This is something I did over Thanksgiving break in 2019. I meant to blog about it sooner, but you know, 2020 and all. So here I am finally getting around to it. (Yes, I know the ruler in the above photo is the worst scale bar ever. I was, uh, making a point. Which you got. So go you!)

For reasons unknown to me, the strip of skin between the mid-snout and the ear on the right side of the head was already off when I took possession from the local butcher. But it did show the ear muscles to good advantage, as well as the parotid gland–the knobbly white thing between the eye and ear that looks like grits, or eggs, or white beans. You have a parotid gland in front of each of your ears, too (par-otid = “next to ear”), each with a duct that crosses the cheek to bring saliva into your mouth. If you push your tongue into the upper-lateral “corners” of your cheeks, you can feel the little papilla where the duct opens, and if you push against the papilla with your tongue you may feel a little saliva leak out. You also have paired submandibular and sublingual salivary glands, but those will have to wait for another day.

Here’s the head from the back, after I’d gotten the right ear off. The bluish-white hyaline cartilage over the occipital condyles is clearly visible about 2/3 of the way up from the bottom, with the faintly yellowish stump of the medulla oblongata in between, going up into the braincase. Tons of neck muscles are visible here, and maybe someday I or someone else will get around to labeling them in this photo–but it is not this day.

What was I doing here? Getting off the ears, and as much skin and subcutaneous fat as possible, in preparation for brining and smoking. I like this photo, the little piggy looks positively happy about having its skull prepped.

Right, into the bag with you then. I did the same brining and smoking routine that I did for my first smoked turkey back when–see this post for details.

And here we are about 15 hours later. Note how much the color of the meat has changed from the brining.

Time to extract the brain. I already showed a version of this photo in my post on the $1 brain-extractor (a.k.a. drain rooter, see this post), but it bears repeating: the brain is mostly lipids and if you cook the head with the brain still in it, the brain will turn into liquid fat and seep into the bones and you’ll spend the rest of your days trying to degrease the skull before you die, unloved and weeping, on a pile of rags. So no matter how you’re planning to cook the head, yoink the brain first.

Onto the grill, with a drip pan underneath, foil heat shields in place to keep the heat indirect, and foil-wrapped mesquite smoke bombs visible under the grill, right on top of the coals. This is about all I do with my grill anymore; smoking is really no more work than anything else and the results are pretty much to die for. YMMV.

Same shot an hour later and the smoking is coming along nicely. I ended up smoking this head for three hours, an hour and a half on each side. 

And into the roasting pan for a few minutes’ rest at the end of the cooking. And it was cooking, not just specimen prep–we ate this pig head in lieu of a turkey for Thanksgiving, and it was amazingly delicious. One thing to note in this photo is how the temporalis fascia has pulled away from the skull at the upper left, exposing some bare bone. This would be a problem later on.

Defleshing, both to get the edible meat off, and to get as much of the rest of the soft tissue off in preparation for simmering. In this anterior view, you can see that the right side of the animal’s forehead (viewer’s upper left) got exposed during the smoking process and the bone is stained brown. 

Even with the meat cooked all the way through, disarticulating the jaw took some doing, and then some follow-up meat removal. Check out the very round, almost hemispherical mandibular condyles, which fit up into the sockets of the temporomandibular joints. Birds and other reptiles mostly do it the opposite way, with rounded quadrates on the cranium that fit into articular sockets on the lower jaw.

Ready for simmering. Pro tip: if you need a really big metal pot in which to simmer skulls or other large osteological specimens, but you don’t want to go bankrupt, look for a tamale-steaming pot. They’re comparatively thin-walled and lightweight, but still plenty sturdy for just about any application you are likely to think of. 

Our kitty, Moe, helped with the clean-up of the roasting pan.

The first simmer. At this remove, I don’t remember how many rounds of simmering I did, but it was at least two, maybe three.

Post-simmer, I put the skull into a sink-full of warm, soapy water for a defleshing. Notable bits you can see on the right side of the photo are the ridged surface of the palate (about 7:00 on the plate), the long straight cartilage of the nasal septum (going vertically up the right side of the plate), and the incisors at the extreme upper right, sitting on the edge of the sink. Most of the incisors fell out during the wash, which was fine, because most of them were horribly stained from the smoking process and would require a lot of scrubbing and bleaching to get back to a nice and natural-looking white.

The condition after the first simmer. You can see that the supraorbital foramina, on the forehead between the eyes, still have goop in them. This was true of pretty much all of the nerve and blood vessel passages. It took a lot of time, some ingenuity, bamboo barbeque skewers, and running water this way and that to flush out all of that crud. And the bones are still weird colors at this stage, pre-whitening, especially the groady dark patches on the forehead. It wasn’t the areas of bone that were directly exposed to smoke that were the problem, it was the areas just adjacent where the periosteum cooked against the bone.

Same stage, left lateral view. Note the empty sockets for the incisors, and the infraorbital foramen (above the upper teeth and about a third of the way between eye socket and the nose), which on this side is divided in two by a strut of bone. There’s another gross dark patch on the back of the zygomatic arch. All of those took pretty aggressive scrubbing to remove.

Back into the pot for another simmer. The perforated plate at the bottom sits on a lip of metal about three inches above the bottom of the pot so you can steam tamales with this thing. I used it to keep the bones off the bottom of the pot so they’d have no chance of getting scorched.

Here’s a significant jump forward in time. By this point I’d degreased and whitened the skull by soaking it in dilute hydrogen peroxide (I use the cheap stuff from the dollar store down the street, and it works fine), applied glue to several of the skull sutures that were threatening to come apart, and epoxied the prenasal bone back into position between the nasal bones above and the premaxillary bones below. The prenasal bone is a pretty cool structure, you can see it in other views (including a cross-section!) in this post. I also glued the incisors back in at this stage.

Believe it or not, this was the largest skull I had ever prepped myself–the largest osteological preparation of any kind, in fact–and it was a lot more work than I anticipated. But the effort was worth it, and now I have a really cool pig skull on my bookcase. I’ll show the finished skull in a follow-up post (no, really, I will!). EDIT: And I did! 

For other posts on pig skulls, see:

On 22nd December 2020, I gave this talk (via Zoom) to Martin Sander’s palaeontology research group at the University of Bonn, Germany. And now I am giving it to you, dear reader, the greatest Christmas present anyone could ever wish for:

It’s based on a 2013 paper written with Matt Wedel, which itself goes back through many years slow gestation, originating in a discussion on a car journey in 2008. I must tell the full story some time; but not this time.

In this talk, I start by showing in a hopefully vivid way how very much longer sauropods’ necks were than those of any other animal. Then I explain six of the features that made those very long necks possible: no constraint on vertebral count; small, light heads that did not process food; absolutely large bodies with a quadrepedal bauplan; an avian-style respiratory system; air-filled cervical vertebrae; and elongated neck ribs.

If you want to know more, see that Wedel and Taylor (2013) paper!

Finally, my thanks to René Dederichs, a Student of Paleontology in Martin Sander’s work group at the University of Bonn. He organized this event, and recorded the talk for me.

References

 

These things just catch my eye, I can’t help it.

Left: Oddbins corkscrew, circa 1997. Right: left femur of Patagotitan mayorum, circa 100,000,000 BC.

Note that the corkscrew features a distinct medially directed femoral head, the bulge in the lateral margin of the proximal portion that is characteristic of titanosaurs, and a straight shaft. OK, it’s missing tibial and fibular condyles at the distant end, but you can’t have everything.

 

Darren has written a brief review of TetZooMCon, the online event that replaced the now traditional annual conference of Tetrapod Zoology. I just want to add a few notes on the palaeoart workshop part of the event, hosted by John Conway’s moustache:

There were 140 people registered for the workship, randomly allocated to one of fourteen palaeoartists leading the groups (although one artist didn’t show up). After John’s brief introduction, each of the groups met in its own breakout room to work on … well, whatever the leader chose.

There was an amazing line-up of artists, a real Who’s Who of the field, encompassing wildly different styles and including but not limited to Scott Hartman, David Krentz, Bob Nicholls, Steve White and Mark Witton. Some led workshops on colour, some on 3D modelling, some on integument and so on.

Happily, I landed in a session that was perfect for me, as a non-artist trying to pick up some essentials. Steve White (whose pen work I absolutely love) led us through drawing a T. rex with proper attention to anatomy, with each of us encouraged to draw along with him. For me it was an education in thinking about how details of the bony anatomy would have influenced musculature, and how that might have been apparent in the living animal. Here is my lame attempt:

Yes, I know all sorts of thing are off with the proportions. But the point here was the process, not the result. And yes, it’s a bit shrinkwrapped in places, but that’s because of the exercise we were going through rather than necessarily reflecting how anyone thinks the animal looked in life.

I found this enormously helpful, and would happily have carried on far beyond the rather miserly one hour allocated to the workshop. I want to thank Darren and John for putting the whole event together, and especially Steve White for leading our group so well and responding so helpfully to all our questions.

I’m late to this party, but I want to say a few things about the recently announced €9,500 article-processing charge (APC) that Nature has introduced to make itself Plan-S compliant.


The first thing is that a lot of people are quite understandably outraged by this very large fee.

Good. They should be outraged. The APIC is outrageous.

But here’s the thing: we should all have been outraged at Nature‘s cost long, long ago. Becuase the €9,500 figure wasn’t pulled out of thin air. It’s the amount Springer Nature needs to charge to maintain its revenue at the same level. Which means we are already paying €9,500 for each Nature article, but not noticing because that cost is spread across many subscriptions.

Let me say this another way: for each article that is published in Nature, €9,500 leaves the scholarly community. (I might mention here in passing the profit margins at the big scholarly publishers are all around 35%, so it’s likely that upwards of €3,000 of that is pure profit.)

That’s why I welcome the outrage. It’s the sound of academics finally waking up and realising that they are being had. It’s several decades too late, but we can’t worry about that.


Second thing: almost all the scientific value of a paper published in Nature, over that of the manuscript before it went to that venue, is in peer-review.

Peer-review that we do. Because publishers do not provide peer-review. We do.

We have all swallowed the idea that we ought to provide professional peer-review services to publishers for free because that’s part of being in the scholarly community. When I am reviewing for a diamond OA journal (zero APC) such as Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, or a low-APC journal like PeerJ, I think that’s perfectly reasonable. But when it’s for a journal that is going to turn around and charge the author €9,500 for services that you and I provided, that is not reasonable.

And this is why, while I have grave reservations about the idea of introducing financial incentives into peer-review, I am intrigued by The 450 Movement, in which James Heathers argues that peer-reviewers should be paid $450 per review, and provides a sample contract that reviewers can send to publishers who ask them provide this service.

(And again, remember this was happening before Nature announced the APC, when they were subscription only. Back then, too, they were taking €9,500 per paper based on work that you did for them, for free.)


Third thing: the way to fix this is to stop feeding the beast.

How did we get into the situation where we consider it normal to give our work to journals that get €9,500 from it, and then contribute free professional services to help the journal create a versions of our colleagues’ work that the journals can claim copyright on?

It’s strange, isn’t it? I guess we’re boiled frogs. There was a time when Nature was just a regular journal, and placing a short paper in it was not much different from placing it elsewhere. But somehow it started to be seen as prestigious, and from there a runaway process quickly made things more and more extreme (as with runaway sexual selection). People saw a Nature paper as prestigious, so more people submitted there, so a greater proportion of submissions were rejected, so Nature came to be seen as even more more prestigious. Vamp till insane.

Because this is insane. It can’t be said too often (or, apparently, often enough even), that papers don’t get into Nature by being good science — rigorously argued, well supported, statistically sound. They get in by proposing an exciting hypothesis, or by featuring a spectacular specimen, or by finding a surprising result (often based on flimsy statistical evidence: impact factor has no correlation with statistical strength, so more prestigious journals do not have more strongly supported results.)

And worse, a given study in its Nature form is objectively less useful than the same study would be in a regular journal: it’s sliced and compressed to fit length limits that make no sense, especially for descriptive work.

So why do people expend so much energy trying to get their papers into Nature (and Science, which is just as bad)? Because people believe, rightly or wrongly, that their careers depend on publishing in these specific journals.

Do we have any idea how insane that sounds to people outside of the academic bubble?

“I discovered, documented and published on a completely novel evolutionary mechanism!”

“Oh, that must be great for your career.”

“Not really. I couldn’t get a compressed three-page version of it into Nature, so I had to publish a full-length, rigorously argued, extensively evidenced, lavishly illustrated version in PLOS ONE instead.”

If we want a rational scientific ecosystem, it’s imperative that we stop judging work by what journal it appears in, and judge it only by its own merits.

“But Mike, we don’t have time to actually read an author’s papers”. Oh, you’re telling me you don’t have time to do your job? Then you need to make changes.

“But Mike, it’s not that simple”. Yes, it is. It really is. If you judge a paper by the journal it appears in, you are scientifically illiterate. And you are encouraging all sorts of harmful behaviour that actively cripples the progress of science. People who are desperate to get a paper into Nature? At best, they cripple its scientific usefulness by cutting out crucial material, relegating a bare-bones (i.e. irreproducible) version methods section to footnotes, squashing illustrations together and shrinking them down to postage-stamp size. That’s if everything goes to plan. At worst, they cherry-pick the best results from experiments, or straight-up fabricate results. And either way, effort is wasted on getting into a specific journal that would otherwise be spent doing actual science.

Folks, we have to be better than this.

We just have to.