I got an email this morning from Jim Kirkland, announcing:

All of the lectures (with permission to be filmed) will be available on the NHMU YouTube channel. I just wrapped the edit of the 6th video which should be available later today. However, 5 of the lectures are now edited and already available for viewing. They can be found here.

And by the time I read that message, the sixth talk had appeared!

Each talk is 20-25 minutes long, so there’s a good two and a quarter hours of solid but accessible science here, freely available to anyone who wants to watch them. Here, to get you started, is long-time friend of SV-POW!, Randy Irmis, on Discovering Dinosaur Origins in Utah:

It’s great that the DinoFest people are doing this. In 2017, it should really be the default — and yet I can’t think of a single vertebrate palaeo conference that has done this before. (Did I miss some? Links, please!)

I know it’s one more thing for conference organisers to have to think about (or, more optimistically, one more thing for them to delegate). but I hope we’ll be seeing a lot more of it!

I got back on Tuesday from OpenCon 2015 — the most astonishing conference on open scholarship. Logistically, it works very different from most conferences: students have their expenses paid, but established scholars have to pay a registration fee and cover their own expenses. That inversion of how things are usually done captures much of what’s unique about OpenCon: its focus on the next generation is laser-sharp.


They say you should never meet your heroes, but OpenCon demonstrated that that’s not always a good rule. Here I am with Erin McKiernan — the epitome of a fully open early-career researcher — and Mike Eisen, who needs no introduction:


(This photo was supposed to be Erin and me posing in our PeerJ T-shirts, but Mike crashed it with his PLOS shirt. Thanks to Geoff Bilder for taking the photo.)

It was striking the opening session, on Saturday morning, consisted of consecutive keynotes from Mike and then Erin. Both are now free to watch, and I can’t overstate how highly I recommend them. Seriously, make time. Next time you’re going to watch a movie, skip it and watch Mike and Erin instead.

Much of Mike’s talk was history: how he and others first became convinced of the importance of openness, how E-biomed nearly happened and then didn’t, how PLOS started with a declaration and became a publisher, and so on. What’s striking about this is just how much brutal opposition and painful discouragement Mike and his colleagues had to go through to get us to where we are now. The E-biomed proposal that would have freed all biomedical papers was opposed powerfully by publishers (big surprise, huh?) and eventually watered down into PubMed Central. The PLOS declaration collected 34,000 signatures, but most signatories didn’t follow through. PLOS as a publisher was met with scepticism; and PLOS ONE with derision. It takes a certain strength of mind and spirit to keep on truckin’ through that kind of setback, and we can all be grateful that Mike’s was one of the hands on the wheel.

At a much earlier stage in her career, Erin’s pledge to extreme openness reflects Mike’s. It’s good to see that so far, it’s helping rather than harming her career.


(And how is it going? Watch her talk, which follows Mike’s, to find out. You won’t regret it.)

There is so, so much more that I could say about OpenCon. Listing all the inspiring people that I met, alone, would be too much for one blog-post. I will just briefly mention some of those that I have known by email/blog/Twitter for some time, but met in the flesh for the first time: Mike Eisen and Erin McKiernan both fall into that category; so do Björn Brembs, Melissa Hagemann, Geoff Bilder and Danny Kingsley. I could have had an amazing time just talking to people even if I’d missed all the sessions. (Apologies to everyone I’ve not mentioned.)

Oh, and how often do you get to rub shoulders with Jimmy Wales?


(That’s Jon Tennant in between Jimmy and me, and Mike Eisen trying, but not quite succeeding, to photobomb us from behind.)

And yet, even with global superstars around, the part of the weekend that impressed me the most was a small breakout session where I found myself in a room with a dozen people I’d never met before, didn’t recognise, and hadn’t heard of. As we went around the room and did introductions, every single one of them was doing something awesome. They were helping a scholarly society to switch to OA publishing, or funding open projects in the developing world, or driving a university’s adoption of an OA policy, or creating a new repository for unpublished papers, or something. (I really wish I’d written them all down.)

The sheer amount of innovation and hard work that’s going on just blew me away. So: OpenCon 2015 community, I salute you! May we meet again!

Update (Saturday 21 November 2015)

Here is the conference photo, taken by Slobodan Radicev, CC by:


And here’s a close-up of the bit with me, honoured to be sandwiched between the founders of Public Library of Science and the Open Library of Humanities! (That’s Mike Eisen to the left, and Martin Eve to the right.)



Following on from his recent, and extensively discussed, offer to host SVPCA 2017, and a plan for the future, Richard Butler is now circulating his update, soliciting volunteers for the committee that virtually everyone agreed was a good idea.

Dear SVPCA/SPPC friends and colleagues,

We have identified you as a member of the SVPCA/SPPC community through having attended the meeting within the last five years. Many of you will doubtless be aware of the vibrant, lengthy, and occasionally fiery debate currently taking place about the future of the meeting on Mike Taylor and Matt Wedel’s SV-POW blog.

The least controversial proposal for change in the meeting has been my suggestion that we establish a ‘steering group’ to (i) try and solve some of the short-term and long-term logistical challenges (bank accounts, abstract submission and online registration issues etc.); (ii) provide support to meeting organisers and develop a comprehensive set of useful information; (iii) help identify and encourage future hosts to come forward; (iv) think about and discuss the future of the meeting, including discussing how best to make sure the meeting appeals to the entire community, from students to amateurs and from professors to preparators.

As there has been no opposition and plenty of support for a steering group, I propose we move forward with establishing this. No alternative to my proposal for the composition of this group has been put forward: I proposed a group of seven including past, current and future organisers (Gareth Dyke, Peter Falkingham, me as proposed host for a 2017 Birmingham meeting), and four elected members representing the student, early career academic (up to 10 years post-PhD), senior academic, and non-professional communities. This would not draw any museum/university distinction when it comes to students and academics. Although I have not heard formally from the GCG, I understand there is interest in one of their members being co-opted onto the steering group to represent SPPC. Elected steering group members could serve three-year terms, to match the terms served by meeting hosts.

At this stage we need volunteers: people willing to stand for election to this group and help secure and shape the future of the meeting! If you are a member of the SVPCA/SPPC community and are interested in serving, then please email me and Richard Forrest and let us know which of the four elected positions you wish to stand for. We would like volunteers by October 23rd. After this date, we will set-up online elections to allow the SVPCA/SPPC community to vote for each of the positions.

I look forward to hearing from you and to working together to shape the future of the meeting.

Preprints are in the air! A few weeks ago, Stephen Curry had a piece about them in the Guardian (Peer review, preprints and the speed of science) and pterosaur palaeontologist Liz Martin published Preprints in science on her blog Musings of Clumsy Palaeontologist. The latter in particular has spawned a prolific and fascinating comment stream. Then SV-POW!’s favourite journal, PeerJ, weighed in on its own blog with A PeerJ PrePrint – so just what is that exactly?.

Following on from that, I was invited to contribute a guest-post to the PeerJ blog: they’re asking several people about their experiences with PeerJ Preprints, and publishing the results in a series. I started to write my answers in an email, but they soon got long enough that I concluded it made more sense to write my own post instead. This is that post.

As a matter of fact, I’ve submitted four PeerJ preprints, and all of them for quite different reasons.


1. Barosaurus neck. I and Matt submitted the Barosaurus manuscript as a preprint because we wanted to get feedback as quickly as possible. We certainly got it: four very long detailed comments that were more helpful than most formally solicited peer-reviews that I’ve had. (It’s to our discredit that we didn’t then turn the manuscript around immediately, taking those reviews into a account. We do still plan to do this, but other things happened.)


2. Dinosaur diversity. Back in 2004 I submitted my first ever scientific paper, a survey of dinosaur diversity broken down in various ways. It was rejected (for what I thought were spurious reasons, but let it pass). The more time that passed, the more out of date the statistics became. As my interests progressed in other directions, I reached the point of realising that I was never going to get around to bringing that paper up to date and resubmitting it to a journal. Rather than let it be lost to the world, when I think it still contains much that is of interest, I published it as a pre-print (although it’s not pre- anything: what’s posted is the final version).


3. Cartilage angles. Matt and I had a paper published on PLOS ONE in 2013, on the effect that intervertebral cartilage had on sauropod neck posture. Only after it was published did I realise that there was a very simple way to quantify the geometric effect. I wrote what was intended to be a one-pager on that, planning to issue it as a sort of erratum. It ended up much longer than expected, but because I considered it to be material that should really have been in the original PLOS ONE paper, I wanted to get it out as soon as possible. So as soon as the manuscript was ready, I submitted it simultaneously as a preprint and onto the peer-review track at PeerJ. (It was published seven weeks later.)


4. Apatosaurine necks. Finally, I gave a talk at this year’s SVPCA (Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy), based on an in-progress manuscript in which I am second author to Matt. The proceedings of the symposium are emerging as a PeerJ Collection, and I and the other authors wanted our paper to be a part of that collection. So I submitted the abstract of the talk I gave, with the slide-deck as supplementary information. In time, this version of the preprint will be superseded by the completed manuscript, and eventually (we hope) by the peer-reviewed paper.

So the thing to take away from this is that there are lots of reasons to publish preprints. They open up different ways of thinking about the publication process.

We’re delighted to host this guest-blog on behalf of Richard Butler, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, and guru of basal ornithischians. (Note that Matt and I don’t necessarily endorse or agree with everything Richard says; but we’re pleased to provide a forum for discussion.)

Dear friends and colleagues within the SVPCA community;

I am posting here courtesy of Mike and Matt with two objectives. First, I would like to provisionally offer Birmingham as a venue for the 2017 SVPCA meeting, with a host committee of myself, Ivan Sansom, and our postdocs and students. I propose to host the meeting at the University of Birmingham and the Lapworth Museum of Geology, following the latter’s redevelopment and reopening in 2016. Second, I would note that this offer is conditional on the implementation of some changes in SVPCA organisation that I believe will help secure the future of the meeting, while retaining its current atmosphere. Although I have already discussed these proposed changes with many colleagues via email, a broad scale and open consultancy and discussion within the community is needed, hence this post and open comment section.

Despite the apparent success of recent meetings, there are a couple of factors that give me substantial concern about its future. There is a trend, noted by several people, toward increasing disengagement from a large component of the early postdoctoral career and established academic community, with many of these individuals (including myself) attending SVPCA less and less frequently. Numbers provided by Richard Forrest show a small but steady decline in the number of people paying full registration (i.e. non-students) over the last five years. Having discussed this with a number of colleagues, it is clear to me that it stems from multiple reasons, including meeting length and structure, ever-increasing time constraints, and competition with the myriad other meetings such as PalAss, SVP, EAVP, ICVM etc. This disengagement is worrying for a number of reasons, but perhaps most pressingly because it is exactly this part of the vertebrate palaeontology community who are generally expected to organise the meeting in future years.

I am also concerned that people are not queuing up to organise the meeting. We are just about getting by from year to year, but offers are sparse at exactly a time when there are almost certainly more vertebrate palaeontologists employed in the UK than ever before. Why is this? Well, taking on the organization of SVPCA in its current form is not exactly attractive in the current academic world of REF, impact, museum cuts, and the ongoing marketization of universities, with charges for the use of lecture theatres and other spaces increasing rapidly. The meeting is long relative to its size (particularly when SPPC is considered) and its budget is low, and the lack of any formal organization to SVPCA means that there is limited support or continuity from year to year. Hosting it is unlikely to substantially enhance your CV, but it will certainly impact negatively on your other outputs (i.e. papers, grant applications) for that year. We risk reaching a point in the near future where there is no-one willing to host the meeting and the meeting grinds to a halt.

My proposal is that the meeting could bear a small degree of formalisation and modernisation without losing its character, and doing so would ease pressures on hosts. Following discussion with a broad range of colleagues within the SVPCA community, I am proposing that a small SVPCA steering group be established as part of the planning for the Birmingham meeting. This steering group could be established in a simple, representative, democratic, cost-free, and light-touch manner. This group would not need to meet in person other than at SVPCA itself so there would be no financial cost. There would then be an open and democratic basis for deciding upon the future of the meeting and ensuring continuity from year to year.

This committee could come up with an agreed list of recommendations for how the meeting should be organised in the future, addressing topics such as meeting length, the role of SPPC, the relationship of the meeting to PalAss (who already provide significant financial and logistic support), the abstract review process, and innovations such as lightning talks, workshops and keynotes. It could also find solutions to the significant logistic issues to do with bank accounts, payments and the like, all of which place unnecessary strain on the local organisers. Local organisers would still have considerable autonomy, but they would receive more support.

As an initial proposal I suggest a small committee that attempts to represent the different communities that make up SVPCA. The last and next meeting hosts should be on, as well as perhaps five additional elected members, serving limited terms, to represent the student, early career researcher (up to 10 years post-PhD), senior academic, museum, and non-professional communities. Pretty much all of the feedback from colleagues for this idea to date has been positive. Note that this does not imply the formation of a formal society (although that would be an option that a steering committee could discuss), and nor does it challenge many of the aspects of SVPCA that so many of us find attractive, such as its friendly atmosphere or the absence of parallel sessions. I hope it will provide a framework for us to continue to promote scientific excellence and drive up standards in UK vertebrate palaeontology, and help secure the future of the meeting for the next 60 years. I would love to hear any opinions that the community has on this proposal, and the future of SVPCA more broadly.

We’ve noted that the Taylor et al. SVPCA abstract and talk slides are up now up as part of the SVPCA 2015 PeerJ Collection, so anyone who’s interested has probably taken a look already to see what it was about. (As an aside, I am delighted to see that two more abstracts have been added to the collection since I wrote about it.)

It was my privilege to present a talk on our hypothesis that the distinctive and bizarre toblerone-shaped necks of apatosaurs were an adaptation for intraspecific combat. This talk was based on an in-progress manuscript that Matt is lead-authoring. Also on board is the third SV-POW!sketeer, the silent partner, Darren Naish; and artist/ethologist Brian Engh.

Here is our case, briefly summarised from five key slides. First, let’s take a look at what is distinctive in the morphology of apatosaur cervicals:

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.22.26

Here I’m using Brontosaurus, which is among the more extreme apatosaurs, but the same features are seen developed to nearly the same extent in Apatosaurus louisae, the best-known apatosaur, and to some extent in all apatosaurs.

Now we’ll look at the four key features separately.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.22.57

First, the cervicals ribs of sauropods (and other saurischians, including birds) anchored the longus colli ventralis and flexor colli lateralis muscles — ventral muscles whose job is to pull the neck downwards. By shifting the attachments points of these muscles downwards, apatosaurs enabled them to work with improved mechanical advantage — that is, to bring more force to bear.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.23.06

Second, by redirecting the diapophyses and parapophyses ventrally, and making them much more robust than in other sauropods, apatosaurs structured their neck skeletons to better resist ventral impacts.

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.23.15

Third, because the low-hanging cervical ribs created an inverted “V” shape below the centrum, they formed a protective cradle for the vulnerable soft-tissue that is otherwise exposed on the ventral aspect of the neck: trachea, oesophagus, major blood vessels. In apatosaurus, all of these would have been safely wrapped in layers of connective tissue and bubble-wrap-like pneumatic diverticula. The presence of diverticula ventral to the vertebral centrum is not speculative – most neosauropods have fossae on the ventral surfaces of their cervical centra, and apatosaurines tend to have foramina that connect to internal chambers as well (see Lovelace et al. 2007: fig. 4, which is reproduced in this post).

Screen Shot 2015-09-12 at 11.23.22

Fourth, most if not all apatosaurs have distinctive ventrally directed club-like processes on the front of their cervical ribs. (It’s hard to tell with Apatosaurus ajax, because the best cervical vertebra of that species is so very reconstructed.) How did these appear in life? It’s difficult to be sure. They might have appeared as a low boss; or, as with rhinoceros horns, they might even have carried keratinous spikes.

Putting it all together, we have an animal whose neck can be brought downwards with great force; whose neck was mechanically capable of resisting impacts on its ventral aspect; whose vulnerable ventral-side soft-tissue was well protected; and which probably had prominent clubs or spikes all along the ventral aspect of the neck. And all of this was accomplished at the cost of making the neck a lot heavier than it would have been otherwise. Off the cuff, it seems likely that the cervical series alone would have massed twice as much in apatosaurines as in diplodocines of the same neck length.

Doubling the mass of the neck is a very peculiar thing for a sauropod lineage to do – by the Late Jurassic, sauropods were the leading edge of an evolutionary trend to lengthen and lighten the neck that had been running for almost 100 million years, through basal ornithodirans, basal dinosauromorphs, basal saurischians, basal sauropodomorphs, and basal sauropods. Whatever the selective pressures that led apatosaurines to evolve such robust and heavy necks, they must have been compelling.

The possibility that apatosaurs were pushing or crashing their necks ventrally in some form of combat accounts for all of the weird morphology documented above, and we know that sexual selection is powerful force that underlies a lot of bizarre structures in extant animals, and probably in extinct ornithodirans as well (see Hone et al. 2012, Hone and Naish 2013).

What form of combat, exactly? There are various possibilities, which we’ll discuss another time. But I’ll leave you with Brian Engh’s beautiful illustration of one possible form of combat: a powerful impact of one neck brought down onto the dorsal aspect of another.


We’re aware that this proposal is necessarily somewhat speculative. But we’re just not able to see any other explanation for the distinctive apatosaur neck. Even if we’re wrong about the ventrolateral processes on the cervical ribs supporting bosses or spikes, the first three points remain true, and given how they fly in the face of sauropods’ long history of making their necks lighter, they fairly cry out for explanation. If anyone has other proposals, we’ll be happy to hear them.


  • Hone, D. W., Naish, D., & Cuthill, I. C. (2012). Does mutual sexual selection explain the evolution of head crests in pterosaurs and dinosaurs?. Lethaia 45(2):139-156.
  • Hone, D. W. E., & Naish, D. (2013). The ‘species recognition hypothesis’ does not explain the presence and evolution of exaggerated structures in non‐avialan dinosaurs. Journal of Zoology 290(3):172-180.
  • Lovelace, D. M., Hartman, S. A., & Wahl, W. R. (2007). Morphology of a specimen of Supersaurus (Dinosauria, Sauropoda) from the Morrison Formation of Wyoming, and a re-evaluation of diplodocid phylogeny. Arquivos do Museu Nacional, Rio de Janeiro 65(4):527-544.

Wouldn’t it be great if, after a meeting like the 2015 SVPCA, there was a published set of proceedings? A special issue of a journal, perhaps, that collected papers that emerge from the work presented there.

Of course the problem with special issues, and edited volumes in general, is that they take forever to come out. After the Dinosaurs: A Historical Perspective conference on 6 May 2008, I got my talk on the history of sauropod research written up and submitted on 7 August, just over three months later. It took another five and a half months to make it through peer-review to acceptance. And then … nothing. It sat in limbo for a year and nine months before it was finally published, because of course the book couldn’t be finalised until the slowest of the 50 or so authors, editors and reviewers had done their jobs.

Taylor (2010: fig. 4). Marsh's reconstructions of Brontosaurus. Top: first reconstruction, modified from Marsh (1883, plate I). Bottom: second reconstruction, modified from Marsh (1891, plate XVI).

Taylor (2010: fig. 4). Marsh’s reconstructions of Brontosaurus. Top: first reconstruction, modified from Marsh (1883, plate I). Bottom: second reconstruction, modified from Marsh (1891, plate XVI).

There has to be a better way, doesn’t there?

Rhetorical question, there. There is a better way, and unsurprisingly to regular readers, it’s PeerJ that has pioneered it. In PeerJ Collections, papers can be added at any time, and each one is published as it’s ready. Better still, the whole lifecycle of the paper can (if the authors wish) be visible from the collection. You can start by posting the talk abstract, then replace it with a preprint of the complete manuscript when it’s ready, and finally replace that with the published version of the paper once it’s been through peer-review.

Take a look, for example, at the collection for the 3rd International Whale Shark Conference (which by the way was held at the Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, which has awesome whale sharks on view.)


As you can see from the collection (at the time of writing), only one of the constituent papers — Laser photogrammetry improves size and demographic estimates for whale sharks — has actually been published so far. But a dozen other papers exist in preprint form. That means that the people who attended the conference, saw the talks and want to refer to them in their work have something to cite.

The hot news is that Mark Young and the other SVPCA 2015 organisers have arranged for PeerJ to set up an SPPC/SVPCA 2015 Collection. I think this is just marvellous — the best possible way to make a permanent record of an important event.

The collection is very new: at the time of writing, it hosts only five abstracts (one of them ours). We’re looking forward to seeing others added. Some of the abstracts (including ours) have the slides of the talk attached as supplementary information.


Although I’m lead author on the talk (because I prepared the slides and delivered the presentation), this project is really Matt’s baby. There is a Wedel et al. manuscript in prep already, so we hope that within a month or two we’ll be able to replace the abstract with a complete manuscript. Then of course we’ll put it through peer-review.

I hope plenty of other SVPCA 2015 speakers will do the same. Even those who, for whatever reason, don’t want to publish their work in PeerJ, can use the collection as a home for their abstracts and preprints, then go off and submit the final manuscript elsewhere.