November 18, 2016
Oh man, 2016, you are really working on my nerves.
Sometimes it’s a positive balm to hold a piece of an animal dead and gone for 145 million years, or stare at a thousand vertical feet of sandstone, and know that we are all ants.
These lovelies here intrigue me deeply. They’re the three caudal vertebrae recovered from the Snowmass Haplocanthosaurus that John Foster and I described a couple of years ago. Pretty sure I’ll have more to say about them in the future. For now it’s enough that they’ve come across such a vast gulf of time and given this stressed-out primate a little perspective.
Foster, J.R., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. Haplocanthosaurus (Saurischia: Sauropoda) from the lower Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic) near Snowmass, Colorado. Volumina Jurassica 12(2): 197–210. DOI: 10.5604/17313708 .1130144
November 2, 2016
I’ve been writing for Sky & Telescope, the American astronomy magazine, for a year now. My first feature article was published last December (details here), my second came out this April (ditto), and my latest is in the current (December 2016) issue, which should be hitting newsstands this week. I’ve also been writing the “Binocular Highlight” column since June.
My latest feature article, “Twelve Steps to Infinity”, is my favorite thing I’ve ever written about astronomy, and maybe my favorite thing I’ve ever written, period.* I’m posting about it here because the concept should be interesting to all students of the past: the speed of light is finite, so when we look out into space, we are also looking back in time. We see the moon as it was 1.28 seconds ago, the sun as it was 8.3 minutes ago, Jupiter anywhere from 33 minutes to over an hour ago, depending on whether we’re on the same side of the sun or not, and Neptune after four hours – at that distance, our 16-light-minute swing around the sun hardly makes a difference. Most of the stars visible to the naked eye are within 2000 light years, which is 2% or less of the diameter of our Milky Way galaxy. With binoculars or a small telescope you can track down numerous external galaxies and see them as they appeared tens of millions of years ago. One of my favorite observations is seeing the light of the quasar 3C 273, which started traveling 2.4 billion years ago, when our single-celled ancestors were gearing up for the Great Oxygenation Event. (If you’d like to replicate that feat yourself, you can get a very capable, “lifetime” telescope for a little over a hundred bucks. I recommend the Orion SkyScanner 100 – see this and this for more information.)
My new Sky & Tel article doesn’t go nearly that far back – in fact, I don’t even make it out of the Cenozoic. But the concept scales all the way out, so if a particular event in Phanerozoic history is near to your heart, there is probably a star, nebula, cluster, or galaxy whose light left at the right time, which you could observe with binoculars or a small telescope (although the distribution is gappy between half a million and 30 million light years, where there just aren’t that many nearby galaxies). The Messier and Caldwell catalogs are good places to start, and there are hordes of online resources (many funded by your tax dollars by way of NASA) you can use to find a match. If I get really motivated I might post a table of easily-observed celestial objects and their lookback times. In the meantime, if you have a date in mind, leave it in a comment and I’ll find something temporally close for you to go look at.
Lots of people provided assistance and inspiration. Steve Sittig, who runs the Hefner Observatory at the Webb Schools here in Claremont, helped me refine the idea through numerous conversations, and did a trial observing run with me last autumn. Fellow paleontologists Alan Shabel and Thierra Nalley guided me on hominid history (needless to say, any remaining errors are mine). My editor at Sky & Telescope, S.N. Johnson-Roehr, made numerous small improvements, and the S&T art department made the article even more beautiful than I had hoped. Finally, the little plesiadapiforms at the end of the piece are there thanks to Pat Holroyd, who introduced me to them when I was at Berkeley. Many thanks, folks!
October 27, 2016
Quick heads up: Mark Hallett and I are both at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Salt Lake City. Tomorrow afternoon (Friday, October 28) at 4:15 PM we’ll be signing copies of our book, The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants. If you’d like to get a copy of the book, or to have your already-purchased copy signed, please come to the Johns Hopkins University Press booth in the exhibitor/poster area tomorrow afternoon. We’re both generally happy to sign books whenever and wherever, but if you’d like to catch us both at the same time, this is a good opportunity. We’re hoping to do another joint book signing in Los Angeles before long – more info on that when we get it arranged.
In the meantime, or if you’re not at SVP, or if you just like cool things, check out this rad claymation video of fighting apatosaurs, by YouTube user Fred the Dinosaurman. I love this. My favorite thing is that if you’re familiar with the previously-produced, static visual images of neck-fighting apatosaurs (links collected here), you’ll see a lot of those specific poses and moments recreated as transient poses in the video. This was published back in June, but I’d missed it – many thanks to Brian Engh for the heads up.
April 30, 2016
I love Utah. I love how much of the state is given over to exposed Mesozoic rocks. I love driving through Utah, which has a strong baseline of beautiful scenery that is frequently punctuated by the absolutely mind-blowing (Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Monument Valley…). I love doing fieldwork there, and I love the museums, of which there are many. It is not going too far to say that much of what I learned firsthand about sauropod morphology, I learned in Utah (the Carnegie Museum runs a close second on the dragging-Matt-out-of-ignorance scale).
There is no easy way to say this so I’m just going to get it over with: Mike has never been to Utah.
I know, right?
But we’re going to fix that. Mike’s flying into Salt Lake City this Wednesday, May 4, and I’m driving up from SoCal to meet him. After that we’re going to spend the next 10 days driving around Utah and western Colorado hitting museums and dinosaur sites. We’re calling it the Sauropocalypse.
Why am I telling you this, other than to inspire crippling jealousy?
First, Mike and I are giving a pair of public talks next Friday evening, May 6, at the USU-Eastern Prehistoric Museum in Price. The talks start at 7:00 and will probably run until 8:00 or shortly after, and there will be a reception with snacks afterward. Mike’s talk will be, “Why giraffes have such short necks”, and my own will be, “Why elephants are so small”.
Second, occasionally people leave comments to the effect of, “Hey, if you’re ever passing through X, give me a shout.” I haven’t kept track of all of those, so this is me doing the same thing in reverse. Here’s our itinerary as of right now:
May 4, Weds: MPT flies in. MJW drives up from Cali. Stay in SLC/Provo area.
May 5, Thurs: recon BYU collections in Provo. Stay in SLC/Provo area.
May 6, Fri: drive to Price, visit USU-Eastern Prehistoric Museum, give evening talks. Stay in Price.
May 7, Sat: drive to Vernal, visit DNM. Stay in Vernal.
May 8, Sun: visit Utah Field House, revisit DNM if needed, drive to Fruita.
May 9, Mon: visit Rabbit Valley camarasaur in AM, visit Dinosaur Journey museum in PM. Go on to Moab.
May 10, Tues: drive back to Provo, visit BYU collections.
May 11, Weds: BYU collections.
May 12, Thurs: drive to SLC to visit UMNH collections, stay for Utah Friends of Paleontology meeting that evening.
May 13, Fri: BYU collections.
May 14, Sat: visit North American Museum of Ancient Life. MPT flies home. MJW starts drive home.
We’re planning lots of time at BYU because we’ll need it, the quantity and quality of sauropod material they have there is ridiculous. As for the rest, some of those details may change on the fly but that’s the basic plan. Maybe we’ll see you out there.
April 11, 2016
As I was clearing out some clutter, I came across this hand-written list of projects that I wanted to get completed:
Sadly, I didn’t put a date on the list. But I can estimate it as before 2013 (because of the reference of Why giraffes have short necks as a project still to be completed) but after 2011 (because the no necks for sex project is not listed.) So it’s probably from 2012, which means four years have passed since I wrote that list.
What have I achieved in that time? Not nearly enough.
- ICZN checklist refers to the short set of name-a-new-animal instructions that I was crowdsourcing here on SV-POW!. We started this on 10 February 2011, had it nearly done less than two weeks later, then … stalled for no reason at all. Eighteen months later, the ICZN changed to allow electronic publication, instantly rendering the in-progress document obsolete. Now I don’t know whether to kill the project or update it. Should have just published it in 2011.
- WTH (Why giraffes have short necks) was published in PeerJ, hurrah!
- PBJ stands for “Pneumatic Butt on a JANGO“. It was published in the PLOS ONE’s sauropod gigantism collection, hurrah!
- Archbishop is of course the Natural History Museum’s Tendaguru brachiosaur, which I have been planning to describe since 2004. Still not done. Shameful.
- “Apatosaurus” minimus is a descriptive project. Real work has been done, and I gave a talk about it at SVPCA in 2012. Not much progress since then. Lame.
- Astrolembospondylus refers to the starship-shaped cervical vertebra of the Barosaurus holotype YPM 429. That project has seen daylight as both an SVPCA talk in 2013 and a PeerJ Preprint — which is great. But once the reviews were in, we should have turned it around and got it submitted as a proper paper. For some reason, we didn’t, and this project, too, is in limbo. Weak.
- ODP is the Open Dinosaur Project. Do not get me started on that train-wreck.
- Neck cartilage: giraffe, ostrich, croc. This refers to a comparative dissection project to determine whether sauropods had intervertebral discs. I proposed it as a Masters project twice, but no-one bit; then I offered to up to anyone who wanted it on SV-POW!, with the same (lack of) result. Looks like it’s not sexy enough for anyone to invest the time into, which is a shame because it’s important.
- Limb cartilage limiting mass refers to the second talk I ever gave, at Progressive Palaeontology in 2004. It’s ridiculous that I never wrote this up. Ridiculous.
- Haemodynamics refers to Matt’s and my looong-running plans to write up our thoughts about Roger Seymour’s work that suggests blood-circulation issues prevented sauropods from having habitually erect necks. I’m going to blame Matt for this one’s lack of progress. (Not because he’s any more to blame than I am — just because I’ve been taking all the blame so far, and I want to share it around a bit.)
- Immature sauropods, pop. dynamics. Parts of this made it out in the recent Hone, Farke, and Wedel (2016) paper on dinosaur ontogenetic stages. Not as much as I’d have liked to see, but enough to make a dedicated paper about this not really feasible.
- Ostrich skull atlas. I made lovely multi-view photos of nearly every bone in my ostrich skull. My plan was, and sort of still is, to publish them all in a text-light paper. No progress on this. I still have a few bones left to photograph, and may need to completely disarticulate the mandible before I can do that.
- Wealden sauropod vert. analysis. I’d planned, going back to the earliest posts on this blog, to properly redescribe and analyse the many fascinating isolated sauropod vertebrae of the Wealden Formation. This is another one that I gave a ProgPal talk about before getting distracted. Not sure if this will ever happen: I’m still very interested in it, but even more interested in other things.
- Fossils explained is a series of articles for geologists, explaining various fossil groups in laymen’s terms (here is an example). Darren’s done half a dozen of them. Once many years ago I expressed an interest in doing one on sauropods, and the editor liked the idea. Then … nothing. My bad.
- Ventral compression bracing is a section that, heaven help us, we somehow decided we should remove from Why Giraffes Have Short Necks and make into its own paper. It got stalled on some croc-dissection work that Matt was doing with his student Vanessa and is now in limbo.
That’s fifteen projects that I had on the go, or planned to work on, four years ago. I make it that two of them (WTH and PBJ) have been published and one (Barosaurus) has made it as far as a the preprint stage. Three more are probably dead for various reasons, and that leaves nine where I’ve made woefully inadequate progress — in most cases, none at all.
Meanwhile, needless to say, I’ve added a bunch more projects to my To Do list since I scribbled this one out. (And to be fair to me, I’ve got a few other projects out in this time that weren’t mentioned in the note: neural spine bifurcation as Matt’s co-author, lead author on intervertebral cartilage and sole on its addendum; I slipped in as last author on Haestasaurus; and I wrote the SPARC briefing paper on evaluating researchers.)
What does all this mean?
I don’t know. Some of those no-progress yet projects are still very much alive in my mind — notably the Archbishop, of course. Others might never happen. Some are 90% done and I should just push them out the door.
One moral of this story is that I shouldn’t have burned 250 hours since Christmas playing Skyrim. But maybe a more constructive one is that it’s just really hard to know what projects are going to take wings and fly and which aren’t. My guess — and I’d love to hear some confirmation or denial in the comments — is that most researchers have a similar palette of half-done projects floating around their hindbrains, continually projecting low-level guilt rays. I guess I long ago gave up on the idea that I would ever finish all my projects, because the only way that would happen would be if I never started any more new ones — and that ain’t gonna happen.
Oh, here’s a better moral: ideas to work on are cheap. In fact Matt and I have so darned many that we sometimes just give them away here on SV-POW!. (I am pretty certain that there are lots more similar project-giveaway posts somewhere here, but we didn’t tag them at the time.)
Ideas are cheap; actual work is hard.
February 18, 2016
The idea that dinosaurs had unusual life histories is not new. The short, short version is that it is usually pretty straightforward to tell which mammals and birds are adults, because the major developmental milestones that mark adulthood – reproductive maturity, cessation of growth, macro-level skeletal fusions, histological markers of maturity – typically occur fairly close together in time. This is radically untrue for most dinosaurs, which started reproducing early, often well before they were fully grown, and for which the other signals of adulthood can be wildly inconsistent.
We don’t talk about this much in the paper, but one aspect of dinosaur life history should be of particular interest to sauropodophiles: most of the mounted sauropod skeletons in the world’s great museums belong to animals that are demonstrably not mature. They’re not the biggest individuals – witness the XV2 specimen of Giraffatitan, the giant Oklahoma Apatosaurus, and Diplodocus hallorum (formerly “Seismosaurus”).* They’re not skeletally mature – see the unfused scapulocoracoids of FMNH P25107, the holotype of Brachiosaurus mounted in Chicago, and MB.R.2181, the lectotype of Giraffatitan mounted in Berlin. And histological sampling suggests that most recovered sauropods were still growing (Klein and Sander 2008).
* The Oklahoma Museum of Natural History does have a mounted (reconstructed) skeleton of the giant Apatosaurus, and the New Mexico Museum of Natural History has a mounted reconstructed skeleton of Diplodocus hallorum. But as nice as those museums are, in historical terms those mounts are brand new, and they have not shaped the public – and professional – conception of Apatosaurus and Diplodocus to anywhere near the same degree as the much smaller specimens mounted at Yale, AMNH, the Field Museum, and so on.
Basically, very little of what we think we know about sauropods is based on animals that were fully grown – and the same problem extends to many other groups of dinosaurs.
This is kind of a methodological nightmare – a colleague on Facebook commented that he had pulled his hair out over this problem – and in the paper we suggest some ways to hopefully alleviate it. I mean, the biology is what it is, but we can minimize confusion by being really explicit about which criteria we’re using when we assign a specimen to a bin like “juvenile”, “subadult”, and so on.
Supposed Former Evolution Junkie
Personally, I’m more excited about the possibilities that dinosaur life history weirdness open up for dinosaur population dynamics and ecology.
Confession time: I am a recovering and relatively high-functioning evolutionary theory junkie. In grad school I was on the heavy stuff – I read tons of Gould and Dawkins and admired them both without being smitten by either. I took seminars on Darwin and evolutionary morphology, and lots of courses in ecology – ever mindful of Leigh Van Valen’s definition of evolution as “the control of development by ecology”. I read a fair amount of Van Valen, too, until “Energy and evolution” (Van Valen 1976) burned out most of my higher cognitive centers.
I say “recovering” evolutionary theory junkie because after grad school I mostly went clean. The problem is that dinosaurs are good for a lot of things, but exploring the inner workings of evolution is usually not one of those things. As products of evolution, and demonstrations of what is biomechanically possible, dinosaurs are awesome, and we can look at macroevolutionary patterns in, say, body size evolution or morphospace occupation, but we almost never find dinos in sufficient numbers to be able to test hypotheses about the tempo and mode of their evolution on the fine scale. I suppose I could have switched systems and worked on critters in which the machinations of selection are more visible, but for me even the charms of evolutionary theory pale next to the virulent allure of sauropods and pneumaticity.
Anyway, keeping in mind that Van Valenian dictum that evolution stands with one foot in the organism-internal realm of genes, cells, tissue interactions, and other developmental phenomena, and the other in the organism-external world of competition, predation, resource partitioning, demographics, and other ecological interactions, then it stands to reason that if dinosaurs had weird ontogenies – and they did – then they might have had weird ecologies, and weird evolution full stop. (Where by ‘weird’ I mean ‘not what we’d expect based on modern ecosystems and our own profoundly mammal-centric point of view’.)
Actually, we can be pretty sure that the weird ontogenies and weird ecologies of dinosaurs were intimately linked (see, for example, Varricchio 2010). Like the tyrannosaurs shown here – they didn’t all fill the same ecological niche. This casts some old arguments in a new light. Was T. rex adapted for fast running? Prrrrobably – just not as a full-size adult. The skeleton of an adult tyrannosaur is that of a 500 kg cursor pressed into service hauling around 10 tons of murder. And all of this has some pretty exciting implications for thinking about dinosaurian ecosystems. Whereas mammals tend to fill up ecospace with species, dinosaurs filled up their world with ecologically distinct growth stages.
Does all of this add up to weird evolutionary dynamics for dinosaurs? Possibly. As we say in the paper,
Correct identification of life stage also is relevant to fundamentals of evolution—if the onset of sexual reproduction substantially preceded cessation of growth in dinosaurs then the ‘adult’ phenotype may not have been the primary target of selection. In fact, once juveniles or subadults are capable of reproducing, it is conceivable a population could exist with potentially no individuals making it through the survivorship gauntlet into ‘adulthood’ and close to maximum body size. The occasional hints from the fossil record of anomalously large sauropods like Bruhathkayosaurus , and the Broome trackmaker  might be explained if many sauropods were primarily ‘subadult’ reproducers, and thus extremely large adults were actually vanishingly rare.
Did that actually happen? Beats me. But it’s consistent with what we know about sauropod life history, and with the observed scarcity of skeletally mature sauropods. And it might explain some other oddities as well, such as the high diversity of sauropods in seasonally arid environments like the Morrison Formation (see Engelmann et al. 2004), and the fact that sauropods – and large dinosaurs generally – are much larger than predicted based on the land areas available to them (see Burness et al. 2001). Because the age structure of sauropod populations was so skewed toward juveniles, the average body size of most sauropod populations was probably fairly modest, even though the maximum size was immense. So maybe a continuously reproducing population didn’t require as much food or space as we’ve previously assumed.
If we can falsify that, cool, we’ll have learned something. And if we can falsify the alternatives, that will be even cooler.
I’ll stop waving my arms now, lest I achieve powered flight and really inspire controversy. Many thanks to Dave and Andy for bringing me on board for this. It was a fun project, and we hope the paper is useful. You can read Dave’s thoughts on all of this here.
- Burness, G.P., Diamond, J. and Flannery, T., 2001. Dinosaurs, dragons, and dwarfs: the evolution of maximal body size. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98(25), pp.14518-14523.
- Engelmann, G.F., Chure, D.J. and Fiorillo, A.R., 2004. The implications of a dry climate for the paleoecology of the fauna of the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation. Sedimentary Geology, 167(3), pp.297-308.
- Klein, N. and Sander, M., 2008. Ontogenetic stages in the long bone histology of sauropod dinosaurs. Paleobiology, 34(2), pp.247-263.
- Van Valen, L., 1976. Energy and evolution. Evolutionary Theory, 1(7), pp.179-229.
- Varricchio, D.J., 2011. A distinct dinosaur life history? Historical Biology,23(1), pp.91-107.
September 15, 2015
Ten years ago today — on 15 September 2005 — my first palaeo paper was published: Taylor and Naish (2005) on the phylogenetic nomenclature of diplodocoids. It’s strange to think how fast the time has gone, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I get a bit self-indulgent and nostalgic.
I’d applied to join Portsmouth University on a Masters course back in April 2004 — not because I had any great desire to earn a Masters but because back in the bad old days, being affiliated to a university was about the only way to get hold of copies of academic papers. My research proposal, hilariously, was all about the ways the DinoMorph results are misleading — something that I am still working on eleven years later.
In May of that year, I started a Dinosaur Mailing List thread on the names and definitions of the various diplodocoid clades. As that discussion progressed, it became clear that there was a lot of ambiguity, and for my own reference I started to make notes. I got into an off-list email discussion about this with Darren Naish (who was then finishing up his Ph.D at Portsmouth). By June we thought it might be worth making this into a little paper, so that others wouldn’t need to do the same literature trawl we’d done.
In September of 2004, I committed to the Portsmouth course, sending my tuition fees in a letter that ended:
On the way to SVPCA that year, in Leicester, I met Darren on the train, and together we worked through a printed copy of the in-progress manuscript that I’d brought with me. He was pretty happy with it, which meant a lot to me. It was the first time I’d had a legitimate palaeontologist critique my work.
At one of the evening events of that SVPCA, I fell into conversation with micro-vertebrate screening wizard Steve Sweetman, then on the Portsmouth Ph.D course, and he persuaded me to switch to the Ph.D. (It was my second SVPCA, and the first one where I gave a talk.) Hilariously, the heart of the Ph.D project was to be a description of the Archbishop, something that I have still not got done a decade later, but definitely will this year. Definitely.
On 7th October 2004, we submitted the manuscript to the Journal of Paleontology, and got an acknowledge of receipt<sarcasm>after just 18 short days</sarcasm>. But three months later (21st January 2005) it was rejected on the advice of two reviewers. As I summarised the verdict to Darren at the time:
It’s a rejection. Both reviewers (an anonymous one and [redacted]) say that the science is pretty much fine, but that there just isn’t that much to say to make the paper worthwhile. [The handling editor] concurs in quite a nice covering letter […] Although I think the bit about “I respect both of you a great deal” is another case of Wrong Mike Taylor Syndrome :-)
At this point, Darren and I spent a while discussing what to do: revise and resubmit (though one of the reviewers said not to)? Try to subsume the paper into another more substantial one (as one reviewer suggested)? Invite the reviewers to collaborate with us on an improved version (as the editor suggested)? Or just revise according to the reviewers’ more helpful recommendations and send it elsewhere? I discussed this with Matt as well. The upshot was that on 20th February Darren and I decided to send the revised version to PaleoBios, the journal of the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) — partly because Matt had had good experiences there with two of his earlier papers.
[Side-note: I am delighted to see that, since I last checked, PaleoBios has now made the leap to open access, though as of yet it says nothing about the licence it uses.]
Anyway, we submitted the revised manuscript on 26th May; and we got back an Accept With Minor Revisions six weeks later, having received genuinely useful reviews from Jerry Harris and Matt. (This of course was long before I’d co-authored anything with Matt. No handling editor would assign him to review one of my papers now.) It took us two days to turn the manuscript around with the necessary minor changes made, and another nine days of back and forth with the editor before we reached acceptance. A week later I got the proof PDF to check.
Back in 2005, publication was a very different process, because it involved paper. I remember the thrill of several distinct phases in the publication process — particularly sharp the first time:
- Seeing the page proof — evidence that I really had written a legitimate scholarly paper. It looked real.
- The moment of being told that the paper was published: “The issue just went to the printer, so I will send the new reprints […] when I get them, probably sometime next week.”
- Getting my copy of the final PDF.
- The day that the physical reprints arrived — funny to think that they used to be a thing. (They’re so Ten Years Ago now that even the SVPCA auction didn’t have many available for bid.)
- The tedious but somehow exhilarating process of sending out physical reprints to 30 or 40 people.
- Getting a physical copy of the relevant issue of the journal — in this case, PaleoBios 25(2).
I suppose it’s one of the sadder side-effect of ubiquitous open access that many of these stages don’t happen any more. Now you get your proof, then the paper appears online, and that’s it. Bam, done.
I’m kind of glad to have lived through the tail end of the old days, even though the new days are better.
To finish, there’s a nice little happy ending for this paper. Despite being in a relatively unregarded journal, it’s turned out to be among my most cited works. According to Google Scholar, this humble little taxonomic note has racked up 28 citations: only two fewer than the Xenoposeidon description. It’s handily outperforming other papers that I’d have considered much more substantial, and which appeared in more recognised journals. It just goes to show, you can never tell what papers will do well in the citation game, and which will sink without trace.