By now most SV-POW! readers will have heard of Leviathan melvillei, the big-toothed Miocene sperm whale that was named in Nature today (Lambert et al. 2010) — if not, see for example the Discover Magazine blog article for the basics.

My first thought was “Wow, that is one awesome animal.”

My second was, “I can’t believe no-one’s used the genus name Leviathan before”.

So I checked for Leviathan on the super-useful Nomenclator Zoologicus, only to find that indeed it seemed to be, if dubiously, preoccupied:

But it’s really not clear what’s being said here: the relevant page from the printed edition says “Levathan Koch [1841], Descr. of Missourium, 1840, 13 (as Leviathan p. 14). — Mamm”.  The use of italics suggests that the NZ editors considered the name as nomenclaturally valid, but the relation between the names Levathan [sic] and Leviathan is not clear.

Looking around a bit more, I found Lindsay (1991) which happens to discuss the specimen in question, and at least some of the publications.  The first page of this article is freely available and says:

The mastodon’s remains had been discovered by Albert Koch in 1840 on the Pomme de Terre River in Benton or Hickory County in Missouri, and possibly parts were from Jefferson County as well.  A skeleton was assembled later that year in Koch’s St. Louis museum and went on display as the Missourium or Missouri Leviathan.  Koch also referred to the specimen as Levathan [sic] Missourii (1841) and Leviathan Missouriensis (1843), by which time he had also given it the name Missourium Theristocaulodon on account of “its enormous sickle shaped tusks”.

[Update, 1st July. It’s now apparent that Lindsay (1991) overlooked a passage in the 1841 first edition of Koch’s pamphlet in which he established the name Leviathan two years before the 5th edition in which its name was included in the expanded title.  Thanks to Christopher Taylor for pointing this out.]

The first thing to note is of course that Koch was a truly horrible taxonomist.  He proposed three distinct genus names for a single specimen in a space of three years, and as in fact became apparent subsequently, they are all junior synonyms of Mammut, the mastodon.  The second thing to note is that he was a truly horrible palaeobiologist, concluding for spurious reasons that his specimen was an aquatic animal (hence his use of the name of the biblical sea-monster).

But of course the ICZN doesn’t care about taxonomy, far less palaeobiology — only nomenclature.  So the question for us is only this: was the name Leviathan validly published as a scientific name?

I don’t know whether Lindsay addressed this question, as I only have the first page of his article (and if anyone who has access can send me the whole thing I’ll be grateful).  But now that I knew to search for the relevant date, 1843, I was able to find Montagu and Peterson (1944), which contains the answer:

Sometime during 1843 Koch took his collections to Ireland where they, together with the Missourium, were exhibited at Dublin.  Here appeared the “Fifth edition, enlarged,” of his pamphlet together with a new title-page and a completely rewritten and revised text [25].

And note 25 is the full reference:

Description of the Missourium Theristocaulodon (Koch) or Missouri Leviathan (Leviathan Missouriensis,) together with its supposed habits, and the Indian Traditions: also, comparison on the Whale, Crcocodile, and Missourium, with the Leviathan, as described in the 41st Chapter of the Book of Job; by Albert Koch.  Printed by C. Crookes, 87 Chapel Street, Dublin: 28 pp., 8°, 1843.

It seems apparent from the typography here — with the words “Leviathan Missouriensis” being the only words of the title set in italics — that Koch was indeed publishing this as a scientific name.

Just to reiterate: if the name was validly published according to the tenets of the ICZN, then the genus name Leviathan Koch 1843 is nomenclaturally valid even though taxonomically it’s junk, being a junior objective synonym of Levathan Koch 1841 and a junior subjective synonym of Mammut Blumenbach 1799.  And if it’s nomenclaturally valid, then that name is preoccupied, and Lambert et al. will need to propose a replacement name for their awesome whale.

Important disclaimer

All of this is based on glimpses of single pages and suchlike of the various relevant papers: I don’t have the full text of Lindsay (1991) or Montagu and Peterson (1944), and I have never clapped eyes on the crucial Koch (1843) at all.  So it’s perfectly possible that I’ve overlooked something, and the genus Leviathan Koch 1843 was not validly published.  This should definitely by confirmed or denied by someone who has a copy of that publication.

But at the moment, things aren’t looking good for Leviathan Lambert et al. 2010.


Trying two new things this morning: grilling a turkey, and live-blogging on SV-POW!

I like to grill. Steak, chicken, kebabs, yams, pineapple, bananas–as long as it’s an edible solid, I’m up for it. But I’ve never grilled a turkey before. Neighbor, colleague, fellow paleontologist and grillmeister Brian Kraatz sent me his recipe, which is also posted on Facebook for the edification of the masses. See Brian’s excellent writeup for the whole process, I’m just going to hit the photogenic parts here. Oh, and usually I tweak any photos I post within an inch of their lives, but I don’t have time for that this morning, so you’re getting as close to a live, unedited feed as I can manage. Stay tuned for updates.

Enough of that. Let’s rock!

The process starts  more than a day in advance, with the brine. Salt water, fruit, onions, garlic, spices, and some apple juice.

The turkey needs to be entirely immersed in the brine for at least 24 hours. Doing this in a solid container would require an extra big container and too much  liquid to cover the bird. I follow Brian’s method of brining in a triple-layer of trash bags. You can see a turkey roaster peeking out underneath the trash bags. Helps with the carrying.

Put the turkey in the trash bags first, then pour in the brine. Unless you like huge messes.

The genius of the trash bag method on display. You can squeeze out all the air so that the volume of the bag is equal to just the turkey and the brine.

Into the fridge for a day.

First thing this morning: out come the giblets, and save the goodies from the brine. We’ll get back to the neck later.

The bird awaits.

Crucial step: putting in a drip pan. Keeps the coals off to the side for indirect heat, and catches the grease so you don’t burn down the neighborhood.

Putting in the herb butter. I used three short sticks of butter mixed with sage, lemon pepper, and Mrs. Dash. Working the skin away from the meat and then filling the space with butter was extremely nasty. This must be what diverticula feel like.

A chimney is helpful to get the coals going.

To eat is human; to grill is divine.

Smoke bombs: mesquite chips soaked in water, wrapped up in balls of tinfoil, with holes poked on top to let the smoke out.

Fruit and spices into the body cavity.

At this point, I was fairly certain that today would be the greatest day of my life. The turkey is centered over the drip pan, stuffed with goodness, subcutaneously loaded with herb butter, draped with bacon. You can see one of the smoke bombs sitting right on top of the coals.

Know what you’re getting into. This 15 lb bird just barely cleared the lid of my grill.

A little over an hour in. I installed foil heat shields to keep the wings and thighs from cooking too fast. It’s all about the indirect heat. Some of the bacon comes off now, as a mid-morning treat.

Okay, the bird is about halfway done, and I have to whip up some sustainer coals and another batch of smoke bombs. Further updates as and when. Happy Thanksgiving!


I was hoping to get some more pictures posted before we ate, but you know how it is in the kitchen on Thanksgiving Day (or, if you’re not an American, maybe you don’t know, so I’ll tell you: dogs and cats living together, we’re talking total chaos).

The turkey just before I pulled it off the grill. The heat shields turned out to be clutch, I would have completely destroyed the limbs without them. That’s going to be SOP from now on.

Ah yes, the bird, she turned out even more succulent than I hadda expected. Check out the pink shade of the meat just below the skin. I recognize that, from good barbeque, but I’ve never produced it before.

That’s it for the cooking part of today’s program. As for the ultimate fate of the bird…we ate a stupifying amount of it. I sent even more home with our guests. And the other half–yes, half–of this thunder beast is sitting in the fridge. Hello-o leftovers!

And hello-o science!

I was going to post some more pictures of the neck, but I didn’t get around to eating it, so…another time, perhaps. (UPDATE: it only took me 9 years and 1 month, go here and here.) In lieu, here’s Mike’s turkey vertebra in left lateral view (see the original in all its supersized glory here). Note the pneumatic foramen in the lateral wall of the centrum, just behind the cervical rib loop. This is actually kind of a lucky catch; a lot of times with chickens and turkeys, the pneumatic foramina are so far up in the cervical rib loop that they can’t be seen in lateral view.

It used to freak me out a little bit that birds often don’t have their pneumatic foramina in the middle of the lateral wall of the centrum, like sauropods. But a possible explanation occurred to me just this morning as I was planning this post. I think that birds have their pneumatic foramina right where you’d expect them, based on sauropods. I’ll explain why.

The first part of the explanation is that instead of wearing their pneumatic cavities on the outside, like this Giraffatitan cervical, bird vertebrae tend to be inflated from within, with just a few tiny foramina outside. The second part is that birds have HUGE cervical rib loops compared to sauropods. If the sauropod vert shown above had its rib on, the resulting loop would be fairly dainty, the osteological equivalent of a bracelet. The cervical rib loops of birds are more like tubes, they’re so antero-posteriorly elongated.

So take the brachiosaur cervical shown above and shrink all of the external pneumatic spaces by several inches. The cavities on the arch and spine would close up entirely, and the complex of fossae and foramina on the lateral side of the centrum would be reduced to a small hole right behind the cervical rib. Then stretch out the cervical rib loop in the fore-aft direction and voila, you’d have something like a turkey cervical, with a little tiny pneumatic foramen tucked up inside the cervical rib loop.

This doesn’t explain why bird verts are inflated from within instead of being eroded from without, or why sauropods had such dinky cervical rib loops (mechanical what, now?), or why pneumatic diverticula tend to make the biggest holes in the front half of the centrum, adjacent to the cervical ribs. I just think that maybe bird and sauropod pneumaticity are not as different as they  appear at first glance. Your thoughts are welcome.

I’m following up immediately on my last post because I am having so much fun with my wallaby carcass.  As you’ll recall, I was lucky enough to score a subadult male wallaby from a local farm park.  Today, we’re going to look at its feet.

Wallabies are macropods; together with their close relatives the kangaroos and Wallaroos, they make up the genus Macropus, literally “bigfoot”.  So wallabies got there long before cryptic North American anthropoids.  And indeed their feet are big.  Here are those feet, in dorsal view, from before I started doing unspeakable things to my specimen:


Bennett's wallaby, hind feet in dorsal view

From here they look pretty weird, but it’s only when we go round the back that we really see how odd they are.  Same feet in ventral view:


Bennett's wallaby, hind feet in ventral view

There are (at least) three things to notice here: first just that the feet are very long; second, the thick, scaly pad that runs all the way up to the heel; and third, the bizarre arrangement of toes.  At first glance, it seems that there is one main toe and a smaller one each side, but if you look more closely you’ll see that the medial “toe” is really two tiny toes closely appressed, so that they function as a single toe.  This condition is known as syndactyly, Darren tells me.  Also from Darren: it’s digit I that is missing in macropods, so the tiny-toe pair are digits II and III, the main toe is IV and the lateral one is V.

(By the way, seeing my patio in these photos reminds me of something I forgot to mention in the previous post: it’s surprisingly difficult to wash wallaby blood off paving slabs.  Remember that, kids, it’ll be on the test.)

Regular readers will remember from last time that I planned to prepare the skull and left fore- and hindlimbs by simmering and dissection, and let nature deal with the rest of the elements.  You’ve already seen the skull, so here goes with that foot.

After an initial simmer, I was able to skin the left pes, so here it is at that stage, in medial view:


Bennett's Wallaby, left pes in medial view, skinned and simmered

From this angle, you can clearly see the absurdly thin second metatarsal (MT II) that supports the innermost of those two tiny digits.  MT III is just as long and thin, but is fused proximally to the much larger MT IV, as we shall see below.  The simmering has resulted in the more distal phalanges breaking away from their more proximal brethren, and being pulled downwards and beneath them.  This is most apparent with the tiny digits, whose supporting phalanges are clearly visible poking out above the claws.  So the large lump of what looks like cartilage at top right is actually phalanx IV-I, with IV-II and IV-III (the ungual) beneath it.  Also note the significant amount of resilient tissue below the metatarsals.  I’ve cut most of it away, but you can get a good idea from the bits that are still attached distally.

Here is the metatarsus in ventral view after I had removed the phalanges:


Bennett's Wallaby, metatarsus in ventral view, skinned and simmered

Here you can clearly see the syndactyly (in those two closely appressed thin metatarsals II and III at the top of the picture) and the very sculpted distal ends of the  larger metatarsals IV and V.

Now let’s skip straight to to the completed stripped-down pes, now in dorsal view:


Bennett's wallaby, left pes in dorsal view, disarticulated and cleaned skeleton; ungual sheaths removed from bony cores.

It’s interesting that the phalangeal formula is so uniform: 0-3-3-3-3.  That is, all four digits have two normal phalanges and an ungual.  But the differences in proportions between them are quite something.

This is our first look at the tarsals — those seven bones on the left of the picture, before we get to the metatarsals.  The three big ones fit together very nicely.  At the back you see the calcaneum, where the achilles tendon attaches; next is the astragalus, which sits on top of the calcaneum and where the distal end of the tibia articulates. Next up is a bone whose name I don’t know, being pretty darned ignorant of ankles — might it be the cuboid?  Anyway, even after cleaning and cartilage-removal , this articulates very nicely indeed with both the calcaneum and MT IV.

Medial to these (i.e. below them in the picture) are four much smaller tarsal bones whose identity I can’t even guess at.  It’s not clear to me how they articulate with the big tarsals — they were all pretty solidly embedded in cartilage and gloop and I fear that they’re not going to fit neatly whatever I do.  Hints will be welcome.

One big surprise was the small bones between the metatarsals and their corresponding phalanges: one each at the ends of MT II and MT III, and two each at the ends of MT IV and MT V.  Because the proximal phalanges articulate so nicely with their metatarsals, it’s clear that these small bones were not positioned between them in life, but rather floated above them — rather as your kneecap, or patella, floats above your femur-tibia joint.  They are sesamoids.  Does anyone know whether this sesamoid formula of 0-1-1-2-2 is common?  Seems a bit weird to me.

Finally, I leave you with the entire left hindlimb: foot as in the previous picture, surmounted by the tibia and fibula, then by the femur, all in anterior view.  Just to the left of the femur-tibia joint is a small bone which I assume is the patella.


Bennett's wallaby, disarticulated left hind limb in dorsal view

Special bonus wallaby limb: over there on the right is the left forelimb.  As you can see, I’ve done the easy part (scapula, humerus, ulna and radius) but I still have to dissect out the bones from the wrist and hand — a picky, tedious job that to be frank I am not looking forward to.  The feet are much more exciting than the hands.

That’s all for today.  On Sunday evening I am off to London to spend a whole week in the company of the Archbishop.  The plan is to spend Monday to Wednesday taking final publication-quality photos (I finally have a proper tripod) and digging out field photos and suchlike from the museum archives, then take Cervical U to be CT-scanned at the Royal Veterinary College, courtesy of theropod hindlimb mechanics guru John Hutchinson.  Friday is emergency backup in case something crops up to delay the scanning, and also gives me a chance to retake any photos that didn’t come out as required.  The plan is that this visit should give me everything I need (pictures, measurements, observations, historical documents) to finish up the long-overdue Archbishop description.  Fingers crossed.

I leave you with a puzzle.  This is the jacket that I have designated “Lump Z”:


Brachiosauridae indet. BMNH R5937, "The Archbishop". Unidentified elements "Lump Z". Image copyright the NHM, since it's their material.

Can anyone offer a guess as to what this is, and which way up it should be?  It’s a jacket that was opened years ago — before I was involved with the specimen — but never fully prepared.  Matt and I have discussed it a little, but I don’t want to prejudice anyone with our guesswork, so I leave the floor open.  What is it?

SV-POW! Dollars are at stake!

This is part 3 of an emerging and occasional SV-POW! series: part 1 was the pig skull, and part 2 was the lizard feet (though not advertised as such because I couldn’t resist the sauropod pun).


Bennett's wallaby, right lateral view

Today, we’re going to be taking a wallaby apart.  Specifically, a Bennett’s wallaby, the larger of the two subspecies of the red-necked wallaby Macropus rufogriseus.  I was delighted (though of course also saddened) to get a call on Saturday afternoon from the very same mini-zoo that had given me Charlie the monitor — Dick Whittington Farm Park in Longhope, Gloucestershire.  They have a small group of seven wallabies sharing a paddock with goats, and one had died — most likely from being butted by one of the goats, although there were no external signs of injury.

This is going to be the largest animal I’ve prepared the skeleton out of — I measured it at 123 cm from snout to tail and 10.5 kg total weight, which compares with 75 cm and 12 kg for the badger, 100 cm and 5.2 kg for the fox and 111 cm and 3.4 kg for the monitor.  Yes, the badger was heavier, but the awkward shape of the wallaby makes it all-round “bigger” and harder to deal with.  Both the badger and the fox would, just, fit into large plastic toy-boxes which I buried and will exhume after a suitable time has passed, but that wasn’t going to work for the wallaby.  I needed to take that baby apart:


Bennett's wallaby, right ventrolateral view into guts

I was pleasantly surprised at what good condition the guts were in (compared with the horrible state of Charlie innards) — nice and fresh.  If I’d had time, I’d have attempted to learn something from a proper dissection, but as I was pushed for time (trying to get this done in my lunch break) I had to push on.  I discarded the guts and started to carve up the remainder.


Bennett's wallaby in posteroventral view. right leg removed; Homo sapiens for scale

The knife is a Norwegian fisherman’s knife — very sharp, and short enough to be easy to wield.  It’s perfect for dismembering a carcass this size, even though previously I’ve only used it for slicing sushi rolls.  It was a Christmas present from my employer, Index Data, a few years ago.

My plan was to carefully divide the animal into seven portions (head, torso, tail and four legs), remove as much skin and muscle as I could without risking damage to the bone, and to process the parts separately.


Bennett's wallaby, in kit form, mostly dorsal view but with the head and torso in left lateral. WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT

After some thought, I decided to prepare the skull and the left fore- and hind-limb by boiling, and to bury the rest in the box.  Here are the relevant divisions:


Bennet's wallaby not looking at all healthy. Top: torso, tail and right fore- and hindlimbs, awaiting burial. Bottom left: head, left fore- and hindlimbs, awaiting cooking. Bottom right: bag full of discarded soft-tissue

Then I put the pot through an hour’s simmering, peeled the skin off the skull and feet, and removed what meat I could; then I simmered a second time and removed more meat.  By this stage, I was able to remove the three most anterior cervicals, which had been attached to the back of the skull — but they are still so covered with attached flesh that they’re not much use yet.  Here’s how the simmered material is looking:


Bennett's wallaby: skull, anterior cervical vertebrae and left hind-limb long bones

And here is the skull as it looks now, after a little more flesh-picking (but not nearly enough):


Bennett's wallaby, partially prepared skull in right lateral view

I think that it (and the other boiled bones pictures above) would benefit from a third simmer-and-pick session before I put them out somewhere for invertebrates to deal with.  While that’s going on, I’ll prep out the foot and the forelimb, which have also been boiled twice but phalanges are a right nasty piece of work.

And then I have to decide what to do with my big yellow box that has the rest of the bits in.  Plan A is still burying, but it is kind of tempting to simmer these parts, too, and get the whole thing completed much more quickly.

On the other hand, now is not a good time for such an effort: I will be away from home all week on a mission of utmost importance, and of great relevance to this blog.  Details to follow!

Finally, I leave you with your weekly sauropod-vertebra goodness!


Giraffatitan brancai paralectotype HMN SI, cervical vertebrae 2 and 3 in right lateral view, attempting to do DinoMorph

Matt and I, working with Andy Farke (the Open Source Paleontologist) are delighted to announce a new project that we’re all very excited about.  Normally we wouldn’t talk about work that’s only just starting — we prefer to wait until a paper is out, or at least in review, before talking about it — but this one is different, because we want YOU to help write it.

How can this be?

Get yourself over to The Open Dinosaur Project and find out!


In a nutshell, we want to crowdsource the process of gathering a big database of limb measurements from ornithischian dinosaurs.  Using the gathered data, we will use statistical techniques to see what can be discovered about the multiple transitions from bipedality to quadrupedality, and write up the results for the open-access journal PLoS ONE.  Everyone who contributes to the data-gathering will be an author on the paper, and we’ll make the database freely available to anyone else who wants to use it for other studies.

Can it work?  Are we crazy?  Who can tell?  We’ll find out over the next year.  See the project web-site for much more detail!


The Open Dinosaur Project is also being discussed by:

… We’ll add more as they turn up.

Well, not really really.


Appendicular skeleton of savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, "Charlie", in dorsal view.

What we have here is of course the bones of all four feet of a lizard (plus the limb bones): “sauropod” means “lizard foot”, so lizard-foot skeletons are sauropod skeletons — right?

(Note that the hind limbs are arranged in a weird posture here, with the knees bent forward.  Also that the left pes is missing one digit — possibly IV — which was presumably lost some time ago and healed.)

These are the bones of “Charlie”, a mature savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, estimated as fourteen or fifteen years old at the time of death.  I have his whole skeleton — cranial, axial and limb-girdles — in various states of preparation, and no doubt they will all appear here sooner or later.  I was fortunate enough to encounter Charlie in the reptile house of a local kids’ activity centre with the boys, and he was not in a good way.  Luckily, his keepers happened to come in as I was looking at him, we got talking, and I popped the question as tactfully as I could — would it be OK to take his body away when the sad day comes?

The sad day came, and I found a message on my answering machine.  For one reason and another, it was a couple of days before I was able to drive out and pick up his mortal remains, but it was a proud day when I brought him home:

Charlie in his glory

Savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, "Charlie", recently expired, in left dorsolateral view. Scale bar for, uh, scale.

Charlie was a good-sized beast: 111 cm in length from snout to tail, and massing 3.4 kg.  I tell you, it was quite a challenge getting him into that pot that you see top right.

Charlie with Jonno

Savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, "Charlie", recently expired, in right anterodorsolateral view. Juvenile Homo sapiens "Jonno Taylor" for scale.

To prepare Charlie for the pan, I had to remove his tail — much, much harder than I’d been prepared for, as it was so difficult to locate the sacrocaudal intervertebral joint — and gut him.  Unfortunately, by the time I opened him up, internal decomposition had set in, and he was not in a pleasant state:


Savannah monitor lizard Varanus exanthematicus, "Charlie", recently expired, in the unpopular right posteroventrolateral view.

(I have much more disgusting photos than this one, but it wouldn’t be tasteful to show them.)  Anyway, I abandoned my initial plan of dissecting the organs out, and basically just removed and discarded them.  I’ve actually had shamefully little experience with dead animals, so I don’t know how much the horrible state of Charlie’s guts is due to his final illness and how much to post-mortem decomposition.

Once I’d managed — just — to get him into the pot, Charlie was lightly simmered for a couple of hours (to Fiona’s delight), then dismembered, and the individual parts reboiled before I started picking the bones out of the various parts.  There’s more to say, but that will have to wait for another time.

Mare Imbrium from my driveway, Feb. 3, 2009

Mare Imbrium from my driveway, Feb. 3, 2009

I’ve been interested in astronomy my whole life, but I only got serious about it in the past two years. In the internet age, “getting serious” about something usually means “starting a blog”, so I did. My aim is to show people that enjoying the night sky doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive. Stop by if you’re interested.

Here’s your token sauropod vert. What do you reckon it might be?

Not telling you

I hesitate to inflict these images on SV-POW! readers, but I have to post them somewhere if only so I can point my family to them; and who knows, maybe some of the rest of you will enjoy the amusing hat.

Last Friday (17th July), I drove down to Portsmouth, with my wife Fiona, to graduate — the consummation of my Ph.D programme.  I’d expected to be issued with a sober black robe and one of those hats with a flat square on top, but I was unprepared for just how silly the kit would turn out to be:

Me with Fiona, trying not a laugh at my nice red uniform

Me with Fiona, trying not to laugh at my nice red uniform

In fact, I looked less like a palaeontologist and more like a member of the Spanish Inquisition.  Which, I’m sure I need not point out, was the last thing I’d expected.

My supervisor Dave Martill was there for the ceremony, also dressed up as a silly person; and Darren came along in civvies to say hello before the show, and to meet up afterwards at the reception at the Department:

Me, Dave Martill and Darren, sharing a joke about astrapotheres or something.

Me, Dave Martill and Darren, sharing a joke about astrapotheres or something.

Also present and graduating was Portsmouth pterosaur maven Mark Witton, but I don’t have a picture of him in regalia, as he turned up too late to have his photo taken — wise man.

As I sat through the very, very long ceremony — if you’ve never listened through a list of 600 names being read out and watched 600 people walk up on stage and shake hands with the pro vice chancellor, you don’t know the meaning of the word “party” — I became bored enough to read the programme cover to cover, and so I discovered that photography during the ceremony is strictly forbidden.  Fiona, however, did not realise this, and so I am able to show you this actual photograph of me caught in the act of graduating:

Me at the moment of graduation.  Or perhaps Bigfoot.

Me at the moment of graduation. Or perhaps Bigfoot.

We doctoral graduands got special treatment: not only did we shake hands with the pro vice chancellor — as though this were not thrill enough — but we also had the titles of our dissertations read out.  As mine sounds rather vague (“Aspects of the history, anatomy, taxonomy and palaeobiology of sauropod dinosaurs”) I was left wishing that I’d stuck with my original title.

After the ceremony it was back to the department for nibbles and also to — finally! — pick up the printed-and-bound copies of my dissertation, which until then I’d not seen in the flesh.  Apart from the two mandatory copies (for the University and Department libraries), I had four printed — one each for me, Dave, Darren and Matt.  Those of you not fortunate enough to have received one of the printed copies can assuage your lust for my dissertation by buying it in mug form:

My dissertation, on a mug, for some reason.

My dissertation, on a mug, for some reason.

I’m not quite sure what made me think this would be a cool thing to do, but anyway I did it, and this is now my first-choice mug as I make my way through the numerous cups of tea that, as an Englishman, I am obliged to drink each day.  (And yes, you really can buy one of your very own.)

Irrelevant addendum

You may wish to know that, at the time of writing, the top five search terms that are bringing people to SV-POW! are: rabbit, flamingo, basement, svpow, and twinkie.

Sorry to keep dumping all these off-topic thoughts on you all, but I got an email from Matt today in which he suggested that there should be some system of giving people credit for particularly insightful blog comments.  (This came up for the obvious reason that SV-POW! readers tend to leave unusually brilliant comments, as well as having excellent reading taste and being remarkably good looking.)  That led me into the following sequence of thoughts, which I thought were worth blogging — not least in the hope that we can learn something from the comments.

But first, here is that photo of another fused atlas-axis complex that you ordered (seriously, what’s up with these things?):

Camarasaurus grandis YPM 1905, fused atlas and axis in right lateral view

Camarasaurus grandis YPM 1905, fused atlas and axis in right lateral view

And now, on with the uninformed noodling:

As things stand at this point, we have a hierarchy of sciency documents. At the top (which we’ll call level 1) come papers. The reputation of papers is largely determined by formal pre-publication reviews (which we will therefore classify as level 2) — and, increasingly, also by blog posts about the paper, which are also level 2. Classic peer-reviews are only ever seen by the editor and the author of the original paper; once they have been absorbed into the paper they’re critiquing, they disappear forever, which is a crying shame. But the other kind of level-2 literature, the blog post, has a life of its own: and so it gets commented on by blog-comments (level 3). Each level gives validity to the level above.

More important, documents at each level also give validity to each other. The most important case is that when one paper favourably discusses another, or refers to its authority, it gives the latter a credibility boost (which is why it’s such a sod that no-one cites any of my papers); similarly, our SV-POW! posts also get a credibility boost when they’re discussed on Tetrapod Zoology or Blog Around the Clock (and I just repaid the compliment by linking back to them).

(At present, all of this is done in a messy qualitative way, with no numbers attached, except occasionally in the case of pre-publication reviews. That’s a shame: if, for example, blog commenters allocated the posts a score out of ten, then we could use some kind of average score as a quality filter: to ameliorate rigging, I’d suggest discarding the highest and lowest 10% of awarded scores, and averaging the remainder.)

Now the problem: blog comments are right at the bottom of the pile: who is going to rate them? I’m certainly not going to spend any time on that.

OK, so suppose we ignore the arbitrary allocation of levels: papers, reviews, blog posts and comments are all just considered as documents, and all can discuss each other. (Clearly reviews will necessarily discuss papers more often the papers discuss blog comments, but that is a convention added to the system I am about to describe, not a precondition for it.) Each document has a reputation, which we will quantify as a single real number. Documents start with some arbitrary small reputation — probably 0.0 or 1.0, and it probably doesn’t much matter what it is. When any document discusses, cites or links to another — whether it’s paper, a review, a blog post or a comment — that linkee’s reputation is boosted by some proportion: 10%, say, of the linker’s reputation. Now of course this change in linkee reputation causes a trickle-down change of 1% in the reputation of the documents that it links to; and 0.1% in the reputation of the documents they link to, and so on. Reputations will change frequently and irregularly, and will be near impossible to calculate accurately, but that’s fine — they should be easy to approximate, and that’s good enough.

In this way, we get a nice solid score that we can use to decide what’s worth reading and what isn’t — the cream will naturally rise to the top. Hiring committees can throw away impact factors, and instead just add up the reputation scores of their candidates’ publications (either in the strict sense of the word, or including blog posts, reviews and/or comments). By the way, one of the positive effects of this would be that people like Darren and Jerry Harris would get some reward from their sterling reviewing efforts.

Sounds awesome? Here’s something even more awesome: we already have that system, more or less. Yes indeed: the reputation propagation algorithm I described is, in general outline, the same thing that Google does in the algorithm that it calls PageRank(tm)(r)(lol)(ymmv).  We can — and already do — use Google’s notion of reputation as a guide to finding what’s worth reading, and we can tell that in works well in practice because SV-POW! posts rank so highly :-)

So that’s it! We can all stop worrying, just Google for stuff we’re interested in, and read whatever pops up at the top of the list!

Are you convinced? I hope not, because this idea has at least three huge problems.

1. What counts? (Yes, that again.) Google-ranking works well for blog posts, because they are web pages, and Google can spider web pages. But that leaves out reviews, because they are typically not published at all, let alone as web pages. And it leaves out comments, because they are appended to the end of blog posts rather than being pages in own right, with their own PageRank. And, worst of all, it pretty much leaves out the papers themselves — because there is, in general, no one single web-page which is The Place a particular paper lives. For non-open papers that aren’t hosted on the author’s page or elsewhere, there is no page.  In short, reviews are not published, comments are not whole pages and papers are not single pages, so none of them is properly page-rankable.

2. All links count as positive reputation — there are no negative citations. So a document that saysTaylor, Wedel and Naish 2009 was talking a lot of nonsense about sauropod neck posture” would still be a score in our favour, even though it meant the exact opposite. Of course, this is not a new problem: both PageRank and Impact Factors suffer from the same problem, but it doesn’t seem to be a killer for either of them. The only fix for this would be to invite authors (of papers, reviews, blogs and comments) to explicitly score some or all of the other documents they mention — and I doubt people are going to be keen to do that unless the mechanism can be made very non-intrusive.

3. And here’s the killer: we wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, want Google to do this, even if they could overcome problems #1 and #2.  Google is a private corporation, and we don’t want to hand over reputation management to any private commercial venture with an obligation to shareholders rather than scientists, and with a proprietary secret algorithm. If you doubt me, consider Thompson’s ownership of the Impact Factor and see where that’s got us. No doubt when Eugene Garfield came up with the idea of the Impact Factor, he was pretty excited about how — at last! — we would have an objective, reliable way to evaluate science. But IF is not run by scientists, it’s run by a corporation.  With hilarious results.

I have no idea what the conclusion to all this is. I didn’t have a clear idea where it was headed when I started writing it. But, much in the manner of Dirk Gently when employing his usual method of navigation, I may not have ended up where I intended to, but I’ve arrived somewhere interesting.

Your move: what have I failed to take into account?

I have a much less realised view of the digital future than Matt does, so I won’t be making a lot of predictions here.  But I do have some questions to ask, and — predictably — some whining to do.

What counts, what doesn’t, and why?

Assuming you have made some science (e.g. a description of fossil, a palaeobiological hypothesis supported by evidence, a taxonomic revision), there are plenty of different ways you can present it to the world.  I may have missed some, but here are the ones I’ve thought of, in roughly descending order of respectability/citability/prestige:

  • Peer-reviewed paper/book chapter
  • Unreviewed paper/book chapter
  • Peer-reviewed electronic-only paper
  • Published abstract (e.g. for SVP)
  • Conference talk
  • Conference poster
  • Dissertation
  • Online supplementary information
  • Blog post
  • Blog comment
  • Email to the DML (which is archived on the web)
  • Personal email
  • Chat over a beer

How many of these are Science?  Where is the line?  Is the line hard or fuzzy?  Why is it OK to cite SVP abstracts but not so much SVPCA abstracts?  And other such questions. I think a very good case can be made that dissertations — provided they are made available — are better sources than conference talks, posters and abstracts; and a pretty good case can be made that blog posts are (especially when webcitation’ed — see below).  Both dissertations and (good) blog posts have the advantage over talks and posters that they have a permanent existence, and over abstracts the simple fact that they are substantial: a 200-word abtract cannot, by its very nature, say anything much.

Zoological nomenclature

Unfortunately, for nomenclatural purposes, the ICZN’s Article 8 currently says that only publications on paper count, period, which counts out dissertations.  I say unfortunately because were it not for this rule, then at least part of Aetogate would never have happened: the ramifications of Bill Parker’s case would not have been so awful if the perfectly good description of Heliocanthus in his (2003) dissertation had been allowed priority over Lucas et al.’s (2006) rush-job which attached the name Rioarribasuchus to the same specimen. Happily, the ICZN is as we write this considering an amendment to recognise nomenclatural acts in electronic-only publications.  There has already been some published discussion of the pros and cons of this amendment, and the Commission is actively soliciting further comments, so those of you with strong feelings should put them in writing and send them to the Executive Secretary.  (I will certainly be doing so.)


We all know that blog entries are Not Sufficiently Published to be citable, at least in most journals; but are they Too Published to let you re-use the same material?  When you submit to most journals, they ask you to formally state “this material has not previously been published” — is that true if we’ve blogged it?  I am guessing different editors would answer that differently. For what it’s worth, we’ve been reasonably careful up till now not to blog anything that we’re planning to make into a paper — which is why we were so mysteriously silent on the obviously important topic of sauropod neck posture during the first 19 months of SV-POW!.  We’ve not been 100% pure on this: for example, I have a paper on Brachiosaurus in press that mentions in passing the spinoparapophyseal laminae, absence of an infradiapophyseal laminae and perforate anterior centroparapophyseal laminae of the 8th dorsal vertebra of the Brachiosaurus brancai specimen HMN SII — the features that I have blogged here in detail, with illustrations that would certainly never have been given journal-space.  Since the relevant passage in my paper accounted for half a manuscript page (of a total of 75 pages), I’m assuming no-one’s bothered about that.  In a case like this, I guess the SV-POW! posts are best thought of as pre-emptive and unofficial online supplementary information.

Counts for what purpose?

We’ve already mentioned that dissertations, blog entries and suchlike don’t count for nomenclatural purposes.  Whether they count in the sense of being citable in published works is up for debate right now (and again, see below on webcitation).  It seems pretty clear that these forms of “grey publication” do count in establishing people’s reputations among their peers — dissertations are obviously important in this regard, and Darren’s ridiculously broad knowledge of tetrapods extant and extinct is near-universally recognised largely because of his blogging efforts (although you could argue — and Matt and I often have argued — that he might have been able to enhance his reputation even more if he’d taken some of that blogging time and invested it in formal publications). Conversely, it’s clear that blogs, however rigorous and scientific, count for squat when it comes to committees.  The world of dinosaur palaeontology is probably just as aware of Matt’s series of Aerosteon response articles here on SV-POW! as it would be if he’d put those together into a paper that was published in PLoS ONE; but when his tenure committee comes to count up the impact factors of the journals he’s published in, those articles will count for nothing.  One day that might change, but not while impact factors still exert their baleful influence.

Deciding what to blog and what to write up as a “proper paper”

Matt posted his response to the Aerosteon paper as a sequence of three blog entries even though he knew that what he had to say was substantial enough to make a paper.  Why throw away a potential publication that would look good on the CV?  Because he wanted to get it out there ASAP, and didn’t want to wait until all the media dust had settled.  So he fought people off when they pestered him to publish it as a paper.  He doesn’t really need to do it now, and he doesn’t really have time (especially since I keep badgering him about all the papers we’re supposed to be collaborating on).  If we were starving for publications, we could turn a lot of SV-POW! posts into LPUs — but we’re not starving.

Let me explain this by taking a digression though the economics of file-sharing and the way labels persistently — maybe deliberately — misunderstand them.  Let’s imagine for the sake of an example that a while back, I sent Matt the MP3s that make up Blue Oyster Cult’s awesome Fire Of Unknown Origin album.  Now anyone with their brain switched on can see that the net effect of this on his music-buying pattern would be positive: if he really liked Fire, there is a fair chance that he would then have gone and bought a BOC album or two, or three — just as I’ve been buying Dar Williams albums like crazy since someone slipped me MP3s of Mortal City.  The labels’ perception, however, is that instead I would have denied them a sale: that if I’d not sent the Fire of Unknown Origin MP3s, Matt would of course have bought his own legitimate copy, and so I’ve stiffed them out of $6.99 less whatever tiny slice they pass on to the artist.  The misunderstanding here is that they think — or would like to think, who knows if they really believe this themselves? — that people’s music consumption is limited by the time we have available to listen to music, and that one way or another we will obtain enough music to fulfil that need: for free if possible, but by paying for it if necessary.  But the truth is completely different: there would be zero chance of Matt’s ever buying any BOC album, since he’d never even heard of them (beyond Don’t Fear The Reaper, I guess) whereas in the hypothetical universe where I sent him the Fire MP3s, there is a non-zero chance.  And the labels’ failure to understand that is because of a wholly incorrect model of what factor limits music listening.

Digression ends.  Its relevance is this: in the same way, we are used to thinking that our ability to get papers published is limited by the number of publication-worthy ideas we have — so that every paper idea we “waste” on a blog entry is a net loss.  In truth, ideas are cheap, and our ability to get papers published is actually limited by our throughput — our ability to find time to actually write those ideas up with sufficient rigour, prepare high-resolution figures, format the manuscripts for journals, wait through the review period, deal with the reviews, revise, resubmit, handle editorial requests, and so on and on.  (That is especially true when the journal takes six months to come up with a rejection.) This is why Matt and I, like everyone else I know in palaeo who I’ve discussed this with, have huge stacks of POOP that we’ve not yet found time to convert into papers.  So when we spend a paper-worthy idea on a blog entry, we’re not wasting it: we’re putting it out there (in an admittedly inferior format) when otherwise it would never have made it out there at all. The remaining issue is whether the time we spend on blogging an idea would have been better spent on moving a paper further towards publication.  Maybe, sometimes.  But you have to stop and smell the roses every now and again.  So the real cost of SV-POW! for us is not the “waste” of paperable ideas, but the time we spend on writing it.  I am guessing that in the time I’ve put into SV-POW! so far, I could have got two more papers out — certainly one.  Has it been worth it?  I think so, but it’s not a no-brainer.  On the other hand, SV-POW! probably acts as a reader-funnel, so that when I do get a paper out, more people read it than otherwise would.  How big that effect is, I don’t know, and I can’t think of a way to measure it.

How to cite blog entries: WebCite

One of the great things about writing for SV-POW! is that you can learn some really useful stuff from the comments; and the most useful comment I’ve seen so far is the one in which Cameron Neylon pointed us at WebCite (  This is a superbly straightforward site that makes permanent archive copies of web-pages, and mirrors them around the world.  In doing so, it deals with the problems of web pages being vulnerable to disappearance and prone to change.  (In off-list emails with Matt, I had suggested that I might build something like this myself, as I am software engineer in my day job; I am delighted that these guys have done it properly instead.) So if you ever want to cite Matt’s second Aerosteon post in a journal, use the archive URL — and if you want to cite any other SV-POW! article, just submit its URL to WebCite yourself, and get back an archive URL which you can use. And tell all your friends about WebCite!

Oh, and by the way …

Here’s that photo of a monitor lizard getting its arse kicked by an elephant that you ordered:

Monitor lizard postcranium, aerial. Photograph by Hira Punjabi, downloaded from National Geographic.

Monitor lizard postcranium, aerial, strongly inclined. Photograph by Hira Punjabi, downloaded from National Geographic


  • Lucas, S. G., Hunt, A. P. and Spielmann, J. A. 2006. Rioarribasuchus, a new name for an aetosaur from the Upper Triassic of north-central New Mexico. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Bulletin 37: 581-582.
  • Parker, W. G. 2003a. Description of a new specimen of Desmatosuchus haplocerus from the Late Triassic of Northern Arizona. Unpublished MS thesis. Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. 315 pp.