We’re just back from an excellent SVPCA on the Isle of Wight. We’ll write more about it, but this time I just want to draw attention to a neat find. During a bit of down time, Matt and Vicki were wandering around West Cowes (the town where the scientific sessions were held), when they stumbled across a place called That Shop. Intrigued by all the Lego figures in the window, they went in, and Matt found a small section of fossils. Including … an Iguanodon pelvis, supposedly certified as such by the Dinosaur Isle museum.


Here it is: I imagine that whoever classified it read this elongate concave surface as part of the acetabulum. Matt’s hypothesis is that they mistook it for a sacral vertebra and that became “pelvis” via over-simplification.

It’s about 18 cm in a straight line across the widest part, or 20 cm around the curve.

Here is an actual documentary record of Matt’s moment of discovery:

Yep, you got it! It’s a sauropod vertebra! (Matt would never have spent good money on a stinkin’ appendicular element of a stinkin’ ornithopod.)

Specifically, it’s the bottom half of the front part of the centrum of a dorsal vertebra:

Eucamerotus” dorsal vertebra NHMUK PV R88 in right lateral and anterior views. Non-faded portions show the location of the Wedel Specimen. Modified from Hulke (1880: plate IV).

In these photos, we’re looking down into it more or less directly dorsal view, with anterior to the left. Click through the photos, and — once you know what you’re looking at — you can clearly see the pneumatic spaces: nice patches of finished bone lining the camellae, with trabecular bone in between.

Clearly there’s nowhere near enough of this to say what it is with any certainty. But our best guess is that it seems compatible with a titanosauriform identity, quite possibly in same space as the various Wealden sauropod dorsals that have been assigned to Ornithopsis or Eucamerotus.


  • Hulke, J. W.  1880.  Supplementary Note on the Vertebræ of Ornithopsis, Seeley, = Eucamerotous, Hulke. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 36:31–35.  doi:10.1144/GSL.JGS.1880.036.01-04.06

The stupidest head

August 21, 2019

Left: Homo sapiens, head, neck and upper trunk in right lateral view (unprepared specimen). Right: Camarasaurus sp., skull in left lateral view. Photograph at the Natural History Museum of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. 2016.

Juvenile Tomistoma schlegelii, LACM Herpetology 166483, with me for scale. It wasn’t until I picked up the skull that I realized it was the same specimen I had looked at back when. I was looking at its neck in 2011, and its tail today, for reasons that will be revealed at the dramatically appropriate moment. I was only playing with the skull because it’s cute, an intricate little marvel of natural selection. Photos by Vanessa Graff (2011) and Jessie Atterholt (2018). Many thanks to collections manager Neftali Camacho for his hospitality and assistance both times!

Old drawings (of heads)

June 25, 2017

I was organizing my files in DropBox and I found a folder of old drawings I’d almost forgotten about. I drew this back in the late 90s. It was used on a t-shirt by the OU Zoology Department. I got the general idea of making a head out of animals, and the specific idea of using a butterfly wing for the ear, from Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s cover for the novel Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. The snake I stole from ancient Egypt. I think everything else is in there just because I thought it was cool. Note that inverts, fish, herps, birds, and mammals are all represented, with a good balance of aquatic, terrestrial, and volant forms. It looks awfully hippie-dippie from 20 years out, but heck, what doesn’t?

“Solitude” by Mathew Wedel. CC BY-NC 4.0.

Well, this, I suppose.

I drew this about the same time. I was reading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels and lots of stuff about ancient monastic traditions and thinking that if the world is an illusion that must be penetrated, then the evidence of one’s senses can only mislead. Also, Vicki was working for the state medical examiner in Oklahoma City and they used wooden dowels to represent the paths of bullets when reconstructing the skulls of those killed by gunfire. So here’s the skull of a monk, with all of the lethal pathways of distraction and temptation clearly marked as such. At last he can contemplate the eternal mysteries in perfect solitude.

Obviously I didn’t get on board the world-is-an-illusion, sensation-is-bad train – skewed pretty hard in the opposite direction, in fact. Possibly because years earlier the Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs had shown me that pursuing ‘pure’ intellectual and spiritual inquiry would ultimately lead one to a pathetic existence as a disembodied head living in a cave (high culture, meet low culture). Anyway, whatever interest I might have had in that philosophy I exorcised through this drawing. Stripped of any art-making-a-point baggage, I still think it’s pretty bitchin’. I should make t-shirts.

Actually, I probably will make t-shirts of this one if there’s any interest. Hence the CC BY-NC license I put on it, as opposed to the normal CC BY for almost everything else on this site. Look at me, boldly experimenting with new licenses.

This, obviously, is a lot more recent. I was collating all of my scanned drawings and I realized that I’d gone to the trouble of drawing the cranium and lower jaw of Aquilops separately, but I’d never posted the version from before I composited them back into articulation. It is very unlike me to do work and then hide it, so here it is.

It wasn’t until I the post mostly written that I realized that all three drawings are of heads, none of them are saurischians (although the first includes a saurischian, but not the cool kind), and two are stinkin’ mammals (and not the cool kind). I stand ready for your slings and arrows.

For previous posts on my drawings, see:

Hey sports fans! I met David Lindblad at Beer ‘N Bones at the Arizona Museum of Natural History last month, and he invited me to talk dinosaurs on his podcast. So I did (LINK). For two hours. Some of what I talk about will be familiar to long-time readers – dinosaur butt-brains and the Clash of the Dinosaurs saga, for example. But I also just sorta turned off my inhibitions and let all kinds of speculative twaddle come gushing out, including the specter of sauropod polyphyly, which I don’t believe but can’t stop thinking about. David was a gracious and long-suffering host and let me yap on at length. It is more or less the kind of conversation you could have with me in a pub, if you let me do most of the talking and didn’t want to hear about anything other than dinosaurs.

Is it any good? Beats me – I’m way too close to this one to make that call. Let me know in the comments.

Oh, I didn’t have any visuals that really fit the theme so I’m recycling this cool image of speculative sauropod display structures by Brian Engh. Go check out his blog and Patreon and YouTube channel.

I wanted to get my initial report on the Joni Mitchell conference out quickly. But since posting it, more thoughts have bubbled up through my mind. I’m thinking here mostly about how a humanities conference varies from a science one. Now of course this is only anecdote, nothing like a scientific survey: my sample size is one conference (for humanities) and only one field for science (vert palaeo, natch), so we should beware of generalising from these observations.

With that understood …

The Minerva Building of the University of Lincoln, where the main conference sessions took place.

The Minerva Building of the University of Lincoln, where the main conference sessions took place.

The Joni conference had mostly parallel sessions: a pair of panels early in the morning, then a pair in the later morning, then three simultaneous panels in the after-lunch session before dropping down to a single plenary session for the later afternoon. (My talk was in one of the three parallel panels, so less well attended than it might otherwise have been.) I don’t know how common this is in humanities conferences, but it’s never done at SVPCA or ProgPal. SVP, of course, does run parallel sessions — but then that is a very big meeting, with thousands of delegates.

I used the word “panel” in that description, which I’ve not come across in science conferences. It refers to one of a set of parallel sessions. The idea is that all the talks in a panel are on a somewhat related subject, and the panel ends with all the speakers coming back to the front together, for a discussion with the audience and among themselves. This is actually a really nice way to run things — much better than the very nominal Q&As at the end of SVPCA talks. It helps you to develop a sense of who people are, as well as digging deeper into the topics. My sense is that this is pretty typical of humanities conferences.

One less positive difference is that it seems far more acceptable in the humanities to read papers out loud from manuscripts. By no means everyone did this, but quite a few did, and it seemed to be thought normal. This did work out well for me in one respect, though. Because of the parallel panels, I missed a talk I would have liked to have heard, on using Joni’s music in therapeutic contexts. But when I later spoke to the author of that paper, she was able to give me a hardcopy of the talk. (I read it today.)

Did I say “Joni”? One aspect of this conference that corresponded pretty well with my prejudices was a sort of liberal guilt that popped up its head from time to time. Most of the speakers referred to our subject as “Joni” rather than “Mitchell”. In the round-table discussion at the end, someone suggested this implied an unwarranted level of intimacy, and indicated an unconscious sexism on the part of the participants. There was quite a bit of agreement with this, but I don’t buy it. I think we refer to Joni Mitchell as “Joni”, when we don’t refer to Paul Simon as “Paul” for two reasons: one practical, one fundamental. First, because Joni is a rare and distinctive name, whereas Paul could be Paul McCartney; and second because the high level of self-disclosure in Joni’s music creates the impression of intimacy. I don’t think it’s anything to do with her being female and Simon being male.

Similarly, there was some angst about cultural appropriation regarding Joni’s use of jazz idioms, and particularly about her appearance as a black man on the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977):


I can certainly see how that cover makes people uncomfortable in 2015, and I can easily imagine that it would have done even in the very different climate of 1977. On the other hand, it felt a bit strange to be part of a 100% white audience debating this. I’m not sure what conclusion would be appropriate, so I won’t attempt one.

Finally, the demographics of the conference were maybe the biggest surprise. I’m not good at noticing race, so I may have missed someone; but as far as I’m aware there was not a single non-caucasian face at the conference. And perhaps even more surprising, in a conference about a feminist icon[*], although the attendance was about 50-50 men and women, the programme was dominated by male speakers. From a quick scan of the programme, I make it 15 men to 7 women, so more than twice as many.

As with most of what I’ve said here, I have no idea what to make of this. I just offer it up as an observation, and I’ll be glad to know what others make of it all.

[*] Joni Mitchell has explicitly disowned the description “feminist” on more than one occasion; but as a woman who not only held her own in man’s world but by most judgements dominated it, she is certainly an admirable example of practical, if not dogmatic, feminism.


I got back this lunchtime from something a bit different in my academic career. I attended Court and Spark: an International Symposium on Joni Mitchell, hosted by the university of Lincoln and organised by Ruth Charnock.


I went mostly because I love Joni Mitchell’s music. But also partly because, as a scientist, I have a necessarily skewed perspective on scholarship as a whole, and I want to see whether I could go some way to correcting that by immersing myself in the world of the humanities for a day.

My own talk was on “Musical progress and emotional stasis from Blue (1971) to Hejira (1976)”. I’ve posted the abstract and the slides on my publications list, and you can get a broad sense of what was in it from this blog-post about Hejira which talks a lot about Blue. (The talk was inspired by that blog-post, but it had a lot of new material as well.) I plan to write it up as a paper when I get a moment.

I was up in session 3, after lunch, so I’d had a couple of sessions to get used to how things were done. As far as I can tell, it seemed to go over pretty well, and there was some good discussion afterwards.

So how does a humanities conference stack up against a science one?

They were much less different than I’d imagined they would be. The main difference is that talks are called “papers”. As in “Did you hear the paper about X?”, or “I gave a paper on Y”. There was perhaps a little more time dedicated to discussion than at SVP or SVPCA.

Because I didn’t know how to dress, I erred on the side of conservative. As a result, I was the only man in the building wearing a tie, and was consequently the most overdressed person present — something that has never happened to me before, and likely never will again. (I typically wear a tie two or three times a year.)

All in all I had a great time. I’m currently in the process of trying to get my eldest son to appreciate Joni (he’s more of a prog-metal fan, which I can respect); against that backdrop, it was great to be surrounded be people who get it, who know all the repertoire, and who recognise allusions dropped into conversation. Also: beers with fellow-travellers between the main conference and the Maka Maron interview event in the evening; wine reception afterwards; Chinese food after that; after-party when we couldn’t eat any more food. (It was nice being invited along to that, given that I’d never met any of the people before yesterday, and only even exchanged email with one of them.)

I’d had to get up 4:45 in the morning to drive up to Lincoln in time for the conference, so all in all it was a long day. But well worth doing.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.