polyglot Paleontologist – translations of non-English papers

The Marsh Archive – PDFs of papers by Marsh – archive of stratigraphic data

Phylogeny programs – list of phylogenetics software

Morphometrics – various resources for morphometric analyses

Morphobank -hmm, link doesn’t load for me…

Digimorph – digital anatomy archive of extant and extinct taxa

Comparative osteology database – mostly mammals and a few birds, but very good

3D skulls – Witmer Lab visualisations and scans of various taxa extant and extinct

Paleoportal – search museum collections for specimens

Data Dryad – data of all kinds from published papers

Figshare – data of all kinds from unpublished studies.

Biomesh – FEA models and properties.

Biodiversity library – huge archive of books and paper.

Microstrat – stratigraphy database

I’ve started adding these as the comments come in so it’s easier for people to see and avoid duplicates rather than have to hunt through the comments to see if they have been suggested or not.

Dinosaur facts and figures

The Paleobiology Database is one of those great and underused (well, by me at least, and I can’t be the only one) resources out there online. There’s a huge amount of data on there which can be checked and mined for your information needs. Today it gets a little mention as Graeme Lloyd flagged up this page of dinosaur facts and figures. Well worth a little look and of course you should check out the rest of the site.

Arctometatarsal origins

A comment on my recent post about alvarezsaur arctometatarsals made me realise there was a bit more scope for talking about this issue of the origins of this structure. Arctometatarsalian pedes are known in tyrannosaurs, troodontids, alvarezsaurs, ornithomimids and oviraptorosaurs. In other words a pretty big selection of derived theropods have at least some taxa with this condition.

This begs the obvious question of whether or not this is homologous? After all, this could easily plot on a cladogram as originating before the tyrannosaurs and being maintained throughout the derived theropods only to be lost in therizinosaurs and droimaeosaurs + birds. However, there are two good reasons to think that this convergence and not homology with the characteristic being acquired multiple times.

First off are the details of the actual pes. Although obviously we would expect different lineages to adapt and modify such a structure independently, there are some very clear differences between quite how the middle metarsal is pinched and in which way by which of the surrounding elements. It’s subjective of course but they do look quite different in form.

Secondly and more importantly, the character is not shared by all of the taxa in those various groups and especially not basal forms. Early tyrannosauroids like Dilong and Guanlong don’t have it, nor does the basal alvarezsauroid Haplocheirus, and it’s not present in at least some early troodontids, ornithomimids or oviraptorosaurs. So it is not a simple plot of acquisition before tyrannosaurs and occasional lost, but instead more parsimonious to infer that it has been gained independently multiple times (each with a slightly different form) than been lost multiple times in all those basal forms (i.e. lost in each of Guanlong and Dilong and any other tyrannosaurs or even lost at the base and then acquired again) and been modified repeatedly along each lineage.

What has drive this convergence is likely the benefits of such a structure. Work on the functional morphology of such a foot suggests that it increases running efficiency and may also provide increased turning ability. In short, this is a feature of active runners, something that certainly matches at least some other anatomical specialisations seen a number of these groups.

Bits of Archaeopteryx

What’s a bit more Archaeopteryx between friends eh? After the ‘clearing house’ that was the last two posts, I’ve since found yet more photos of specimens that I have never used. This is the generally somewhat horrible to be honest Burgermeister-Mueller specimen, though while the head and body of this one are not great, as you can see here, the hands and feet are actually pretty good (though my pictures could be better).

Sauropod gauges

Those familiar with sauropod trackways (and who of us isn’t?) will know that these are often described as ‘wide gauge’ or ‘narrow gauge’ depending on the separation between the left and right sets of prints of a given animal. Obviously sauropods would have had trouble swinging their legs under the midline of the body when walking so they leave two parallel sets of tracks, though the gap between these can be low or high.

This is something I’ve read many times and certainly have no truck with the idea. But it’s hard to *see* such a possible difference on a single sauropod specimen when you have nothing else to compare it to. Thus once more we turn to the Carnegie and their pair of giants. Conveniently, these animals are of pretty similar gross dimensions so the comparison is easier to make and look at the difference and, wow. You can probably walk though the legs of Apatosaurus (upper) quite easily, but you’d have to turn sideways or squeeze a little to get though those of Diplodocus. It’s quite a difference for two animals that are fairly close relatives and of such similar size.

Munich Archaeopteryx

While writing yesterday’s little post about the Berlin Archaeopteryx, I realised that of all the specimens I had covered on here, somehow the Munich one had never made it. A dig though my files turned up a couple of far-from-perfect photos of this very-nearly-perfect cast on display at the BSPG. I’m still a couple short of the full set, but especially given all the UV stuff I have kindly been loaned, I can’t help suspect this is collectively the most complete set of Archie photos online. It was never an intention, but does seem to have happened.

Berlin Archaeopteryx

I have managed to get decent pictures of nearly every Archaeopteryx specimen on here at one time or another. For those who have missed out, there’s Daiting, Eichstaett, London, Bergermeister-Mueller, Thermopolis, the ‘new’ specimen, the ‘chicken wing’ (and a couple of others), and various ones in UV. One that has done badly as it were, is Berlin. The most famous of the lot and to date all I have shown is a grainy old image from when the leg feathers were still present. Finally though, here is a good quality photo of the whole thing.

Sadly for me, it’s not because I have been back to Berlin where this is now permanently on public display, but comes courtesy of Heinrich Mallison who kindly took this for me.


A quick link roundup

I try to avoid these kinds of things, but occasionally a good number of little things pop up in a short space of time and it’s easiest to bundle them up and shove them vaguely in your direction and see if a few people can’t be interested.

First and foremost is something very Musings related. Longtime reader and prolific commenter Zhen has set up his own website and interviewed me for his opening post. There’s things in there on dinosaur noises, pterosaur flight and behaviour so trot over and have a read.

More interesting and important in the long-term is the return of PhyloPic. This is an Open Access site where you can upload and download little silhouettes of various taxa to use on scientific figures. A great idea and very useful.

On the subject of open access, for those who haven’t been keeping up, a major row is brewing in the publishing game. The short version is that the incredible (in more than one meaning of that word) publishing model that so many of us use is being seriously challenged over the malpractice of various companies. I would have written more on the subject but I have somewhat mixed feelings over the whole thing, or rather my part in it (though in short I’m very much against what these publishers are doing, my uncertainty if over how I should be involved). However, it is very worth seeing what is happening and keeping up. Mike Taylor has been heavily involved and even got an opinion piece in the Guardian here, this was replied to by an Industry spokesman and most recently, there is a report on the ‘strike’. Go read all three and for once the comments are detailed, intelligent and thought provoking and are well worth reading on all three articles.

Camarasaurus cranium

A little more sauropod goodness to help stretch out the week. Here a complete Camarasaurus skull and mandible seen in anterior view. As you can see, the skull has undergone a little deformation, though given the fragility of the average sauropod skull it’s pretty minimal and this really is a superb example. Certainly if there is one thing we do need it is more sauropod skulls, they are really rather rare for such a diverse and long-lived clade.

Sauropodan flotsam

This is very nearly the last photo I have from the Carnegie, such a shame, I’ll just have to go again. As noted before the museum does a nice line in small cabinets and displays of elements alongside and this little collection sits below the wonderfully mounted Diplodocus. I assume all of the material here represents that genus but I may have kinda forgotten to take a photo of the label so I don’t know for sure, though the skull at least is a bit of a give away.

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