September 28, 2013
Anyone who’s found the SV-POW! Tutorials useful will also like the excellent, detailed osteology posts on Tom Carr’s newish blog Tyrannosauroidea Central. Highly recommended — especially for those, like me, who have a lot to learn about skulls.
Here are the osteology posts so far:
September 6, 2013
We’re just back from SVPCA 2013 in Edinburgh. The first part of the meeting was held at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, but on Friday we moved to the National Museums Scotland. Which is awesome. And free to the public. The design process for the museum seems to have been, “Okay, let’s get one of, oh, every interesting thing in the world, and put it right here.” We have tons more photos of amazing things from the museum, and maybe we’ll get around to posting them sooner or later, but today I have other things to do.
Like make fun of Mike. And talk about vomiting dinosaurs.
This groovy stuffed fulmar, Fulmarus glacialis, is shown in the act of puking, which it does to dissuade predators. And probably everyone else. I am reliably informed by Darren that this is unrealistic fulmar vomit, and that the real thing is more of a thin stream, like the world’s nastiest water gun, which can be directed with considerable accuracy. Note to self: don’t piss off the fulmars.
Last year cemented “drawing goofy sauropods down at the pub” as a regular SVPCA Thing. So one night I was out with Mike and Darren and paleoartist Bob Nicholls, who is famous around these parts as the creator of the Greatest. Paleoart. Ever. I did a goofy sketch in my notebook illustrating the “defensive vomit” hypothesis, which Brian Engh and I cooked up during this alligator dissection. More on that another time, maybe. Anyway, after bashing out a fairly pathetic sauropod-puking-on-theropod scene, I passed the notebook to Bob and said, “Make this not suck”. Which he did. (Seriously, if you could see my original scrawl, you’d be the one throwing up.)
So now I have an original Bob Nicholls sketch–heck, the world’s first Wedel-Nicholls artist collaboration!–in my notebook, of one of evolution’s most majestic successes responding appropriately to a vulgar, overstudied theropod. Bob drew it right in front of me and I got to drink good beer while I watched him work.
And that, more or less, is why I attend SVPCA.
I couldn’t sign off without giving you another version of Giant Irish Mike, with the background cropped out so he can be dropped right into posters, slide shows, and other works of science and art. I really, really hope that he turns up in conference talks and other presentations in the months and years to come. If so, send us a photo documenting his miraculous apparition and we’ll show it to the world.
Go read this: Marugán-Lobón et al. 2013 on semicircular canal orientation and head posture in saurischian dinosaurs
August 7, 2013
I know it’s been quiet around here for a while. Mike and I have both been on vacation, and before that, we were both up to our necks in day-job work, and after we get back, we’ll be up to our necks in revising accepted manuscripts. So no time for a long post right now, but I couldn’t let this pass without notice: Jesús Marugán-Lobón, Luis Chiappe, and Andy Farke just published a cool paper on semicircular canal orientation in saurischians and its value–or lack thereof–as a reference system. This is something Mike and Darren and I have addressed before (here and here), but Marugán-Lobón et al. have gone waaaaay further than anyone else I know if in addressing the inherent variability in lateral semicircular canal orientation.
The TL;DR, from the abstract:
The variability of LSC relative to skull landmarks is large (ca. 50°) and likely unpredictable, thus making it an inconsistent reference system for comparing and describing the skulls of saurischian (sauropodomorph and theropod) dinosaurs.
But you shouldn’t stop there! The paper is short, straightforward, and freely available on PeerJ, so go read it. Read the review comments, too–like an increasing number of authors, Marugán-Lobón et al. put the whole paper trail up along with the finished paper. Nice work!
Another nice display from the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City (previous MoO posts here and here). Check out the really gnarly ones that are indeed growing right through the bones of the face. That must have sucked.
We’ve covered rodent teeth here a few times before (one, two)–more than is probably right, for a blog ostensibly about sauropod vertebrae. Sherlock Holmes said, “Life is a great chain, the nature of which can be determined by the discovery of a single link.” I’d amend that to, “Life is a great tree, the inherent fascination of which flows through every tiny twig.”
Back when we started SV-POW!, Mike predicted that the technical niche blog was the wave of the future. That prediction does seem to be coming true, albeit more slowly than I thought it would. Nevertheless, if you are susceptible to the inherent fascination of rodent teeth, get yourself over to Ian Corfe’s Tetrapod Teeth & Tales for more geeky goodness.
Now, in a move that will possibly enrage one segment of the audience but hopefully delight another, I am going to forge even further away from the ostensible raison d’être of the blog and talk about monsters. Specifically Cthulhu–in my experience, in the Venn diagram of life, the “interested in paleo” and “interested in Lovecraft” circles overlap almost entirely. Over at my everything-except-paleontology-and-astronomy blog, I’ve been thinking about Lovecraftiana and wrestling with what a Cthulhu idol, such as those described in Lovecraft’s stories, ought to look like. If you’d like to contribute, get on over there and leave a comment. If you send* me a picture (drawing, painting, 3D render, photo of sculpture, whatever) or leave a link, I’ll include it in an upcoming post. Cthulhu fhtagn!
* Send to email@example.com, please include Cthulhu in the subject line.
July 3, 2013
Another shot from my visit last month to the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City: the business end of a tegu (Tupinambis). Lots of cool stuff in this pic: heterodont dentition, wacky sclerotic ossicles, and some sweet neurovascular foramina along the maxilla. Someone should knock out a shrink-wrapped life restoration, a la All Todays.
May 24, 2013
April 26, 2013
Earlier this spring London and I got on a building dinosaurs kick, inspired by this post at Tumblehome Learning. I used a few of these photos as filler in this post, but I haven’t talked much about what we did and what we learned.
Above is my first attempt at a wire skeleton for a papier mache dinosaur. Yes, despite being a dino-geek from the age of three on, I had never made a papier mache dinosaur before this spring. The thicker white wires are from a hanger, and the thin ones are from a reel of wire I found in the hardware section at Wal-Mart. It’s held together with masking tape, and the thick wires running down the legs of the dino are going into holes I drilled in that piece of scrap wood.
Here’s part of the wireframe for my first skull. At this point I was still thinking of Alioramus. Notice the sections of drinking straw, split and popped onto the wires to bulk out the wireframe and give the papier mache more than a 2D plane to bite on.
Here’s that lower jaw with the rest, a skull of some kind of predatory coelurosaur. Fairly early on I abandoned the strict Alioramus plan and followed in the footsteps in Barnas Monteith at Tumblehome Learning (who posted the instructions linked above) in going for a sort of generic critter instead of any particular real-life taxon. Therefore, I was free to freewheel without having to worry too much about accuracy (Robert Frost would have said I was playing tennis with the net down). As you can see here, this is another wire job held together with duck tape, and the lower jaw already has the first layer of papier mache on.
Papier mache is pretty hard to screw up: put some water in a bowl, add flour until it gets thick, stick pieces of torn-up newspaper in the mix and put them on whatever you’re making. Anything more than that, you should learn on your own by experimentation.
Progress on “Rexy” and my skull was going too slow for London, so I knocked out a crude Velociraptor skull in cardboard for him to work on at his own pace. This became “Rapty”.
An early family portrait: “Rapty”, “Rexy”, and my “Uglioramus” skull. You can see the Wedel method for not messing up the dining room table: first, put down a layer of plastic trash bags taped together, then a layer of newspapers taped together. For Rexy, we put down a layer of cling wrap to keep the papier mache drips off the wood base, which was a huge win in the long run. Rapty and Ulgioramus are sitting on foil-covered pizza-baking sheets. Those turned out to be useful for…
…baking skulls. Papier mache dries s l o w l y in cool, wet weather. But if it will fit, you can pop your thing in the oven on low heat for 15-20 minutes and get’er done quickly. This worked for both skulls, but it worked better for Rapty. On Uglioramus, the metal expanded enough to keep poking its way out of the papier mache, so I did a lot of patching. Still probably faster than waiting for the whole thing to air-dry.
Teeth. I went a little nuts with these in terms of size (I know, those teeth won’t fit into that maxilla, but it looks rad if you switch your brain off, kind of like Jurassic Park). They’re made up of flat cardboard from a cheap box (not corrugated) layered together with wood glue to give them some thickness, and coated with more wood glue and papier mache goo to soften the contour lines.
Before painting I sealed the whole thing with a thin layer of Titebond wood glue. That probably wasn’t 100% necessary, given what went on next, but I knew it would get the job done and strengthen the structure.
Back to “Rapty”: he got a set of teeth–one layer of thin cardboard this time–entirely speculative nasal and parietal horns courtesy of London, and a couple of coats of Kilz2 white latex primer left over from a telescope-making project. Then he was off to school for show-and-tell. Since then he’s gotten one thin coat of brown watercolor paint. Some of the holes in the skull just about closed up during papier-macheing, but since the impetus for the project was to have fun, it doesn’t trouble me.
Here’s Uglioramus, also dressed in Kilz, awaiting his first coat of paint in my expensive, professional paint box. Leaving a freshly-painted object without overhead protection in this neighborhood is just asking for it to be hit by falling vegetation.
And here we are after the first coat. I use Krylon because it’s cheap, tough, and dries fast, but with the Kilz on I could probably use just about anything.
And that brings us up to the present. I have some ideas on how to finish Uglioramus to make it look more like a fossil skull and less like some cast-off from a flea market, but those will have to wait for another post.
The upshot of all of this is that I am not an expert on either theropod skulls or papier mache, and if a doofus like me can do this well the first time out, you can probably do as well or better yourself. And it’s cheap, messy fun. Highly recommended.
April 24, 2013
A while back, I posted about a squirrel mandible that I’d acquired, and how ridiculously huge its incisor was.
In that post, I rather naively said “the tooth literally could not be any bigger”.
What a fool I was.
As you can see, the incisor goes back almost to the posterior margin of the jaw, and in total is significantly longer than the jaw that contains it. Gotta admit, I am impressed.
Get across to Ian’s blog for the details!
April 8, 2013
Last night London and I spent the night in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (LACM), as part of the Camp Dino overnight adventure. So we got lots of time to roam the exhibit halls when they were–very atypically–almost empty. Above are the museum’s mounted Triceratops–or one of them, anyway–and mounted cast of the Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis holotype, presented in glorious not-stygian-darkness (if you went through the old dino hall, pre-renovation, you know what I mean).
We got there early and had time to roam around the museum grounds in Exposition Park. The darned-near-life-size bronze dinos out front are a minor LA landmark.
The rose garden was already closed, but we walked by anyway, and caught this rainbow in the big fountain.
After we checked in we had a little time to roam the museum on our own. I’ve been meaning to blog about how much I love the renovated dinosaur halls. The bases are cleverly designed to prohibit people touching the skeletons without putting railings or more than minimal glass in the way, and you can walk all the way around the mounted skeletons and look down on them from the mezzanine–none of that People’s Gloriously Efficient Cattle Chute of Compulsory Dinosaur Appreciation business. Signage is discreet and informative, and so are the handful of interactive gizmos. London and I spent a few minutes using a big touch-screen with a slider that controlled continental drift from the Triassic to the present–a nice example of using technology to add value to an exhibit without taking away from the real stuff that’s on display. There are even a few places to sit and just take it all in. That’s pretty much everything I want in a dinosaur hall.
Also, check out the jumbotron on the left in the above photo. It was running a (blessedly) narration-free video on how fossils are found, collected, prepared, mounted, and studied, on about a five-minute loop. Lots of pretty pictures. Including this next one.
There are a couple of levels of perspective distortion going on here, both in the original photo and in my photo of that photo projected on the jumbotron.
Still, I feel confident positing that that is one goldurned big ilium. I’m not going to claim it’s the biggest bone I’ve ever seen–that rarely ends well–but sheesh, it’s gotta be pretty freakin’ big. And apparently a brachiosaurid, or close to it. Never mind, it’s almost certainly an upside-down Triceratops skull. Thanks to Adam Yates for the catch. I will now diminish, and go into the West.
Triceratops, Styracosaurus, and Einiosaurus–collect the whole set!
Of course, the centerpiece of the second dinosaur hall–and how great is it that there are two!?–is the T. rex trio: baby, juvenile (out of frame to the right), and subadult. Yes, subadult: the “big” one is not as big as the really big rexes, and from the second floor you can see unfused neural arches in some of the caudal vertebrae (many thanks to Ashley Fragomeni for pointing those out to me on a previous visit).
Awwwww! C’mere, little fella!
Still, this ain’t Vulgar Overstudied Theropod Picture of the Week. Here are some sweet pneumatic diplodocid caudals in the big wall o’ fossils (visible behind Mamenchisaurus in the overhead photo above). The greenish color is legit–in the Dino Lab on the second floor, they’re prepping a bunch of sauropod elements that look like they were carved out of jade.
Sudden violent topic shift, the reason for which will be become clear shortly: London and I have been sculpting weapons of mass predation in our spare time. In some of the photos you may be able to see his necklace, which has a shark tooth he sculpted himself. Here are a couple of allosaur claws I made–more on those another time.
The point is, enthusiasm for DIY fossils is running very high at Casa Wedel, so London’s favorite activity of the evening was molding and casting. Everyone got to make a press mold using a small theropod tooth, a trilobite, or a Velociraptor claw. Most of the kids I overheard opted for the tooth, but London went straight for the claw.
Ready for plaster! Everyone got to pick up their cast at breakfast this morning, with instructions to let them cure until this evening. All went well, so I’ll spare you a photo of this same shape in reverse.
We were split into three tribes of maybe 30-40 people each, and each tribe bedded down in a different hall. The T. rex and Raptor tribes got the North American wildlife halls, but our Triceratops tribe got the African wildlife hall, which as a place to sleep is about 900 times cooler. Someone had already claimed the lions when we got there, so London picked hyenas as our totem animals.
Lights out was at 10:30 PM, and the lights came back on at 7:00 this morning. Breakfast was out from 7:15 to 8:00, and then we had the museum to ourselves until the public came in at 9:30. So I got a lot of uncluttered photos of stuff I don’t usually get to photograph, like this ammonite. Everyone should have one of these.
London’s favorite dino in the museum is Carnotaurus. It’s sufficiently weird that I can respect that choice.
Not that there’s anything wrong with the old standards, especially when they’re presented as cleanly and innovatively as they are here.
Finally, the LACM has a no tripod policy, and if they see you trying to carry one in they will make you take it back to your car. At least during normal business hours. But no one searched my backpack when we went in last night, and I put that sucker to some good use. Including getting my first non-bigfoot picture of the cast Argentinosaurus dorsal. It was a little deja-vu-ey after just spending so much time with the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus–elements of the two animals really are very comparable in size.
If you’re in the LA area and interested in spending a night at the museum–or at the tar pits!–check out the “Overnight Adventures” page on the museum’s website. Cost is $50 per person for members or $55 for non-members, and worth every penny IMHO. It’s one of those things I wish we’d done years ago.
My spouse, Vicki, the other Dr. Wedel, is a physical and forensic anthropologist. And she’s one of a very small number of scientists who have (a) learned something new about the human body, and (b) used it to help identify dead people. And since that process involves the sciences of hard-tissue histology and skeletochronology–not to mention lots of dead folks–I reckon it might be of interest here. Hence this post.
This started about a decade ago, when Vicki was working on her PhD under Alison Galloway at UC Santa Cruz. Vicki worked with Alison on a ton of forensic cases, including some you probably heard of–they analyzed the remains of Laci Peterson and her unborn baby, Connor, for Scott Peterson’s murder trial. I had the unusual privilege of assisting a couple of times, on other cases, once to take some pictures in the lab while Vicki fished the skeleton out of the bag of skin that was all that was left of the body, and once to crawl around on my hands and knees picking human finger bones out of a muddy slough near Santa Cruz. All in all, I’m happy that my usual victims have been dead a lot longer.
Incidentally, the only show with forensic content that Vicki will watch voluntarily is Dexter. She cannot stand CSI, NCIS, or the other “behind the scenes” forensic investigation shows. We’ve tried watching them, but the inaccuracies drive her crazy (paleo people: imagine getting the Clockwork Orange therapy and being forced to watch Clash of the Dinosaurs). Real cases are solved by teams of specialists, not two omnicompetent protagonists; it takes weeks or months, not half an hour; and if the forensics people carry guns, it’s because they know waaaay too much about how some very bad, very organized people dispose of bodies (the short answer is, not thoroughly enough*).
* Once a guy who was threatening to testify against a certain criminal organization was shot in the head, his body burned, and his burnt remains scattered along the side of the road. Vicki and Alison picked the bone shards out of the roadside gravel, identified some of them as bits of skull, and found bevelling diagnostic of ballistics trauma on some of those. The way the bone had shattered showed that the gunshot had been inflicted perimortem–around the time of death–and before the body was burned. Bottom line, whatever plan you have to get rid of the body, it is probably not going to be enough to keep someone like Vicki from figuring out how you did it. That much, the TV shows do get right.
Not only is hard to really, truly get rid of a human body, it’s also hard to tell exactly when a person died, especially if all you have is a body in the woods. Insects are good–there’s a whole field of forensic entomology, whose practitioners age cadavers based on what insects are present and what stages of their life cycles they’re in. But what if all that is left is a pile of bones in the woods (which happens more often that you might think, and sometimes for completely innocuous reasons)? I’m preaching to the choir here, but bones can survive for a long time, so general wear-and-tear doesn’t tell you much. Rapetosaurus looks like it died last year.
There’s another side to this, which is figuring out how old someone was at the time of death based on their skeleton. Tooth eruption is good, and fusion of the epiphyseal growth plates, but both of those processes are basically done by the time people are in their mid-20s (teeth) to mid-30s (epiphyseal fusion). After that, there are methods based on the morphology of the auricular surface of the ilium and the public symphyses, but these only narrow things down to intervals of 5 to 15 years, and that’s a lot of missing persons reports to sift through. And none of the regular skeletal methods work past the age of 55 or 60. After that, no matter how healthy you are, the primary skeletal changes are attritional (i.e., you’re wearing out), and that process varies so much among individuals and populations that there are basically no predictive guidelines.
All of this was on Vicki’s mind when she was a grad student, so she was alert to anything that might help forensic anthropologists narrow down the possibilities for identifying dead folks. She was teaching in an osteology course and one of her students, Josh Peabody, brought up dental cementum increment analysis (DCIA), which is used in zooarcheology to determine the age and season at death of animal remains found at archaeological sites. Josh wanted to know if the method worked on humans.
At the time–2004–DCIA was being tested for age at death in some historical human populations from archaeological sites, but no-one had tried using it for season at death. So Vicki and Josh set out to see if it would work.
Our teeth, like those of other mammals, are held in their sockets by periodontal ligaments. The periodontal ligament of each tooth attaches via Sharpey’s fibers to the dental cementum on the tooth root(s). Cementum is laid down in annual bands, so you can count the number of bands on a tooth, add the normal age at which that tooth erupts, and get a pretty tight estimate of when the animal died. So much for age at death, which was already being done on humans in a limited way in the early 2000s, albeit in archaeological rather than forensic contexts.
But wait, there’s more. Actually two bands of cementum are laid down every year–a dark band in the winter (roughly October to March) and a light band in the summer (roughly April to September). ‘Dark’ and ‘light’ describe the appearance of the bands under polarized light microscopy. In the summer months, the collagen fibrils that make up the cementum are aligned parallel to the tooth root, so more light comes through. In the winter, the collagen is aligned perpendicular to the root, so less light is transmitted, and the winter bands appear darker by comparison. So not only does the number of pairs of light-and-dark bands tell you the number of years since the tooth erupted, the color of the outermost band tells you in which six-month period the individual died, and the thickness of the outermost band might help you narrow that down even further.
At least, that’s how it works in other mammals. Would it hold up in humans? After all, we’re pretty good at adjusting our environments to suit us, rather than vice versa. If the winter-summer banding pattern was present in humans, it would be a huge boon to forensic science. Even people in their 40s and beyond with no very reliable skeletal indicators of age could be aged to within a year or two, and their season at death narrowed down to a 2-3 month window.
To find out, Vicki and Josh had a dentist in Santa Cruz collect 112 teeth pulled from patients over the course of a year (with full IRB approval and informed consent from the dental patients). For their purposes, a tooth pulled from a live person is just as good as one from a cadaver or skeleton–extraction kills the tooth as surely as death of the body. Better, even, in that it was easier to quickly get lots of teeth with very precise extraction data.
Vicki and Josh cut a few teeth together and they found dark and light bands right away. They presented those preliminary results at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meeting in 2005. After that, Josh got busy with his own research, but Vicki pressed on (while finishing a dissertation on different project, and being a first-time mom).
If this was a movie, this is the part where there would be a montage of inspirational music to get us quickly past a lot of hard, boring work. Each of the 112 teeth had to be embedded in plastic, a section through the root cut out with a saw, that section mounted on a slide and ground down until it was translucent (this process will be familiar to bone histologists of all stripes, paleo or neo). Then Vicki had to go all the way around the perimeter of the each root to find the place where the cementum bands showed the most clearly, and count them. This part is trickier than it sounds, unless you’ve done some histo and know just how butt-ugly some sections can be under the scope.
The results? In the words of the Bloodhound Gang, which Vicki quotes in her DCIA talks, “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals”. Here’s the payoff graph:
The one out-of-place measurement was probably caused by the dark band not being thick enough to register clearly on the image.
Now that she knew that DCIA could be used to determine season at death in humans, Vicki started applying it in her forensic cases, of which there have been many. The vast majority of the work of forensic anthropologists is invisible to the public: after analyzing a set of remains, a forensic anthropologist writes a case report for whatever law enforcement office (or, much less frequently, law firm or other entity) brought them in, and that’s that. The case reports are almost always confidential, but they have to be written to exacting standards since they may be used as evidence in court. So forensic anthropologists spend a lot of time toiling over papers that hardly anyone gets to read.
However, sometimes a case is written up for journal publication–if it’s sufficiently novel or unusual, and if permission can be secured from all of the relevant parties. In 2008, Vicki was approached by the Merced County sheriff’s office to help try to identify the remains of a young woman who had been murdered in 1971. That’s the 37-year-old cold case mentioned in the title of this post, and rather than tell you about it, I’ll point you to Vicki’s case report (Wedel et al. 2013), published last month in the Journal of Forensic Identification and freely available here.
I wasn’t sure whether to post about this or not–as cool as they are, murder cases are not our normal stock in trade on this blog. What decided me was talking with Andy Farke. He read Vicki’s paper as soon as it came out, and he said that he really enjoyed getting to see how forensic anthropologists work in the real world. I sometimes take for granted that, since I am married to a forensic anthropologist, I get to see how this works all the time. But that’s a pretty rare experience–if paleontology is a small field, forensic anthropology is positively tiny. So if you want to see an example of the real science that CSI and the like are based on, here’s your window.
What’s next? Vicki has several validation studies on DCIA in progress, for which she and her collaborators have collected a much larger sample size–over 1000 teeth–to try to answer questions like: what tooth is best to use for DCIA? Should the histological sections be made longitudinally or transversely through the tooth root? Does cementum banding vary with latitude? And since banding patterns are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere, following the flip-flopped season, what happens at the equator? Watch this space, and keep an eye out for Vicki’s future publications–including a book due out next year–at her website, Bodies, Bugs, and Bones.
- Wedel, V.L. 2007b. Determination of season at death using dental cementum increment analysis. Journal of Forensic Sciences 52(6): 1334-1337.
- Wedel, V.L., G. Found, and G.L. Nusse. 2013. A 37 year-old cold case identification using novel and collaborative methods. Journal of Forensic Identification 63(1): 5-21.