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!
September 22, 2016
Judgmental readers will recall that I have dabbled in mammal skulls, thanks to the corrupting influence of my friend and colleague, Brian Kraatz. At the end of my last post on this sordid topic, I mentioned that Brian and Emma Sherratt were working on a version 2.0 based in 3D morphometrics. The first volley from that project was published today in PeerJ.
Happily for all of us, Brian and Em confirmed the relationship between facial tilt and locomotor mode that we first documented last year, using more taxa, more landmarks, and two more dimensions (Kraatz and Sherratt 2016: 12):
…in accordance with previous findings by Kraatz et al. (2015), facial tilt angle is correlated with locomotor mode (D-PGLS, F(2,17) = 11.13, P = 0.003), where lower facial tilt angle, meaning more pronounced cranial flexion, is found in cursorial species, and high angles are found in generalist species.
That’s just the most personally relevant tip of a very large, multifaceted iceberg, including a monster supplementary info package on FigShare with, among other things, 3D models of bunny skulls. It’s all free and awesome, so go have fun.
June 16, 2015
We stopped off at the Peggy’s Cove lighthouse on the way, and spotted a vertebrate, which I am pleased to present:
It’s a whale skull, but I have no idea what kind. Can anyone help out?
So much for vertebrates — it was really all about the inverts. Here are six of them:
I have a 2lb lobster here; my colleague Jakub went for two 1lb lobsters, as did Jason and Wolfram (not pictured). That’s Wolfram’s lobster closest to the camera, giving a better impression of just what awesome beasts these were.
Peggy’s Cove: recommended. For vertebrates and inverts.
(Thanks to Wolfram Schneider for these photos.)
March 22, 2015
We adopted a couple of 6-week-old box turtles today.
They are Three-Toed Box Turtles, Terrapene carolina triunguis, and they are insanely adorable.
This one seemed oddly familiar…had I encountered it before?
UPDATE: The last few images here are an homage to Mike’s Gilmore sequence from slide 96 in our 2012 SVPCA talk on Apatosarus minimus (link). I would have linked to it sooner, but I couldn’t find the right blog post. Because there wasn’t one. Memory!
March 17, 2015
I have a new paper out today in PeerJ: “Ecological correlates to cranial morphology in leporids (Mammalia, Lagomorpha)”, with coauthors Brian Kraatz, Emma Sherratt, and Nick Bumacod. Get it free here.
I know, I know, I have fallen from grace. First Aquilops, now rabbits. And, and…skulls! I know what you’re thinking: that maybe I’m not just experimenting with the non-vertebrae of non-sauropods anymore – maybe I have an actual problem. But I don’t. I can quit anytime! You’ll see.
Actually rabbits are the freakiest of all mammals and their skulls are wicked cool. They have double incisors, with the second set right behind the first, hence the name Duplicidentata for rabbits and their close relatives. They have weird fenestrations in their maxillae (pretty much all taxa) and parietal and occipital bones (some more than others) – I’ll come back to that in a bit. And, as we discuss in our new paper, you can tell something about how a rabbit runs by looking at its skull. I thought it would be fun to relate how we figured that out, and why.
A long time ago in a graduate seminar far, far away…
1950: DuBrul, Laskin, and Moss
I met Brian Kraatz at Berkeley, where he and I were part of the cohort of students that came into the Integrative Biology Department in the fall of 2001 (faithful readers may remember Brian from his work tracking oliphaunts from, gosh, three years ago already). We took a lot of classes together, including a seminar by Marvalee Wake on evolutionary morphology. I’m pretty sure that seminar was the first time I’d actually read DuBrul and Laskin (1961), “Preadaptive potentialities of the mammalian skull: an experiment in growth and form”, or as I think of it, “How to turn a rat skull into a pika skull for fun and profit.”
Pikas (Ochotonidae) are the sister group to rabbits (Leporidae) and together these groups make up crown Lagomorpha. If you’re not familiar with pikas, Brian describes them as starting with bunny rabbits and then making them even cuter and cuddlier. Seriously, go do an image search for ‘pika’ and try not to die of cute overload.
Pikas are interesting because in many ways their skulls are intermediate between those of rodents, especially rats, and rabbits. This is maybe not surprising since rodents are the sister group to lagomorphs and are united with them in the clade Glires. E. Lloyd DuBrul was all over this rat-pika-rabbit thing back in the mid-twentieth century. Here’s an illustration from DuBrul (1950: plate 2; labels added by me):
So DuBrul knew from pikas and in particular he had the idea that you could maybe just tweak a rat skull – say, by knocking out the basicranial sutures in a baby rat to limit the growth of the skull base – and produce a gently domed skull like that of a pika. That’s what DuBrul and Laskin (1961) is all about. They did that experiment and here are their results (DuBrul and Laskin (1961: plate 3). Normal rat skull on the right, and dotted in the bottom diagram; experimental “pika-morph” rat skull on the left, and solidly outlined below.
What’s going on here morphogenetically is that the facial skeleton is getting tilted down and away from the back end of the skull. DuBrul was hip to that, too – here’s a relevant image from his 1950 paper (plate 4; labels added by me):
The common reference point against which these skulls are registered is the cranial base (the floor of the braincase just forward of the foramen magnum). Again, the pika is a pretty good intermediate between the rat and a ‘normal’ rabbit, and the dang-near-dog-sized Flemish Giant rabbit takes the lagomorph face-tilting thing to its extreme. (‘Flemish Giant rabbit’ is another entertaining image search that I will leave you as homework.)
Turns out there’s another way you can get rat skulls with different geometries: you can cut off their legs and make them walk on two feet. In an experiment that you might have trouble getting past an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee today, Moss (1961) lopped off the forefeet or hindfeet in two experimental batches of rats, to see what effect this would have on their skulls. I’ll let Moss speak for himself on this one (Moss, 1961: pp. 301-303, emphasis in the original):
Circumnatal amputation of the forelimbs has successfully produced what are in essence “bipedal rats,” i.e., rats whose habitual mode of kinetic and static posture is permanently altered. […] The animals never became bipedal in the exact sense; that is, they never walked erect on two limbs at all times. […] Nevertheless, bipedal posture and motion were more frequently observed than in controls. […]
Animals whose hind limbs were removed represented another picture. They most certainly did not walk about on their intact forelimbs. Neither did they seem able to use their hind limb stumps as satisfactory substitutes. Their gait was not uniform and seemed to consist in a series of short pushes or hops. The most noticeable thing about them was, among other things, apparent accentuation of their cervical vertebral curvature. The sum of these changes was an upward rotation of the skull.
He wasn’t kidding: when the two groups of bipedal rats grew up, their facial skeletons were tilted relative to the control group, but in different directions (Moss, 1961: fig 3; ‘fore’ and ‘hind’ refer to which limbs the animals had left to locomote with):
Brian and I read Moss back at Berkeley, too. In fact, we were minor Moss junkies. If you’re interested in how living forms come into being, you owe it to yourself to read Moss (1968), “A theoretical analysis of the functional matrix”.
The upshot of all of this is that although neither Brian nor I had done anything with our deep (and, okay, deeply weird) knowledge of how to experimentally jack up rat skulls by the time we graduated from Berkeley, we were also primed to be thinking about how skulls attain their shapes – especially the skulls of rodents and rabbits.
2009: American Museum of Natural History
I went to the AMNH in February, 2009, to visit Brian, who was on a postdoc there at the time, and to spend one day looking at sauropods with Mike, who was over from England for a conference. What Brian and I planned to work on was the fenestration of rabbit skulls, because I’m always interested in the strategic loss of bone from skeletal structures. We spent probably half a day talking about that, and I filled a whole page in my notebook with related noodlings:
But as the sketch on the right shows, it didn’t take us long to figure out that there was something even more interesting to do with rabbit skulls. Brian had a whole shedload of rabbit skulls from different taxa sitting on his desk, and we noticed pretty quickly that one of the primary ways they varied was in the tilt of the facial skeleton relative to the back of the skull. Here’s the very next page of my notes from that trip:
The skull up top belongs to Caprolagus, the Hispid hare, which I tend to think of as the “bulldozer hare”. Seriously, it looks like a tank. It doesn’t bound or even hop, it scrambles. Here, stare into the abyss:
That rabbit will cut you, man. And just look at how flat its skull is. Even in life Caprolagus looks more rodent-y than rabbit-y. Or, more precisely, more Ochotona-y.
At the the other extreme are taxa like Bunolagus and Pronolagus, which really push the “I’m going to cute you to death by dint of my incredible bunnosity” thing:
As Brian and I started going through skulls of as many extant rabbits as we could, we noticed that the flatter-skulled taxa, with less pronounced facial tilt, tended to be the stolid, foursquare scramblers like Caprolagus, whereas the speed demons tended to have more strongly tilted skulls. It also seemed like the latter group were achieving that pronounced facial tilt by changing the geometry of the occipital region of the skull. Look back up at the red quadrilaterals I drew on the Caprolagus and Bunolagus skulls in my notebook – those mark the basioccipital ventrally and the dorsal exposure of the supraoccipital. Perhaps unsurprisingly, supraoccipital length is not the whole story; it turns out that some face-tilters get that way by having longer or more strongly arched parietals, BUT it remains true that if you find a rabbit skull with a long dorsal exposure of the supraoccipital, it will also have pronounced facial tilt.
ANYWAY, by my last night in New York, Brian and I decided that the best way to attack this would be to go down to the basement and stay up most of the night drinking beer and measuring rabbit skulls. We then tried to correlate the various measurements and angles with information on the locomotor and burrowing habits of each species. That was a big job, and after a couple of years with little forward progress (to be fair, Brian was moving across the country and taking his first tenure-track job in this interval, and I was helping birth a sauropod) we brought in Brian’s graduate student, Nick Bumacod, to do most of it. Later on the three of us were forced to acknowledge that we knew enough statistics to get ourselves into trouble but not enough to get back out. Brian had taken a geometric morphometrics course for which Emma Sherratt was a TA, and he started bugging her for help with the stats. Emma has been involved in writing new software packages for R, and we realized that the paper would be a lot stronger if we just brought her on as an author and gave her free rein with the data. Along the way Brian and Nick were giving presentations on the project everywhere from the local Western Area Vert Paleo meeting to the World Lagomorph Conference in Vienna. I got my name on four abstracts along the way, which I think is record abstract-to-paper ratio for me (especially considering that 90% of my effort on the paper was invested in a single evening in 2009 over a couple of six-packs).
But enough navel-gazing, what did we find?
2015: Rabbit skulls reveal their mode of locomotion
Our results, which you can read for free, support the hunch that Brian and I had back in 2009: slow-moving rabbits that locomote by scrambling or scampering instead of hopping tend to have less facial tilt, and faster-moving saltatorial (hopping) and cursorial (leaping and bounding) rabbits have more facial tilt. Interestingly, facial tilt does not distinguish the saltators from the cursors. So the break here is between scrambling and any kind of hopping or leaping, but not between hoppers and leapers.
Why would that be so? We don’t know for sure yet, but our top hypothesis is that if you’re moving fast, it pays to see the ground in front of you more clearly, and getting your nose down out of the way probably helps with that. This is pretty similar to the hypothesis that tyrannosaurs have pinched nasals for better binocular vision (Stevens, 2006). Rabbits are prey animals and probably can’t afford to point their eyes forward, and they may need wide nasal airways as air intakes while they’re sprinting. Tilting the nose down may be the next best thing.
Some circumstantial support for this comes from the Caviidae, the family of South American rodents that includes guinea pigs, cavies, maras, and capybaras. Here’s another plate from DuBrul (1950: plate 6) contrasting the flatter skull of the guinea pig (Cavia porcellus, top) with the decidedly arched skull of the mara or Patagonian hare (Dolichotis magellanica, bottom). Compare the mara skull to the sectioned rabbit skull in the other DuBrul plate, above – there aren’t a lot of obvious characters to separate the two (beyond the lack of double incisors in the mara).
Despite being commonly referred to as ‘hares’ and looking a lot like short-eared rabbits, maras are rodents that evolved their rabbit-like form independently. The acquisition of pronounced facial tilt in two separate lineages of small fast-moving herbivorous mammals is further evidence for the influence of locomotor mode on skull form. Irritatingly, I think we neglected to mention the guinea pig : mara :: pika : rabbit correspondence in the paper. Oh well, it wasn’t our novel observation, and we did cite DuBrul (1950).
We found lots of other interesting things, too. The PCA plots we produced from our data separate the living rabbits in unexpected ways. The length of the diastema (the toothless portion of the upper jaw) and the diameter of the auditory bulla seem to be particularly important. Diastema length isn’t too hard to figure out – most of the face-tilters have long diastemas, and the flat-heads tend to have short ones. We have no idea what bulla diameter means yet. I mean, obviously something to do with hearing, but we don’t have any ecological variables in our analysis to address that because we didn’t see it coming. So there’s a chunk of new science waiting to be done there.
Speaking of new science, or at least a relatively new thing in science, we published the full peer-review history alongside the paper, just as Mike and I did back in 2013 and as Mike did with his stand-alone paper last December. More than 80% of PeerJ authors elect to publish the peer review histories for their papers. I can’t wait until it’s 100%. PeerJ reviews are citeable – each one gets a DOI and instructions on how to cite it – and I’m tired of having my effort as a peer reviewer used once and then thrown away forever.
If you’ve been reading this whole post with gritted teeth, wondering why we were using linear measurements instead of geometric morphometrics, chillax. Brian and Emma are on that. They’ve been CT scanning the skulls of as many extant rabbits as possible and plotting landmarks for 3D morphometrics – if you were at SVP last fall, you may have seen their talk (Kraatz and Sherratt, 2014). So stay tuned for what will soon be a new ongoing series, Rabbit Skulls: The Next Generation.
I probably won’t be on that voyage. I’ve had fun getting acquainted with a completely different part of the tree of life, but there are an awful lot of shards of excellence – busted-up sauropod vertebrae, that is – crying out for my attention, and I need to stop neglecting them. I’m done with rabbit skulls, I promise. I’m going clean. (Wish me luck!)
- DuBrul, E. L. (1950). Posture, locomotion and the skull in Lagomorpha. American Journal of Anatomy, 87(2), 277-313.
- DuBrul, E. L., & Laskin, D. M. (1961). Preadaptive potentialities of the mammalian skull: an experiment in growth and form. American Journal of Anatomy, 109(2), 117-132.
- Kraatz, B., and Sherratt, E. (2014). Evolution, ecology, and modularity of the lagomorph skull. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 35(3, Supplement), 162A.
- Kraatz, B.P., Sherratt, E., Bumacod, N., and Wedel, M.J. 2015. Ecological correlates to cranial morphology in leporids (Mammalia, Lagomorpha). PeerJ, 3:e844. https://dx.doi.org/10.7717/peerj.844
- Moss, M. L. (1961). Rotation of the otic capsule in bipedal rats. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 19(3), 301-307.
- Moss, M. L. (1968). A theoretical analysis of the functional matrix. Acta Biotheoretica, 18(1), 195-202.
- Stevens, K. A. (2006). Binocular vision in theropod dinosaurs. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 26(2), 321-330.
December 10, 2014
Today sees the description of Aquilops americanus (“American eagle face”), a new basal neoceratopsian from the Cloverly Formation of Montana, by Andy Farke, Rich Cifelli, Des Maxwell, and myself, with life restorations by Brian Engh. The paper, which has just been published in PLOS ONE, is open access, so you can download it, read it, share it, repost it, remix it, and in general do any of the vast scope of activities allowed under a CC-BY license, as long as we’re credited. Here’s the link – have fun.
Obviously ceratopsians are much more Andy’s bailiwick than mine, and you should go read his intro post here. In fact, you may well be wondering what the heck a guy who normally works on huge sauropod vertebrae is doing on a paper about a tiny ceratopsian skull. The short, short version is that I’m here because I know people.
The slightly longer version is that OMNH 34557, the holotype partial skull of Aquilops, was discovered by Scott Madsen back in 1999, on one of the joint Cloverly expeditions that Rich and Des had going on at the time (update: read Scott’s account of the discovery here). That the OMNH had gotten a good ceratopsian skull out of Cloverly has been one of the worst-kept secrets in paleo. But for various complicated reasons, it was still unpublished when I got to Claremont in 2008. Meanwhile, Andy Farke was starting to really rock out on ceratopsians at around that time.
For the record, the light bulb did not immediately go off over my head. In fact, it took a little over a year for me to realize, “Hey, I know two people with a ceratopsian that needs describing, and I also know someone who would really like to head that up. I should put these folks together.” So I proposed it to Rich, Des, and Andy in the spring of 2010, and here we are. My role on the paper was basically social glue and go-fer. And I drew the skull reconstruction – more on that in the next post.
Anyway, it’s not my meager contribution that you should care about. I am fairly certain that, just as Brontomerus coasted to global fame on the strength of Paco Gasco’s dynamite life restoration, whatever attention Aquilops gets will be due in large part to Brian Engh’s detailed and thoughtful work in bringing it to life – Brian has a nice post about that here. I am very happy to report that the three pieces Brian did for us – the fleshed-out head that appears at the top of this post and as Figure 6C in the paper, the Cloverly environment scene with the marauding Gobiconodon, and the sketch of the woman holding an Aquilops – are also available to world under the CC-BY license. So have fun with those, too.
Finally, I need to thank a couple of people. Steve Henriksen, our Vice President for Research here at Western University of Health Sciences, provided funds to commission the art from Brian. And Gary Wisser in our scientific visualization center used his sweet optical scanner to generate the hi-res 3D model of the skull. That model is also freely available online, as supplementary information with the paper. So if you have access to a 3D printer, you can print your own Aquilops – for research, for teaching, or just for fun.
Next time: Aquilöps gets röck döts.
Farke, A.A., Maxwell, W.D., Cifelli, R.L., and Wedel, M.J. 2014. A ceratopsian dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous of Western North America, and the biogeography of Neoceratopsia. PLoS ONE 9(12): e112055. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0112055