Buried Treasure – Matt Wedel

I’m not quite sure whether I’m supposed to be talking about my favorite paper out of my little flock, or the one that I wish had gotten more attention. But it’s okay, because the answer in both cases is the same: my 2012 paper on long nerves in sauropod dinosaurs. It’s freely online through Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.
This one is my favorite for several reasons. I think it’s the most personal of my papers, in that there was no obvious need for it, and probably no-one else was ever going to write it. Whereas with pneumaticity I just got in at the right time – that work was going to be done by someone, and probably sooner rather than later. I also like the long nerve paper because all it required was thinking. I didn’t discover anything, and I didn’t do any real work. In fact, at the outset I was basically thinking of it as sort of a stunt paper. If it had any broader meaning at first, it was merely, “Ha ha, I thought of this before anyone else did.”
But that’s the great thing about science – if you pick up any given thread and follow it, you may soon find yourself in a labyrinth of possibilities, like Theseus and Ariadne in reverse. That happened with the sauropod nerve project, which has spun off in a couple of new directions for me. One is thinking more about the peripheral nervous systems of extinct animals, which has attracted almost zero attention so far. It’s pretty esoteric – nerves leave even less of a trace on the skeleton than air sacs – but there are some interesting and useful inferences that we can draw (to find out what those are, wait for the paper!). The second spin-off is that writing the 2012 paper fired my interest in the physiology of neurons, and in fact kicked off some conversations and potential collaborations with neuroscientists. That is a career wrinkle I never anticipated.
Still, I have to admit that it is a paper without a lot of obvious applications. It hasn’t been cited much – about half as many times as other papers of mine from around that time – but I have been happy to see it cited in a variety of fields, including neuroscience, computer science, and linguistics. That’s satisfying because I cited works from a variety fields in writing the paper in the first place. In part that was because cell biology in giant dinosaurs is an inherently cross-disciplinary problem, and in part because the example of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in the giraffe has become widely known and referenced across so many fields.
My goal now is to build on the 2012 paper with at least a couple of follow-ups to show paleontologists that, yes, there is some actual science to be done here, beyond the gee-whiz aspects. That was the subject of my talk at SVPCA last year. And as I said at the end of that talk, if you’re interested in the interplay of evolutionary novelty and developmental constraint across multiple levels of biological organization, thinking about the cell physiology and comparative anatomy of large animals is a fertile playground.

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