As noted in the last post, Matt and I are off to spend a week at the Carnegie Museum from 11th-15th March. We expect to see many, many fascinating specimens there: far more than we’ll be able to do proper work on in the five days we have. So our main goal is to exhaustively document the most important specimens that we see, so we can work on them later after we’ve got home. I think of this as the “harvesting” phase of research, with the grinding and baking to follow.

I was going to write a checklist for myself, to ensure that I cover all the bases and we don’t find ourselves in six months’ time looking at our records and saying “I can’t believe we forgot to do X for this specimen” — because, believe me, we have spent far too much of our lives doing this already. But then I realised I should share it with the world, in case it’s helpful to others, too.

So here’s what to do when dealing with, for example, an apatosaurine cervical like this one. Let me know in the comments if I forgot anything!

BYU 20178, cervical vertebra from an apatosaurine sauropod. ventral view, anterior to the left. Note that the scalebar is held at approximately half the height of the vertebra; and that the catalogue card is in view and legible, giving a record who collected the specimen, when, and where.

Sketch the specimen, even if (like me) you are a terrible artist. The process of sketching forces you to really look at it — at each part of it in turn — and often results in you noticing something you would otherwise have missed. It would be worth doing this even if you immediately threw the sketch away: but don’t do that, because you’re going to want to …

Measure the specimen, using a tape measure, digital calipers or both as appropriate. You want to get at least all the measurements that you’ll include in a formal description — total length, total height, width across zygapophyses, etc. — but it’s often useful to also get other, more obscure measurements, just to make sure you’ve got your head around the shape. For example, in the vertebra above, you might measure the diagonal distances from the anteriormost projection of each cervical rib to to opposite side’s posterolateralrmost part of the centrum. You record measurements in a table in your notebook, but some measurements are hard to describe: so just write them straight onto your sketch. To keep things straight, it can be useful to do the sketch in one colour and the measurements in another; or the sketch in pencil and the measurements in pen.

Now we come to photography. You want a lot of different kinds of photo, so lets consider them separately.

Take photographs of the specimen with its specimen label, ideally from several different aspects. This will make it easy to remember later which specimen is which. In a typical museum visit — especially a reconnaisance visit like our upcoming Carnegie trip — you’re going to see a lot of different specimens, and when you revisit your photos in six months it’ll be hard to keep them all straight. Make it easy on yourself. Also: the specimen label often contains other  useful information such as the quarry where the specimen was found. Capture that. Get a good close-up photo of the label alone, to ensure all the text is captured cleanly.

Take photographs from the cardinal directions. To illustrate a specimen nicely in a descriptive paper, you will at minimum want photos from anterior, posterior, dorsal, ventral and left and right lateral aspects (or as many of these are possible to obtain: you can’t always turn big specimens). Since these are the photos you’re likely to use in a publication, take extra care with these. Set up a plain-coloured background when possible so it’s easier to crop out later. Set up the best lighting you can. Take each photo several times so you can keep the best one. Use a tripod if you have one. (For much more on this, see Tutorial 8 on how to photograph big bones.)

Take photographs with a scalebar. This will give you a way to sanity-check your measurements later. Think carefully about scalebar placement. If you put it on top of the specimen so it obscures part of the fossil, be sure that’s not your only photo from that aspect: you won’t want to be left without good images of the whole bone. A scalebar placed on top of the specimen will appear larger than the same scalebar placed on the floor or the bench next to the specimen, thanks to perspective, which means your measurements are more trustworthy than photos of the scalebar. If you can easily arrange for it to be raised to half the total height of the specimen, you’ll get a more honest reading.

Photograph individual features of the bone with some kind of note. The reason I say “with some kind of note” is that I have hundreds of close-up photos of bits of sauropod vertebra which I evidently took in the hope of highlighting some specific bit of morphology, but I have no idea what morphology. Get a scrap of paper and scribble something like “big nutrient foramina”, draw an arrow on it, and place the scrap on the bone so that the arrow points at the feature. Take a photo; then remove the paper and take another photo. The first one is your note to yourself; the second is the raw material for an illustration that you might prepare later, highlighting the relevant feature in a more elegant way.

Do a video walkaround with narration. For some reason, we didn’t start doing this until very recently, but it’s a great way to get a rough-and-ready reminder of important aspects of the specimen. You can just do this with a phone, moving it around the specimen, pointing to interesting bits and saying things about them. Here’s an example of Matt pointing out some features of the preserved cervical vertebrae of Suuwassea, and here he is again pointing out how pelican vertebrae are made of nothing.

Take a shedload of undifferentiated photos from every possible angle. Your goal here is that you’ll be able to use photogrammetry later to make a 3D model of the fossil. I admit to my shame that I’ve still never successfully done this — but thanks to the kindness of my good friend Heinrich Mallison, who is an expect in this area, I do have some fine models, including the Xenoposeidon model that was published as a supplementary file to my 2018 paper. Even if you don’t have access to someone as helpful as Heinrich, it’s worth getting these comprehensive photo-sets because photogrammetry software is likely to get progressively easier to use. Hopefully in a couple more years there will be nothing to it but loading a bunch of photos and pressing a button.


Up till here, we’ve been concentrating on gathering information about the specimen in a form that we’ll be able to return to later and use in comparisons and illustrations. But we can do more than that now we’re here with the physical specimen:

Look at the bone texture. Figure out how much of it is real, and how much is reconstructed — a particular problem with older specimens. Keep an eye out for rugosities for muscle and ligament attachments, smooth areas and pockets for pneumatic diverticula (or fat pads in boring mammal verts), and any odd growths that might be ossified soft tissues or pathological reactive bone growth. These kinds of things are often much easier to see in the actual specimens than in even the very best photographs.

Check for areas where the specimen is under-prepared. It’s very common for a neural canal to remain filled with matrix — and easy to spot, so in a sense not a problem. But how often is a pneumatic feature obscured because it’s still full of matrix? This is probably part of the reason that caudal pneumaticity so often goes unobserved, and it will very often obscure foramina within the neural canal. Similarly, I don’t know whether the huge club on the end of the right cervical rib of NHMUK PV R173b (formerly BMNH R173b) is pathological bone or a mineral concretion, because all I have to go from is my lame photos. I should have figured that out while I was with the actual specimen.

Discuss the specimen with a friend. I just can’t overstate how important this is. When Matt and I visit a collection together, we discover much, much more than twice as much as either of us would alone. Isaac Asimov is said to have observed “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …””. Whether or not he ever actually said it (it’s not in any of his written works) it’s certainly true that the key moment in investigating a specimen is frequently when one person says “Hey, take a look at this”. Two minds can spark off each other in a way that a single mind can’t.


Last of all, it’s worth giving a little bit of thought to the possibility that you’ll one day be doing publicity for this specimen. So:

Get someone to take photos of you with the specimen. You’ll need them for press releases and media packs. I’ve only once in my life been in physical proximity with the Brontomerus specimen: during the three-day 2007 visit when I did much of the descriptive work for the paper. Idiotically, although I was there with three colleagues (Matt, Randy Irmis and Sarah Werning), I didn’t get anyone to take a photo of me with the material. So when we needed a photo for the publicity:

The Brontomerus mcintoshi holotype specimen OMNH 27761-27800, 61248 and 66429-66432 with the authors of the paper that described it. Back row (L to R): Mike Taylor, Matt Wedel, Rich Cifelli.

There was no good way to get it. I certainly wasn’t going to fly back out to the USA just to get a photo. So we got our Emmy award-winning special-effects-wizard friend Jarrod Davis to photoshop me into a photo that the museum had been able to take of Matt and Rich. (You can see the evidence here and here if you want to see how it was done. And, yes, before he could even start composing me in, Jarrod had to rescue a ludicrously under-exposed base image.)

Much better to avoid such nonsense. Get good photos of you with the specimens, like the one at the top of the Sauropocalypse post, and then if you ever need ’em you’ve got ’em.

 

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Brontomerus cartoon - John Trotter - paintmonkeystudios-dot-com

One of our army of field correspondents, Seth Segal, sent us a scan of this cartoon from the spring 2011 issue (#97) of Prehistoric Times (yes, we’re a bit late to the party on this one). Shifty little weasels that we are, we were entertained by it, so we tracked down John Trotter at Paintmonkey Studios. He kindly sent the nice version you see above, and gave us permission to post.

I really like the idea of undescribed dinosaurs just going about their business, and then being surprised by having new names sprung on them. I can well imagine some of them being disappointed, too.

Argentina…saurus. Lizard. From. Argentina. Seriously? You know, there’s a million dinosaurs from Argentina. Why do I get stuck with the generic name that is actually generic? Nothing about how big I am? Really? I mean, I weigh, like, two Supersauruses. What’s the Latin for double-Supersaurus-rex? And here I am with Antarctosaurus–that poser’s got a whole continent in his name, and he’s not even from there! And what about that so-called “earthquake lizard”? I heard they found him wandering around all delusionsal, claiming to be 150 feet long and the biggest thing ever, and the cops had to remind him he’s just an old-ass Diplodocus. Play some more Brain Age, grandpa! Forget it. I’m gonna go hunt up Brazilsaurus and Uruguaysaurus and get a football game together… What do you mean, they haven’t been named yet? Aw, man!”

—————————————–

Pre-emptive note to the etymology mafia: yes, I know that Antarctosaurus means “southern lizard”, not “lizard from Antarctica”. But in this joke, Argentinosaurus is not so well-informed.

This imaginary interlude was brought to you by Becky Crew’s habit of putting words in animals’ mouths, and by Mike’s proposed moratorium on “place-saurus” names, and by the number 11.

BrontomerusRoughWeb From field correspondent Brian Engh:

A Brontomerus on the edge of a jumbled forest of partially knocked over trees. While I won’t be finishing this particular drawing I decided I want to develop this idea a bit further – I think it would be cool to show a group of brontomeri rearing and grazing on the edge of a forest where a lot of the trees are leaning and show signs of heavy grazing, particularly by giants who rear up, bear hug them and rip down their branches. I’m talking tore-up bark around hand-claw height, trees that are growing bent, but then straighten up above max-bronto height, and maybe a constellation of camptosaurs and pterosaurs living around the brontos for food and protection… anyway, just an idea. Any thoughts?

Yeah. I judge it rad. And plausible. I love the heavy texturing on Bronto and the way the background is simple and evocative at the same time. I like the idea of a forest modified by sauropods for their use. I would like to see more plants damaged by sauropods (but still surviving)–and vice versa. For the proposed full version, the camptosaurs will have to be replaced by tenontosaurs, this being the Early Cretaceous. But they’re both ornithopods, so probably no one will know or care.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure Brian wants genuine feedback, and not just predictable gushing from yours truly. The comment field is open.

Bonus Engh sketch: a rearing Miragaia. Rearing Miragaia by Brian Engh

Alexandre Fabre recently bought a French-language comic-book, Les Dinosaures by Plumeri and Bloz, and found this in the third volume:

The text reads:

Et parfois, les paléontologues font des announces très marrantes, comme le Brontomerus

… un sauropode aux jambes musclées … qui se défendrait en donnant des coups de pied!

“Aie! Un dino qui fait de kung-fu? Ils ne savent plus quoi inventer!”

Which I roughly translate as:

And sometimes, paleontologists make very funny announcements, such, as Brontomerus …

A sauropod with muscular legs … which defends itself by kicking!

“Ouch! A dino that does kung-fu? Whatever will they think of next!”

Many thanks to Alexandre for bringing it to my attention and scanning the relevant panels.

The Magi present gifts to the Christ child

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to exhibit some more Brontomerus artwork.  Once more, as with National Geographic and indeed the original life restoration in the paper, Matt and I had the opportunity to work with the artist, feeding back on an initial draft, to help get the final version as accurate as possible.

Andy Boyles is the Science Editor for Highlights for Children magazine.  They’re planning a feature on Brontomerus, and commissioned a cartoon-style life restoration from artist Robert Squier.  Here’s his first finished draft:

When Robert sent this to the magazine, he included some helpful notes:

Attached is my sketch of Brontomerus. You’ll see some spines on my sketch; I understand that some similar sauropods had them. And it looks like paleontologists haven’t found any bones that would rule out these details.

But I’ll be happy to lose them if you’d like.

Also, I based my Brontomerus skull on the skeleton (fig. 1) in the PDF you provided. I aimed to make the head like that of the Camarasaurus, since the text says the two dinos were similar.

The head in the illustration (fig. 12 ) looks like it’s based on a different dino – Apatosaurus. I’m sure your experts will set me straight.

Also added a Utahraptor.

I look forward to your feedback!

That’s the point where Andy emailed Matt and me asking if we had any feedback.  It happened that I got to that message before Matt did, and this is what I sent back:

Hi, Andy, great to hear from you. It’s always a pleasure when our work is explained to the public, especially for kids. And I am especially delighted by the artwork. I don’t know if this statement really means anything, but it feels to me that it’s somehow captured the *spirit* of Brontomerus.

I do have some criticisms, though! I am attaching an annotated copy of the artwork, which should help to clarify these comments. All my modifications are in red, so they should be easy to pick out.

And here is the modified version that I attached:

My message explained further:

1. Maybe most important — our speculation about Brontomerus‘s kick behaviour was to do with it kicking forward like a soccer player, not backwards like an ostrich. So to be in danger zone, the Utahraptor should be in front of Brontomerus‘s poised leg, not behind. The raptor should also be a bit bigger in comparison.

2. You’ve really captured the bulk of muscle on the front of the thigh well, but the back should probably be bulging slightly.

3. There is a distinct bulge on the side of the torso where the profile of the shoulder blade is visible. This is good, but it should be further up and further back.

4. The head is a little too big. In the annotated version, I’ve scaled it to 90% of its previous size, which looks roughly right to me.

5. The classic mistake that everyone makes when illustrating sauropods is to give them a full complement of hand-claws. (It’s the first thing that smart-alec palaeontologists look for when they see a piece of sauropod art!) In reality, only the thumb would have had a (small) visible claw, and the other digits would have been fully enclosed in a sort of fleshy mitten. There’s a decent illustration showing the right forefoot of a sauropod, from the left (part 4a) and from in front (part 4b). It’s well worth reading the very good article [from Tetrapod Zoology] that this was used in:

I also replied to the artist’s comments:

The spines are perfectly possible and rather handsome. I particularly like that the adult has them and the baby does not: these would likely have been sexual display structures, so it’s appropriate that they would develop only with increasing maturity.

The head is excellent. You are quite right to base it on Camarasaurus rather than the very different skull of Apatosaurus. If I were to quibble, there is no reason to think that the regions between the bones would be very hollow, especially the one behind the eye.

Less than three weeks later, back came the modified version of the art — and I was delighted to see that every single issued I’d raised had been dealt with.  Here is the final version of the pencil sketch:

You’ll notice that the raptor has moved into the danger-zone, the rear of the thigh is more muscular, the scapular bulge has moved up and back, the head is slightly smaller and doesn’t have a visible indentation for the temporal fenestra, and the forfeet have lost all but their thumb claws.

Finally, here is the coloured version as it will appear in the Magazine in April 2012: I like the bold splashes of orange.

I’m really pleased to have permission from Highlights to exhibit both the pencil sketch and the final piece here, at high resolution.  Please note that both versions are copyright Highlights.  Many thanks to both Robert and Andy for being so responsive, helpful, and generous.

Looking again at this, I am impressed by two things.  The first is just how far palaeoart has leapt ahead in recent decades, when even an illustration for a kids’ magazine is as anatomically careful as this — note details like the pronounced ventral bulge for the distal part of the pubis, and the distinctively camarasaurian head.  We’ve come a long way from the old balloon-model sauropods.  The second is related: it’s just great that the magazine took the trouble to contact scientists over this piece, and that artist was so obliging in responding to the issues we highlighted.  It’s worth opening all four versions of the artwork in browser tabs, and switching between them to see how the piece changed from start to finish.

All of this brings me to a point that I’ve wanted to make before, but which seems particularly relevant here.  It’s very common for scientists in general, and palaeontologists in particular, to complain about their work being misrepresented in the media.  I’m sure it happens — we all remember Matt’s awful experience with Clash of the Dinosaurs — but I think it’s much more the exception than the rule.  In my own limited experience, I’ve found print journalists, artists and radio and TV people pretty much uniformly great to work with: genuinely interested, keen to get the details right, and willing to work with rather than against the scientist.  I’m sure it helps that I take the time to prepare materials for journalists ahead of time rather than just expecting them to make do with the paper and the press-release [Xenoposeidon, neck posture, Brontomerus], but that’s not rocket science.  Anyone who cares about getting their research reported right can do that.  And media people want to do their job right.

Update (4th January 2013)

Very belatedly, I am posting the final final version of the artwork, which Andy sent me back on 26th March 2012! Following a comment by Mickey Mortimer on this very post, Andy got into a discussion with Mickey about feathers. As a result he had David Justice, Highlights‘ in-house art-repair wizard, patch up Utahraptor long after the art was due and they had no time to send it back to the illustrator. Here is the result:

BRONTOMERUS2_0412-cropped

(Note that the colours have also been tweaked.)

 

With our baby’s appearance in National Geographic this week, she’s now been in four mainstream magazines:

That’s National Geographic at top left, Macleans  next to it; The Scientist at bottom left, and National Geographic Kids next to that.  (The articles in the first three of these are available online here, here and here, but I can’t find anything on the NG Kids web-site.)

There is a point to this post, beyond gloating celebrating Brontomerus: it’s that diligent preparation improves a study’s chance of getting good coverage.  A few people have asked us to write a bit about what we did, so at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, here it is.

Most of Brontomerus‘s visibility is due to the hard work of the UCL Publicity team, and especially the excellent and widely-reproduced video that they made in the Grant Museum.  But we made it easy for UCL to take an interest by preparing a bunch of materials ahead of time, before they even knew that there was a paper coming out.  We called it the Brontomerus press pack, and made sure it contained everything anyone could need for writing and illustrating stories about our animal:

In short, we tried to give journalists, and radio and TV researchers, everything they needed to put together a story aimed at their own audience.  More than that — we tried to make it easy for them.  They have plenty going on, after all: Brontomerus came out on the day that the Libyan protests really took off, so it’s not as though news editors were short of material to fill their slots.  I suspect that if we’d not got all the ducks in such a neat row, Brontomerus would have disappeared from the news schedule in double-quick time.

Another important thing you can do to make news editors’ jobs easier: make sure that the images you provide are in high resolution, so they don’t pixellate when they’re blown up to fill a screen; and be explicit about image/video credit, copyright and permissions.  Let them know what they can use and under what conditions.  If you make them hunt for that information, or even chase you for it, they’ll probably lose interest and do a different piece instead.  And we really wanted the artist who’d done the Brontomerus work to be credited: Paco Gasco did a fantastic job, and deserved to be known for it.

Equally important, by getting as much material as possible ready before even contacting the university publicity people, we made their job easier.  Once they were on board, we were able to extend the page with extras like an official press release and the video, but the framework was all in place ahead of time.

In short, there is a whole load that you can do to prepare a study for media coverage.  Not much of it is rocket-science.  It’s basically just about getting the work done.  And it is work, plenty of it.

Still.  It’s worth it.

And another thing …

You should all get across to Heinrich Mallison’s new blog and check it out.  Lots of excellent palaeo-photography, even if today’s post is about a stinkin’ mammal.

Addendum (from Matt)

First, some credit where it’s due. We didn’t figure all of this out on our own. For Brontomerus in particular, we took a lot of cues from  the fact sheet that Irmis et al. put together for their 2007 “rise of dinosaurs” paper that made the cover of Science.

Second, we did figure some of it out on our own, but not all at once. If you look at Mike’s unofficial online press packs for Xenoposeidon (2007), our neck posture paper (2009), and Brontomerus (2011), you’ll see that each one is better than the one before.

Finally, you may be saying to yourself, “Okay, I understand that I’m supposed to make things easy for journalists and have a bunch of stuff queued up for them. But where do I put it?”

Well, online, obviously. If you don’t already have a blog, WordPress and Blogger and probably a zillion other services give them out for free, and you can make an ad hoc, one-shot blog for every press-release-worthy paper, as Mark Witton and Darren did for their azhdarchid paleobiology paper in PLoS ONE.

But let me wax preachy for a minute. If you’re a young researcher and you’re trying to make an impact, why aren’t you blogging? It’s not an intolerable commitment. Sure, regular posting brings more readers, but irregular posting brings more readers than not having a blog at all.

We started SV-POW! as a joke, and continued it during the actually-posting-weekly-about-sauropod-vertebrae phase (which lasted for 2.5 years) because it was fun and challenging, and maintain it now because it’s fun, we enjoy the wacky discussions that get going from time to time in the comments, and, frankly, we’re addicted to having a soapbox where we can say pretty much whatever we want. We didn’t explicitly plan it as a way to funnel readers to our scientific work, but that has been one of its great exaptive benefits. I’d be shocked if the same isn’t true for other researchers who blog.

So, moral of the story: if you’re a researcher and you’re not blogging, you’re missing out. Your work is reaching fewer people than it might. Come out and play. Join the conversation. Interact. Your future self will thank you.