February 10, 2015
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.)
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.
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.
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:
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.
(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.
January 29, 2015
There’s a new mamenchisaurid in town! It’s called Qijianglong (“dragon of Qijiang”), and it’s the work of Xing et al. (2015).
As far as I can make out, the life restoration is also due to Xing Lida: at least, every instance of the picture I’ve seen says “Credit: Xing Lida”. If that’s right, it’s an amazing display of dual expertise to produce both the science and the art! We could quibble with details, but it’s a hundred times better than I could ever do. [Update: no, it’s by Cheung Chungtat, but being uniformly mis-attributed in the media. Thanks to Kevin for the correction in the comment below.]
There’s a mounted skeleton of this new beast in the museum local to where it was found, though I don’t know how much of the material is real, or cast from the real material. Here it is:
A new sauropod is always great news, of course, and it’s a source of shame to us that we cover so few of them here on SV-POW!. (Just think of some of the ones we’ve missed recently … Leikupal, for example.)
But as is so often the case, the most interesting thing about this new member of the club is its vertebrae — specifically the cervicals. Here they are:
(At first, I couldn’t figure out what this pocdl abbreviation meant. Then I realised it was a vanilla posterior centrodiapophyseal lamina. Come on, folks. That element has had a standard abbreviation since 1999. Let’s use our standards!)
The hot news in these cervicals is the presence of what the authors call “a distinct finger-like process extending from the postzygapophyseal process beside a zygapophyseal contact”. They don’t give a name to these things, but I’m going to call them parapostzygapophyses since they’re next to the postzygapophyses. [Update: see the comment from Matt below.]
You can get some sense of this morphology from the figure above — although it doesn’t help that we’re looking at tiny greyscale images which really don’t convey 3d structure at all. The best illustration is part J of the figure:
What are these things? The paper itself says disappointingly little about them. I quote from page 9:
From the axis to at least the 14th cervical vertebra, a finger- like process extends posteriorly above the postzygapophysis and overlaps onto the dorsolateral surface of the prezygapophysis of the next vertebra (Fig. 11I, J). These processes are unique to Qijianglong, unlike all previously known mamenchisaurids that are preserved with cervical vertebrae (e.g., Chuanjiesaurus, Mamenchisaurus spp., Omeisaurus spp., Tonganosaurus). Therefore, the neck of Qijianglong presumably had a range of motion restricted in sideways.
So what are these things? The authors — who after all have seen the actual fossils, not just the rather inadequate pictures — seem to assume that they are a stiffening adaptation, but don’t discuss their reasoning. My guess — and it’s only a guess — it that they assumed that this is what was going on with these processes because it’s what people have assumed about extra processes on xenarthrous vertebrae. But as best as I can determine, that’s not been demonstrated either, only assumed. Funny how these things seem to get a pass.
So what are these processes? It’s hard to say for sure without having seen the fossils, or at least some better multi-view photos, but the obvious guess is that they are our old friends epipophyses, in extreme form. That is, they are probably enlarged attachment points for posteriorly directed dorsal muscles, just as the cervical ribs are attachment points for posteriorly directly ventral muscles.
It’s a shame that Xing et al. didn’t discuss this (and not only because it would probably have meant citing our paper!) Their new beast seems to have some genuinely new and interesting morphology which is worthy of a bit more attention than they gave it, and whose mechanical implications could have been discussed in more detail. Until more is written about these fossils (or better photographs published) I think I am going to have to suspend judgement on the as-yet unjustified assumption that the parapostzygs were there to make the neck rigid against transverse bending.
A final thought: doesn’t JVP seem terribly old-fashioned now? It’s not just the paywall — apologies to those many of you who won’t be able to read the paper. The greyscaling of the figures is part of it — something that makes no sense at all in 2015. The small size and number of the illustrations is also a consequence of the limited page-count of a printed journal — it compares poorly with, for example, the glorious high-resolution colour multiview illustrations in Farke et al.’s (2013) hadrosaur description in PeerJ. Seems to me that, these days, all the action is over at the OA journals with infinite space — at least when it comes to descriptive papers.
- Farke, Andrew A., Derek J. Chok, Annisa Herrero, Brandon Scolieri and Sarah Werning. (2013) Ontogeny in the tube-crested dinosaur Parasaurolophus (Hadrosauridae) and heterochrony in hadrosaurids. PeerJ 1:e182. doi:10.7717/peerj.182
- Xing Lida, Tetsuto Miyashita, Jianping Zhang, Daqing Li, Yong Ye, Toru Sekiya, Fengping Wang & Philip J. Currie. 2015. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of China and the diversity, distribution, and relationships of mamenchisaurids. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. doi:10.1080/02724634.2014.889701
January 23, 2015
I made these for my own use in talks, and then thought, why be selfish? Like everything else on this blog, these images are now released to the world under the CC-BY license. Have fun with them.
You can read my review of the Sideshow Apatosaurus here; the TL;DR is that it’s awesome. And if you’re bummed that you missed out on getting one last time around, they’re rereleasing it later this spring with a slightly different paint job – details here.
January 16, 2015
Awesome things, that’s what. In a previous post I asked people to make cool things with Aquilops. And you have. In spades. Here’s a compilation of the best things so far.
First, a blast from the past. As far as I know, the first life restoration of Aquilops was actually this sketch by Mike Keesey, which he executed while sitting in the audience for Andy Farke’s talk on our not-yet-named ceratopsian at SVP 2013. Mike kindly sat on it for over a year, and then posted it to his Flickr stream after the paper came out last month. A small adventure ensued – a site called News Maine (which I refuse to link to) used Mike’s image without his knowledge or permission in their Aquilops article. When he wrote to them and pointed out their breach, they swapped his image for one of Brian Engh’s, but still did not provide an image credit! Now their Aquilops article appears to have been taken down entirely. Good riddance.
Mike says of his Aquilops, “I’d like to make it clear that it was done from looking at a slide during a talk and not meant to be rigorous or accurate.” But I dig it (and I did get his permission to repost it!). It has character – it looks weary, maybe a little grumpy, like a pint-size curmudgeon. And it definitely wants you kids to get off its damn lawn. If you want to see more of Mike’s sketches in this style from SVP 2013 – and you should, they’re very good – go here.
Second, people have taken the paper skull I posted before and used it as the raw material for significantly more awesome versions. Gareth Monger made the more-fully-3D version shown here, and posted about it at his Pteroformer blog. I think it’s totally wicked, and I’d make my own if I had the patience and skill.
But I don’t. Fortunately, there is help for me: Kathy Sanders, the Director of Outreach at the Raymond M. Alf Museum here in Claremont (where Aquilops lead author Andy Farke is based), took my skull drawings and turned them into a papercraft finger puppet suitable for all ages. I know it’s suitable for all ages because at the Alf Museum’s Family Science Discovery Day last Saturday, almost every one of many children going through the museum had an Aquilops puppet on one hand. London and I each made one, and we spent a lot of time Saturday evening goofing off with them.
You can see a little video of the puppet in action on Ashley Hall’s Tumblr, Lady Naturalist. And you can get the files to make your own from the Alf Museum website, here. You’ll also need a couple of brads to make the jaw hinge joints, and a smaller-than-normal hole punch is handy for making the holes, but ultimately any method that produces a small, round hole will work.
Heads not enough for you? Want a complete Aquilops to call your own? You are in luck – not one but two such critters have emerged from the virtual undergrowth. James Appleby, a 16-year-old who blogs at Edaphosaurus.com, did something that would not have occurred to me in a million years: he took the baby Aquilops (Aquilopses?) from Brian Engh’s awesomely detailed Cloverly environment scene and made a paper model. It’s a great example of how releasing something under an open license – in this case CC-BY – encourages people to do cool new things with your work. You can get the parts here.
Want something cuter? Try this papercraft Aquilops toy, another creation of the apparently indefatigable Gareth Monger. Post and parts here. I love Gareth’s concluding exhortation: “Edit it, share it, distribute it. Keep it fun and keep it free.” That’s practically the Aquilops motto.
I’m probably just scratching the surface here. I know there has been a flowering of awesome Aquilops restorations on DeviantART. David Orr has an adorkable ‘Pixel Aquilops‘ t-shirt on Redbubble. Tell me what else is out there, and keep making new stuff. Let’s keep this thing rolling.
And a big thank you to Mike, Gareth, Kathy, Ashley, and James for making cool Aquilops stuff and posting it for people to see and build. You all rock.
December 23, 2014
Arriving as an early Christmas present, and coming in just a week before the end of what would otherwise have been a barren 2014, my paper Quantifying the effect of intervertebral cartilage on neutral posture in the necks of sauropod dinosaurs is out! You can read it on PeerJ (or download the PDF).
Yes, that posture is ludicrous — but the best data we currently have says that something like this would have been neutral for Diplodocus once cartilage is taken into account. (Remember of course that animals do not hold their necks in neutral posture.)
The great news here is that PeerJ moved quickly. In fact here’s how the time breaks down since I submitted the manuscript (and made it available as a preprint) on 4 November:
28 days from submission to first decision
3 days to revise and resubmit
3 days to accept
15 days to publication
TOTAL 49 days
Which of course is how it ought to be! Great work here from handling editor Chris Noto and all three reviewers: Matt Bonnan, Heinrich Mallison and Eric Snively. They all elected not to be anonymous, and all gave really useful feedback — as you can see for yourself in the published peer-review history. When editors and reviewers do a job this good, they deserve credit, and it’s great that PeerJ’s (optional) open review lets the world see what they contributed. Note that you can cite, or link to, individual reviews. The reviews themselves are now first-class objects, as they should be.
At the time of writing, my paper is top of the PeerJ home-page — presumably just because it’s the most recent published paper, but it’s a nice feeling anyway!
A little further down the front-page there’s some great stuff about limb function in ratites — a whole slew of papers.
Well, I’m off to relax over Christmas. Have a good one, y’all!
December 18, 2014
A friend’s daughter owned a pet corn snake, and a hamster. About a month ago, the former got into the latter’s cage — and in a reversal of the usual course of such events, sustained some nasty injuries. As snakes often do, it struggled to recover, and the wound seems to have necrotised.
This morning I got an email from the friend saying that the snake had died, and asking whether I would like it. I managed to restrain my enthusiasm for long enough to express condolences to the daughter; and an hour later, the snake was delivered!
Here it is — as with all these images, click through for the full resolution. I’ve learned that it’s difficult to measure the length of a snake — they don’t lay out straight in the way that you’d like, even when they’re dead — but as best I can make out, it’s 120 cm long. It weighs 225 g, but don’t tell Fiona I used the kitchen scales.
The hamster wound is very apparent, just behind the neck, on the left hand side. Here’s the head and neck in close-up:
Ouch — very nasty. It can’t have been pleasant watching a pet linger on with a wound like that.
He (or she? How do you sex a snake?) was a handsome beast, too. Here’s the head. You can easily make out the individual large scales covering it, and make out some of the shape of the skull.
The skulls of snakes are beyond weird. Here is one from an unspecified non-venomous snake at Skulls Unlimited (i.e. probably not a corn snake):
Hopefully at some point I’ll be able to show you my own snake’s skull. In the mean time, this guy says he has a corn-snake skull, but the photography’s not very good.
Finally, here is my snake, mouth open, showing the pterygoid teeth on the roof of the mouth:
What next? It seems clear that bugging is the only realistic way to free up the skeleton, and this may be the specimen that persuades me to invest in a proper colony of dermestids rather than just relying on whatever inverts happen to wander past.
It might be worth trying to skin and gut the snake first. Gutting will be easy; skinning might be very difficult. I think that removing the skin from the skull without damaging the very delicate bones might be impossible. Can dermestids cope with snake skin?
I’m taking advice!
December 13, 2014
Hey, just a quick announcement this time: today’s LA Times has a nice little article on Aquilops on page A6. It’s also available online here. Good luck tracking down a hardcopy – our local Barnes & Noble doesn’t carry the LA Times (not sure which party that reflects worse on), and I got the last copy from a gas station down the street. I’m so happy that they used Brian’s artwork!
I’ll put up a better scan when I get back to work next week. Later: I did.