(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

Quick hit here: all this week there are mastodon-themed events going on at the Western Science Center in Hemet, including talks from paleontologists and an opening reception this Friday evening, August 4, before the exhibit formally opens to the public on Saturday. There’s a good overview of events at the WSC website here, and a nice post about the science and scientists behind the mastodon-fest at the PLOS Paleo Community blog here.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

I’m slapping Brian Engh’s art all over this post because one of the coolest things going this week will be the unveiling of Brian’s life-size painting of two fighting mastodons, which will cover one wall of the main paleo exhibit area at WSC (see also: Brian’s blog, Patreon page, and paleoart YouTube channel). Modern elephants use their tusks to do battle, and we have compelling evidence that fossil proboscideans did so as well, like the famous fighting mammoths of Crawford, Nebraska. One of the WSC mastodons, nicknamed Max, has several partially healed pathologies on his jaw that might be wounds from combat.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

There are loads of other mastodons at the Western Science Center, and there’s going to be a lot of mastodon science going on this week, so head on out if you are in the area and interested in big dead things. I’ll be there myself, at least on Friday evening, not as a professional paleontologist but as a fan of proboscideans, Ice Age megafauna, Inland Empire science, and awesome paleo-art. I hope to see you there.

(c) Brian Engh and the Western Science Center

Publishers provide certain services (peer-review management, typesetting, brand badges, sometimes proof-reading or copy-editing, archiving, indexing) to the scholarly community.

Those services are of greater and lesser value, provided at higher and lower levels of quality, and cost greater and lesser amounts. Of course, we in the scholarly community want high-value, high-quality low-cost services. This is true whether the publisher in question is a multinational corporation with a multi-billion-dollar turnover, or a tiny boutique press run on a non-profit basis for the sheer love of the process.

Since the scholarly community (researchers, authors, peer-reviewers, academic editors, etc.) is spending money in exchange for publication services, and since publishers are providing publication services in exchange for money, it is clear that the goals of these two groups cannot be aligned. Any money that the scholarly community can save on publication costs is income lost to publishers; and any additional money that publishers can charge for their services is money lost to the scholarly community. I hope that so far, this is uncontroversial.

In the same way, if you sell me a second-hand car, then however well you and I might get on in civilian life — we might support the same football team, drink the same beer, discuss the same novelists, watch the same films — then for the purposes of that transaction, what is good for you (a high price) is bad for me; and vice versa. Note that in saying this I am not condemning or even criticising you. I am just stating a fact about transactions.

Now, suppose my wife and I sit down and decide that we need to buy a new car. We consider Hondas, Fords and Fiats. We weigh up various models on their merits, compare their prices with their features, and reach a decision on what we want to buy and how much we’re prepared to spend. We then approach the various Honda dealers (or, as we may have decided, Ford dealers or Fiat dealers). We negotiate with them to agree a price that we are happy with for a model that is in good enough condition. Different dealers compete with each other to win our custom by offering good cars at a low price. This is a functioning market.

What we don’t do is invite all the dealers to come and join us in our initial conversation. When my wife and I are discussing how important it is to us that our new car has variable-speed intermittent windscreen-wipers, we have that discussion in an environment quite free of car dealers telling us how great Fiat’s intermittent-wipe feature is. How could we possibly reach a coherent decision on what our own requirements are if we’re bombarded by the claims — some competing, some in collusion — of all the car dealers? And how can we think sensibly about what we’re prepared to spend if we’re surrounded by the dealers’ defences of the various financing arrangements they offer?

So in the same way, I feel that the scholarly community needs to figure out what publication services it needs, free of the influence of publishers who (and again this is not a criticism) have their own agenda. Then, when we know what we want, we can go to the publishers who offer the kinds of services we’re interested in, and invite them compete for our business on the basis of features and price.

But involving them in the initial what-we-want discussion can only lead to confusion, and a compromised outcome. Which is what we’ve seen for the last 50 years. This was the fatal flaw that led to the deeply flawed Finch Report and to the erosion of the RCUK’s initially very progressive OA policy.

As a side-note: my wife and I may end up deciding we don’t need a car at all: we might decide we can walk, or cycle, or take public transport. Car dealers would hate that: they would advocate against such an outcome with all their might if they were involved in that discussion. Which is why they can’t be.


Note. This post is adapted from a message to the Open Scholarship Initiative mailing list.

Promoting this to a post of its own, because dang, it deserves it. Frequent commenter Warren just brought to our attention this video, in which legendary* make-up artist Michael Westmore reveals that he based the design of the Klingon foreheads in Star Trek: The Next Generation on dinosaur vertebrae. Lots of discussion on this point between 3:40 and about 5:40 in the video.

*Westmore has won an Oscar and nine Emmys for his make-up work, and made make-up kits for CIA spies. His Wikipedia page is worth a read. If you saw some weirdo in a Trek series between ST:TNG and Enterprise, it was probably Westmore’s design.

Many thanks to Warren for letting us know about this. Fittingly, he put it in a comment on the final post in the Umbaran starfighter saga, in which we hypothesized and then confirmed that the Umbaran starfighters from Star Wars: The Clone Wars were based on cervical vertebrae of Apatosaurus.

I wonder how many other sci-fi universes will be – or already have been! – invaded by dinosaur vertebrae?

Old drawings (of heads)

June 25, 2017

I was organizing my files in DropBox and I found a folder of old drawings I’d almost forgotten about. I drew this back in the late 90s. It was used on a t-shirt by the OU Zoology Department. I got the general idea of making a head out of animals, and the specific idea of using a butterfly wing for the ear, from Wayne Douglas Barlowe’s cover for the novel Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. The snake I stole from ancient Egypt. I think everything else is in there just because I thought it was cool. Note that inverts, fish, herps, birds, and mammals are all represented, with a good balance of aquatic, terrestrial, and volant forms. It looks awfully hippie-dippie from 20 years out, but heck, what doesn’t?

“Solitude” by Mathew Wedel. CC BY-NC 4.0.

Well, this, I suppose.

I drew this about the same time. I was reading The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels and lots of stuff about ancient monastic traditions and thinking that if the world is an illusion that must be penetrated, then the evidence of one’s senses can only mislead. Also, Vicki was working for the state medical examiner in Oklahoma City and they used wooden dowels to represent the paths of bullets when reconstructing the skulls of those killed by gunfire. So here’s the skull of a monk, with all of the lethal pathways of distraction and temptation clearly marked as such. At last he can contemplate the eternal mysteries in perfect solitude.

Obviously I didn’t get on board the world-is-an-illusion, sensation-is-bad train – skewed pretty hard in the opposite direction, in fact. Possibly because years earlier the Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs had shown me that pursuing ‘pure’ intellectual and spiritual inquiry would ultimately lead one to a pathetic existence as a disembodied head living in a cave (high culture, meet low culture). Anyway, whatever interest I might have had in that philosophy I exorcised through this drawing. Stripped of any art-making-a-point baggage, I still think it’s pretty bitchin’. I should make t-shirts.

Actually, I probably will make t-shirts of this one if there’s any interest. Hence the CC BY-NC license I put on it, as opposed to the normal CC BY for almost everything else on this site. Look at me, boldly experimenting with new licenses.

This, obviously, is a lot more recent. I was collating all of my scanned drawings and I realized that I’d gone to the trouble of drawing the cranium and lower jaw of Aquilops separately, but I’d never posted the version from before I composited them back into articulation. It is very unlike me to do work and then hide it, so here it is.

It wasn’t until I the post mostly written that I realized that all three drawings are of heads, none of them are saurischians (although the first includes a saurischian, but not the cool kind), and two are stinkin’ mammals (and not the cool kind). I stand ready for your slings and arrows.

For previous posts on my drawings, see:

This tired old argument came up again on Twitter this evening, in light of Elsevier’s me-too announcement of a preprint archive:

Brian Nosek‏: Elsevier enters the biology #preprints space: https://www.elsevier.com/solutions/ssrn/biorn
Brian Lucey‏: I’ve used SSRN from its inception. Never ever felt it as anything but useful. That’s not changed with Elsevier.

And elsewhere in the same thread:

Me: We want preprints to be supported by community-owned initiatives that will not try to take total control.
William Gunn: Well, you said the same stuff about Mendeley and it wasn’t true then, either, so…

So what’s the problem? Mendeley and SSRN are still around, right

Yes, they are. But they continue to exist only by the grace of Elsevier. At any moment, that could change. And here’s why.

Subway is a chain of fast-food outlets that makes sandwiches. As it happens there is a branch in Cinderford, the nearest town to where I live. Which is nice.

Now everyone knows and understands that Subway is a corporation that exists to enrich its shareholders. That’s fine: no-one resents it, because it’s what it is. If the Cinderford branch makes money for them, they’ll keep it open and everyone will be happy. But if it doesn’t, then they’ll close that branch and no-one will be surprised. Because Subway’s mission is not to bring dining options to rural England, but to make money. No harm, no foul, that is just what they are.

But by the same token, Elsevier is a corporation that exists to enrich its shareholders. That’s not a controversial claim, it’s a simple statement of fact. And it’s not a criticism, it’s just recognising reality. We don’t even need to resent it: we just need to recognise it, and make our choices accordingly.

Now, from Elsevier’s perspective, Mendeley and SSRN, and indeed BioRN, are simply branches of Subway. They exist to make money for their shareholders. That’s their mission. Once more, not a criticism: just a fact.

But what this means is that the moment they are not making money, they will be shut down, just as the Cinderford branch of Subway would be. And, for that matter, just as BioMedNet, ChemWeb and ElsevierEngineering were shut down. Because Elsevier’s mission is not to further scholarship, it’s to make money. Again, not a criticism: just a fact.

What does it mean for Mendeley and SSN to “make money”? It may be that these branches of the Elsevier empire provide very little in the way of direct revenue. But someone will have run the numbers and shown that what they cost to run is less than their value to the corporation in terms of visibility, PR, drawing customers into other Elsevier products, etc. If it weren’t so, then they wouldn’t be running these services — because their responsibility is to shareholders, not scholars.

And you can bet that as soon as they day comes that they conclude Mendeley and SSRN are not paying for themselves, those services will go down in flames.

Now. It’s fine if Subway run their Cinderford branch for eighteen months and then decide it’s not working out. if they close it, I can just go down the road and get a kebab or a Chinese. But it’s not fine if scholarly infrastructure vanishes, or changes its terms, or becomes available only to members, or what have you. We need to be able to rely on scholarly infrastructure. Which is why in the end it needs to be owned and run by the scholarly community.

This is why I am becoming more and more convinced of the importance of the Principles for Open Scholarly Infrastructure, which lay out the conditions for a service to be reliable, sustainable and safe from hijacking. (I expect to write more about the Principles some time soon.)

The bottom line is just this: Elsevier’s mission is money and their duty is to shareholders. But our mission is research and our duty is to the world. We and they are simply not aligned. That doesn’t mean they can’t provide and charge for useful services. But it does mean that they can’t be allowed to own and control infrastructure.

That’s why no-one should submit preprints to BioRN. Let this effort move directly from cradle to grave without passing Go. There are already plenty of good preprint options for bioscientists: PeerJ preprints, BiorXiv, arXiv’s q-bio category, the whole ASAPbio initiative) and even for palaeontologists in particular (PaleorXiv).

Use those. Don’t give Elsevier control over scholarly infrastructure.

Here’s my face.

I went to the dentists’ office recently for a regular checkup and cleaning, and when my dentist learned that I taught human anatomy, he volunteered to send me a high-res copy of my panoramic x-ray. I couldn’t think of any plausible scenario wherein someone could use it for evil, and it has lots of cool stuff in it besides teeth, so decided to post it so I could yakk about it.

First things first: my teeth are in pretty good shape. I had to have my wisdom teeth (3rd molars) pulled back in 2009, and my upper 1st molar on the left has a root canal and a porcelain crown, which stands out bright white on the radiograph. Everyone else is present and looking good. If it’s been a while since you’ve covered this, the full human dentition consists of 2 incisors, 1 canine, 2 premolars, and 3 molars on each side, top and bottom, for a total of 32 teeth. Because I’ve had all four 3rd molars removed, I’m down to 28.

I could go on and on about the cool stuff in this image. Here are 12 things that stand out:

  1. The mandibular condyle, which is the articular end of the mandible that fits into the mandibular fossa, a shallow socket on the inferior surface of the temporal bone, to form the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). There’s an articular disk made of fibrocartilage inside the joint, which separates it into two fluid-filled spaces, one against the condyle and one against the fossa. This allows us to do all kinds of wacky stuff with our lower jaws besides simply opening and closing them, such as slide the jaw fore and aft or side to side. This is a strong contrast to most carnivores, which bite down hard and therefore need a jaw joint that works as a pure hinge. See this post for pictures and discussion of the jaw joint in a bear skull.
  2. The coronoid process of the mandible, which is a muscle attachment site. A few fibers of the masseter and buccinator muscles can encroach onto the coronoid process, but mostly it is buried in the temporalis, one of the primary jaw-closing muscles. Put your fingers on the side of your head a little above and in front of your ear and bite down. That muscle you feel bulging outward is the temporalis. Back in the 1960s, Melvin Moss (1968) discovered that if he removed the temporalis muscles from newborn rats, the coronoid processes would fail to develop. Moss’s ambition was to discover the quanta of anatomy, which in his view were “functional matrices” – finite sets of soft tissues related by development and function, which might contain “skeletal units” that grew because of the morphogenetic demands of the functional matrices. His tagline was, “Functional matrices evolve, skeletal units respond”. Not all of Moss’s ideas have aged well in light of what we now know about the genetic underpinnings of skeletal development, but he wasn’t completely wrong, either, and functional matrix theory is still an interesting and frequently productive way to think about the interrelationships of bones and soft tissues. For more horrifying/enlightening Moss experiments on baby rats, see this post.
  3. The mandibular angle, which is another muscle attachment. The medial pterygoid muscle attaches to the medial surface, and the masseter attaches laterally. You can feel this, too, by putting your fingers over your mandibular angle and biting down – that’s the masseter you feel bulging outward. Note that the angle flares downward and outward on either side of my jaw. This flaring of the angle tends to be more pronounced in males than in females, and it is one of many features that forensic anthropologists (like the one I belong to) take into account when attempting to determine biological sex from human skeletal remains. Like most sexually dimorphic features of the skeleton, this is a tendency along a spectrum of variation rather than a binary yes/no thing. There are women with flared jaw angles (Courtney Thorne-Smith, probably) and men with slender mandibles, so you wouldn’t want to sex a skeleton by that feature alone.
  4. The mandibular canal, a tubular channel through the mandible that houses the inferior alveolar artery, vein, and nerve. This neurovascular bundle provides innervation and blood supply to the tooth-bearing part of the mandible and to the teeth themselves, and emerges through the mental foramen to provide sensory innervation and blood supply to the chin.
  5. The upper surface of the hard palate, formed by the palatine process of the maxilla anteriorly and by the palatine bones posteriorly. The palate is the roof of the mouth and the floor of the nasal airways.
  6. The median septum of the nasal cavity, formed by cartilage anteriorly, the perpendicular plate of the ethmoid bone superiorly, and the vomer posteriorly and inferiorly.
  7. The blue lines are the inferior margins of my maxillary sinuses – air-filled spaces created when pneumatic diverticula of the nasal cavity hollow out the maxillae. You have these, too, as well as air spaces in your frontal, ethmoid, sphenoid, and temporal bones. It looks like many of the roots of my upper molars stick up into my maxillary sinuses. This is not an illusion, as shown below.
  8. When I had the root canal on my left upper 2nd molar, the endodontist filled the pulp cavities of the tooth roots with gutta-percha, a rigid natural latex made from the sap of the tree Palaquium gutta. Gutta-percha is bioinert, so it makes a good filling material (it was also used to insulate transoceanic telegraph cables), and it’s radiopaque, which allows endodontists to confirm that the cavities have been filled completely. The other teeth show the typical structure of a dense enamel crown, less dense dentine forming the bulk of the tooth, and radiolucent pulp cavities containing blood vessels and nerves.
  9. This is the rubber bit I gripped with my incisors to keep my teeth apart and my head motionless while the CT machine rotated around me to make the scan. Not that cool in a science sense, but I figured it deserved a label.
  10. Note that the roots of the canines go farther into the jaws than those of the other teeth. This is true for all four canines, it’s just easiest to see with this one. This is a pretty standard mammalian thing, for taxa that still have canines – they tend to be big and mechanically important, so they have deep roots. Even though our canines are absolutely and proportionally much smaller than those in the other great apes, we can still see traces of their earlier importance, like these deep roots.
  11. In places you can see the trabecular internal structure of my mandible clearly. As someone who geeks out pretty much anytime I get a look inside a bone, this tickled me.
  12. The remains of an alveolus or tooth socket. I had my 3rd molars out almost a decade ago, and by now the sockets will have mostly filled in with new trabecular bone. But you can still see the ghostly outline of at least this one – a sort of morphogenetic trace fossil buried inside my mandible. I assume that in another decade or two this will have disappeared through regular bone remodeling.

Here’s a closeup of my left upper 2nd premolar and first two (and only remaining) molars. The gutta-percha filling the pulp cavities of the three roots of the 1st molar is obvious. The disparity in root length is mostly illusory – this was an oblique shot and the two ‘short’ roots are foreshortened.

Here’s the same image with the roots of the 2nd molar traced in pink, and the inferior margin of the maxillary sinus traced in blue. It’s not that uncommon for upper molar roots to stick up into the maxillary sinuses. That was true of my 3rd molars as well, and when I had them taken out, the endodontist had to put stitches into my gums to close the holes. Otherwise I would have had open connections between my oral cavity and maxillary sinuses, which would have sucked and been dangerous. Nasal mucus in the maxillary sinuses could have drained into my mouth, and food I was chewing could have been forced up into the sinuses, where it would have decomposed and caused a truly vile sinus infection.

In a developmental sense, it’s not that the roots of the teeth grow upward into the sinuses, it’s that the sinuses grow downward, eroding the bone around the roots of the teeth. This happens well after the teeth are done forming – the sinuses continue to expand as long as the skull is growing, and they retain the potential to remodel the surrounding bone for as long as we live. Even in cases like mine where the roots of the molars stick up into the sinuses, the tooth roots are still covered by soft tissue, including branches of the superior alveolar artery, vein, and nerve that enter the pulp cavities of the tooth roots through foramina at their tips.

If you ask your dentist for copies of your own dental x-rays, you’ll probably get them. If you do, have fun exploring the weird territory inside your head.


  • Moss, M. L. (1968). A theoretical analysis of the functional matrix. Acta Biotheoretica, 18(1), 195-202.

Upcoming book signings

April 19, 2017

Come gawk at this weirdo in public!

I’ll be signing copies of The Sauropod Dinosaurs: Life in the Age of Giants at regional events the next two weekends.

This this coming Saturday, April 22, I’ll be at the Inland Empire Science Festival, which will run from 10 AM to 4 PM at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. There will be a ton of other special exhibits and activities, too. I don’t know all of them off the top of my head, but I know that Brian Engh will have the table next to mine, so come by and get two doses of awesome paleo art.

The following Friday, April 28, I’ll be at Beer N’ Bones 2017, which runs from 7-11 PM at the Arizona Museum of Natural History in Mesa, Arizona. In addition to signing books, I’ll also be in the “Speed Dating a Scientist” thing, where small groups of people get five minutes each at a table with a researcher, to ask whatever they want. Not just paleontologists, but scientists of all stripes. That said, I know of a couple of other local paleontologists who will also be there as guests – Andy Farke and Thierra Nalley. I was at Beer N’ Bones last year and it was a blast. As you might suspect from the name, it is 21-and-over only.

I’ll have books for sale – at a healthy discount – at both events. Hopefully I’ll see you out there.