What a dream I had!

January 31, 2021

Oh, hey, so you know how the most tedious thing you can ever hear is someone recounting one of their dreams? I want to tell you about a dream I had last night.

Brian Curtice’s grandfather was in a position of authority to express condemnation of a group of people who had lost the electronic archives of the Daily Telegraph, but declined to do so. So I became part of a woke mob that went to Curtice’s house to express our displeasure to him. I got distracted by an outbuilding when we arrived, went in, and found that it contained the Sonorosaurus type material, which for some reason included two really nice scapulocoracoids. At that point my Index Data colleague Wayne (also part of the woke mob) wandered in and I expressed to him that I was having second thoughts about this whole protest and that my first concern now was protecting the holotype against the more indiscriminate members of the mob. But I kept thinking to myself “Why is this material even here? If anything, it should be in an outbuilding at Kevin Ratkevic’s house.” Then Wayne and I spotted a bunch of computer monitors running software that Curtice had written earlier in his life, and it became apparent that he was the creator of a Commodore 64 adventure game called Pilgrim for which the publishers had ripped off an 8×8 old-English-style character set that I had used in a game I’d published with them.

Ratkevic (1988:figure 4).Lower hind limb including tibia, fibula, and nearly complete left pes of Sonorasaurus thompsoni holotype ASDM 500. Elements found associated but not articulated. Entire assembled length 137 cm. Photo by Jeanne Broome.

So. I never remember dreams in this kind of detail. The fact that I did on this on occasion is strange to me — but then, these are strange times. A quick run-down of what is and isn’t true:

  • So far as I know, the Daily Telegraph archives have not been lost.
  • Brian Curtice is a sauropod palaeontologist, maybe best known for his work reassessing Jensen’s Dry Mesa sauropods (e.g. Curtice et al. 1996, Curtice and Stadtman 2001); I have no idea if he has a grandfather and whether he has any involvement with archives.
  • I do not know where Brian lives, or whether he has any fossils at his house. I highly doubt he has holotypes.
  • The holotype of Sonorasaurus does not include any shoulder-girdle material, but it was indeed described by Ratkevich (1988) — but Ron, not Kevin.
  • There really was a Commodore 64 adventure game called Pilgrim, published by CRL, and they really did re-use — without my permission — the character set I had defined in The Causes of Chaos, which I had published with them not long before.
  • But Pilgrim was by Rod Pike, and I very highly doubt that Brian Curtice, even if he was a C64 programmer in the early-mid 90s, ever published any games with a UK-based software house.

Matt’s response when I told him about this dream:

Just got to the scapulocoracoids and LLOL
“my first concern now was protecting the holotype against the more indiscriminate members of the mob.” LLOL x infinity
Well, I gotta tell you, that was a ride.
Jurassic-Park-style, through your hindbrain.
It had everything!
Woke mobs, holotypes, old school adventure games, intellectual property (at the start and at the end)
lost archives
this is so specific in so many weirdly-specialized areas that whole schools may spring up to interpret it. You might accidentally found a new religion.

All right, folks: interpret for me!

References

  • Curtice, Brian D., Kenneth L. Stadtman and Linda J. Curtice. 1996. A reassessment of Ultrasauros macintoshi (Jensen, 1985). The continental Jurassic (M. Morales, ed.): Museum of Northern Arizona Bulletin 60:87–95.
  • Curtice, Brian D. and Kenneth L. Stadtman. 2001. The demise of Dystylosaurus edwini and a revision of Supersaurus vivianae. Western Association of Vertebrate Paleontologists and Mesa Southwest Museum and Southwest Paleontologists Symposium, Bulletin 8:33–40.
  • Ratkevich, Ron. 1998. New Cretaceous brachiosaurid dinosaur, Sonorasaurus thompsoni gen et sp. nov, from Arizona. Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy of Science 31:71–82.

Xinjiangtitan when originally described, from Wu et al. (2013)

We’re way late to this party, but better late than never I guess. Wu et al. (2013) described Xinjiangtitan shanshanesis as a new mamenchisaurid from the Middle Jurassic of China. At the time of the initial description, all of the dorsal and sacral vertebrae had been uncovered, as well as a handful of the most posterior cervicals and most anterior caudals.

Xinjiangtitan revealed, from Zhang et al. (2018)

Jump a few years forward 2018, when Zhang et al. described the complete cervical series of Xinjiangtitan, based on further excavation of the holotype (they also changed some of the element identifications in the original description). It’s pretty insane: 

  • 18 cervical vertebrae, same as Mamenchisaurus youngi, and one less than M. hochuanensis, all discovered in articulation;
  • 10 of those vertebrae have centrum lengths of 1 meter or more;
  • the longest centrum, that of C12, is 123cm long;
  • the total lengths of the separate cervical vertebrae (not articulated) add up to about 15 meters;
  • even assuming that the condyles of the vertebrae were fully buried in the cotyles, the total length of articulated neck would still be 13.36 meters. 

Now, some caveating. Zhang et al. (2018) report two different lengths for most the cervicals: a maximum centrum length, which includes the anterior condyle, and a “minimum centrum length” without the anterior condyle. Reporting cervical lengths minus the condyle is fairly common–Janensch did it for what is now Giraffatitan (“ohne condylus”), McIntosh (2005) did it for the AMNH Barosaurus, Tschopp and Mateus (2017) did it for Galeamopus pabsti, and so on. In the freely available but as-yet-not-formally-published 4th chapter of my dissertation (Wedel 2007), I referred to the length without the condyle as the “functional length”, and I explicitly assumed that it was “the length that each vertebra contributes to the total neck length”. At the time I assumed that condyles were always fully buried in cotyles in life, because I didn’t know about camel necks (see Taylor and Wedel 2013b: fig. 21 and this post). 

Why am I bringing up all these minutiae? Because I’m really interested in the actual length of the neck of Xinjiangtitan in life, and that’s not so very straightforward to figure out. I’ll start with what Zhang et al. wrote, then proceed to their measurements, and then discuss their map.

At the start of the Description section, Zhang et al. (2018: p. 3) wrote:

In SSV12001, the cervical series is almost completely articulated and is exposed laterally (Figure 2). The long neck (at least 14.9 m) is well-preserved with a total of 18 cervical vertebrae. This measurement was estimated based on the maximum centrum length including the anterior condyles with the space for the cartilage assumed.

How much space is assumed for the cartilage? They don’t say, and it’s not clear, but one reading is that they just added up the total lengths of all the cervical centra and assumed that the cotyles were completely full of cartilage. Which is not so crazy as it might sound, since that’s exactly what happens in camels. But let’s see what their tables of measurements say.

Xinjiangtitan cervical vertebra measurements, from Zhang et al. (2018)

Table 1 gives the measurements of the atlas and axis, and Table 2 gives the measurements of all the remaining cervicals. Only “minimum centrum length”–without the condyle–is reported for cervicals 4 and 5, because C3-C5 were articulated as a unit, they haven’t been separated, and without CT scanning or further prep it’s going to be impossible to determine how long they were with the condyles. However, we can infer that the condyles of C4 and C5 are buried in the cotyles of C3 and C4 because (a) only the without-condyle lengths are reported, and (b) the condyles aren’t visible in the figures. File that away, it’s going to be important.

Adding up all of the max centrum lengths, including 165mm for the axis and 30mm for the atlas, per Table 1, I get a total of 14985mm, or 14.985 meters. Because Zhang et al. were so assiduous about their reporting–they really did Measure Their Damn Dinosaur–we can estimate pretty closely how much longer that total would be if it included the condyles of C4 and C5. Subtracting the min length from the max length, we find that the condyle is 70mm long in both C3 and C6, so it’s reasonable to assume the same for the vertebrae in the middle. Adding 140mm to the earlier total gets us up to 15125mm, or 15.125 meters. That’s assuming condyles end even with the rims of the cotyles, and cotyles are completely full of cartilage.

Xinjiangtitan cervicals, from Zhang et al. (2018: fig 3)

Adding up the all of the minimum centrum lengths, again including the axis and atlas, yields a total of 13360mm, or 13.36 meters. I think this smaller total is much more likely to be the actual length of the neck in life, for three reasons:

  1. As mentioned above, the condyles of C4 and C5 of this very specimen are actually buried in the cotyles of the preceding vertebrae. So we don’t need to add any space for cartilage to the summed minimum (without condyle) lengths–there certainly was cartilage between the surfaces of the condyles and cotyles, because that’s how intervertebral joints work, but there was not enough to push the condyles back outside the cotyles, unless we want to engage in some special pleading that C3-C5 were unnaturally smooshed together.
  2. Camels notwithstanding, having the condyles buried in the cotyles is pretty standard for articulated necks of big, long-necked sauropods. In the holotype specimens of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis and Sauroposeidon, the condyles are not visible in lateral view, because they are completely buried in the cotyles of the preceding vertebrae–see the photos in this post and on this page to confirm that for yourself. In Giraffatitan, just the edges of the condyles are visible sticking out the backs of the cotyles in some of the posterior cervicals–see this post.
  3. The 13.36-meter neck is more consistent with the map of the specimen in the ground than either the 14.9-meter or 15.1-meter totals.

A little unpacking on that last point. Using the dorsal lengths from Wu et al. (2013: table 1)–and assuming that Zhang et al. are correct, and the D1 of Wu et al. is actually cervical 18, but D11 of Wu et al. is actually D10 and D11 together, so there are still 12 dorsals–I get a total length for the articulated dorsal column of 3355mm. Dividing 13360 by 3355 yields a cervical/dorsal ratio of 3.98. Using the screenshot of the map from Zhang et al. (2018: fig. 2), I measured 1505 pixels for the summed cervicals, 380 pixels for the summed dorsals, and 112 pixels for the scale bar. Assuming the scale bar is supposed to be 1 meter (and not 20 meters or 2.0 meters as it is labeled) yields a summed cervical length of 13.4 meters, a summed dorsal length of 3.39 meters, and a cervical/dorsal ratio of 3.96–all admirably close, off by no more than 4cm across 16+ meters, if the neck in the ground was articulated condyle-inside-cotyle. If we assume the map shows a 14.9-meter neck, then both the dorsal series and the scale bar are off by about 12%, which is unreasonable given the high precision of the map if the articulated neck corresponds to the summed minimum lengths.

Mounted skeleton of Omeisaurus tianfuensis: N E C C

Bonus observation #1: the holotype of Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis has a cervical/dorsal ratio of 3.52, but in Omeisaurus tianfuensis the same ratio is 4.09. So Xinjiangtitan is actually a little shorter-necked than Omeisaurus, at least compared to the length of the dorsal series.

Bonus observation #2: the 123-cm cervical of Xinjiangtitan is only the fifth-longest vertebra of anything to date:

  1. BYU 9024, possibly referable to Supersaurus or Barosaurus: 137cm
  2. Price River 2 titanosauriform: 129cm
  3. OMNH 53062, Sauroposeidon holotype: 125cm
  4. KLR1508-77-2, Ruyangosaurus giganteus referred specimen: 124cm
  5. SSV12001, Xinjiangtitan shanshanesis holotype: 123cm
  6. MPEF-PV 3400/3, Patagotitan holotype: 120cm (+?)
  7. MPM 10002, Puertasaurus holotype: 118cm

Getting pretty crowded there in the 120s, but then a big jump to BYU 9024. I’ll have more to say on that in a second.

Just to put a bow on this section, I’m pretty confident, based on all available measurements, taphonomic evidence, and the consilience between the measurements and the map, that the holotype individual of Xinjiantitan had a neck 13.36 meters (43 feet, 10 inches) long in life. 

That’s stunning.

By comparison, the second- and third-longest complete cervical series (of anything, ever, to date) belong to Mamenchisaurus hochuanensis, at 9.5 meters (Young and Zhao 1972, and confirmed by Mike in a basement in Slovenia), and Giraffatitan at 8.5 meters for MB.R.2181 (the larger XV2 specimen would have had a 9.6-meter neck).

Some other contenders, from Taylor and Wedel 2013a (fig 3)

There were things with longer necks, for sure, but none of those necks are complete (yet). Mamenchisaurus sinocanadorum is estimated to have had a neck about 12 meters long, based on the partial cervical series of the holotype. I know there are skeletal reconstructions out there with longer necks, and I will believe them as soon as the specimens they are based on are published. In the aforementioned dissertation chapter, I estimated 11.5 meters for the neck of Sauroposeidon, assuming a brachiosaurid-like cervical count of 13. Note that Mannion et al. (2013) recovered Sauroposeidon as a somphospondyl, and a cervical count of 15 or more as a synapomorphy of Somphospondyli. Adding a couple more 1.2-meter mid-cervicals would bring Sauroposeidon up to perhaps 14 meters. The longest cervicals of Patagotitan are in about the same size class, and we don’t know the cervical count in that monster, either.

BYU 9024, with the mounted (cast, composite) skeleton of Brachiosaurus altithorax and one Mike Taylor for scale

And of course, lurking out there in crazy neck-space is BYU 9024, the immense cervical originally referred to Supersaurus, but which more likely belongs to Barosaurus, and an ungodly huge one. That critter might–might–have had a 17-meter neck.

And I gotta say, in light of Xinjiangtitan, that no longer seems so unreasonable. Because Xinjiangtitan was a big sauropod but not a monster. The dorsal length of 3.3 meters and the femur length of 1.65 meters put it in roughly the same size category as the bigger individual of Jobaria (DL 3.2m, FL 1.8m) or the AMNH 5761 Camarasaurus supremus (DL 2.5m, FL 1.8m). Let’s imagine a Xinjiangtitan with a 2.4-meter femur, the size of Patagotitan or Argentinosaurus. Assuming isometric scaling, that individual would have a 2.4/1.65 = 1.45 x 13.36 = 19.4-meter neck. 

Do we really think such animals never existed?

Food for thought: the holotype individual of Xinjiangtitan was small enough to be buried as a complete skeleton. What about the individuals that were too big to bury in one shot?

Utterly unsurprising, but still nice to see: the highly pneumatic internal structure of the vertebrae of Xinjiangtitan, from Wu et al. (2013)

References

Early in my 2015 preprint on the incompleteness of sauropod necks, I wrote “Unambiguously complete necks are known from published account of only six species of sauropod, two of which are species of the same genus”, and listed them.

Taylor 2015: Figure 3. W. H. Reed’s diagram of Quarry C near Camp Carnegie on Sheep Creek, in Albany County, Wyoming. The coloured bones belong to CM 84, the holotype of Diplodocus carnegii; other bones belong to other individuals, chiefly of Brontosaurus, Camarasaurus and Stegosaurus. Modified (cropped and coloured) from Hatcher (1901: plate I). Cervical vertebrae are purple (and greatly simplified in outline), dorsals are red, the sacrum is orange, caudals are yellow, limb girdle elements are blue, and limb bones are green.

Haha, stupid me! I had hugely under-counted. With thanks to the three peer-reviewers of the submitted manuscript and to SV-POW! commenters, I have revised this list, in preparation for forthcoming resubmission. The table as it stands currently consists of 24 candidates, not all of them very solid. Of these, 15 were found in articulation, the others mostly not — though we don’t know for sure in all cases. Not all of the necks have been properly described, and not all of the ones that have been described have been named. And other questions hang over some of them, very briefly summarised in notes.

Here is the list, sorted by date of description. If I got the Google-docs permissions right, you should be able to see it but not edit it. (If you can edit, please don’t! And let me know.)

Please let me know if you find any mistakes, or if you think I have missed anything. Everyone who contributes will get a mention in the acknowledgements.

 

Can I really be the first one to have done this? Seems unlikely. Sing out in the comments if you’ve seen others.

Anyway, folks, here’s your new all-purpose scale silhouette. Useful fact: the standard metal folding chairs found from sea to shining sea are 29.25 inches tall, or 0.75 meters. Bernie might be in a plastic folding chair here, I dunno, I’m no expert. But folding chair seats are typically 16-17 inches off the ground, so it can’t be that far out.

Who will get Bernie into print first?

We’ve noted many times over the years how inconsistent pneumatic features are in sauropod vertebra. Fossae and formamina vary between individuals of the same species, and along the spinal column, and even between the sides of individual vertebrae. Here’s an example that we touched on in Wedel and Taylor (2013), but which is seen in all its glory here:

Taylor and Wedel (2021: Figure 5). Giraffatitan brancai tail MB.R.5000, part of the mounted skeleton at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin. Caudal vertebrae 24–26 in left lateral view. While caudal 26 has no pneumatic features, caudal 25 has two distinct pneumatic fossae, likely excavated around two distinct vascular foramina carrying an artery and a vein. Caudal 24 is more shallowly excavated than 25, but may also exhibit two separate fossae.

But bone is usually the least variable material in the vertebrate body. Muscles vary more, nerves more again, and blood vessels most of all. So why are the vertebrae of sauropods so much more variable than other bones?

Our new paper, published today (Taylor and Wedel 2021) proposes an answer! Please read it for the details, but here’s the summary:

  • Early in ontogenly, the blood supply to vertebrae comes from arteries that initially served the spinal cord, penetrating the bone of the neural canal.
  • Later in ontegeny, additional arteries penetrate the centra, leaving vascular foramina (small holes carrying blood vessels).
  • This hand-off does not always run to completion, due to the variability of blood vessels.
  • In extant birds, when pneumatic diverticula enter the bone they do so via vascular foramina, alongside blood vessels.
  • The same was probaby true in sauropods.
  • So in vertebrae that got all their blood supply from vascular foramina in the neural canal, diverticula were unable to enter the centra from the outside.
  • So those centra were never pneumatized from the outside, and no externally visible pneumatic cavities were formed.

Somehow that pretty straightforward argument ended up running to eleven pages. I guess that’s what you get when you reference your thoughts thoroughly, illustrate them in detail, and discuss the implications. But the heart of the paper is that little bullet-list.

Taylor and Wedel (2021: Figure 6). Domestic duck Anas platyrhynchos, dorsal vertebrae 2–7 in left lateral view. Note that the two anteriormost vertebrae (D2 and D3) each have a shallow pneumatic fossa penetrated by numerous small foramina.

(What is the relevance of these duck dorsals? You will need to read the discussion in the paper to find out!)

Our choice of publication venue

The world moves fast. It’s strange to think that only eleven years ago my Brachiosaurus revision (Taylor 2009) was in the Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology, a journal that now feels very retro. Since then, Matt and I have both published several times in PeerJ, which we love. More recently, we’ve been posting preprints of our papers — and indeed I have three papers stalled in peer-review revisions that are all available as preprints (two Taylor and Wedels and a single sole-authored one). But this time we’re pushing on even further into the Shiny Digital Future.

We’ve published at Qeios. (It’s pronounced “chaos”, but the site doesn’t tell you that; I discovered it on Twitter.) If you’ve not heard of it — I was only very vaguely aware of it myself until this evening — it runs on the same model as the better known F1000 Research, with this very important difference: it’s free. Also, it looks rather slicker.

That model is: publish first, then filter. This is the opposite of the traditional scholarly publishing flow where you filter first — by peer reviewers erecting a series of obstacles to getting your work out — and only after negotiating that course to do get to see your work published. At Qeios, you go right ahead and publish: it’s available right off the bat, but clearly marked as awaiting peer-review:

And then it undergoes review. Who reviews it? Anyone! Ideally, of course, people with some expertise in the relevant fields. We can then post any number of revised versions in response to the reviews — each revision having its own DOI and being fixed and permanent.

How will this work out? We don’t know. It is, in part, an experiment. What will make it work — what will impute credibility to our paper — is good, solid reviews. So if you have any relevant expertise, we do invite you to get over there and write a review.

And finally …

Matt noted that I first sent him the link to the Qeios site at 7:44 pm my time. I think that was the first time he’d heard of it. He and I had plenty of back and forth on where to publish this paper before I pushed on and did it at Qeios. And I tweeted that our paper was available for review at 8:44 — one hour exactly after Matt learned that the venue existed. Now here we are at 12:04 my time, three hours and 20 minutes later, and it’s already been viewed 126 times and downloaded 60 times. I think that’s pretty awesome.

References

  • Taylor, Michael P. 2009. A re-evaluation of Brachiosaurus altithorax Riggs 1903 (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) and its generic separation from Giraffatitan brancai (Janensch 1914). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29(3):787-806. [PDF]
  • Taylor, Michael P., and Mathew J. Wedel. 2021. Why is vertebral pneumaticity in sauropod dinosaurs so variable? Qeios 1G6J3Q. doi: 10.32388/1G6J3Q [PDF]
  • Wedel, Mathew J., and Michael P. Taylor 2013b. Caudal pneumaticity and pneumatic hiatuses in the sauropod dinosaurs Giraffatitan and Apatosaurus. PLOS ONE 8(10):e78213. 14 pages. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0078213 [PDF]

These are nice. Click through to empiggen.

I ripped them from Parker (1874), which appears to be a free download from JSTOR, here, and tweaked the colors just a bit.

If you are here for serious science, these guides to the abbreviations used in the plates will come in handy. I hacked the second one, below, to include the descriptions of the plates above, which are the last in the series, not the first.

EDIT: Nick Gardner pointed out that the copy of Parker (1874) at the Biodiversity Heritage Library is a slightly sharper scan, so if you’d prefer that version, it’s here.

Reference

Parker, W.K. 1874. On the structure and development of the skull in the pig (Sus scrofa). Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London 164: 289-336.

 

Here’s how my pig skull turned out (prep post is here).

Verdict? I’m reasonably happy with it. As Mike wrote in the post that kicked off the “Things to Make and Do” series, “a pig skull is a serious piece of kit”. It’s big and substantial and it looks awesome sitting on the shelf. I learned a lot prepping it, and in particular I learned a couple of things that I will do differently next time:

  1. From now on I will cut the meat off first and grill only that, and not put the skull through the thermal stress of getting dry-cooked. Even with indirect heat, I think smoking the whole head did adversely affect the quality of the bone. The forehead and the rami of the mandibles in particular lost a little integrity. I painted the whole skull with a mix of 50% PVA (white glue, like Elmer’s) and 50% water, so it’s solid, but the surface bone is just slightly rough, I think because of degradation of the cortical bone.
  2. Before this I had only prepped small bones–small mammal and reptile skulls, vertebrae and long bones of domestic fowl, cannon bones and hooves of cattle. Stuff like that takes maybe an hour or two max to simmer, and to whiten, and that’s how I approached the pig skull. And it took forever, because I was doing short cycles, which meant doing a lot of them. I did a sheep skull this past holiday break, which I will post about soon, and I learned that the trick with bigger bones is just time. Simmer for 12 hours, not 2 hours, whiten for 2 or 3 nights, not just one. The sheep skull probably took more time from start to finish, but it was a lot less effort, because for much of that time it was just simmering, or soaking in dilute hydrogen peroxide.

With their deep lower jaws, pig skulls look rather lumpen in lateral view. But they look awesome in anterodorsal view, like dragon skulls. Here you can see that the prenasal bone is a little darker and less crisp than the other bones of the face. That’s because it was still ossifying from a big block of cartilage. I scraped off most of the cartilage, but not all, and what remained dried and hardened into an incredibly tough, translucent, slightly yellowish shell. 

I still have two pig heads on ice. I probably won’t do anything with either of them until I get some more time off, but I am looking forward to prepping another pig skull, in part to see how much better I can do the next time. But I’m still happy to have this one. To paraphrase another line from Mike’s old post, this is something that everyone ought to do.

Edit: here are some links about cooking pig heads and prepping skulls.

 

It’s been a minute, hasn’t it?

Up top, C10 and C11 of Diplodocus carnegii CM 84, from Hatcher (1901). Below, C9 and C10 of Apatosaurus louisae CM 3018, from Gilmore (1936). The Diplodocus verts are in right lateral view but reversed for ease of comparison, and the Apatosaurus verts are in left lateral view. Both sets scaled to the same cumulative centrum length. Just in case you forgot that apatosaurines are redonkulous.

References

  • Hatcher, John Bell. 1901. Diplodocus (Marsh): its osteology, taxonomy, and probable habits, with a restoration of the skeleton. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 1:1-63.
  • Gilmore, Charles Whitney. 1936. Osteology of Apatosaurus, with special reference to specimens in the Carnegie Museum. Memoirs of the Carnegie Museum 11:175–300.

This is a very belated follow-up to “Tutorial 12: How to find problems to work on“, and it’s about how to turn Step 2, “Learn lots of stuff”, into concrete progress. I’m putting it here, now, because I frequently get asked by students about how to get started in research, and I’ve been sending them the same advice for a while. As with Tutorial 25, from now on I can direct the curious to this post, and spend more time talking with them about what they’re interested in, and less time yakking about nuts and bolts. But I hope the rest of you find this useful, too.

Assuming, per Tutorial 12, that you’ve picked something to investigate–or maybe you’re trying to pick among things to investigate–what next? You need a tractable way to get started, to organize the things you’re learning, and to create a little structure for yourself. My recommendation: do a little project, with the emphasis on little. Anyone can do this, in any area of human activity. Maybe your project will be creating a sculpture, shooting and editing a video, learning–or creating–a piece of music, or fixing a lawn mower engine. My central interest is how much we still have to discover about the natural world, so from here on I’m going to be writing as a researcher addressing other researchers, or aspiring researchers.

Arteries of the anterior leg, from Gray’s Anatomy (1918: fig. 553). Freely available courtesy of Bartleby.com.

I’ll start with a couple of examples, both from my own not-too-distant history. A few years ago I got to help some of my colleagues from the College of Podiatric Medicine with a research project on the perforating branch of the peroneal artery (Penera et al. 2014). I knew that vessel from textbooks and atlases and from having dissected a few out, but I had never read any of the primary (journal) literature on it. As the designated anatomist on the project, I needed to write up the anatomical background. So I hit the journals, tracked down what looked like the most useful papers, and wrote a little 2-page summary. We didn’t use all of it in the paper, and we didn’t use it all in one piece. Some sentences went into the Introduction, others into the Discussion, and still others got dropped entirely or cut way down. But it was still a tremendously useful exercise, and in cases like this, it’s really nice to have more written down than you actually need. Here’s that little writeup, in case you want to see what it looks like:

Wedel 2013 anatomy of the perforating branch of the peroneal artery

Pigeon spinal cord cross-section, from Necker (2006: fig. 4).

More recently, when I started working with Jessie Atterholt on weird neural canal stuff in dinosaurs, I realized that I needed to know more about glycogen bodies in birds, and about bird spinal cords generally. I expected that to be quick and easy: read a couple of papers, jot down the important bits, boom, done. Then I learned about lumbosacral canals, lobes of Lachi, the ‘ventral eminences’ of the spinal cord in ostriches, and more, a whole gnarly mess of complex anatomy that was completely new to me. I spent about a week just grokking all the weird crap that birds have going on in their neural canals, and realized that I needed to crystallize my understanding while I had the whole structure in my head. Otherwise I’d come back in a few months and have to learn it all over again. Because it was inherently visual material, this time I made a slide deck rather than a block of text, something I could use to get my coauthors up to speed on all this weirdness, as well as a reminder for my future self. Here’s that original slide deck:

Wedel 2018 Avian lumbosacral spinal cord specializations

If you’re already active in research, you may be thinking, “Yeah, duh, of course you write stuff down as you get a handle on it. That’s just learning.” And I agree. But although this may seem basic, it isn’t necessarily obvious to people who are just starting out. And even to the established, it may not be obvious that doing little projects like this is a good model for making progress generally. Each one is a piton driven into the mountainside that I’m trying to climb: useful for me, and assuming I get them out into the world, useful for anyone I’d like to come with me (which, for an educator and a scientist, means everyone).

A view down the top of the vertebral column in the mounted skeleton of Apatosaurus louisae, CM 3018, showing the trough between the bifurcated neural spines.

If you’re not active in research, the idea of writing little term papers may sound like purgatory. But writing about something that you love, that fascinates you, is a very different proposition from writing about dead royalty or symbolism because you have to for a class.* I do these little projects for myself, to satisfy my curiosity, and it doesn’t feel like work. More like advanced play. When I’m really in the thick of learning a new thing–and not, say, hesitating on the edge before I plunge in–I am so happy that I tend to literally bounce around like a little kid, and the only thing that keeps me sitting still is the lure of learning the next thing. That I earn career beans for doing this still seems somewhat miraculous, like getting paid to eat ice cream.

* YMMV, history buffs and humanities folks. If dead royalty and symbolism rock your world but arteries and vertebrae leave you cold, follow your star, and may a thousand gardens grow.

Doing little projects is such a convenient and powerful way to make concrete progress that it has become my dominant mode. As with the piece that I wrote about the perforating branch of the peroneal artery, the products rarely get used wholesale in whatever conference presentation or research paper I end up putting together, but they’re never completely useless. First, there is the benefit to my understanding that I get from assembling them. Second, they’re useful for introducing other people to the sometimes-obscure stuff I work on, and nothing makes you really grapple with a problem like having to explain it to others. And third, these little writeups and slideshows become the Lego bricks from which I assemble future talks and papers. The bird neural canal slide deck became a decent chunk of our presentation on the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus at the 1st Palaeontological Virtual Congress (Wedel et al. 2018)–and it’s about to become something even better.

The operative word at the start of the last paragraph is ‘concrete’. I don’t think this was always the case, but now that I’m in my mid-40s ‘what I know’ is basically equivalent to ‘what I remember’, which is basically equivalent to ‘what I’ve written down’. (And sometimes not even then–Mike and I both run across old posts here on SV-POW! that we’ve forgotten all about, which is a bit scary, given how often we put novel observations and ideas into blog posts.) Anyway, this is why I like the expression ‘crystallize my understanding’: the towers of comprehension that I build in my head are sand castles, and if I don’t find a way to freeze them in place, they will be washed away by time and my increasingly unreliable cerebral machinery.

Really nice Stegosaurus plate on display at Dinosaur National Monument.

Also, if I divide my life into the things I could do and the things I have done, only the things in the latter category are useful. So if you are wondering if it’s worthwhile to write a page to your future self about valves in the cerebral arteries of rats, or all of the dinosaurs from islands smaller than Great Britain, or whatever strange thing has captured your attention, I say yes, go for it. Don’t worry about finding something novel to say; at the early stages you’re just trying to educate yourself (also, talks and papers need intro and background material, so you can still get credit for your efforts). I’ll bet that if you set yourself the goal of creating a few of these–say, one per year, or one per semester–you’ll find ways to leverage them once you’ve created them. If all else fails, start a blog. That might sound flip, but I don’t mean for it to. I got my gig writing for Sky & Telescope because I’d been posting little observing projects for the readers of my stargazing blog.

A final benefit of doing these little projects: they’re fast and cheap, like NASA’s Discovery missions. So they’re a good way to dip your toes into a new area before you commit to something more involved. The more things you try, the more chances you have to discover whatever it is that’s going to make you feel buoyantly happy.

You may have noticed that all of my examples in this post involved library research. That’s because I’m particularly interested in using little projects to get started in new lines of inquiry, and whenever you are starting out in a new area, you have to learn where the cutting edge is before you can move it forward (Tutorial 12 again). Also, as a practical consideration, most of us are stuck with library research right now because of the pandemic. Obviously this library research is no substitute for time in the lab or the field, but even cutters and diggers need to do their homework, and these little projects are the best way that I’ve found of doing that.

P.S. If you are a student, read this and do likewise. And, heck, everyone else who writes should do that, too. It is by far the advice I give most often as a journal editor and student advisor.

P.P.S. As long as you’re reading Paul Graham, read this piece, too–this whole post was inspired by the bit near the end about doing projects.

References

This beautiful image is bird 52659 from Florida Museum, a green heron Butorides virescens, CT scanned and published on Twitter.

(The scan is apparently from MorphoSource, but I can’t find it there.)

There is lots to love here: for example, you can see that the long bones of the arm are pneumatic, because the margins of the bones show up more strongly than the cores. But you won’t be surprised that I am interested mostly in the neck.

As you can see, while the vertebrae of the neck are pulled back into a strong curve, the trachea doesn’t bother, and just sort of hangs there from the base of the head to the top of the lungs, cheerfully crossing over (i.e. passing to the side of) the vertebral sequence. So the trachea here is not much more than half the length of the vertebral sequence.

Now this is the opposite of what we see in some birds. Here, for example, is a trumpet manucode Phonygammus keraudrenii (a bird-of-paradise) as illustrated in Katrina van Grouw’s book The Unfeathered Bird:

Yes, all those coils visible in the torso are the trachea, which is many times longer than it needs to be to connect the head to the lungs. Birds-of-paradise do this sort of thing a lot (Clench 1978).

And they are not alone: cranes and others also have elongated and contorted tracheal trajectories. So it’s odd that herons seem to do the opposite.

But the heron is even odder than that. As we have noted before, herons can stretch their necks out to the point where you would scarcely believe the unstretched and stretched animals are the same thing. But they are:

The CT-scanned heron at the top of this post is in a pose intermediate between the two shown here. But since it can adopt the long-necked pose on the right, it’s apparent that the trachea can become long enough to connect the head and lungs in that pose. Which means it must be able to stretch to nearly twice the length we see in the CT scan.

Don’t try this at home, kids!

References

  • Clench, Mary H. 1978. Tracheal elongation in birds-of-paradise. The Condor 80(4):423–430. doi:10.2307/1367193