I’m pleased to announce that Darren has a new paper out (Naish and Sweetman 2011) in which he and fellow Portsmouth researcher Steve Sweetman describe a maniraptoran theropod from the Wealden Supergroup of southern England. It’s represented only by a single cervical vertebra:
This vertebra is described in seven and a bit pages, which means that it’s had nearly three times as much total coverage as Jobaria (Cf. Sereno et al. 1999).
Still, we can hope that Darren and Steve will return to their specimen some time and monograph it properly.
In the mean time, read all about it over on Tetrapod Zoology.
- Naish, Darren, and Steven C. Sweetman. 2011. A tiny maniraptoran dinosaur in the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Group: evidence from a new vertebrate-bearing locality in south-east England. Cretaceous Research 32:464:471. doi:10.1016/j.cretres.2011.03.001
- Sereno, Paul C., Allison L. Beck, Didier. B. Dutheil, Hans C. E. Larsson, Gabrielle. H. Lyon, Bourahima Moussa, Rudyard W. Sadleir, Christian A. Sidor, David J. Varricchio, Gregory P. Wilson and Jeffrey A. Wilson. 1999. Cretaceous Sauropods from the Sahara and the Uneven Rate of Skeletal Evolution Among Dinosaurs. Science 282:1342-1347.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the Internet …
On Tuesday morning, a rather nice article about our recent sauropod-necks-were-not-sexually-selected paper appeared on the BBC web-site. At the time of writing, it’s just topped 100 comments (athough fifteen of those are by me — I wanted to respond to the questions that people were asking).
Here it is, for those who are interested (maybe more in the Q-and-A’s than in the actual article): Evolution, sex and dinosaur necks
I have a new paper out:
Update June 6, 2012: the final version was formally published yesterday, so the rest of this paragraph is of historical interest only. Like Yates et al. on prosauropod pneumaticity, it is “out” in the sense that the manuscript has been through peer review, has been accepted for publication, and is freely available online at Acta Palaeontologica Polonica. Technically it is “in press” and not published yet, but all that formal publication will change is to make a prettier version of the paper available. All of the content is available now, and the paper doesn’t include any of those pesky nomenclatural acts, and so, as with the prosauropod pneumaticity paper, I don’t see any reason to pretend it doesn’t exist. Think of the accepted manuscript as the caterpillar to the published version’s butterfly: different look, but same genome.
This one came about because last summer I read a review of Richard Dawkins’s book, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. The review mentioned that the book includes a lengthy discussion of the recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) in the giraffe, which is a spectacularly dumb piece of engineering and therefore great evidence against intelligent design creationism. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard of the RLN, of course. It’s one of the touchstones of both human anatomy and evolutionary biology; anatomy because of its clinical importance in thyroid surgery, known for more than two millennia, and evolutionary biology because it is such a great example of a developmental constraint. (Dawkins’s coverage of all of this is great, BTW, and you should read the book.)
No, the reason the book review inspired me to write the paper was not because the RLN was new to me, but because it was overly familiar. It is a cool piece of anatomy, and its fame is justly deserved–but I am sick and tired of seeing the stinkin’ giraffe trotted out as the ultimate example of dumb design. My beloved sauropods were way dumber, and it’s time they got some credit.
But first, let’s talk about that nerve, and how it got to be there.
No necks for sex? How about no necks for anybody!
Embryos are weird. When you were just a month old (counting from fertilization), you had a set of pharyngeal arches that didn’t look radically different from those of a primitive fish. These started out quite small, tucked up underneath your comparatively immense brain, and each pharyngeal arch was served by a loop of artery called an aortic arch. What we call the arch of the aorta in an adult human is a remnant of just one of these embryonic aortic arches, and as you’ve no doubt noticed, it’s down in your chest, not tucked up next to your brain. When you were in the embryonic stages I’m talking about, you didn’t yet have a neck, so your brain, pharyngeal arches, aortic arches, and the upper parts of your digestive system were all smooshed together at your front end.
One thing you did have at that stage was a reasonably complete peripheral nervous system. The nerve cell bodies in and near your central nervous system sent out axons into the rest of your body, including your extremities. Many of these axons did not persist; they failed to find innervation targets and their parent neurons died. Imagine your embryonic central nervous system sending out a starburst of axons in all directions, and some of those axons finding targets and persisting, and others failing and dying back. So the architecture of your nervous system is the result of a process of selection in which only some cells were successful.
Crucially, this radiation and die-off of axons happened very early in development, when a lot of what would become your guts was still hanging under your proportionally immense brain like the gondola on a blimp. This brings us to the recurrent laryngeal nerve.
Going back the way we came
The fates of your embryonic pharyngeal arches are complex and I’m not going to do a comprehensive review here (go here for more information). Suffice it to say that the first three arches give rise to your jaws and hyoid apparatus, the fourth and sixth form your larynx (voicebox), and fifth is entirely resorbed during development.
There are two major nerves to the larynx, each of which is bilaterally paired. The nerve of the fourth pharyngeal arch becomes the superior laryngeal nerve, and it passes cranial to the fourth aortic arch. The nerve of the sixth pharyngeal arch becomes the inferior or recurrent laryngeal nerve, and it passes caudal to the sixth aortic arch. At the time that they form, both of these nerves take essentially straight courses from the brainstem to their targets, because you’re still in the blimp-gondola stage.
If you were a shark, the story would be over. The more posterior pharyngeal arches would persist as arches instead of forming a larynx, each arch would hold on to its artery, and the nerves would all maintain their direct courses to their targets.
But you’re not a shark, you’re a tetrapod. Which means that you have, among other things, a neck separating your head and your body. And the formation of your neck shoved your heart and its associated great vessels down into your chest, away from the pharyngeal arches. This was no problem for the superior laryngeal nerve, which passed in front of the fourth aortic arch and could therefore stay put. But the inferior laryngeal nerve passed behind the sixth aortic arch, so when the heart and the fourth and sixth aortic arches descended into the chest, the inferior laryngeal nerve went with them. Because it was still hooked up to the brainstem and the larynx, it had to grow in length to compensate.
As you sit reading this, your inferior laryngeal nerves run down your neck into your chest, loop around the vessels derived from the fourth and sixth aortic arches (the subclavian artery on the right, and the arch of the aorta and ductus arteriosus on the left) and run back up your neck to your larynx. Because they do this U-turn in your chest and go back the way they came, the inferior laryngeal nerves are said to ‘recur’ to the larynx and are therefore more commonly referred to as the recurrent laryngeal nerves (RLNs).
An enlightening diversion
The RLN is the poster child for “unintelligent design” because it is pretty dumb. Your RLNs travel a heck of a lot farther to reach your larynx than they ought to, if they’d been designed. Surely an intelligent designer would have them take the same direct course as the superior laryngeal nerve. But evolution didn’t have that option. Tetrapod embryos could not be built from the ground up but had to be modified from the existing “sharkitecture” of ancestral vertebrates. The rules of development could not be rewritten to accommodate a shorter RLN. Hence Dawkins’s love affair with the RLN, which gets 7 pages in The Greatest Show on Earth. He also appeared on the giraffe episode of Inside Nature’s Giants, in which the RLN was dug out of the neck and the continuity of its ridiculous path was demonstrated–probably the most smack-you-in-the-face evidence for evolution that has ever been shown on television (said the rabid fan of large-tetrapod dissections).
Incidentally, the existence and importance of the RLN has been known since classical times. The RLN innervates the muscles responsible for speech, and on either side it passes right behind the thyroid gland, which is subject to goiters and tumors and other grotesque maladies. So a careless thyroidectomy can damage one or both of the RLNs; if one gets snipped, the subject will be hoarse for the rest of his or her life; if both are cut, the subject will be rendered mute. The Roman physician Galen memorably demonstrated this by dissecting the neck of an immobilized but unanesthetized pig and isolating the RLNs (Kaplan et al. 2009). One moment the poor pig was squealing its head off–as any of us would be if someone dug out our RLNs without anesthesia–and the next moment Galen severed the RLNs and the animal abruptly fell silent, still in unbelievable pain but now without a mechanism to vocally express its discomfort.
The name of the nerve also goes back to Galen, who wrote:
I call these two nerves the recurrent nerves (or reversivi) and those that come upward and backward on account of a special characteristic of theirs which is not shared by any of the other nerves that descend from the brain.
Like at least some modern surgeons, Galen does not seem to have been overly burdened by humility:
All these wonderful things, which have now become common property, I was the first of all to discover, no anatomist before me ever saw one of these nerves, and so all of them before me missed the mark in their anatomical description of the larynx.
Both of those quotes are from Kaplan et al. (2009), which is a fascinating paper that traces the knowledge of the recurrent laryngeal nerve from classical times to the early 20th century. If you’d like a copy and can’t get hold of one any other way, let me know and I’ll hook you up.
Share and share alike
By now you can see where this is going: all tetrapods have larynges, all tetrapods have necks, and all tetrapods have recurrent laryngeal nerves. Including giraffes, much to the delight of Richard Dawkins. And also including sauropods, much to the delight of yours truly.
Now, I cannot show you the RLN in a living sauropod, nor can I imagine a scenario in which such a delicate structure would be recognizably preserved as a fossil. But as tetrapods, sauropods were bound to the same unbreakable rules of development as everything else. The inference that sauropods had really long, really dumb RLNs is as secure as the inference that they had brainstems, hearts, and larynges.
Giraffes have necks up to 2.4 meters long (Toon and Toon 2003), so the neurons that make up their RLNs approach 5 meters in the largest indiividuals. But the longest-necked sauropods had necks 14 meters long, or maybe even longer, so they must have had individual neurons at least 28 meters long. The larynx of even the largest sauropod was probably less than 1 meter away from the brainstem, so the “extra” length imposed on the RLN by its recurrent course was something like 27 meters in a large individual of Supersaurus. Take that, Giraffa.
One way or another
It is possible to have a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve–on one side, anyway. If you haven’t had the opportunity to dissect many cadavers, it may come as a surprise to learn that muscles, nerves, and blood vessels are fairly variable. Every fall in Gross Anatomy at WesternU, we have about 40 cadavers, and out of those 40 people we usually have two or three with variant muscles, a handful with unusual branching patterns of nerves, and usually half a dozen or so with some wackiness in their major blood vessels. Variations of this sort are common enough that the better anatomy atlases illustrate not just one layout for, say, the branching of the femoral artery, but 6-10 of the most common patterns. Also, these variations are almost always asymptomatic, meaning that they never cause any problems and the people who have them usually never know (ask Mike about his lonely kidney sometime). You–yes, you, gentle reader!–could be a serious weirdo and have no idea.
Variations in the blood vessels seem to be particularly common, possibly because the vessels develop in situ with apparently very little in the way of genetic control. Most parts of the body are served by more than one artery and vein, so if the usual vessel isn’t there or takes an unusual course, it’s often no big deal, as long as the blood gets there somehow. To wit: occasionally a person does not have a right subclavian artery. This does not mean that their right shoulder and arm receive no blood and wither away; usually it means that one of the segmental arteries branching off the descending aorta–which normally serve the ribs and their associated muscles and other soft tissues–is expanded and elongated to compensate, and looks for all the world like a normal subclavian artery with an abnormal connection to the aorta. But if the major artery that serves the forelimb comes from the descending aorta, and the 4th aortic arch on the right is completely resorbed during development, then there is nothing left on the right side to drag the inferior laryngeal nerve down into the torso. A person with this setup will have an inferior laryngeal nerve on the right that looks intelligently designed, and the usual dumb RLN on the left.
Can people have a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve on the left? Sure, if they’ve got situs inversus, in which the normal bilateral asymmetry of the internal organs is swapped left to right. Situs inversus is pretty darned rare in the general population, occurring in fewer than 1 in 10,000 people. It is much more prevalent in television shows and movies, where the hero or villain may survive a seemingly mortal wound and then explain that he was born with his heart on the right side. (Pro tip: the heart crosses the midline in folks of both persuasions, so just shoot through the sternum and you’ll be fine. Or, if you’re worried about penetration, remember Rule #2 and put one on either side.) Anyway, take everything I wrote in the preceding paragraph, mirror-image it left to right, and you’ve got a nonrecurrent laryngeal nerve on the left. But just like the normally-sided person who still has an RLN on the left, a person with situs inversus and no remnant 4th aortic arch on the left (double variation alert!) still has an RLN looping around the aorta and ductus arteriosus on the right.
Bottom line: replumb the vessels to your arms, swap your organs around willy-nilly, you just can’t beat the aorta. If you have an aorta, you’ve got at least one RLN; if you don’t have an aorta, you’re dead, and no longer relevant to this discussion.
Nonrecurrent laryngeal nerves–a developmental Hail Mary?
But wait–how do we know that the inferior laryngeal nerve in embryonic sauropods didn’t get rerouted to travel in front of the fourth and sixth aortic arches, so it could be spared the indignity of being dragged into the chest later on?
First of all, such a course would require that the inferior laryngeal nerve take an equally dumb recurrent course in the embryo. Or maybe it should be called a procurrent course. Instead of simply radiating out from the central nervous system to its targets in the sixth pharyngeal arch, the axons that make up the RLN would have to run well forward of their normal course, loop around the fourth and sixth aortic arches from the front, and then run back down to the sixth pharyngeal arch. There is simply no known developmental mechanism that could make this happen.
Even if we postulated some hypothetical incentive that would draw those axons into the forward U-turn, other axons that took a more direct course from the central nervous system would get to the sixth pharyngeal arch first. By the time the forwardly-recurring axons finished their intelligently-routed course and finally arrived at the sixth pharyngeal arch, all of the innervation targets would be taken, and those axons would die off.
Also, at what point in the evolution of long necks would this forwardly-looping course supposedly be called into existence? Ostriches and giraffes have RLNs that take the same recurrent course as those of humans, pigs, and all other tetrapods. The retention of the recurrent course in extant long-necked animals is further evidence that the developmental constraint cannot be broken.
Finally, the idea that a non-recurrent laryngeal nerve would need to evolve in a long-necked animal is based on the perception that long nerve pathways are somehow physiologically taxing or otherwise bad for the animals in which they occur. But almost every tetrapod that has ever lived has had much longer neurons than those in the RLN, and we all get on just fine with them.
In dire extremity
Probably you seen enough pictures of neurons to know what one looks like: round or star-shaped cell body with lots of short branches (dendrites) and one very long one (the axon), like some cross between an uprooted tree–or better yet, a crinoid–and the Crystalline Entity. When I was growing up, I always imagined these things lined up nose to tail (or, rather, axon to dendrite) all down my spinal cord, arms, and legs, like boxcars in a train. But it ain’t the case. Textbook cartoons of neurons are massively simplified, with stumpy little axons and only a few to a few dozen terminals. In reality, each neuron in your brain is wired up to 7000 other neurons, on average, and you have about a hundred billion neurons in your brain. (Ironically, 100 billion neurons is too many for your 100 billion neurons to visualize, so as a literal proposition, the ancient admonition to “know thyself” is a non-starter.)
Back to the axons. Forget the stumpy little twigs you’ve seen in books and online. Except for the ganglia of your autonomic nervous system (a semi-autonomous neural network that runs your guts), all of the cell bodies of your neurons are located in your central nervous system or in the dorsal root ganglia immediately adjacent to your spinal cord. The nerves that branch out into your arms and legs, across your face and scalp, and into your larynx are not made of daisy chains of neurons. Rather, they are bundles of axons, very long axons that connect muscles, glands, and all kinds of sensory receptors back to the nerve cell bodies in and around your brain and spinal cord.
Indulge me for a second and wiggle your toes. The cell bodies of the motor neurons that caused the toe-wiggling muscles to fire are located in your spinal cord, at the top of your lower back. Those motor neurons got orders transmitted down your spinal cord from your brain, and the signals were carried to the muscles of your feet on axons that are more than half as long as you are tall.
Some of your sensory neurons are even longer. Lift your big toe and then set it down gently, just hard enough to be sure that it’s touching down on the floor or the sole of your shoe, but not hard enough to exert any pressure. When you first felt the pad of your toe touch down, that sensation was carried to your brain by a single neuron (or, rather, by several neurons in parallel) with receptor terminals in the skin of your toe, axon terminals in your brainstem, and a nerve cell body somewhere in the middle (adjacent to your sacrum and just a bit to one side of your butt crack, if you want the gory details). That’s right: you have individual sensory neurons that span the distance from your brainstem to your most distal extremity. And so does every other vertebrate, from hagfish to herons to hippos. Including, presumably, sauropods.
I had you set your toe down gently instead of pushing down hard because the neurons responsible for sensing pressure do not travel all the way from toe-tip to brainstem; they synapse with other neurons in the spinal cord and those signals have been through a two-neuron relay by the time they reach your brainstem. Ditto for sensing temperature. But the neurons responsible for sensing vibration and fine touch go all the way.
If you want to experience everything I’ve discussed in this post in a single action, put your fingertips on your voicebox and hum. You are controlling the hum with signals sent from your brain to your larynx through your recurrent laryngeal nerves, and sensing the vibration through individual neurons that run from your fingertips to your brainstem. Not bad, eh?
Getting back to big animals: the largest giraffes may have 5-meter neurons in their RLNs, but some of the sensory neurons to their hindfeet must be more like 8 meters long. I don’t think anyone’s ever dissected one out, but blue whales must have sensory neurons to the tips of their flukes that are almost 30 meters (98 feet) long (subtract the length of the skull, but add the lateral distance from body midline to fluke-tip). And Supersaurus, Amphicoelias, and the like must have had neurons that were approximately as long as they were, minus only the distance from the snout-tip to the back of the skull. I could be wrong, and if I am I’d love to be set straight, but I think these must have been the longest cells in the history of life.
Oh, one more thing: up above I said that almost every tetrapod that has ever lived has had much longer neurons than those in the RLN. The exceptions would be animals for which the distance from brainstem to base of neck was longer than the distance from base of neck to tip of limb or tail, so that twice the length of the neck would be longer than the distance from base of skull to most distal extremity. In that case, the neurons that contribute to the RLN would be longer than those running from brainstem to tail-tip or toe-tip. Tanystropheus and some of the elasmosaurs probably qualified; who else?
In this post I’ve tried to explain the courses that these amazingly long cells take in humans and other vertebrates. I haven’t dealt at all with the functional implications of long nerves, for which please see the paper. The upshot is that big extant animals get along just fine with their crazy-long nerves, and there’s no reason to assume that sauropods were any more troubled. So why write the paper, then? Well, it was fun, I learned a lot (dude: axoplasmic streaming!), and most importantly I got to steal a little thunder from those silly poseurs, the giraffes.
Department of Frivolous Nonsense: yes, I titled the paper after those TV ads for Chili’s hamburgers from a few years back. If you never saw them, the ads compared mass-produced, machine-stamped fast-food burgers with restaurant burgers painstakingly built by hand, and concluded with, “Chili’s Big-Mouth Burgers: monuments of inefficiency!”
Update: All of this is out of date now that the paper has been formally published. Department of Good Karma: since the paper is at the “accepted manuscript” stage, I still have the chance to make (hopefully minor) changes when I get the proofs. As is always, always, always the case, I caught a few dumb errors only after the manuscript had been accepted. Here’s what I’ve got so far, please feel free to add to the list:
- Page 1, abstract, line 3: pharyngeal, not pharyngial
- Page 1, abstract, line 8: substitute ‘made up’ for ‘comprised’
- Page 6, line 12: substitute ‘make up’ for ‘comprise’
- Page 9, line 5: citation should be of Carpenter (2006:fig. 3), not fig. 2
- Page 10, line 7: “giant axons of squid are”, not ‘ares’
- Page 12, entry for Butler and Hodos should have year (1996)
- Page 12, entry for Carpenter has ‘re-evaluation misspelled
- Page 16, entry for Woodburne has ‘mammalian’ misspelled
(Notes to self: stop trying to use ‘comprise’, lay off the ‘s’ key when typing bibliography.)
- Butler, A.B., and Hodos, W. 1996. Comparative Vertebrate Neuroanatomy: Evolution and Adaptation. 514 pp. Wiley–Liss, New York.
- Kaplan, E.L, Salti, G.I., Roncella, M., Fulton, N., and Kadowaki, M. 2009. History of the recurrent laryngeal nerve: from Galen to Lahey. World Journal of Surgery 33:386-393. DOI 10.1007/s00268-008-9798-z
- Toon, A., and Toon, S.B. 2003. Okapis and giraffes. In: M. Hutchins, D. Kleiman, V. Geist, and M. McDade (eds.), Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. Vol 15: Mammals IV, 399–409. Gale Group, Farmington Hills.
- Wedel, M.J. 2012. A monument of inefficiency: the presumed course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in sauropod dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(2):251-256.
May 16, 2011
Thanks to everyone who joined in the discussion last time on why sauropods had such long necks. I’ve discussed this a little with Matt, and we are both amazed that so many different hypotheses have been advanced (even if some of them are tongue-in-cheek). We’ll probably come back to all these ideas later.
But today, we want to draw your attention to a new contribution to this discussion — a paper in the Journal of Zoology, with the tell-it-like-it-is title “The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection”, written by the three of us SV-POW!er rangers together with our buddy Dave “Archosaur Musings” Hone (Taylor et al. 2011).
This is one of those papers that has been literally years in the making, which is why it’s a rather belated response to the paper that we were responding to — Phil Senter’s (2006) argument that sexual selection was the primary driver of neck elongation in sauropods.
Senter supported his hypothesis by laying out six predictions which he argued should be true for sexually selected necks; then showing that, while the first two could not be assessed, the last four all supported sexual selection. In our paper, we do three things. First, we make the point that sexual selection and feeding advantage are not mutually exclusive. Second, we revisit all six predictions and show that they do not in fact support sexual selection — in fact, most of them provide support for feeding advantage. Finally, we show that no tetrapod clade comparable with Sauropoda has consistently selected for a single sexual signal.
My email records show that Darren, Matt and I were discussing this as early as 22 September 2006, just six weeks after Senter’s paper was published, and that we started working on a response only a couple of days later. But as so often happens, it got crowded out by a hundred other things. Then in November 2007 Dave Hone mentioned that he was independently thinking of writing a response, and we decided to join forces. And then … we all went back to working on other things again, touching on the necks-for-sex issue every now and then. It’s mostly due to Dave’s repeated prods that this project wasn’t allowed to wither away, and has now, finally, made it across the finish line.
Like the neck-posture paper (Taylor et al. 2009), this was a true collaboration — one of those where, for many parts of the text, none of us is sure which of us originally wrote it. It went through the wringer many times before reaching its final form, and most of the text must have been rewritten two or three times along the way. We hope all the shuffling and polishing has resulted in a paper that reads straightforwardly and even seems obvious. “When something can be read without effort, great effort has gone into its writing” — Enrique Jardiel Poncela. That’s the goal, anyway.
The paper itself is available at the link below, so take a look and see whether you find our argument convincing. As always, comments are open!
Update (the next morning)
Co-author Dave Hone discusses this paper on his own blog.
- Senter, Phil. 2006. Necks for sex: sexual selection as an explanation for sauropod dinosaur neck elongation. Journal of Zoology 271(1):45-53. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7998.2006.00197.x
- Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2009. Head and neck posture in sauropod dinosaurs inferred from extant animals. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 54(2): 213-220.
- Taylor, Michael P., David W. E. Hone, Mathew J. Wedel and Darren Naish. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology, Early View (Online Version of Record published before inclusion in an issue). doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2011.00824.x
March 17, 2011
Since the publication of Brontomerus, which let’s remember was only a couple of weeks ago, Matt’s had the rather bad manners to post about another new paper of his — a review of prosauropod pneumaticity which might be uncharitably summarised as “Were prosauropods pneumatic? The fossils say yes”. As though that weren’t enough, he had the audacity to follow up with another post about an article he’s just had published in the Australian science magazine Cosmos.
Well, I’m striking back: it’s been an unusually productive period for SV-POW!sketeers, because I was a co-author on another paper that actually came out a few days before Brontomerus, but which we didn’t have time to talk about back then. The new paper is:
- Hone, David W. E., Michael P. Taylor, David Wynick, Paolo Viscardi and Neil Gostling. 2011. Running a question-and-answer website for science education: first hand experiences. Evolution: Education and Outreach, published online ahead of print. doi: 10.1007/s12052-011-0318-5 [PDF available]
And it it’s all about the Ask A Biologist web-site.
I’ve been involved in Ask A Biologist since its inception in 2006, yet I’ve not really written about it here, which is very remiss of me. I think it’s a fantastic resource, and the publication of a formal paper about our experiences running it seems like a good opportunity to fix that.
In concept, Ask a Biologist is very simple: people ask biology questions, and a biologist answers them. We have a pool of to 20 or 30 biologists with different specialisms (though admittedly with a bit of a bias towards vertebrate palaeontology), and any of them might pick up and answer any question — or respond to any previously posted answer, which sometimes leads to interesting discussions. An example is discussed in the paper:
The somewhat frivolous question “What’s the best way to stop Velociraptor attacks?” attracted six answers. The first noted the general principle that it’s best not to go near large, fierce animals in the first place; the second went on to suggest climbing a spiral staircase, because dromaeosaurids such as Velociraptor had stiff tails that would have made them unable to negotiate tight bends; subsequent answers pointed out that the orientation of dromaeosaur wrists would have made it difficult for them to open doors as depicted in the Jurassic Park movies, and that, “in life” Velociraptor was much smaller than depicted on screen. It’s not unusual for a pop-cultural question like this to lead into answers that turn on details of anatomy: this we feel, can engage a child’s attention far more readily than conventional teaching methods and takes them farther than they might expect from what may have been a tongue-in-cheek question.
[Raptor comic by Randall Munroe of xkcd]
Ask A Biologist was the brainchild of Dave Hone, who was also lead author on the new paper describing the site, outlining its history, and describing the advantages and disadvantages of the way it’s set up. Dave is to be congratulated for getting this up and running, pushing it through three incarnations from its humble beginnings as a special-purpose blog into its present rather slick version, and drumming up enough interest to have attracted more than half a million visitors, with answers to well over 3,500 questions. As the paper points out, this has been done almost entirely on the basis of voluntary labour, for a very modest total cost of £3,750. In terms of cost-effectiveness, this is spectacularly successful science evangelism.
But the main reason Ask A Biologist is exciting to me is because it’s a manifestation of the Shiny Digital Future. As recently as a decade ago, there was a clear separation between working scientists and the rest of the world. Science happened over in a dark corner, and occasionally a scientist would deign to send a package of information out to the rest of the world. That’s changing, fast, thanks largely to the ubiquity of the Internet. Blogs such as Tetrapod Zoology, The Open Source Paleontologist, and indeed SV-POW! have played their small parts in this process — not only providing a means for researchers to describe what they’re doing, but enabling anyone who’s interested to engage with the scientists. But sites like Ask A Biologist are arguably even more significant, because they provide such an easy route for non-specialists to be in contact with experts. By design, most of the questions are asked by schoolchildren: they may be phrased with any level of sophistication, and we make an effort to couch answers accordingly. It’s a privilege to be involved in something that has such a catholic audience.
So how can you get involved?
By all means, read the paper, which describes Ask A Biologist in more detail than I can here. But there are two more important things you can do.
- Help to let the world know about Ask a Biologist. If you’re involved in a school (do you have children who attend one?) make sure that the teachers know about it. If you give talks at local natural history societies, leave the URL on a slide. (In a couple of weeks, I’ll be giving a talk about Brontomerus to the school that my eldest son attends: I’ll make sure to mention Ask A Biologist.)
- Those of you who are practicing scientists, please consider volunteering to be one of the experts who asks questions. If you’re interested, contact Dave Hone, who can set you up.
It’s a great project to be involved in!
March 12, 2011
UPDATE April 16, 2012: The paper is officially published now. I’ve updated the citation and link below accordingly.
More new goodies:
Yates, A.M., Wedel, M.J., and Bonnan, M.F. 2012. The early evolution of postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropodomorph dinosaurs. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 57(1):85-100. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.4202/app.2010.0075
This is only kinda sorta published. The accepted manuscript is now posted on the APP website, and it has a DOI, but it’s not formatted or available in print yet. But after discussing it amongst ourselves, we authors agreed that (1) the paper is globally available and it’s silly to pretend otherwise, (2) there are no nomenclatural ramifications of that fact, and (3) we’re tired of not being able to talk about this stuff. So we’re gonna, starting…now.
A brief tale of Serendipity in Science (TM):
Back in 2004 I was in my third year of grad school at Berkeley. My fellow grad student, Brian Kraatz, gave me a heads up about the 19th International Congress of Zoology coming up in Beijing. Attendees could submit 500-word abstracts or 2000-word short papers. I didn’t plan on doing either one, until the night before they were due, when I changed my mind and wrote almost all of what would become this paper in a single six-hour session (don’t be too impressed; I’ve been trying to replicate that feat for seven years with no success).
That summer, I met up with Brian in Beijing a week before the congress, and we spent the extra time working in the collections of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP). Paul Barrett was there, working on prosauropods, and he and I had some long and fascinating conversations. We also gave our talks in the same session at the congress. Paul must have decided I was not a complete moron because he invited me to give a talk in the basal sauropodomorph symposium at SVP in 2005.
A brief aside: many of the animals I grew up calling prosauropods ended up outside of the monophyletic Prosauropoda that is anchored on Plateosaurus. Some are now basal sauropods, some are closer to sauropods than to Plateosaurus but outside of Sauropoda, and some are outside of Prosauropoda + Sauropoda. The phylogenetically correct term encompassing all of the nonsauropods is ’basal sauropodomorphs’, and it means roughly what ‘prosauropods’ did until a decade or so ago. I often slip into informally using ‘prosauropods’, but I try to remember to put the term in quotes so as not to mislead anyone.
I had been to England in 2004 and 2005 and seen the putatively pneumatic vertebrae of Erythrosuchus and what was then known as Thecodontosaurus caducus (and is currently trading under the name Pantydraco caducus for reasons that it would be otiose, for the moment, to rehearse)–and, not incidentally, had finally met Mike in person, although we’d been corresponding since 2000. I’d also been to Stuttgart primarily to see the appendicular material of Janenschia and ended up spending some quality time with Plateosaurus. (Since the theme here is serendipity, note that the Janenschia work–my raison d’etre for going to Germany–died on the table, whereas I’ve now been an author on three ‘prosauropod’ papers and have more in the works. Weird!)
Anyway, with all of that accidental experience with ‘prosauropods’ and other interesting critters like Erythrosuchus, I found that I actually had something to say in 2005 SVP symposium. I titled my talk, ‘What pneumaticity tells us about “prosauropods”, and vice versa’, and it turned into the 2007 paper of the same title.
None of this would have happened if Brian hadn’t hounded me about going to Beijing, and if I hadn’t ended up talking so much with Paul on that trip, and if I hadn’t finished up with Janenschia on my first day in Stuttgart and spent the rest of the week playing with Plateosaurus. And so on. Science is unpredictable, especially for scientists.
When I sent around the PDF of the paper to friends and colleagues, I included this quip: “Were prosauropods pneumatic? The fossils don’t say. Somehow I stretched that out to 16 pages.” Mike claims that because of this quip he’s never been able to take that paper seriously. But it is my favorite among my solo efforts. It includes loads of stuff on the origins of air sacs and pneumaticity that I wasn’t able to get into my earlier papers, either because it wasn’t directly relevant or because some reviewer forced me to excise it.
Almost immediately after the paper came out, Adam Yates and Matt Bonnan went and found roughly a zillion pneumatic ‘prosauropods’, which was a bit embarrassing since I’d just concluded that the evidence for ‘prosauropod’ pneumaticity was thin to nonexistent. So it is a damn good thing for me that I was already on friendly terms with both of them, because instead of taking the opportunity to smack me down, they invited me on board. Which led to Adam’s talk at SVP in Bristol in 2009, and to the new paper.
And actually, the depth of my incorrectness was even greater than I had thought. I reckon that literally millions of people have seen the mounted Plateosaurus skeleton in the AMNH, and any of them who have looked closely have seen this:
(Click for full size, unlabeled version.)
You see the problem here, I’m sure: the semi-big, semi-obvious fossa divided by an accessory lamina, not consistent with a muscle attachment point or fat pad or cartilage or infection, but very consistent in both form and location with the pneumatic fossae of other, more derived sauropodomorphs. On the lateral face of the vertebra, probably seen by millions, obvious to anyone who cares to look. A pneumatic prosauropod, in other words, right out in public for decades and decades (this time I don’t have to use the scare quotes because Plateosaurus actually IS a prosauropod sensu stricto). I didn’t even notice the first time I visited the AMNH back in 2006. I took the above photos, which are the basis for Figure 4 in the paper, in 2009.
So: ‘prosauropods’ were pneumatic. Some of them. A little bit. If you’d like to know more, please read the paper–it’s free.
Finally, a big thank-you to Adam and Matt for inviting me to be part of this. I think it’s pretty cool stuff, and I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in the future. They might too–you should be reading their blogs, Dracovenator and Jurassic Journeys, anyway.
We’re still not done with Brontomerus, by the way. If nothing else, there’s the long-overdue post on how sauropod ilia change (or rather fail to change) through ontogeny. But that’s something we’ll have to get back to next week. Stay tuned.
March 3, 2011
After a couple of relatively hardcore posts on ilial osteology, we though it would be good to look at something lighter this time. If you’re interested in dinosaurs, or indeed alive, you will hardly have been able to avoid seeing Francisco Gascó’s glorious life restoration of Brontomerus. Here it is again, in case you’ve been in a coma:
As well as being Figure 12 of the paper (Taylor et al. 2011), it’s popped up absolutely everywhere in media coverage: among many others, it was used by the BBC, Guardian, Telegraph and Independent in the UK; by USA Today, Fox News and National Geographic in the USA; by Spiegel in Germany; and by SVT (the state-funded national TV station) in Sweden. There’s no question that this image contributed hugely to selling the paper to the secular media. It’s probably responsible for 80% of all the coverage our work got, and I’m confident that it’s going to quickly become one of those images that everyone recognises, like the tyrannosaur/styracosaur fight on the cover of The Dinosaur Heresies and indeed Charles Knight’s classic swamp-bound Brontosaurus.
So it was a huge win for us, and it’s worth looking at how it came about.
Back in 2004, Matt gave a talk at the SVP annual meeting, entitled Skeletal pneumaticity in saurischian dinosaurs and its implications for mass estimates. The material in this talk became a chapter in the Wilson and Curry Rogers edited volume of sauropod papers (Wedel 2005). Some time in 2006, Matt heard about the Paleonturology competition, which is all about making palaeontology accessible for teenagers, especially in Spain: anyone who’d had a paper published in 2005 was invited to submit it, and the judges would choose the one that seemed most amenable to being rewritten in a compelling way for non-specialists. Matt’s 2005 paper won the 2006 competition, and the rewritten version of that paper was translated into Spanish and published in a very nice booklet which I am pleased to have a copy of (Wedel 2007). In 2007, Matt was invited to the Fundación Dinópolis in Teruel, Spain, to receive his award, launch the booklet, and act as a judge for the 2007 competition.
The relevance of all this now finally becomes apparent: while in Teruel, Matt met Francisco “Paco” Gascó, and looked through some of his portfolio of palaeo-art — including, for example, this rearing Camarasaurus:
So Matt had Paco in mind as a promising palaeo-artist. Then towards the end of May 2008, when we were readying the Brontomerus paper for submission (not to Acta Palaontologica Polonica — to a different journal, which didn’t take it) I wrote to Matt saying:
I’m attaching a tentative skeletal reconstruction that I did. [...] Now I’m thinking: should we approach a palaeoartist to see if we can get a life restoration done in time for the launch? The eponymous thunder thighs hardly make an impact in the skeleton, after all.
And Matt quickly replied suggesting that Paco could be the person to do it. He sent a few samples, including the Camarasaurus above, and I was sold. A couple of days later, Matt suggested the idea to Paco, he was up for it, and so we were all systems go.
At that time, Paco (who is now getting towards the back end of his Ph.D) was a humble recent graduate, which was great because it meant that Matt and I got to boss him about — something that he accepted with enormous good grace as we went through a sequence of some 44 images on the way to the pair that we ended up with.
By this time, Matt and I had already realised that we wanted the artwork to show kicking. So we started out by asking Paco to mock up three very rough sketches of how he thought a Brontomerus-kicking-a-predator scene might be composed. Here is one of the three — pretty representative:
Although this scenario is pretty sweet, it’s not really what we wanted as it shows Brontomerus kicking backwards like a horse, rather than forwards like a footballer. (That’s a soccer player, for those of you in the USA.) So Matt offered this concept sketch:
(It’s well worth clicking through and seeing the details.)
It’s interesting to see how much of the final image was already in place even in that very early sketch: the basic pose of the adult sauropod, the juvenile behind, the theropod getting its arse kicked — even if at this stage it was a juvenile Acrocanthosaurus rather than a mature Utahraptor.
With this reference in the back of his mind, Paco started work on a 3D model of the sauropod that would be the core of the composition. He was quickly able to show us a first draft that had all the pieces in place to look convincing at least as a generalised sauropod:
Already at this stage, I was pushing for the uniquely Brontomerus-like aspects of the anatomy to be made more apparent, so I sent back this modified and uglified version of the image to give a sense of where we wanted to be heading:
(You might want to open this image and the previous one in two tabs and switch back and forth between them.)
The purpose of the modified version, of course, was to show how high the ilium would sit on the torso and how it brings forward the anterior margin of the leg muscles. We wanted the thigh to be much more thundrous! This was part of a merciless campaign of anatomical criticism of many, many aspects of the in-progress restoration — for example, the cross-sectional shape of the neck, which at this point had a crest on top and flat sides. (You’ll notice that in the final version, the neck has the distinctive subtriangular cross-section that is produced by the ventrolateral excursion of the cervical ribs in sauropods.)
While that stream of refinement was going on, Paca was starting to skin the model. Here’s the first version we saw that had skin texture:
Seeing this was an exciting moment in the progress of the project. It was the first time that the artwork started to look like actual art, and the sauropod to look like an actual sauropod. We knew then that we were on the way to somewhere good.
That feeling intensified the first time Paco showed us the complete cast of our little drama: mother, baby, and evil raptor, all skinned and showing rather fetching stripes which survived in more or less this form through to the final version:
By this stage, most of the anatomical problems are getting ironed out: the flat-sided shape of the neck has gone, replaced by a broader and wrinklier ventral aspect; and the ilium was higher on the torso, with the shape of the dorsal margin more closely reflecting that of the Brontomerus holotype ilium.
Note the care that Paco took with the juvenile: it’s not just a scaled-down copy of the adult, but proportioned subtly differently in a way that reflects what we know of sauropod ontogeny: the limbs grow isometrically, but the neck is positively allometric, so that Baby Bronto’s neck is noticably shorter in proportion. At this stage, the baby is too big — more than half Mama’s size, whereas the sizes of the elements from the Hotel Mesa quarry suggested that he should be closer to a third of her size.
At the same time that Paco was working on the details of the models, we were all still batting around composition ideas, trying to find the best way to put our three actors together. This version of Paco’s was similar in concept to Matt’s earlier sketch, but different in a lot of details: the baby is running away rather than sheltering, the theropod is rather bigger than before, and has morphed from an acrocanthosaur to a raptor; and it’s upside-down in an attempt to show that it’s not in control of the situation:
I wasn’t convinced by this version, because the theropod seems to have been spun 180 degrees on the spot as well as kicked upside-down: I felt that he needed to be in a posture that more naturally emerges from having been facing Mama when he was kicked, so I ‘shopped Paco’s sketch into this version:
As well as turning the baby around (something that didn’t really help). I flipped the raptor and tried, clumsily, to convey that Mama had broken its neck. Of course, that didn’t really work, because the extension at the base of the neck is habitual for most tetrapods anyway, but it at least gave us a sense of the direction we wanted to go in.
OK, so back to the model. Paco had sent us a simple lateral-view render of Mama alone, as well as the group shown above, so that we could more easily critique its anatomy in isolation. Here is that simple render, followed by the vandalism I did on it to show changes that we still wanted. (See what I mean about Paco being patient?)
As you can see (and as you’ll see more clearly if you flip back and forth between the two images), I was asking for two changes. The simpler was that I wanted to see the distinctive profile of the Brontomerus scapula showing through the skin. The more interesting is in the profile of the tail. It’s been shown in many sauropods that there is a distinctive upwards kink at the base of the tail, so that the dorsal profile of the body does not progress smoothly from hips to tail, and I wanted to see that in Brontomerus. At the same time, the tail needed to have more flesh on it and the ischium should have been producing a visible bulge in the ventral margin behind the hips.
The next version addressed these points (though the scapula outline was not yet right):
But picky as I am I still wasn’t satisfied…
I made a few changes here — again, in a hacky way using the GIMP, with the result not in any way intended as in improvement in itself, but as a sketch of how the model could be improved. I shifted the tail up a little, smoothed the dorsal profile so that there was no longer a sort of dip at the base of the tail, and smoothed out the rear margin of the top of the thigh, so that there was no longer a “buttock”, but a hint of caudofemoralis musculature connecting the tail-base with the thigh.
Once Paco had made the necessary changes to the model, the next render looked superb — and very recognisable as the basis of the now-ubiquitous final version:
At this point, work on the main model was essentially complete, and Matt and I were both really happy with the result. For people who’ve spent as much time gazing at the Brontomerus ilium and scapula as we have, this is very obviously Brontomerus and not just a generic sauropod. Now it was time to put the model together with the composition ideas we’d been playing with:
We went through several versions of this, mostly varying in the posture of the theropod, but this is the one that led to the final piece. For the first time, we were all happy with Baby Bronto in this one, too: he’s about the right size, and has a sort of skittering look to him, as though he wants to be elsewhere but doesn’t want to leave Mama. (Am I anthopomorphising? Very well; I contain multitudes.) It’s a bit too close to the adult, though, so we can’t quite see its shape. This was fixed in the next version, which also contained a backdrop for the first time:
Now we’re really getting somewhere. You’ll notice that the raptor’s head is bent further back this time, hopefully conveying that its neck is broken. But because I was really keen on getting it across that the raptor is DOWN and it’s NOT getting up again, I once again vandalised Paco’s work, this time with buckets of blood:
What I wanted to convey was: if this raptor wasn’t already secondarily flightless, it is now. Still, I admit that the amount of blood, and the vividness of its colour, are a little over the top. So in the final version, Paco took some of the blood back out, and toned it down to a more realistic colour. The other important difference is that the raptor was moved a bit closer to the sauropod — not because that’s necessarily a better composition, but because we expected newspapers and other media outlets to crop the image mercilessly, and we wanted to give them best chance of keeping all the key element in frame when they did.
And so we arrive at the final version, as it appeared in the paper:
The very last thing we did was ask Paco for a second render of the same scene, so that media outlets would have a choice of artwork and wouldn’t all need to use the exact same image. That was doable because all three dinosaurs, with their skin-textures, were built as a 3D model, which can be viewed from any angle. But producing a finished artwork from this is not trivial: once an angle is chosen and the animals rendered, there is still a lot of post-production work to be done in putting in the background, the blood, the dust and so on. So we didn’t ask for a complete array of 128 of these — just the one addition. After reviewing a few candidate exported renders, we settled on one from a more anterolateral perspective, and Paco worked his magic to yield this alternative take:
I hardly have words to tell you how much I love this. Several times, looking at it, I’ve found myself laughing out loud at how comprehensively the theropod is getting owned. It’s OVER for that would-be predator. It’s DONE. The only question is whether Mama is going to put it out of its misery by stomping it flat, or whether it’ll be left to bleed out. Either way, it picked on the wrong victim for dinner.
Part of what I love so much about this is that Brontomerus looks like an animal, not like a monster. It works anatomically, feels like something that lives and breathes … and, indeed, kicks.
Let me close by clearly stating that 99% of all the Awesome here is the work of Paco — a talented and hardworking guy, who made Matt’s vision come to life. My own input was basically restricted to whining. I hope we’ll be seeing this image for many years to come, and that plenty more of Paco’s pieces make it out into the wide world where they belong.
- Taylor, Michael P., Mathew J. Wedel and Richard L. Cifelli. 2011. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, USA. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 56(1):75-98. doi: 10.4202/app.2010.0073
- Wedel, M.J. 2005. Postcranial skeletal pneumaticity in sauropods and its implications for mass estimates; pp. 201-228 in Wilson, J.A., and Curry-Rogers, K. (eds.), The Sauropods: Evolution and Paleobiology. University of California Press, Berkeley.
- Wedel, M.J. 2007b. Aligerando a los gigantes (Lightening the giants). ¡Fundamental! 12:1-84. [in Spanish, with English translation]
February 23, 2011
Today is the culmination of a project that I and Matt, and our co-author Rich Cifelli, are very proud of: the publication of the new sauropod, Brontomerus mcintoshi. Go and read the the paper — it’s open access, thanks to the good folks at Acta Palaeontologica Polonica.
This project started for Matt many years ago — he first mentioned it to me on 15 May 2004, and we first discussed it in detail in July that year. It’s amazing to realise that very nearly seven years have slipped by since then. But it’s done at last, and Brontomerus mcintoshi is born today!
So, what is Brontomerus, and why should you care? It’s a kick-ass new sauropod — literally — which extends the range of known sauropod morphology and contributes to the growing record of Early Cretaceous sauropod diversity in North America, plus its name means “thunder-thighs” and sounds kind of like Brontosaurus. What’s not to like?
We know Brontomerus from elements representing about 10% of a skeleton — not much, admittedly, but about 9% more than for Xenoposeidon. Oddly enough, for this blog, the two most informative elements are appendicular: a nearly complete and very weird left ilium, and most of a very nice and rather weird left scapula. We also have a single badly mangled presacral centrum (though even that is interesting), a single gorgeous and (you guessed it) weird caudal vertebra, a pair of partial sternal plates, and a bunch of dorsal ribs in various states of repair, of which one, probably the first from the right-hand side, is complete and — you guessed it — weird. (No cervical ribs, though.) There are a few more fragments, but they’re uninformative.
We know that not all this material is from a singe animal, because it’s of wildly different sizes: based on the relative sizes of scapula and ilium in Rapetosaurus, we estimated that the animal that contributed the scapula is about three times as long in linear dimension (and so about 3^3 = 27 times as massive) as the much smaller beast that kindly donated its ilium. “But wait!”, you cry: “If the bones are not all from the same individual, what makes you say they’re all from the same taxon?” Patience, young padawan; we will discuss this at length later this week (hereafter PYP;WWDTALLTW).
Because the ilium is the most distinctive of the bones, we nominated it as the holotype. “But wait!”, you cry: “If the ilium is from a juvenile individual, surely it’s not suitable to be the holotype?” PYP;WWDTALLTW.
We diagnosed Brontomerus by five autapomorphies of the holotype ilium: preacetabular lobe 55% of total ilium length, longer than in any other sauropod; preacetabular lobe directed anterolaterally at 30° to the sagittal, but straight in dorsal view and vertically oriented; postacetabular lobe reduced to near absence; ischiadic peduncle reduced to very low bulge; ilium proportionally taller than in any other sauropod, 52% as high as long. What does all that mean? PYP;WWDTALLTW. (Wow, that acronym is turning out to be more useful than I expected.) In briefest summary, it’s nothing like any other sauropod ilium I’ve ever seen; and that’s not because it’s from a juvenile.
Brontomerus has had a slightly odd publication history: it was inadvertently published as an “accepted manuscript” on the Acta web-site on 3rd January, whence it was quickly picked up by the Dinosaur Mailing List. In a matter of hours, a Wikipedia article appeared, along with mentions on a surprising number of web-sites: as I write this, four days before publication, Google has 60 hits for “brontomerus” including pages from Germany, Holland, the Czech Republic, Poland and Argentina. But the Acta people were very fast to take down the accepted manuscript once I’d pointed out that the name was being accidentally leaked, and I was able to have the Wikipedia article deleted pretty quickly too. It seems that, against all expectation, the genie was pretty much put back in the bottle.
As if that weren’t enough failage to be going on with, I (Mike) accidentally posted this very article a couple of days before publication. D’oh! (WordPress’s Publish button is terribly easy to hit.) Again, we scrambled to try to limit the damage. I was able to un-publish the article itself, but by then it had already gone out by RSS, so some of you might have seen this post before in that earlier form. (This is of course the reason for the I’m Stupid post.)
All the rushing around to shut down premature announcements was, of course, indended to keep the powder dry for today; and we heartily encourage all of you who’ve been wanting to to talk about Brontomerus to do so now!
There is a lot more that we could say — and will say — about Brontomerus. We have a bunch more posts planned for later in the week, as noted above. Those of you who can’t wait will of course read the paper, but may also find yummies on the press-pack page or the unofficial online supplementary information.
November 12, 2010
Last time around, I referred in passing, rather flippantly, to what I called Tutorial n: how to become a palaeontologist. Since then, I realised that actually I could write a tutorial on this, and that it could be surprisingly short and sweet — much shorter than it would have needed to be even a few years ago.
So here it is: how to be a published palaeontologist.
Step 1. Publish papers about palaeontology
… and you’re done.
If this sounds frivolous or facetious, it’s not meant to. It is the absolute, solid truth about how to be a published palaeontologist. It is a fact that the difference between published palaeontologists and other people is that only the former have published papers about palaeontology. If you want to move from the latter group into the former, then, that’s what you have to do.
I’m talking about proper publication in peer-reviewed journals, by the way: not just blogging (valuable though that is), not self-publication, not vanity publication. Making a genuine contribution to the science of palaeontology through peer-reviewed articles.
But Mike, it’s not that simple!
Yes, it is. It really is.
At times like this, I always remember Tom Clancy’s advice to would-be novelists. I used to be on a mailing list for writers, and the administrator, Greg Gunther, once posted this anecdote:
I was on an [email] list with Tom Clancy once. Mr. Clancy’s contribution to the list was, ‘Write the damn book’.
That’s the finest advice I know on the subject, and it applies to palaeontology papers as well as to novels. If that doesn’t convince you, here is a post from noted science-fiction author Frederik Pohl, 87 years old at the time of writing, on the subject of establishing yourself as a short-story writer:
How do you get to be a writer?
- You sit down and write something.
- Finish what you write. Pensées don’t count. Neither do short stories without an ending.
- If the next morning you think it’s any good send it to some editor who might buy it.
- Repeat as needed.
Terse as this advice may seem, you could condense the whole thing to point 1. Sit down and write something. Heck, you don’t even need to sit down if you prefer to write standing up. In which case the advice reduces to write something.
If you, dear reader, are not yourself a published palaeontologist, then you are probably thinking of all kinds of objections now. Dismiss them: just start doing the work. To help you out, let me smack a few common objections down for you.
Objection 1. But I’m not a professional!
What do you mean by that? Do you mean that no-one pays you to work on palaeontology? No-one cares about that: journal editors and reviewers will neither know nor care. For whatever it’s worth, both Darren and I are amateurs in this sense.
What matters — what journal editors and reviewers do care about — is whether you conduct yourself as a professional. And that’s up to you. Be courteous. Write clearly. Don’t be excessively critical of others’ work, especially if there’s a chance that you’ve misunderstood it. Submit to peer review. Turn your manuscripts around quickly. These are the aspects of “professionalism” that actually matter, and they are just as available to amateurs as to professionals.
Objection 2. But I don’t have a Ph.D!
Doesn’t matter. Lots of published palaeontologists don’t have Ph.Ds. My own first five papers came out before I got my Ph.D. Heck, John McIntosh, the undisputed king of sauropod science, never earned a Ph.D in palaeontology (though he has one in his day-job field of physics).
Really, what does a Ph.D get you? Only the right to sign your submission letters Dr. Simeon Halibutwrangler instead of just plain Simeon Halibutwrangler. Otherwise it has no effect whatsoever on the publication process. I mean it. Look at some papers: note how the authors’ names don’t include titles or credentials? Journal editors and reviewers probably don’t even know whether you have a Ph.D or not, and they certainly don’t care. What they care about is whether your manuscript is any good.
To be clear, I’m not saying a Ph.D is worthless. For one thing, it’s a necessity if you’re looking for a job in academia. But in terms of its effect on your ability to actually, you know, do science, it’s way overrated.
Objection 3. But I don’t have an academic affiliation!
Doesn’t matter. Greg Paul isn’t affiliated with a university: his recent papers in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, Paleobiology and, oh, yes, Science, give a street address rather than an institutional address.
Again, what does the affiliation really get you? I would say three things: access to papers (see below), access to specimens (see below) and the right to put the name of a university on your papers. If you can work around the first two things — and you can — the lack of the third is not truly such a great hardship.
Obejction 4. But I don’t have access to papers!
Seriously. The rankest amateur living in 2010 has better access to the literature than the most hallowed professional of twenty years ago ever had.
Here’s a strange thing: although I’ve been affiliated with UCL for eighteen months now, I’ve never got around to setting up my off-campus institutional access to paywalled publishers like Elsevier and Blackwell. Now partly this is just plain laziness, which I’m not proud of. But I do think it goes to show how very much that kind of access is, these days, a pleasant luxury rather than a necessity. Because everything is open.
Objection 5. But I don’t have access to specimens!
Finally, we come to a real objection. Fossil specimens are held by museums, and museums are rightly careful about who they allow to play with their irreplaceable stuff. In general, it’s easier to get access to specimens as you become better known — either through the shortcut of an academic affiliation, or through publishing papers. But how can you publish papers if you don’t have access to specimens? You can’t, right? It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, right?
Well, wrong actually.
Obviously you can’t write descriptive papers without seeing the material you’re describing. But that is only one kind of paper. Reviewing my own output so far, I was rather shocked to find that only two of eleven papers (the Xenoposeidon description and Brachiosaurus revision) are descriptive, specimen-based work. Of the others, three were taxonomic (Diplodocoid PN, pre-PhyloCode PN and Cetiosaurus petition); one was statistical (dinosaur diversity survey), one was palaeobiological inference (sauropod neck posture); three were about the Shiny Digital Future (electronic publication of names, sharing data, ODP report); and one is basically a literature review (history of sauropod studies).
What this means is that I could have written 81.8% of my papers without ever looking at an actual specimen. So: write 81.8% of your papers, get them published, then when museum collection managers know who you are, go and look at their fossils and write the other 18.2%.
Objection 6. But what if my paper is rejected?
Reformat for a different journal and send it straight back out. This happens to everyone. It’s just part of the process. My very first paper was rejected; we just sent it back out. The Xenoposeidon paper was rejected without even being reviewed; we just sent it back out. Our neck-posture paper was rejected without review twice; we just sent it back out. As I write this, Matt and I are busy revising two papers that we co-wrote, both of which were rejected. Any day now, we’re going to send them back out.
Objection 7. But I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to put in the work!
Oh. Well, there you have me. That really is a problem.
So what’s stopping you?
I know a whole bunch of people who should be published palaeontologists but aren’t. Some of them know far, far more about extinct animals than I do, and I am frankly bewildered that they have somehow never made it into print: I assume they are letting themselves be defeated by some kind of psychological barrier.
Others are just feeling their way into this field, in many cases by blogging. They have more excuse for hestitancy, but no real reason for it. As a success story, I could cite Brian Switek of the blog Laelaps, who took a while to warm up to the idea of academic publishing but recently placed his first major paper (“Thomas Henry Huxley and the reptile to bird transition“) in the dinosaur history volume.
Well. I could say more about the nuts and bolts of writing and submitting papers, and I will do so in Tutorial 14. But for now, I am leaving this here. Because the single, simple point that this article makes is such an important one. Write papers.
October 13, 2010
Here is an oddity. When the Geological Society sent my the PDF of my sauropod-history paper, their e-mail contained the following rather extraordinary assertions:
We are pleased to provide you with 20 free electronic reprints of your recently published paper to distribute as you wish. These reprints are available as PDF downloads and are available from the following URL http://sp.lyellcollection.org/cgi/reprint/343/1/361.pdf?ijkey=CuTipeiHIhUaWsR&keytype=finite
Please note the following important points
1. These electronic reprints may NOT be used for commercial purposes or posted on openly accessible websites, and are subject to the terms and conditions described here: http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/gsl/site/GSL/author_terms
2. You may forward this message to your co-authors or colleagues in order for them to access the paper also, but do remember that access is restricted to a TOTAL of 20 PDF downloads (unless you otherwise have subscription access to the content). Non-subscribers may purchase additional downloads on a pay-per-view basis.
I think, and I hope you will all agree with me, that the idea of providing a finite number of “electronic reprints” is profoundly misguided and patently unenforcible. But let’s skip blithely around that and focus on the core issue.
In general, I find it iniquitous that when authors freely contribute their work to journals and books — especially books as spectacularly expensive as the Dinosaur History volume — the publishers try to restrict those authors’ rights to give copies of their own work to their friends and colleagues. It’s just wrong. It should be enough that we allow them to publish and sell our work for no fee; that they should then limit what we do with it is — well, I hate to repeat myself, but I can’t think of a better word than: wrong.
The scourge of copyright assignment
Publishers can pull this kind of stunt because they own the work. In short, they can do what the hell they want with it. And the reason they own the work is because we blindly hand over copyright to them. We’ve been doing it for years; decades for those of us who’ve been in the game longer.
Why do we do this?
I know I’ve mentioned this before [Choosing a Journal, Time for the Revolution] but there really is no justification at all for publishers to require authors to sign copyright over to them — yet this practice remains ubiquitous. And there is no justification for us to keep on rolling over and giving them what they want — yet we do.
Why do we do this?
(I know I already asked that question, but it bears repeating.)
Well, they don’t have this one!
As I went to fill in the ubiquitous copyright assignment form for the history paper, I noticed that it offered a choice between two sections:
As an alternative to the usual “I hereby assign to the Geological Society of London full copyright and all rights” clause (section 2 of the form above), it offers section 3 as follows:
3. To be filled in if copyright does not belong to you
(b) The copyright holder hereby grants the Geological Society of London permission to publish the said contribution in paper, electronic, and facsimile formats, and for electronic capture, reproduction, and licensing in all formats, in whole or in part, now and in perpetuity, in the original and all derivative works and also grants non-exclusive rights to deal with requests from third parties in the manner specified in paragraphs 2 and 4 below.
So I formally transferred copyright to my wife, Fiona:
And filled in section 3 of the form instead of section 2. Of course, there is no earthly reason why they shouldn’t offer copyright-holding authors the option of just giving the Geological Society the rights it actually needs, but since they don’t do that I was happy to take advantage of the loophole.
And that is why I happily encourage you to download as many copies of the PDF as you wish — have twenty-one of them just for yourself if you like. It’s mine, I can give you as many copies as I wish. It’s my wife’s, and she’s granted me a non-exclusive licence to give you as many copies as I wish. [Thanks to DK Fennell for this correction.]
Happy ending, right?
Well, no, actually. For two reasons.
First, the really extraordinary thing about this is that the published version of my paper includes the copyright statement above, at the bottom of the first page, asserting that the work is copyright the Geological Society of London even though I carefully took explicit steps to ensure that this is not the case.
How did that happen? I can only assume that the Society, like other publishers, is so used to everyone just blindly signing away copyright that they used their standard boilerplate without even bothering to look at the form I returned to them. That speaks all sort of bad things. The world has become a twisted place.
The second reason this isn’t really a happy ending is that I don’t feel great about having retained copyright on a technicality. We, the authors, shouldn’t have to sneak around giving copyright to our spouses and avoiding the Great Giveaway by means of stealth. We ought to be simply and flatly refusing to give away copyright when it’s perfectly clear that the publisher doesn’t need it in order to publish. (Publishers often use language like “In order to expedite the editing and publishing process and enable Wiley-Blackwell to disseminate your Contribution to the fullest extent, we need to have this Copyright Transfer Agreement executed“, but we all know that’s not true.)
So what should we do?
I can see three ways we can avoid giving publishers total ownership of our work.
- Simply don’t submit to journals that require copyright transfer. Most do, but not all. Among the honorable exceptions are the PLoS journals, and Zoologica Scripta. If any of you know of others, please shout in the comments.
- If using publishers that do require copyright transfer, look for weasely strategies such as the one I used for the history paper; but better is:
- Just refuse. Publishers know they don’t need copyright, and there is an established form for withholding it: the SPARC Addendum. I’ve not used that before, but it’s time I started.
We must have been mad to have handed over all our stuff for all these years. What the heck were we thinking? Time to start taking it back — so we can give it to the world. After all, the main reason I want to retain my copyright is so that the publisher can’t require me not to post the PDF freely on my own website, and I am sure the same is true of 99% of scientists who want to retain their copyright.
Publishers must not be allowed to be a barrier to the dissemination of science!
October 11, 2010
You may remember that when I wrote about Amphicoelias diplobrontobarowassea the other day, I rather ungraciously complained that “I don’t want to talk about that. There are other things I do want to talk about”. Well, with A. suuwatorneriosaurodocus now firmly dealt with, I can talk about what I wanted to — which is Taylor (2010), a little number that I like to call Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review. You can download the PDF from my website (more on that subject next time) and get the high-resolution versions of the figures separately if you wish.
It’s a comprehensive history of research into sauropod dinosaurs, starting in 1831 with the genera Cardiodon and Cetiosaurus, and bringing us right up to 2008 (which is when the paper was accepted — see below). I cover this history in five stages:
- Stage 1: early studies, isolated elements (1841-1870)
- Stage 2: the emerging picture (1871-1896)
- Stage 3: interpretation and controversy (1897-1944)
- Stage 4: the dark ages (1945-1967)
- Stage 5: the modern renaissance (1968-present)
You could say the the main part of the story begins with Phillips’s (1871) description of Cetiosaurus oxoniensis, the first reasonably complete sauropod, and really kicks into gear with the Marsh-Cope bone wars, but there are plenty of twists and turns between then and now, including — finally — the publication of the table of brachiosaur mass-estimates that I alluded to back in Xenoposeidon week. [Executive summary: published estimates for the single individual HMN SII have varied by a factor of 5.75. Wow.]
History of the history paper
This paper had its genesis in the one-day conference convened at the Geological Society of London on 6 May 2008. [Announcement on Tetrapod Zoology; Tet Zoo report part 1 and part 2]. The extended abstract of my talk has been on my web-site for a long time, and was included in the rather handsome abstracts volume of the conference — which has now been superseded by the proceedings volume containing the full-length papers of which mine is one.
We’d been told to prepare 30-minute talks — a much heftier slot than the 20 minutes we get at SVPCA (or indeed the 15 allowed at SVP, though I wouldn’t know what that’s like as I have never, ever managed to get a talk accepted there). I tend to move very quickly through my talks anyway, so I prepared a monster presentation of 76 slides (plus another 11 that I had to cut from the talk, but which I left hanging around at the end of the slideshow). By the way, this is the very talk that my wife, Fiona, fell asleep in the middle of while I was rehearsing it at her.
So I’d prepared a thirty-minute talk that used every second of every minute. Then on the day of the conference itself, they handed out the schedules, and … the talks were down to twenty-five minutes. Arrrgh! I had absolutely no fat to trim in my thirty minutes, so all I could do was talk even faster, and keep going when I reached the 25-minute mark.
So there I was, talking about how Russell and Zheng (1993) pioneered the use of cladistics in sauropod systematics, when the session moderator — our very own Darren Naish — started trying to wave me off the podium. By the time I was talking about Sander’s (2000) work on the long-bone histology of Tendaguru-Formation sauropods, Darren was edging on to the stage, trying to bring my talk to an end by making moves for the microphone, while I was talking faster and faster in manner more than a little reminiscent of Monty Python’s microphone-stealing sketch.
Poor Darren. I actually don’t quite recall how things ended up, but as far as I know I got through all my slides before being persuaded to retire, and here for your edification is the Conclusions slide.
Anyway, with the conference over, all of us who’d given talks were invited to contribute papers to a proceedings volume, and that’s what’s just come out. (According to the Geological Society’s own page, the book won’t be available to buy until 19 November, but all the PDFs are available to download to those who have the relevant access rights.)
Is my paper worth reading? For seasoned palaeontologists, much of what I cover is going to be familiar ground, though I hope most people will find one or two nuggets of interesting new information in there. But perhaps it will be most useful as a primer for people new to the field, or first approaching sauropods having previously worked on other groups.
Edited volumes vs. journals
You know how some with papers, you submit them, they go through review and then … nothing? I’ve heard horror stories of papers that have been in press for ten years or more, and I am relieved to say that I’ve never experienced that kind of delay. But the reviewed, revised and resubmitted version of my sauropod-history manuscript was accepted and in press as of January 2009, so this has been the best part of two years coming.
I think this is pretty much standard for edited volumes, because they are basically stalled until all the contributing authors have got their jobs done. To be fair to the Geological Society, who were the publishers in this case, I think they’ve done a nice job on the layout, and they got all my proof corrections done. But still: nearly two years in press is a looong time. And the end result is that the paper is in a book that most people will consider very expensive – $190 at amazon.com, £95 at amazon.co.uk — which means that fewer people will read it than I would like. (I will talk more about the price in a subsequent post.)
So would I do it again? This paper is my first contribution to an edited volume, and although I’m pleased to have done it this time, I think it will take a particularly special opportunity for me to do it again: a book that I wouldn’t want not to be in, such as another of the all-sauropods-all-the-time volumes that glutted our shelves in the glorious year of 2005.
Journals are fundamentally wired to move faster: they handle manuscripts on an individual basis, then push out a volume according to a schedule, and your work goes in as soon as there’s a free slot. That can hardly help but be a more efficient model than the edited-volume approach where, however efficiently I get my work done, it can’t be published until 21 other authors have done theirs.
For a much more distressing example, consider my two remaining in-press manuscripts, those defining the clades Sauropoda and Sauropodomorpha for the PhyloCode companion volume. (These are multiple-author works, as we wanted to represent a consensus view among multiple sauropod/sauropodomorph workers.)
I was first invited to put together the Sauropoda entry on 5 March 2007, and told to send it “at your earliest convenience”. I’d put together an initial draft by 11 March, which I circulated to all the co-authors on that date. Because of the wording of the invitation, I told the co-authors that “timelines are very tight for this work — I really need to get a submission back to the editors within a week or so. So if you’re in a position to contribute, I’d appreciate it if you could do so as soon as possible.” Then on 12 March, we were invited to contribute the Sauropodomorpha entry as well, so we worked on both of these in parallel.
All five authors worked hard and quickly on multiple drafts of both of these entries, and we bashed our way through real — though polite — disagreements about the most appropriate definitions to use. (I’ll say right now that it was a pleasure to work with all the co-authors, and I would be delighted to work with any of them again if the opportunity arose.) Because of the difficulties of co-ordinating the work across three continents, it took a little longer than we’d hoped to get the manuscripts finished and polished, but we submitted them both on 17 April, 43 days after the initial invitation was issued.
And now here we are, three and a half years later, and nothing has happened. For all I know, the authors haven’t even all submitted their manuscripts yet — I know they hadn’t a year ago, we can only hope that another twelve months has been long enough for them to get their fingers out.
Really. It makes you want to weep.
And now, on to a happier thought:
My dissertation is 60% published!
I was very taken with Andy Farke’s recent post Crossing the Finish Line for the Dissertation on his fine blog, The Open Source Paleontologist. In it, he celebrates the fact that all the chapters of his dissertation have now been published as peer-reviewed papers. As I said in a comment, I like the perspective that you’re not really done with your dissertation until you’ve made it redundant. I’ve heard too many tales about people who sit on their dissertations for years, always meaning to publish the chapters but never quite getting around to it, until they were obsolete.
So my goal is to avoid that fate. Instead, in emulation of Andy, I want to get all five of my chapters out there in the world as soon as possible. So here’s the score:
- Chapter 1. Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review — published in the Geological Society special volume.
- Chapter 2. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914) — published in JVP.
- Chapter 3. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England — published in Palaeontology
- Chapter 4. A new sauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Cedar Mountain Formation, Utah, U.S.A. — in review at a journal that, once revisions are submitted, tends to get papers out pretty quickly.
- Chapter 5. Vertebral morphology and the evolution of long necks in sauropod dinosaurs — in revision after having been rejected for what I frankly thought were specious reasons, but let’s not get into that.
With a trailing wind, I could conceivably be finished by the end of the calendar year. But realistically that would have to classified as a optimistic schedule.
Ah well. Onward and upward.
- Phillips, J. 1871. Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames. Clarendon Press, Oxford.
- Russell, Dale A., and Zheng, Zhong. 1993. A large mamenchisaurid from the Junggar Basin, Xinjiang, China. Canadian Journal of Earth Science 30(10/11): 2082-2095.
- Sander, P. Martin. 2000. Longbone histology of the Tendaguru sauropods: implications for growth and biology. Paleobiology 26(3): 466-488.
- Taylor, Michael P. 2010. Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review. pp. 361-386 in: Richard T. J. Moody, Eric Buffetaut, Darren Naish and David M. Martill (eds.), Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: a Historical Perspective. Geological Society of London, Special Publication 343. doi: 10.1144/SP343.22
Taylor, M. (2010). Sauropod dinosaur research: a historical review Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343 (1), 361-386 DOI: 10.1144/SP343.22