One of the benefits of being me is that my friends often make me cool dino-themed stuff for my birthday (f’rinstance). This year, it was this dinosaur dig cake from my friend Jenny Adams. Yes, it’s a vulgar, overstudied theropod,* but I take the requisite amount of joy from how thoroughly blown apart its skeleton is. Plus, the skull and cervicals are pneumatic (in vivo, if not in choco), so it’s a least plausibly interesting (i.e., not an ornithopod), and it looks cool (i.e., not Camarasaurus).

*I’m morally obligated to thank Paul Barrett for this wonderful phrase, which I use pretty much every chance I get.

Should you want to replicate this glycemic index Chicxulub, here’s the stratigraphic breakdown, starting from the bedrock (bedchoc?):

  • base layer is a regular chocolate cake,
  • but with added chocolate chips,
  • topped with vanilla frosting, to hold down:
  • a whole package of Oreos crumbled into faux dirt
  • surrounding the vanilla-flavored white chocolate dinosaur bones

Jenny made the dino bones using a set of (new, clean) plastic sand molds, like these:

You can find a zillion like ’em online by searching for ‘dinosaur sand toys’ or ‘dinosaur sand mold’.

Anyway, I can report that the excavation has been most enjoyable, but with about half the ‘quarry’ left to explore, the number of fossils recovered intact continues to hover near zero — we’ve been grinding them up to use as dietary supplements. Good thing it’s just a theropod!

I’ve been in contact recently with Matt Lamanna, Associate Curator in the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History — which is obviously the best job in the world. Among a batch of photos that he sent me recently, I seized on this gem:

Tyrannosaurus rex, Diplodocus carnegii, Apatosaurus louisae and multiple mostly juvenile individuals of Homo sapiens. Photograph taken between 1941 and 1965. Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

There’s so much to appreciate in this picture: the hunchbacked, tail-dragging Tyrannosaurus; the camarasaur-style skull on the Apatosaurus; the hard-to-pin-down archaic air of Diplodocus.

But the thing I love about it is the 1950s kids. (Or, to be fair, maybe the 1940s kids or early 1960s kids, but you get the point.) They way they’ve all been asked to look up at the tyrannosaur skull, and are obediently doing it. How earnest they all appear. How they’re all dressed as tiny adults. How self-consciously some of them have posed themselves — the thoughtful kid one in from the left, his foot up on the plinth and his chin resting on his hand; the cool kid to his right, arms crossed, interested but careful not to seem too impressed.

Where are these kids now? Assuming it was taken in 1953, the midpoint of the possible range, and assuming they’re about 12 years old in this photo, they were born around 1941, which would make them 81 now. Statistically, somewhere around half of them are still alive. I wonder how many of them remember this day, and the strange blend of awe, fascination, and self-consciousness.

This is a time-capsule, friends. Enjoy it.

We’ve shown you the Apatosaurus louisae holotype mounted skeleton CM 3018 several times: shot from the hip, posing with another massive vertebrate, photographed from above, and more. Today we bring you a world first: Apatosaurus from below. Scroll and enjoy!

Obviously there’s a lot of perspective distortion here. You have to imagine yourself lying underneath the skeleton and looking up — as I was, when I took the short video that was converted into this image.

Many thanks to special-effects wizard Jarrod Davis for stitching the video into the glorious image you see here.

The most obvious effect of the perspective distortion is that the neck and tail both look tiny: we are effectively looking along them, the neck in posteroventral view and the tail in anteroventral. The ribs are also flared in this perspective, making Apato look even broader than it is in real life. Which is pretty broad. One odd effect of this is that this makes the scapulae look as though they are sitting on top of the ribcage rather than appressed to its sides.

 

Yes, we’ve touched on a similar subject in a previous tutorial, but today I want to make a really important point about writing anything of substance, whether it’s a scientific paper, a novel or the manual for a piece of software. It’s this: you have to actually do the work. And the way you do that is by first doing a bit of the work, then doing a bit more, and iterating until it’s all done. This is the only way to complete a project.

Yes, this is very basic advice. Yes, it’s almost tautological. But I think it needs saying because it’s a lesson that we seem to be hardwired to avoid learning. This, I assume, is why so many wise sayings have been coined on the subject. Everyone has heard that “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”, attributed to Lao Tzu in maybe the 5th Century BC. More pithily, I recently discovered that Williams Wordsworth is supposed to have said:

To begin, begin.

I love that. In just three words, it makes the point that there is no secret to be learned here, no special thing that you can do to make beginning easier. You just have to do it. Fire up your favourite word processor. Create a new document. Start typing.

And to Wordsworth’s injunction, I would add this:

To continue, continue

Because, again, there is no secret. You just have to do it.

Mounted skeleton of Diplodocus carnegii holotype CM 84 in the rare dorsal view.

At the moment I am working on four separate but related papers. Honestly, sometimes it’s hard even keeping them straight in my head. Sometimes I forget which one I am editing. It would be easy to get overwhelmed and … just not finish. I don’t mean it would be easy to give up: that would be a decision, and I don’t think I would do that. But if I listened to my inner sluggard, I would just keep on not making progress until the matter become moot.

So here is what I do instead:

  • I pick one of the papers, which is the one I’m going to work on that evening, and I try not to think too much about the others.
  • I figure out what needs to be in that paper, in what order.
  • I write the headings into a document, and I put an empty paragraph below each, which just says “XXX”. That’s the marker I use to mean “work needed here”.
  • I use my word-processor’s document-structuring facilities to set the style of each of the headings accordingly — 1st, 2nd or occasionally 3rd level.
  • I auto-generate a table of contents so I can see if it all makes sense. If it doesn’t, I move my headings around and regenerate the table of contents, and I keep doing that until it does make sense.
  • I now have a manuscript that is 100% complete except in the tiny detail that it has no content. This is a big step! Now all I have to do is write the content, and I’ll be finished.
  • I write the content, one section at a time. I search for “XXX” to find an unwritten section, and I write it.
  • When all the “XXX” markers have been replaced by text, the paper is done — or, at least, ready to be submitted.

Caveats:

First, that list makes it sound like I am really good at this. I’m not. I suck. I get distracted. For example, I am writing this blog-post as a distraction from writing a section of the paper I’m currently working on. I check what’s new on Tweetdeck. I read an article or two. I go and make myself a cup of tea. I play a bit of guitar. But then I go back and write a bit more. I could be a lot more efficient. But the thing is, if you keep writing a bit more over and over again, in the end you finish.

Second, the path is rarely linear. Often I’m not able to complete the section I want to work on because I am waiting on someone else to get back to me about some technical point, or I need to find relevant literature, or I realise I’m going to need to make a big digression. That’s fine. I just leave an “XXX” at each point that I know I’m going to have to revisit. Then when the email comes in, or I find the paper, or I figure out how to handle the digression, I return to the “XXX” and fix it up.

Third, sometimes writing a section blows up into something bigger. That’s OK. Just make a decision. That’s how I ended up working on these four papers at the moment. I started with one, but a section of it kept growing and I realised it really wanted to be its own paper — so I cut it out of the first one and made it its own project. But then a section of that one grew into a third paper, and then a section of that one grew into a fourth. Not a problem. Sometimes, that’s the best way to generate new ideas for what to work on: just see what come spiralling out of what you’re already working on.

None of these caveats change the basic observation here, which is simply this: in order to get a piece of work completed, you first have to start, and then have to carry on until it’s done.

 

Here at SV-POW! Towers, we like to show you iconic mounted skeletons from unusual perspectives. Here’s one:

Apatosaurus louisae holotype CM 3018, mounted skeleton in the public gallery of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History: head, neck, torso and hip in right posterolateral view. Photograph by Matt Wedel, 12th March 2019 (my birthday!)

Oh, man, I love that museum. And I love that specimen. And I love the one that’s standing next to it (Diplodocus CM 82, natch.) I’ve got to find a way to get myself back out there.

That’s all: just enjoy.

I have a new article out in the Journal of Data and Information Science (Taylor 2022), on a subject that will be familiar to long-time readers. It’s titled “I don’t peer-review for non-open journals, and neither should you”, and honestly if you’ve read the title, you’ve sort of read the paper :-)

But if you want the reasons why I don’t peer-review for non-open journals, and the reasons why you shouldn’t either, you can find them in the article, which is a quick and easy read of just three pages. I’ll be happy to discuss any disagreements in the comments (or indeed any agreements!).

Reference

Long-time readers may recall that back in 2009, I was quote-mined in the television documentary series Clash of the Dinosaurs (1, 2, 3). Turns out, such misrepresentations are not that uncommon, and now there’s a whole feature-length documentary about the problem, titled Science Friction. The trailer is above, and the film’s homepage is here. It’s streaming on Amazon Prime Video and on Tubi (maaaybe for free? I don’t have a Tubi subscription but the film plays in browser for me with no payment…). Science Friction has earned a decent number of film festival accolades, and I’m proud to have been involved.

Note to my future navel-gazing self: I’m on at 0:19:40 to 0:21:21, and again from 1:22:21 to 1:22:50.

I have long intended to write a paper entitled Why Elephants Are So Small, as a companion piece to Why Giraffes Have Short Necks (Taylor and Wedel 2013). I’ve often discussed this project with Matt, usually under the acronym WEASS, and its substance has come up in the previous post, and especially Mickey Mortimer’s comment:

I think it would be interesting to read a study on that — the order in which various factors restrict body size without transformative adaptations. Similarly, what the differences would be for an aquatic animal like a whale.

That is exactly what the WEASS project was supposed to consist of: a list of many candidate limitations on how big animals can get, some rough attempt to quantify their Big-O behaviour, some discussion of which factors seems to limit the sizes of modern terrestrial animals, and how dinosaurs (especially sauropods) worked around those limitations.

(Whales are different. I have in my mind a half-formed notion for a third paper, completing the trilogy, with a title along the lines of Why Whales Are Dirty Cheaters.)

What are those candidate limitations? Off the top of my head:

Biomechanical:

  • Bone strength
  • Cartilage strength
  • Cartilage thickness
  • Muscle strength
  • Nerve length and conduction time

Metabolic:

  • Blood pressure: column height and capillary length
  • Lung capacity
  • Tracheal dead space
  • Digestive efficiency
  • Metabolic overheating

Those are just some of the physical limits. There is anecdotal evidence that elephants are not very close to their mechanical limits in their usual behaviour: they could get bigger, and still work mechanically. (Follow the link at the start of this paragraph. You will thank me.)

There are plenty of other factors that potentially limit organism size, including:

Behavioural:

  • Feeding rate
  • Ability to navigate dense environments
  • Predator avoidance with limited athleticism
  • Difficulties in mating

Ecological:

  • Territory requirement
  • Time taken to reach reproductive maturity
  • Reproductive rate
  • Birth size
  • Lack of selection pressure: when there are no predators bigger than a lion, why would elephants need to evolve larger size?

I’m sure I am missing loads. Help me out!

I am haunted by something Matt wrote a while back when we were discussing this — talking about how alien sauropods are, and how easily we slip into assuming mammal-like paradigms.

We are badly hampered by the fact that all of the 250kg+ land animals are mammals. We only get to see one way of being big, and it’s obviously not the best way of being big. Our perceptions of how hard it is to be big are shaped by the animals that are bad at it.

So having written this blog post, I am wondering whether it’s time to breathe life back into this project, started in 2009 and repeatedly abandoned.

Small and large sauropods, with cross-sections through neck and leg. Bone shown in white, gullet in yellow. Modified from Twemoji12 1f995 (CC By 4.0) from the Twitter Emoji project. Downloaded from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Twemoji12_1f995.svg

Consider a small sauropod of length x, as shown on the left above. Its mass is proportional to x cubed, it stands on leg bones whose cross-sectional area is x squared, and it ingests food through a gullet whose cross-sectional area is x squared. Now consider a larger sauropod of length 2x, as shown on the right above. Its mass is proportional to 2x cubed = 8x, it stands on leg bones whose cross-sectional area is 2x squared = 4x, and it ingests food through a gullet whose cross-sectional area is 2x squared = 4x. The bigger sauropod has to carry proportionally twice as much mass on its leg bones, and ingest proportionally twice as much food through its gullet. (Similarly, a 104-foot tall gorilla, 20 times as tall as a real one, is only 400 times as strong but 8000 times as heavy — which is why we can’t have Skull Island.)

In practice, big animals tend to have adaptations such as thicker limb bones that mean the numbers aren’t quite as bad as this, but the principal holds: the bigger an animal gets, the worse the problems imposed by scaling. It’s not possible to “solve” this problem because so many biological properties scale this way. Something is always the limiting factor. Suppose it were leg-bones or gullet. If somehow a hypothetical ultra-sauropod evolved extra thick leg-bones and gullet, scaling of respiration would suffocate it, or scaling of digestion would starve it, or scaling of heat-loss through the skin would boil it. The fundamental reason that you can’t just scale an animal up is that some parts of its function scale with volume while most — respiration, digestion, etc. — scale with surface area.

I’m currently working on a paper about the AMNH’s rearing Barosaurus mount. (That’s just one of the multiple reasons I am currently obsessed by Barosaurus.) It’s a fascinating process: more of a history project than a scientific one. It’s throwing up all sorts of things. Here’s one.

In 1992, the year after the mount went up, S. O. Landry gave a talk at the annual meeting of American Zoologist about this mount. I don’t even remember now where I saw a reference to this, or how I found it, but the untitled abstract is on JSTOR, as part of the society’s abstracts volume. Here it is, in its entirety:

I thought he’d made some good points, so I wanted to figure out whether he’d ever gone on from this 31-year-old abstract and published a paper about it.

Based on the surname, initials and affiliation, I searched here and there, and turned up a few bits and pieces. I learned that he was  a Professor of Biology at SUNY at Binghamton, specialising in hystricomorph rodents. I found out that his wife Helen died in 2007 after 57 years’ marriage. (That’s not just idle curiosity: it’s how I discovered that his first name was Stuart.) I found a photograph of him, taken in 1975, with Assemblyman James L. Tallon, and learned in the process that his middle name was Omer. I found that he was at one time the Graduate Dean at SUNY Binghamton, and opposed the 1972 rise in tuition fees from $800 per year to $1200–$1500. I learned that his BS was from Harvard College and his Ph.D from UC Berkeley, and that he is still listed as a professor emeritus at SUNY Binghamton. I discovered that he “pooh-poohs the idea that young students’ minds are “tabula rasas” – blank slates”. I know that in 1966 he translated C. C. Robin’s Voyage to the Interior of Louisiana from its original French. I learned that he was born in 1924 and died in 2015 at the age of 90, and served in the Battle of the Bulge.  More troublingly, I discovered that his father, also named Stuart Omer Landry, was known for writing racist tracts for the Pelican Publishing Company, but that he himself rose above that heritage and became known for his progressive politics.

I don’t know what to make of any of this. It seems that he never published anything substantive about Barosaurus, so in that sense, I have lost interest in him. But isn’t it strange that in trying to answer the simple question “Did the S. O. Landry who wrote an abstract about rearing Barosaurus write anything else on the subject?” has wound up opening the book of someone’s life like this?

And how strange that someone with 90 years of rich, complex life and numerous academic achievements should be, to me, just the guy who wrote an untitled abstract about Barosaurus that one time.