Mike gets a shot of a sauropod sacrum in the AMNH basement.

…with sauropod bones!

Lots of basements have them. Some basements have had them for decades, and other basements have been newly constructed to house them. So you can take advantage of that retro chic while taking your basement into the 21st century!

What the heck am I talking about?

Matt ponders the mysteries of evolution in the AMNH basement.

One of the nifty features of WordPress is that you can track the search terms that people are using to find your blog. After Mike put up his “Suboptimal location of Mamenchisaurus” post, we noticed that one of the top search terms bringing people to SV-POW! was ‘basement’. Yeah, that’s right, ‘basement’. In fact, ‘basement’ is the 5th highest search term of all time that has brought people to SV-POW! And that’s not unusual–in fact, of the top 5 search terms bringing people here, only one is sauropod-related (Brachiosaurus, at number 2).

As of this posting, here are the Top 10 non-sauropod search terms of all time that have led people to SV-POW!, listed by rank, and including the number of hits in parentheses:

1. rabbit (18,235)

3. leopard seal (12,797) — this explains why “Sorting out Cetiosaurus nomenclature”, which even Mike admits is the most boring topic we’ve ever covered here, is the 11th most popular post of all time on this blog!

4. flamingo (10,974)

5. basement (9743)

12. twinkie (3434)

14. flamingos (3102) — double dipping for the “Necks lie” post!

20. pig skull (2099)

21. savannah monitor (2078)

22. varanus exanthematicus (1936) — double dipping for “Four complete, articulated, extant sauropod skeletons–yes, really!”

24. shish kebab (1660) — double dipping for “Sauropods were corn-on-the-cob, not shish kebabs”.

Mike and Darren discover a new dwarf sauropod in the basement at Oxford.

We’re apparently getting a lot of hits from people who want to remodel their basements. I’m all for that (the remodeling, and the extra hits), so I’m embracing it. You want basements, we got ’em. We’ll drown you in pictures of sauropod vertebrae in basements. Did I say basement? Basement, basement, basement!

(Why am I pushing basement and not rabbit, flamingo, or leopard seal? Partly because basement used to be our number 1 search term and I want to see its fortunes rise again. Partly because those other things are at least biological, and it cracks me up to have a common architectural term bringing people to the blog. And partly because I want to upstage John and his freezers.)

Basement Renovation Instructions

This short guide will help you with your project.

Is your basement in a museum?

If YES, then:

1. Fill it with sauropod vertebrae.

2. Call us.

If NO, then:

1. Fill it with anything you like except sauropod vertebrae.

2. Support your local museum.

Don’t forget: basement!

It’s an oddity that in eight years of SV-POW!, we’ve never written about one of the best of all the Wealden-formation sauropod specimens: the forelimb and associated skin impression NHMUK R1870 that is known as “Pelorosaurusbecklesii.

Let’s fix that. Here is all the bony material (i.e. everything except the skin patch) in a photo taken in the basement of the Natural History Museum back in 2007:

Left forelimb material of

Left forelimb material of “Pelorosaurusbecklesii holotype NHMUK R1870. Left: humerus, in posterior view. Right, from top to bottom: ulna in anterior view; radius in anterior view. Yes, I should have turned the humerus over before taking this photo. What can I tell you? I was young and stupid then.

As you can see, the two lower-limb bones were broken back then (though I believe they have since been repaired), but the breaks are very clean, and it’s actually quite interesting to see inside the bones:

Breakage in bones of the lower left forelimb of

Breakage in bones of the lower left forelimb of “Pelorosaurusbecklesii holotype NHMUK R1870. Left: proximal part of radius in distal view. Right: proximal part of ulna in distal view.

I wish I knew enough about mineralisation to comment intelligently on what we can see there. If anyone has thoughts, do leave them in the comments.

We can look in more detail at those lower-limb bones in a subsequent post, but for now, here’s the humerus:

Pelorosaurusbecklesii holotype NHMUK R1870, left humerus. Top row: proximal view, with anterior to the bottom. Middle row, from left to right: medial, anterior, lateral and posterior views. Bottom row: distal view, with anterior to the top.

As you can see it’s in really nice shape, and pretty distinctive. Way back in my 2007 Progressive Palaeo talk (Taylor 2007), I coded up the humerus (alone, without the other elements) in the Harris-based phylogenetic matrix that I’ve used repeatedly in other projects. It came out as the sister taxon to the titanosaur Malawisaurus (which in that matrix comes out fairly basal within Titanosauria): in fact, it could hardly do anything else, since the coding was exactly the same as that of Malawisaurus.

And indeed it’s been pretty widely accepted that “P.” becklesii is a titanosaur — one of the earliest known, and the only name-bearing one from the Wealden Supergroup, unless you count the extremely indeterminate Iuticosaurus, which predictably enough is based on a single eroded partial mid-caudal centrum. Still, the titanosaurian identity of “P.” becklesii has never been convincingly demonstrated — only inferred by non-cladistic means.

Pelorosaurusbecklesii holotype NHMUK R1870, left humerus in anterodistal view (anterior to the left).

So why the quotes around the genus name “Pelorosaurus“? Because it’s long been recognised that, whatever this specimen might be, it ain’t Pelorosaurus, which is based on the Cetiosaurusbrevis caudals and a much more slender humerus.

Here’s that humerus, so you can see how different it is from that of “Pelorosaurusbecklesii:

Right humerus of Pelorosaurus conybeari holotype NHMUK 28626. Top row: distal view, anterior to bottom. Middle row, left to right: lateral, anterior and medial views. Bottom row: distal, anterior to top. Missed parts reconstructed from the humerus of Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1961: Beilage A)

Right humerus of Pelorosaurus conybeari holotype NHMUK 28626. Top row: distal view, with anterior to bottom. Middle row, left to right: lateral, anterior and medial views. Bottom row: distal view, with anterior to top. Missing parts reconstructed from the humerus of Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1961: Beilage A)

Paul Upchurch recognised the generic distinctness of “Pelorosaurusbecklesii way back in his (1993) dissertation. But because of Cambridge University’s policy of only making copies of dissertations available for £65, that work is effectively unknown. (Perhaps we should all chip in a fiver, buy a copy and “liberate” it. Or maybe 22 years on, Paul would rather leave it in obscurity and let his reputation continue to rest on his impressive body of later work.)

What has happened to this specimen in the last 22 years? Very little has been published about it. It got a mention in the systematic review of sauropods in Dinosauria II (Upchurch et al. 2004), but the only mention that is more than in passing, as far as I’m aware, is that of see Upchurch’s first published (1995) phylogenetic analysis. From page 380:

The only reliable Lower Cretaceous titanosaurid material, apart from Malawisaurus, comes from Europe, especially England. The earliest of these forms may be represented by the forelimb of ‘Pelorosaurus becklesii‘ (Mantell 1852) from the Valanginian of Sussex. This specimen was considered to be Sauropoda incertae sedis by McIntosh (1990b). However, a skin impression shows polygonal plates of a similar shape and size to those found in Saltasaurus (Bonaparte & Powell 1980). The ulna and radius are robust and the ulna bears the typical concavity on its anteromedial proximal process. Upchurch (1993) therefore argued that this form should be provisionally included within the Titanosauridae.

[Update: as Darren points out in the comment below, Upchurch et al. (2011) figure the specimen in colour and devote three pages to it. They leave it as Titanosauria, and “refrain from naming a new taxon until more comparative data are available” (p. 501).]

Given my interest in the Wealden, it’s surprising that we’ve never blogged about “Pelorosaurusbecklesii before, but it’s true: I’ve mentioned it three times in comments, but never in a post. It’s good to finally fix that!

Next time: the radius and ulna.

References

  • Janensch, Werner. 1961. Die Gliedmaszen und Gliedmaszengurtel der Sauropoden der Tendaguru-Schichten. Palaeontographica (Suppl. 7) 3:177-235.
  • Taylor, Michael P. 2007. Diversity of sauropod dinosaurs from the Lower Cretaceous Wealden Supergroup of southern England. p. 23 in Graeme T. Lloyd (ed.), Progressive Palaeontology 2007, Thursday 12th-Saturday 14th April, Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. 38 pp.
  • Upchurch, Paul. 1993. The Anatomy, Phylogeny and Systematics of Sauropod Dinosaurs. Ph.D dissertation, University of Cambridge, UK. 489 pages.
  • Upchurch, Paul. 1995. The evolutionary history of sauropod dinosaurs. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B, 349:365-390.
  • Upchurch, Paul, Paul M. Barrett and Peter Dodson. 2004. Sauropoda. pp. 259-322 in D. B. Weishampel, P. Dodson and H. Osmólska (eds.), The Dinosauria, 2nd edition. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. 861 pages.
  • Upchurch, Paul, Philip D. Mannion and Paul M. Barrett. 2011. Sauropod dinosaurs. pp. 476-525 in: Batten, David J. (ed.), English Wealden Fossils. The Palaeontological Association (London).
Kraatz et al 2015 Figure 1 - rabbit skull freak gallery

Meet some of my new friends: (A) Brachylagus idahoensis, (B) Lepus capensis, (C) Poelagus marjorita, (D) Pronolagus crassicaudatus, (E) Lepus americanus, (F) Oryctolagus cuniculus, (G) Nesolagus timminsi, (H) Bunolagus monticularis, and (I) Romerolagus diazi. Kraatz et al. (2015: fig. 1).

I have a new paper out today in PeerJ: “Ecological correlates to cranial morphology in leporids (Mammalia, Lagomorpha)”, with coauthors Brian Kraatz, Emma Sherratt, and Nick Bumacod. Get it free here.

I know, I know, I have fallen from grace. First Aquilops, now rabbits. And, and…skulls! I know what you’re thinking: that maybe I’m not just experimenting with the non-vertebrae of non-sauropods anymore – maybe I have an actual problem. But I don’t. I can quit anytime! You’ll see.

Actually rabbits are the freakiest of all mammals and their skulls are wicked cool. They have double incisors, with the second set right behind the first, hence the name Duplicidentata for rabbits and their close relatives. They have weird fenestrations in their maxillae (pretty much all taxa) and parietal and occipital bones (some more than others) – I’ll come back to that in a bit. And, as we discuss in our new paper, you can tell something about how a rabbit runs by looking at its skull. I thought it would be fun to relate how we figured that out, and why.

A long time ago in a graduate seminar far, far away…

1950: DuBrul, Laskin, and Moss

I met Brian Kraatz at Berkeley, where he and I were part of the cohort of students that came into the Integrative Biology Department in the fall of 2001 (faithful readers may remember Brian from his work tracking oliphaunts from, gosh, three years ago already). We took a lot of classes together, including a seminar by Marvalee Wake on evolutionary morphology. I’m pretty sure that seminar was the first time I’d actually read DuBrul and Laskin (1961), “Preadaptive potentialities of the mammalian skull: an experiment in growth and form”, or as I think of it, “How to turn a rat skull into a pika skull for fun and profit.”

Pikas (Ochotonidae) are the sister group to rabbits (Leporidae) and together these groups make up crown Lagomorpha. If you’re not familiar with pikas, Brian describes them as starting with bunny rabbits and then making them even cuter and cuddlier. Seriously, go do an image search for ‘pika’ and try not to die of cute overload.

Pikas are interesting because in many ways their skulls are intermediate between those of rodents, especially rats, and rabbits. This is maybe not surprising since rodents are the sister group to lagomorphs and are united with them in the clade Glires. E. Lloyd DuBrul was all over this rat-pika-rabbit thing back in the mid-twentieth century. Here’s an illustration from DuBrul (1950: plate 2; labels added by me):

Rattus Ochotona and Lepus skulls compared - DuBrul 1960 plate 2

So DuBrul knew from pikas and in particular he had the idea that you could maybe just tweak a rat skull – say, by knocking out the basicranial sutures in a baby rat to limit the growth of the skull base – and produce a gently domed skull like that of a pika. That’s what DuBrul and Laskin (1961) is all about. They did that experiment and here are their results (DuBrul and Laskin (1961: plate 3). Normal rat skull on the right, and dotted in the bottom diagram; experimental “pika-morph” rat skull on the left, and solidly outlined below.

Experimental skull doming in rats - DuBrul and Laskin 1961 plate 3

What’s going on here morphogenetically is that the facial skeleton is getting tilted down and away from the back end of the skull. DuBrul was hip to that, too – here’s a relevant image from his 1950 paper (plate 4; labels added by me):

Skull tilting in Rattus Ochotona and Lepus - DuBrul 1960 plate 4

The common reference point against which these skulls are registered is the cranial base (the floor of the braincase just forward of the foramen magnum). Again, the pika is a pretty good intermediate between the rat and a ‘normal’ rabbit, and the dang-near-dog-sized Flemish Giant rabbit takes the lagomorph face-tilting thing to its extreme. (‘Flemish Giant rabbit’ is another entertaining image search that I will leave you as homework.)

Turns out there’s another way you can get rat skulls with different geometries: you can cut off their legs and make them walk on two feet. In an experiment that you might have trouble getting past an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee today, Moss (1961) lopped off the forefeet or hindfeet in two experimental batches of rats, to see what effect this would have on their skulls. I’ll let Moss speak for himself on this one (Moss, 1961: pp. 301-303, emphasis in the original):

Circumnatal amputation of the forelimbs has successfully produced what are in essence “bipedal rats,” i.e., rats whose habitual mode of kinetic and static posture is permanently altered. […] The animals never became bipedal in the exact sense; that is, they never walked erect on two limbs at all times. […] Nevertheless, bipedal posture and motion were more frequently observed than in controls. […]

Animals whose hind limbs were removed represented another picture. They most certainly did not walk about on their intact forelimbs. Neither did they seem able to use their hind limb stumps as satisfactory substitutes. Their gait was not uniform and seemed to consist in a series of short pushes or hops. The most noticeable thing about them was, among other things, apparent accentuation of their cervical vertebral curvature. The sum of these changes was an upward rotation of the skull.

He wasn’t kidding: when the two groups of bipedal rats grew up, their facial skeletons were tilted relative to the control group, but in different directions (Moss, 1961: fig 3; ‘fore’ and ‘hind’ refer to which limbs the animals had left to locomote with):

Skull deformation in bipedal rats - Moss 1961 fig 3

Brian and I read Moss back at Berkeley, too. In fact, we were minor Moss junkies. If you’re interested in how living forms come into being, you owe it to yourself to read Moss (1968), “A theoretical analysis of the functional matrix”.

The upshot of all of this is that although neither Brian nor I had done anything with our deep (and, okay, deeply weird) knowledge of how to experimentally jack up rat skulls by the time we graduated from Berkeley, we were also primed to be thinking about how skulls attain their shapes – especially the skulls of rodents and rabbits.

2009: American Museum of Natural History

I went to the AMNH in February, 2009, to visit Brian, who was on a postdoc there at the time, and to spend one day looking at sauropods with Mike, who was over from England for a conference. What Brian and I planned to work on was the fenestration of rabbit skulls, because I’m always interested in the strategic loss of bone from skeletal structures. We spent probably half a day talking about that, and I filled a whole page in my notebook with related noodlings:

AMNH rabbit skull sketch 1

But as the sketch on the right shows, it didn’t take us long to figure out that there was something even more interesting to do with rabbit skulls. Brian had a whole shedload of rabbit skulls from different taxa sitting on his desk, and we noticed pretty quickly that one of the primary ways they varied was in the tilt of the facial skeleton relative to the back of the skull. Here’s the very next page of my notes from that trip:

 

The skull up top belongs to Caprolagus, the Hispid hare, which I tend to think of as the “bulldozer hare”. Seriously, it looks like a tank. It doesn’t bound or even hop, it scrambles. Here, stare into the abyss:

Caprolagus from ARKive

That rabbit will cut you, man. And just look at how flat its skull is. Even in life Caprolagus looks more rodent-y than rabbit-y. Or, more precisely, more Ochotona-y.

At the the other extreme are taxa like Bunolagus and Pronolagus, which really push the “I’m going to cute you to death by dint of my incredible bunnosity” thing:

Bunolagus from ARKive

As Brian and I started going through skulls of as many extant rabbits as we could, we noticed that the flatter-skulled taxa, with less pronounced facial tilt, tended to be the stolid, foursquare scramblers like Caprolagus, whereas the speed demons tended to have more strongly tilted skulls. It also seemed like the latter group were achieving that pronounced facial tilt by changing the geometry of the occipital region of the skull. Look back up at the red quadrilaterals I drew on the Caprolagus and Bunolagus skulls in my notebook – those mark the basioccipital ventrally and the dorsal exposure of the supraoccipital. Perhaps unsurprisingly, supraoccipital length is not the whole story; it turns out that some face-tilters get that way by having longer or more strongly arched parietals, BUT it remains true that if you find a rabbit skull with a long dorsal exposure of the supraoccipital, it will also have pronounced facial tilt.

ANYWAY, by my last night in New York, Brian and I decided that the best way to attack this would be to go down to the basement and stay up most of the night drinking beer and measuring rabbit skulls. We then tried to correlate the various measurements and angles with information on the locomotor and burrowing habits of each species. That was a big job, and after a couple of years with little forward progress (to be fair, Brian was moving across the country and taking his first tenure-track job in this interval, and I was helping birth a sauropod) we brought in Brian’s graduate student, Nick Bumacod, to do most of it. Later on the three of us were forced to acknowledge that we knew enough statistics to get ourselves into trouble but not enough to get back out. Brian had taken a geometric morphometrics course for which Emma Sherratt was a TA, and he started bugging her for help with the stats. Emma has been involved in writing new software packages for R, and we realized that the paper would be a lot stronger if we just brought her on as an author and gave her free rein with the data. Along the way Brian and Nick were giving presentations on the project everywhere from the local Western Area Vert Paleo meeting to the World Lagomorph Conference in Vienna. I got my name on four abstracts along the way, which I think is record abstract-to-paper ratio for me (especially considering that 90% of my effort on the paper was invested in a single evening in 2009 over a couple of six-packs).

But enough navel-gazing, what did we find?

2015: Rabbit skulls reveal their mode of locomotion

Our results, which you can read for free, support the hunch that Brian and I had back in 2009: slow-moving rabbits that locomote by scrambling or scampering instead of hopping tend to have less facial tilt, and faster-moving saltatorial (hopping) and cursorial (leaping and bounding) rabbits have more facial tilt. Interestingly, facial tilt does not distinguish the saltators from the cursors. So the break here is between scrambling and any kind of hopping or leaping, but not between hoppers and leapers.

Kraatz et al 2015 fig 5a

Kraatz et al. (2015: fig. 5a)

Why would that be so? We don’t know for sure yet, but our top hypothesis is that if you’re moving fast, it pays to see the ground in front of you more clearly, and getting your nose down out of the way probably helps with that. This is pretty similar to the hypothesis that tyrannosaurs have pinched nasals for better binocular vision (Stevens, 2006). Rabbits are prey animals and probably can’t afford to point their eyes forward, and they may need wide nasal airways as air intakes while they’re sprinting. Tilting the nose down may be the next best thing.

Guinea pig and mara skulls - DuBrul 1960 plate 6

Some circumstantial support for this comes from the Caviidae, the family of South American rodents that includes guinea pigs, cavies, maras, and capybaras. Here’s another plate from DuBrul (1950: plate 6) contrasting the flatter skull of the guinea pig (Cavia porcellus, top) with the decidedly arched skull of the mara or Patagonian hare (Dolichotis magellanica, bottom). Compare the mara skull to the sectioned rabbit skull in the other DuBrul plate, above – there aren’t a lot of obvious characters to separate the two (beyond the lack of double incisors in the mara).

Mara photo from Wikipedia

Mara photo from Wikipedia

Despite being commonly referred to as ‘hares’ and looking a lot like short-eared rabbits, maras are rodents that evolved their rabbit-like form independently. The acquisition of pronounced facial tilt in two separate lineages of small fast-moving herbivorous mammals is further evidence for the influence of locomotor mode on skull form. Irritatingly, I think we neglected to mention the guinea pig : mara :: pika : rabbit correspondence in the paper. Oh well, it wasn’t our novel observation, and we did cite DuBrul (1950).

Kraatz et al 2015 Figure 4 - skull measurements

Relevant to the next paragraph: DILU is ‘diastema length upper’ and BLD is ‘bulla diameter’. Kraatz et al. (2015: fig. 4).

We found lots of other interesting things, too. The PCA plots we produced from our data separate the living rabbits in unexpected ways. The length of the diastema (the toothless portion of the upper jaw) and the diameter of the auditory bulla seem to be particularly important. Diastema length isn’t too hard to figure out – most of the face-tilters have long diastemas, and the flat-heads tend to have short ones. We have no idea what bulla diameter means yet. I mean, obviously something to do with hearing, but we don’t have any ecological variables in our analysis to address that because we didn’t see it coming. So there’s a chunk of new science waiting to be done there.

Speaking of new science, or at least a relatively new thing in science, we published the full peer-review history alongside the paper, just as Mike and I did back in 2013 and as Mike did with his stand-alone paper last December. More than 80% of PeerJ authors elect to publish the peer review histories for their papers. I can’t wait until it’s 100%. PeerJ reviews are citeable – each one gets a DOI and instructions on how to cite it – and I’m tired of having my effort as a peer reviewer used once and then thrown away forever.

If you’ve been reading this whole post with gritted teeth, wondering why we were using linear measurements instead of geometric morphometrics, chillax. Brian and Emma are on that. They’ve been CT scanning the skulls of as many extant rabbits as possible and plotting landmarks for 3D morphometrics – if you were at SVP last fall, you may have seen their talk (Kraatz and Sherratt, 2014). So stay tuned for what will soon be a new ongoing series, Rabbit Skulls: The Next Generation.

I probably won’t be on that voyage. I’ve had fun getting acquainted with a completely different part of the tree of life, but there are an awful lot of shards of excellence – busted-up sauropod vertebrae, that is – crying out for my attention, and I need to stop neglecting them. I’m done with rabbit skulls, I promise. I’m going clean. (Wish me luck!)

References

  • DuBrul, E. L. (1950). Posture, locomotion and the skull in Lagomorpha. American Journal of Anatomy, 87(2), 277-313.
  • DuBrul, E. L., & Laskin, D. M. (1961). Preadaptive potentialities of the mammalian skull: an experiment in growth and form. American Journal of Anatomy, 109(2), 117-132.
  • Kraatz, B., and Sherratt, E. (2014). Evolution, ecology, and modularity of the lagomorph skull. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 35(3, Supplement), 162A.
  • Kraatz, B.P., Sherratt, E., Bumacod, N., and Wedel, M.J. 2015. Ecological correlates to cranial morphology in leporids (Mammalia, Lagomorpha). PeerJ3:e844.  https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.844
  • Moss, M. L. (1961). Rotation of the otic capsule in bipedal rats. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 19(3), 301-307.
  • Moss, M. L. (1968). A theoretical analysis of the functional matrix. Acta Biotheoretica, 18(1), 195-202.
  • Stevens, K. A. (2006). Binocular vision in theropod dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 26(2), 321-330.

Go to Google and do a picture search for “natural history museum”. Here are the results I get. (I’m searching the UK, where that term refers to the British museum of that name — results in the USA may very.)

google-search-for-nhm

In the top 24 images, I see that half of them are of the building itself — rightly so, as it’s a beautiful and impressive piece of architecture that would be well worth visiting even if it was empty. Of the rest, ten are of specimens inside the museum: and every single one of them is of the Diplodocus in the main hall. (The other two photos are from the French natural history museum, so don’t really belong in this set. Not coincidentally, they are both primarily photos of the French cast of the same Diplodocus.)

The NHM’s Diplodocus — I can’t bring myself to call it “Dippy” is the icon of the museum. It’s what kids go to see. It’s what the museum used as the basis of the logo for the 2005 SVPCA meeting that was held there. It’s essentially the museum mascot — the thing that everyone thinks of when they think of the NHM.

And rightly so: it’s not just a beautiful specimen, it’s not just sensational for the kids. As the first cast ever made of the Carnegie specimen CM 84, it’s a historically important object in its own right. It was the first mounted Diplodocus ever, being presented in 1905 before the the original material was even on display in Pittsburgh.

diplodocus_nocopyright

As a matter of fact, this cast was the very first mounted sauropod to be publicly displayed: that honour is usually given to the AMNH Apatosaurus, but as museum-history expert Ilja Nieuwland points out:

The London ‘Dippy’ was in fact the first sauropod on public display, if only for three days in early July of 1904, in the Pittsburgh Exposition Society Hall.

There you have the Natural History Museum Diplodocus: the symbol of the museum, an icon of evolution, a historical monument, a specimen of great scientific value and unparalleled symbolism.

So naturally the museum management want to tear it down. They want to convert the Diplodocus hall into a blue whale hall. Because the museum doesn’t already have a blue whale hall.

Or, no — wait — it does already have a blue whale hall. That’s it. That’s what I meant to say. And very impressive it is, too.

16222408

I don’t mind admitting that the whale hall is my second favourite room in the museum. Whenever I go there as a tourist (rather than as a scientist, when I spend all my time in the basement), I make sure I see it. It’s great.

The thing is, it’s already there. A museum with a whale hall does not need another whale hall.

Obviously anticipating the inevitable outcry, the museum got all its ducks in a row on this. They released some admittedly beautiful concept artwork, and arranged to have opinion pieces written in support of the change — some by people who I would have expected to know better.

One of the more breathtaking parts of this planned substitution is the idea that Diplodocus is no longer relevant. The NHM’s director, Sir Michael Dixon says the change is “about asking real questions of contemporary relevance”. He says “going forward we want to tell more of these stories about the societally relevant research that we do”. This “relevance” rhetoric is everywhere. The museum “must move with the times to stay relevant”, writes Henry Nicholls in the Guardian.

There was a time when Diplodocus was relevant, you know: waaay back in the 1970s. But time has moved on, and now that’s 150,000,035 years old, it’s become outdated.

Conversely, the rationale for the whale seems to be that they want to use it as a warning about extinction. But could there ever be a more powerful icon of extinction than a dinosaur?

The thing is, the right solution is so obvious. Here’s what they want to do:

2528769B00000578-2930638-image-a-19_1422525497076

Clearly the solution is, yes, hang the whale from the ceiling — but don’t remove the Diplodocus. Because, seriously, what could be a better warning about extinction than the juxtaposition of a glorious animal that we lost with one that we could be about to lose?

All this argument about which is better, a Diplodocus or a blue whale: what a waste of energy. Why should we have to choose? Let’s have both.

I’ve even had an artist’s impression made, at great expense, to show how the combination exhibit would look. Check it out.

2528769B00000578-2930638-image-a-19_1422525497076-art

(If anyone would like to attempt an even better rendering, please by my guest. Let me know, and I’ll add artwork to this page.)

So that’s my solution. Keep the museum’s iconic, defining centrepiece — and add some more awesome instead of exchanging it. Everyone wins.

Five conversations

April 22, 2014

2007-01-07 Big Bend 142 small

5. Brian Kraatz, 2004

In the spring of 2004, I was killing time over in Tony Barnosky’s lab at Berekeley, talking to Brian Kraatz about something–mammals, probably. Brian told me that I should consider going to the International Congress of Zoology that was happening in Beijing that fall. He’d actually told me about it several times, but I kept forgetting about it. It seemed remote from my concerns. Finally, though, the day before the abstracts were due, I thought, “Why not?” I could get travel money from the department and it would get me over there to see a lot of Asian dinosaurs in person.

I was also intrigued because presenters could submit either abstracts or short papers, and I had an idea for a short paper. I had been thinking a lot about how pneumaticity got started in dinosaurs and how much we could infer about that, so that evening I stayed up until about 3 AM banging out what would become Wedel (2006), pretty much as it was published, except for the figure, which was added later.

That got me to Beijing, where I spent a lot of time talking with Paul Barrett, who saw my talk and later invited me to contribute a talk to an SVP symposium on prosauropods, which grew into Wedel (2007) and became a chapter of my dissertation. And that got me an invite from Adam Yates and Matt Bonnan to join them in writing up the first really solid evidence of pneumaticity in prosauropods (Yates et al. 2012).

RESET

When I wandered over to the Barnosky lab to kill time that day,  Brian wasn’t in. Instead I got to talking with Alan Shabel about food webs in East African riparian ecosystems. The habitats and faunas he was talking about put me in mind of the Morrison Formation of the American West. I wondered if the quantitative ecological analysis that Alan was working on would yield any insights into how Late Jurassic ecosystems worked. And that fired a few neutrons at the Van Valen papers I’d been reading for Kevin Padian’s paleobiology seminar, and precipitated a chain reaction. The paper that came out of that, “Sauropod dinosaurs as Van Valen’s energy maximizers”, was published in Paleobiology in 2007. That’s how I got into quantifying energy flow through dinosaur-dominated ecosystems.

I was presenting some of that work at an ecology conference in 2008 when I got invited to join a team of biologists going to the Galapagos. I was particularly interested in the role of extant dinosaurs (i.e., birds) in ecosystems dominated by bradymetabolic reptiles. Some of the data from that trip and one subsequent  expedition went into my 2013 paper on the rise of dinosaurs during the Triassic. But most importantly, it got me working in the Galapagos, which I had wanted to do ever since I was a kid.

Oakland Zoo Tortoise - resting

4. Mike Taylor, 2000

My first paper came out in the first issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in 2000. It was the one in which Rich Cifelli and Kent Sanders and I designated OMNH 53062, a string of four sauropod vertebrae from southeast Oklahoma, as the type specimen of a new dinosaur, Sauroposeidon proteles. I had been collecting business cards and mailing addresses from people at SVP since 1997, and I had a list of about 100 people that I thought would appreciate a reprint of the paper. So when the reprints arrived from the publisher, I printed out a bunch of form letters, made an assembly line of reprints, letters, and envelopes on the big table in the OMNH vert paleo library, and killed an afternoon getting everything assembled and ready to ship out.

Also about this time I received a polite email from some English guy named Mike Taylor, asking for a reprint. I wrote back and said that I’d be happy to send him one. I don’t know what he wrote back next, but it was sufficiently interesting that it kicked off a conversation that has now been going on for 14  years. When Vicki and I went to England on spring break in 2004, we stayed with Mike and Fiona in London. I went back over for SVPCA in London in 2005, and after 2009, I started going to SVPCA every year instead of SVP. That’s how I got to know Dave Hone. I got acquainted with Darren separately–we were sending each other reprints in 2001, I think, and talking sporadically about brachiosaurs. I think that Mike and Darren also met separately, and possibly if I hadn’t been around, they still would have ended up working together. But my papers with Mike–which account for seven of the nine I’ve published since my dissertation–wouldn’t have happened, or would have come out very differently. And you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

Darren & Mike with Dippy

RESET

I first met Mike Taylor at the SVP meeting in Bristol in 2009. He had done that paper on that weird vertebra with Darren a couple of years before. We got together over a few pints and discovered that we had a lot of interests in common–Star Wars, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis–but c’mon, who can’t you say that about in this geek-infested business? He’s a nice guy, and we’re friends, but we’re not what you’d call close.

I spent most of my time at that meeting catching up with Matt Bonnan. We’d been friends since the late 90s, and we’d written the paper on the probable brachiosaurid metacarpal in 2004, but we hadn’t collaborated much. Well, we were both out of grad school and into stable jobs, and we really put our heads together that meeting. Two streams of papers came out of that: first, the sauropod biomechanics papers, which merged his limb development stuff with my pneumaticity stuff, and secondly, all of our work on quantifying serial variation using geometric morphometrics.

Although the first set of papers has attracted more attention–certainly more media attention–it’s the second set that give me more satisfaction. I’ve always been interested in serial homology, I just didn’t have a novel approach. But with Matt’s help I was able to combine morphometrics and phylogenetics to produce developmental phylogenies of serially repeated structures. That by itself is pretty cool, but when you bring it into the extant realm you can put the gene expression patterns right into the analysis. The stuff we’re doing with axial development in chickens right now–man, I don’t know if I’ll ever find the time to write another paper about extinct dinosaurs, when there’s so much fun to be had with the living ones.

Matt with chicken

3. Brooks Britt, 1997

In the summer of 1997, I was on a multi-thousand-mile quest to determine whether OMNH 53062 was a new dinosaur, or just a big example of something already known. Vicki and I had been to D.C. that spring, partly as our first vacation as a married couple, and partly so that I could see the Astrodon/Pleurocoelus material at the Smithsonian. That summer, I mapped out an epic tour of museums in the West. With our friend Tyson Davis, Vicki and I went to Dinosaur National Monument, the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake, the BYU Earth Sciences Museum in Provo, and the Museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction.

The main reason we went to Grand Junction was because at the time, the MWC had some of the BYU Brachiosaurus material from Dry Mesa Quarry on exhibit. Rich Cifelli and I weren’t sure what OMNH 53062 was yet, but we thought it looked an awful lot like Brachiosaurus. Brooks Britt was the curator there at the time, and he took us down to the basement and showed us some of the sauropod material from the Lower Cretaceous Dalton Wells Quarry. Brooks was particularly excited to show us the pneumatic features in the vertebrae. I told him about the big vertebrae from Oklahoma that I was working on, and he said, “You should get those vertebrae CT scanned, to get a look at the pneumatic spaces inside.” I smiled and nodded and thought to myself, “Dude, you are completely crazy. I am an undergrad on an independent study. No way do I have the juice to get giant dinosaur bones CT scanned.” But I didn’t forget about what he’d said. When we got back to Oklahoma, I mentioned it to Rich–and then I forgot about it.

Ridem dino

Happily for me, Rich did not forget about it. A few months later, he was at a university function with the director of OU’s University Hospital, and he mentioned the idea of CT scanning the dinosaur bones. The hospital director was all for it–the CT machines frequently had down time on Saturdays, and the hospital would trade time on the machines for publicity when we published our results. That December, I was in Rich’s office for one of our weekly meetings when he said, “Hey, are you still interested in CT scanning the vertebrae? Because if you want to, we can make it happen.” I don’t remember what I said, but I assume it was some variant of “Hell yeah!”

We took the first jacket up to the hospital in January, 1998. We got decent results. The vertebrae were so big and dense that the scans were plagued by beam-hardening artifacts, but we could see that internal structure was honeycombed by dozens or hundreds of thin-walled cavities. The problem was, we had no idea what that meant–a few physical cross-sections of sauropod vertebrae had been published over the years, most notably by Heber Longman in 1933 and Werner Janensch in 1947–but to my knowledge no CT scans of sauropod vertebrae had ever been published, and you could probably count on your fingers the number of published CT scans of fossils of any kind. Brooks had a bunch in his 1993 dissertation, but that was unpublished, and I wouldn’t get a copy for several more months. So we had no baseline.

Utah 2008 05 Kent in reading room

But we did have Kent Sanders, a radiologist at the hospital who was hot on this stuff and helped us read the films. And we had a museum full of dinosaur bones and access to a CT scanner on the weekends. So that’s how I spent most of the Saturdays in 1998–drive to the museum, fill the trunk of the car with dinosaur bones, drive up to Oklahoma City and spend the day scanning with Kent. I wasn’t supposed to do my MS thesis on pneumaticity, but when the primary project I had been working on didn’t look like it was going to pan out, I realized that I had enough CT scans of sauropod vertebrae that with a little selective hole-filling I could describe the evolution of vertebral pneumaticity in sauropods. So that became my Master’s thesis.

RESET

That conversation with Brooks Britt in the summer of 1997 was a turning point for me. Until then I’d been interested in OMNH 53062 for what it could tell us about the animal that it had once been part of. But when Brooks started telling me about the taphonomy of the Dalton Wells Quarry, I realized that the Oklahoma vertebrae were telling another story, too: the story of what had happened to that animal. So that’s the angle we played up in the paper–how did these vertebrae get separated from the rest of the critter? Mesozoic murder mystery!

Then the next summer I was out with Rich’s crew in Montana, working in the Cloverly Formation. I actually spent most of my time with Des Maxwell and his group at the Wolf Creek quarry, which was a sauropod bonebed. I did a poster on that quarry for SVP in 2000, and I wrote my MS thesis on the taphonomy of the quarry.

While all of this was going on, I was spending more and more time talking with Brooks Britt. He had done his dissertation on pneumaticity in fossil archosaurs, but he had all kinds of interesting things going on related to taphonomy, including modification of dinosaur bones by termities, and evidence of fungal hyphae in dinosaur bones. Brooks had done his Bachelor’s and Master’s work at BYU before going to Calgary for his dissertation. He encouraged me to think about going to BYU for my PhD work. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made–I freaking love Utah, and the chance to go live and work there was too good to pass up. I started out as one of Ken Stadtman’s grad students, but when Brooks got the job at BYU in 2002, he agreed to come on as my co-advisor. I’m mainly interested in what you can infer about terrestrial ecosystems from tracks left on bones, so that’s what I did my dissertation on. Most of the chapters were on sauropods, naturally, but I did have that one project looking at invertebrates, fungi, and microbes–or their traces–in faunal bone I collected from Capitol Reef National Forest in the summer of 2005. Now that was a fun project.

While I was working at BYU, Vicki got her PhD in anthropology from the University of Utah. Both of us had field sites in southern Utah, and we really fell in love with that part of the state. After we finished our degrees we moved to St. George, which is just gorgeous. Vicki coordinates the excavation and repatriation of Native American remains and artifacts from Utah federal lands, and I teach geology at Dixie State University. When I’m not digging, teaching, or hiking, I blog about sauropod taphonomy. My friends tease me because it’s such a geeky niche thing, but it makes me happy.

Matt in the field

2. Rich Cifelli, 1996

You know how sometimes you end up working on something just because it’s there? That’s how I started working on sauropods.

Immediately after I left Trish Schwagmeyer’s office, I marched down to the museum, barged into Rich’s office, threw myself in a chair, and asked him if he’d sponsor me on an independent study. He said that he’d be delighted to–what did I want to work on? Dinosaurs, I said, dinosaurs! “Well, we have these big sauropod vertebrae from southeastern Oklahoma that need to be identified.” We went and had a look. It wasn’t my dream project–I was more interested in big theropods and ceratopsians–but I said I’d take the job. There was a little paperwork to fill out. We conceived a one-semester project, to be completed in the fall of 1996, to identify the specimen, OMNH 53062, to the family level. Rich loaned me some of his sauropod papers to photocopy so that I could get up to speed on the anatomy. I spent the fall of 1996 grokking sauropod vertebral morphology and trying to figure out what this thing was.

RESET

Immediately after I left Trish Schwagmeyer’s office, I marched down to the museum, barged into Rich’s office, threw myself in a chair, and asked him if he’d sponsor me on an independent study. He said that he’d be delighted to–what did I want to work on? Dinosaurs, I said, dinosaurs–especially big theropods or ceratopsians! “Well, we have these ceratopsian odds and ends that Stovall collected back in the 30s and 40s. They’ve been catalogued all this time as Pentaceratops and Triceratops, but someone should probably check on those IDs.” Wow, my dream project–of course I pounced on it! There was a little paperwork to fill out. We conceived a one-semester project, to be completed in the fall of 1996, to identify the specimens to the genus level. Rich loaned me some of his ceratopsian papers to photocopy so that I could get up to speed on the anatomy. I spent the fall of 1996 grokking ceratopsian cranial morphology and trying to figure out what those things were.

Well, it turns out that they were Pentaceratops and Triceratops after all. So no big news, but I did learn a lot on that project: how to photograph and measure fossils, how to read scientific papers. Mostly it just got me back in the museum.

You know how sometimes you end up working on something just because it’s there? That’s how I started working on Tenontosaurus. I’ll confess, at first I didn’t have any deep, abiding love for “Tonto”. I scorned it as the world’s most boring dinosaur–no horns, spikes, frills, claws, or sails, basically just a scaly cow with a longer tail. But, man, these things were pouring out of the Antlers Formation like water out of a tap. We had adults, subadults, big juveniles, little  juveniles, even a few bones from individuals so small they must have been yearlings. I started working on them in my spare time, and got a little project going on the post-hatching ontogeny of Tenontosaurus. When I graduated with my BS in the fall of 1997, it just made sense to stick around and keep working on Tenontosaurus for my MS.

Topps - da baby eating sticker

Naturally I was presenting this stuff at SVP every fall, and that’s where I met Jack Horner. He thought my ontogenetic work on Tenontosaurus would be good preparation for tackling hadrosaur ontogeny and diversity. So I went to MSU for my PhD work. After I finished I got the job I have now, teaching geology in Missouri. Even when I was living in Montana, I’d still get into the OMNH collections for  a day or two of research whenever I was back in Oklahoma. Now that I’m just five hours away, I’m back at OMNH all the time. There’s just so much to work on–Eolambia, the small ornithopod material from the Cloverly Formation, and especially the teeth. The OMNH has hundreds of these little ornithopod teeth from the microsites in the Cedar Mountain Formation, the Cloverly Formation, and the Antlers Formation. Nobody wants to work on them, except me. While I was working on Tenontosaurus I had to come up with some size-independent characters that I could use to determine the ontogenetic age of ornithopods based on their teeth. Once I had those, all of those teeth catalogued as “Ornithopoda indet.” became a goldmine.

I certainly never saw myself becoming “the ornithopod tooth guy”–what an oddly specific thing to be an expert on! But to me they are beautiful, intricate, and endlessly fascinating. Who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll take all of my best photographs and start a Tumblr.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

1. Trish Schwagmeyer, 1996

Trish: “You’re blowing it. You want to do research, but no-one is going to trust you with a project if you can’t take care of the basic stuff like keeping your grades up.”

Me: [face-burning, fully convicted silence]

Trish: “You are capable of much more than this. I know that these grades are not reflective of your best work. This is your chance to prepare yourself for the career you want. You owe it to yourself to do better than this.”

Me: [sucking it up] “I understand. And I’ll do better. Other than getting my grades up, what else can I do to make myself attractive to graduate programs?”

Trish: “Find a professor that you like and do an independent study. Get some research experience.”

Yow. I will remember that for as long as I live. “You’re blowing it.” Thank God that alone out of everyone in my life, Trish Schwagmeyer had the guts to look me in the eye and call me out.

RESET

Trish: “Your grades last semester were a little rough.”

Me: “Yeah. O-chem II was murder.”

Trish: “And biochem.”

Me: “Yeah. Biochem.”

Trish: “Have you noticed that you get As and Bs in your language and history classes, and Cs in your math and science classes?”

Me: “Yeah, of course.  Math and science are hard. Language and history are…”

Trish: “Are what?”

Me: “I dunno. Fun. More like play.”

Trish: “Maybe you’re in the wrong major.”

Yow. I will remember that for as long as I live. “Maybe you’re in the wrong major.” Thank God that alone out of everyone in my life, Trish Schwagmeyer had the guts to look me in the eye and diagnose the problem.

Immediately after I left her office, I marched over to the registrar and changed my major from Zoology to Letters. And breathed a huge sigh of relief. After that, I just cruised. I got my degree, stayed at OU for a Master’s in classical languages, and now I teach Latin at a private high school in Oklahoma City. I should have known that a career in science wasn’t in the cards. The evidence was written all over my transcript. Paleontology is still interesting to me–I doubt if I will ever stop being fascinated by dinosaurs–but it just wasn’t a realistic career option. I’m so glad I found my true calling.

the herd - small.0

 

How can it be?

IMG_0517

All credit to the Yale Peabody Museum for having the courage to display this historically important object in their public gallery instead of hiding it in a basement. It’s the skull from the original mount of the Brontosaurus (= Apatosaurus) excelsus holotype YPM 1980.

Needless to say, it bears no resemblance at all to the actual skull of Apatosaurus, and the one they now have on the mount is much, much better:

IMG_0500-skull

But how did the YPM people ever arrive at this double-plus-ugly skull above? We see a similar skull in Marsh’s (1891) second attempt at restoring the skeleton of Brontosaurus:

Marsh1891-plateXVI-Apatosaurus-skull

But even this is not as ugly and Just Plain Wrong as the physical model they made. (Marsh’s first restoration of the Brontosaurus skeleton, in 1893, had a much less clear skull.)

So how did the YPM come to make such a monstrosity? What was it based on? Tune in next time for the surprising details!

Bizarrely, we’ve never really featured the  YPM 1980 mount here on SV-POW! — we’ve often shown individual bones, but the mounted skeleton appears only in the background of the much less impressive Morosaurus (= Camarasaurus) lentus mount. We’ll fix that real soon.

 

A while back, Matt mentioned some of the surprising search-terms that lead people to SV-POW!. For reasons that will shortly become clear, I was checking out what’s being searched for now, and I thought I may as well issue this update. Here are the all-time top ten:

Search Views
brachiosaurus 18,484
rabbit 18,274
leopard seal 13,103
basement 12,507
flamingo 12,363
sauroposeidon 11,821
amphicoelias fragillimus 9,841
svpow 9,708
diplodocus 7,203
sv pow 7,053

It’s nice to see good old Brachiosaurus up there at the top: a proper sauropod, and possibly my favourite (not counting the two that I’ve named myself, and which I have an obvious special affection for). But then you have to drop down to number six before you hit another sauropod (Sauroposeidon). Those top two sauropods are reasonable: we’ve written a lot about them here. The third top sauropod is Amphicoelias fragillimus, which is more surprising as we’ve not written that much about it. I guess it just reflects a lot of interest in that beast. Boring old Diplodocus is the fourth and last sauropod in the top ten. The next few are Argentinosaurus (#11), Amphicoelias (#12), Giraffatitan (#16). Apatosaurus (#18)

Unsurprisingly, SV-POW! itself crops up twice in the top ten: once as “svpow” (#8) and once as “sv pow” (#10). It’s also #15 as “sv-pow”.

Meanwhile, four of the top five slots are still held by terms that have nothing to do with sauropods. “Rabbit” can only be due to this post on sauropod neck posture; “Leopard seal” is due to the inclusion of a single sensational (but off-topic) photo in a post on Cetiosaurus nomenclature. “Basement” is another one-hit wonder, thanks to a poorly located Mamenchisaurus cast. “Flamingo” is more of a mystery. I think it must be due to the passing flamingo in the classic Necks Lie post.

Other oddities include “twinkie” at #17, “shish kebab” at #25, “corn” at #34, “corn dog” at #42 and “corn on the cob” at #77 (probably all due to the same post on sauropod neck fatness). Rather sadly, “big ass” comes in at #89. I doubt that the 602 people who came here by searching for that found what they were looking for.

Plateosaurus is pathetic

January 16, 2013

DSCN5593-giraffatitan-vs-plateosaurus

This photograph is of what I consider the closest thing to the Platonic Ideal sauropod vertebra: it’s the eighth cervical of our old friend the Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype MB.R.2181. (previously known as “Brachiosaurusbrancai HM S II — yes, it’s changed genus and specimen number, both recently, but independently.)

And if you look very carefully, down at the bottom, you can see the same vertebra, C8, of the prosauropod Plateosaurus. Pfft.

This photo was taken down in the basement of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, on the same 2008 trip where Matt took the “Mike in Love” photo from two days ago. For anyone who didn’t recognise the specific vertebra I was in love with in that picture, shame on you! It is of course our old friend the ?8th dorsal vertebra of the same specimen, which we’ve discussed in detail here on account of its unique spinoparapophyseal laminae, its unexpectedly missing infradiapophyseal lamina and its bizarre perforate anterior centroparapophyseal laminae.

Mike in love

January 14, 2013

DSCN5581-mike-in-love

Matt took this photo in the basement of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, back in 2008 when we were there as part of the field-trip associated with the Bonn sauropod conference.

Hopefully all you long-time SV-POW! readers will recognise the specific vertebra that I’m in love with.

As you’ll know from all the recent AMNH basement (and YPM gallery) photos, Matt and I spent last week in New York (with a day-trip to New Haven). The week immediately before that, I spent in Boston with Index Data, my day-job employers. Both weeks were fantastic — lots of fun and very productive. But they did mean that between the scheduled activities and getting a big manuscript finally submitted, I’ve been very much out of touch, and I’m only now catching up with what’s happened in The Rest Of The World while I’ve been sequestered in various basements photographing sauropod vertebrae.

Matt measuring the width across the preacetabular lobes of the fused ilia on the sacrum of the referred “Morosaurus” sp. specimen, AMNH 690, illustrated by Osborn (1094: fig 2A-E). Behold the wonder that is the Big Bone Room.

The two big events in the Open Access world while I was away were the launch of PeerJ and the release of the Finch Report. I’ll write about PeerJ in future, but today I want to say a few words on the Finch Report. I’ve deliberately not read anyone else’s coverage of the report yet, in the hope of forming an uninfluenced perspective. I’ll be very interested, once I’ve finished writing this, to see what people like Cameron Neylon, Stephen Curry and Peter Murray-Rust have said about it.

What is the Finch Report, you may ask? The introduction explains:

The report recommends actions which can be taken in the UK which would help to promote much greater and faster access, while recognising that research and publications are international. It envisages that several different channels for communicating research results will remain important over the next few years, but recommends a clear policy direction in the UK towards support for open access publishing.

So the first point to make is that it’s very good news about the overall direction. In fact, it would be easy to overlook this. The swing that’s happened over the last six months has been slow enough to miss, but the cumulative effect of myriad small shifts has been enormous: where there used to be a lot of skepticsm about open access, pretty much everyone is now accepting that it’s inevitable. (See this compilation of quotes from US congressmen, UK government ministers, publishers, editors and professors.) The questions now are about what form ubiquitous open access will take, not whether it’s coming. It is.

But there’s an oddity in that introduction which is a harbinger of something that’s going to be a recurring theme in the report:

[Open access publishing] means that publishers receive their revenues from authors rather than readers, and so research articles become freely accessible to everyone immediately upon publication.

People who have been following closely will recognise this as the definition of Gold Open Access — the scheme where the author (or her institution) pays a one-time publication fee in exchange for the publisher making the result open to the world. The other road, known as Green OA, is where an author publishes in a subscription journal but deposits a copy of the paper in a repository, where it becomes freely available after an embargo period, typically six to twelve months. That Green OA is not mentioned at this point is arguably fair enough; but that OA is tacitly equated with Gold only feels much more significant. It’s as though Green is being written out of history.

More on this point later.

Green and Gold Chrysogonum virginianum Flower 3008 by Derek Ramsey, from Wikimedia Commons.

The actual report is 140 pages long, and I don’t expect it to be widely read. But The executive summary is published as a separate document, and at 11 pages is much more digestible. And its heart is in the right place, as this key quote from p4 tells us:

The principle that the results of research that has been publicly funded should be freely accessible in the public domain is a compelling one, and fundamentally unanswerable.

Amen. Of course, that is the bedrock. But more practically, on page 3, we read:

Our aim has been to identify key goals and guiding principles in a period of transition towards wider access. We have sought ways both to accelerate that transition and also to sustain what is valuable in a complex ecology with many different agents and stakeholders.

I do want to acknowledge that this is a hard task indeed. It’s easy to pontificate on how things ought to be (I do it all the time on this blog); but it’s much harder to figure out how to get there from here. I’m impressed that the Finch group set out to answer this much harder question.

But I am not quite so impressed at their success in doing so. And here’s why. In the foreword (on page 2) we read this:

This report … is the product of a year’s work by a committed and knowledgeable group of individuals drawn from academia, research funders and publishing. … Members of the group represented different constituencies who have legitimately different interests and different priorities, in relation to the publication of research and its subsequent use.

My most fundamental issue with the report, and with the group that released it, is this. I don’t understand why barrier-based publishers were included in the process. The report contains much language about co-operation and shared goals, but the truth as we all know is that publishers’ interests are directly opposed to those of authors, and indeed of everyone else. Who does the Finch Group represent? I assumed the UK Government, and therefore the citizens of the UK — but if it’s trying to represent all the groups involved in academic activity, there’s a conflict of interests that by its nature must prevent everyone else from clearly stating what they want from publishers.

This isn’t an idle speculation:  the report itself contains various places where is suddenly says something odd, something that doesn’t quite fit, or is in conflict with the general message. It’s hard not to imagine these as having been forced into the report by the publishers at the table (according to the membership list, Bob Campbell, senior publisher at Wiley Blackwell; Steve Hall, managing director of IoP Publishing; and Wim van del Stelt, executive VP of corporate strategy at Springer). And I just don’t understand why the publishers were given a seat at the table.

And so we find statements like this, from p5:

The pace of the transition to open access has not been as rapid as many had hoped, for a number of reasons. First, there are tensions between the interests of key stakeholders in the research communications system. Publishers, whether commercial or not-for-profit, wish to sustain high-quality services, and the revenues that enable them to do so.

This is very tactfully put, if I might say so. Distilled to its essence, the is saying that while the UK government, universities, libraries, hospitals and citizens want open access, publishers want to keep the walls that give them their big profits. The bit about “high-quality services” is just a fig-leaf, and a rather transparent one at that. Reading on, still in p5:

There are potential risks to each of the key groups of players in the transition to open access: rising costs or shrinking revenues, and inability to sustain high-quality services to authors and readers.

Those all sounds like risks to the same group: publishers. And again, there is no reason I can see why these need be our problem. We know that publishing will survive in a form that’s useful to academia — the success of BioMed Central and PLoS, and the birth of ventures like eLife and PeerJ show us that — so why would it be the any part of our responsibility to make sure that the old, slow, expensive, barrier-based publishers continue to thrive?

Reading on:

Most important, there are risks to the intricate ecology of research and communication, and the support that is provided to researchers, enabling them to perform to best standards, under established publishing regimes.

I don’t understand this at all. What support? Something that publishers provide? I just don’t get what point is being made here, and can only assume that this “intricate ecology” section is one of the passages that the publishers had inserted. I wonder whether it’s a subtle attempted land-grab, trying to take the credit for peer-review? At any rate, it’s wildly unconvincing.

And so we come to the actual recommendations of the report. There are ten of these altogether, on pages 6-7, and they begin as follows:

We therefore recommend that:

i. a clear policy direction should be set towards support for publication in open access or hybrid journals, funded by APCs, as the main vehicle for the publication of research, especially when it is publicly funded;

So there it is: The Finch Report says that Gold Open Access is the way forward.

And despite my carping about publishers’ involvement in the process, and their dilution of the output, I’m pretty happy with that recommendation. Of course, there are a hundred questions about who will pay for OA (though they will be considerably less pressing in a world where $99 buy you all the publishing you can eat at PeerJ). Lots of details to be ironed out. But the bottom line is that paying at publication time is a sensible approach. It gives us what we want (freedom to use research), and provides publishers with a realistic revenue stream that, unlike subscriptions, is subject to market forces. (I will enlarge on this point in a subsequent post.)

To briefly summarise the ten recommendations:

i. Overall policy should be to move to Gold OA.
ii. Funders should provide money for Gold OA charges.
iii. Re-use rights, especially non-commercial, should be provided.
iv. Funding of subscriptions should continue during transition.
v. Walk-in access should be “pursued with vigour”
vi. We must work together to negotiate and fund licences.
vii. Subscription price negotiations should take into account the forthcoming transition to OA.
viii. Experimentation is needed on OA monographs.
ix. Repositories should be developed in “a valuable role complementary to formal publishing”.
x. Funders should be careful about mandating short embargo limits.

Mostly good stuff. I’m not happy about the emphasis on non-commercial forms of re-use in (iii), and of course walk-in access (v) is spectacularly dumb. (vi) seems a bit vacuous, but harmless I suppose — I’m not sure what point it’s trying to make.  (ix) is quietly sinister in its drive-by relegation of repositories to a subsidiary role, and of course (x) is pure publisher-food. Still, even with these caveats, the overall thrust is good.

Well, this has already gone on much longer than I intended, so I will leave further analysis for next time. For now, I am inclined to award the Finch Report a solid B+. I’ll be interested to see how that assessment stands up when I’ve read some other people’s analysis.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 516 other followers