This past weekend I was camping up the coast at Hearst San Simeon State Park, with my son, London, and Brian Engh.

We went to see the elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas. It was my first time seeing elephant seals in the wild. Not having done any research in advance, I was expecting something like this:

In other words, a small number of elephant seals, not doing much, basically at binocular distance from the viewing area. Obviously we did get some of that, since I have a picture of it. But that was up the coast a bit, at the start of Boucher Trail near the Piedras Blancas lighthouse.

We spent most of our time at the main Piedras Blancas rookery, where just the southeastern half of the viewing area looked – and sounded – like this:

We also saw a lot of this (semi-groady iPhone-through-binocular shot by me):

and even some of this (much nicer photo courtesy of Brian Engh):

I’ll have a lot more to say about this real soon, including more video, but it’s late and I need sleep. Stay tuned!

Advertisements

When I was nine, a copy of Don Glut’s The New Dinosaur Dictionary turned up in my local Waldenbooks. It wasn’t my first dinosaur book, by far – I’d been a dinosaurophile since the age of three. But The New Dinosaur Dictionary was different.

Up to that point, I had subsisted on a heavy diet of kids’ dino books and the occasional article in National Geographic and Ranger Rick. The kids’ books were aimed at kids and the magazine articles were pitched at an engagingly popular level. I didn’t understand every word, but they were clearly written for curious layfolk, not specialists.

A typical spread from The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982). The armored sauropod blew my young mind.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something else entirely. It had photos of actual dinosaur bones and illustrations of skeletons with cryptic captions like, “Skeleton of Daspletosaurus torosus. (After Russell)”. Okay, clearly this Russell cove was out there drawing dinosaur skeletons and this book had reproduced some of them. But nobody I knew talked like that, and the books I had access to up to that point held no comparable language.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 271)

Then there was stuff like this: “The so-called Von Hughenden sauropod restored as a brachiosaurid by Mark Hallett”. A chain of fascinating and pleasurable ideas detonated in my brain. “The so-called” – say what now? Nobody even knew what to call this thing? Somehow I had inadvertently sailed right to the edge of human knowledge of dinosaurs, and was peering out into taxa incognita. “Restored as a brachiosaurid” – so this was just one of several possible ways that the animal might have looked. Even the scientists weren’t sure. This was a far cry from the bland assurances and blithely patronizing tones of all my previous dinosaur books.

“By Mark Hallett.” I didn’t know who this Hallett guy was, but his art was all over the book, along with William Stout and some guy named Robert T. Bakker and a host of others who were exploding my conception of what paleo art could even be. Anyway, this Mark Hallett was someone to watch, not only because he got mentioned by name a lot, but because his art had a crisp quality that teetered on some hypercanny ridge between photorealism and scribbling. His sketches looked like they might just walk off the page.

In case that line about scribbling sounds dismissive: I have always preferred sketches by my favorite artists to their finished products. The polished works are frequently inhumanly good. They seem to have descended in a state of completed perfection from some divine realm, unattainable by mere mortals. Whereas sketches give us a look under the hood, and show how a good artist can conjure light, shadow, form, weight, and texture from a few pencil strokes. Put it this way: I am anatomist by temperament first, and by training and occupation second. Of course I want to see how things are put together.

The New Dinosaur Dictionary (Glut, 1982: p. 75)

Anyway, The New Dinosaur Dictionary was something completely new in my experience. It wasn’t aimed at kids and written as if by kids, like lots of kids’ books. It wasn’t even written by adults talking down (deliberately or inadvertently) to kids, or trying to reach a wide audience that might include kids. It was written by an adult, aiming at other adults. And it was admitting in plain language that we didn’t know everything yet, that there were lots of animals trembling on the outer threshold of scientific knowledge. I didn’t understand half of it – I was down in an ontogenetic trench, looking up as these packets of information exploded like fireworks over my head.

In Seeing In the Dark, the best book about why you should go out stargazing for yourself, Timothy Ferris writes about growing up on Florida’s Space Coast in the early 1960s, and watching the first generation of artificial satellites pass overhead:

I felt like an ancient lungfish contemplating the land from the sea. We could get up there.

That’s precisely the effect that The New Dinosaur Dictionary had on me: I could get up there. Maybe not immediately. But there were steps, bodies of knowledge that could be mastered piecemeal, and most of all, mysteries to be resolved. The book itself was like a sketch, showing how from isolated and broken bones and incomplete skeletons, scientists and artists reconstructed the world of the past, one hypothesis at a time. Now I take it for granted, because I’ve been behind the curtain for a couple of decades. But to my 9-year-old self, it was revolutionary.

This has all come roaring back because of something that came in the mail this week. Or rather, something that had been waiting in the mailroom for a while, that I finally picked up this week: a package from Mark Hallett, enclosing a copy of his 2018 dinosaur calendar. And also this:

 

An original sketch, which he gave to me as a Christmas present. The published version appears on one of the final pages of our book, where we discuss the boundaries between the known – the emerging synthesis of sauropod biology that we hoped to bring to a broader audience by writing the book in the first place – and the unknown – the enduring mysteries that Mark and I think will drive research in sauropod paleobiology for the next few decades. Presented without a caption or commentary, the sketch embodies sauropods as we see them: emerging from uncertainty and ignorance one hard-won line at a time, with ever-increasing solidity.

Thank you, Mark, sincerely. That sketch, what it evokes, both for me now and for my inner 9-year-old – you couldn’t have chosen a better gift. And I couldn’t be happier. Except perhaps to someday learn that our book exploded in the mind of a curious kid the way that The New Dinosaur Dictionary did for me 34 years ago, a time that now seems as distant and romantic as the primeval forests of the Mesozoic.

Here’s a bunch of cool stuff that is either available now or happening soon:

Sauropod Dinosaurs book excerpt in Prehistoric Times

Been on the fence about the sauropod book Mark Hallett and I wrote? Now you can try before you buy – our chapter on titanosaurs is reprinted in the new issue of Prehistoric Times magazine. I know it’s on newsstands because I picked it up at the local Barnes & Noble yesterday. You can also buy the issue from the PT website, physically or in digital form, solo or as part of a subscription. Many thanks to PT editor and publisher Mike Fredericks for the visibility, the staff at Johns Hopkins University Press for permission, and most of all to Mark Hallett for making it happen. We hope you enjoy it.

Get more sauropods in Mark Hallett’s 2018 dinosaur calendar

Mark has a dinosaur calendar out from Pomegranate, and I’m happy to say that sauropods are featured 5 out of 12 months. The calendar has a nice mix of Hallett classics and some newer works, including the cover art from our book, as shown above. Get it direct from Pomegranate or from Amazon.

Vicki’s public talk on forensic anthropology in December

My better half, anthropologist and author Vicki Wedel, is giving a public talk about her work on the evening of Thursday, December 14, at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. Her title will be, “Bones, ballistics, and blunt force trauma.” I assume the talk will start at 6:00, but check the WSC website for details. The painted skull above is from the natural history museum in Vienna, and it doesn’t have any connection to the talk other than Vicki thought it was rad and I needed a skull to illustrate the post. For more on Vicki and her work, see these posts: cold case, book.

2017VWedelLecture

UPDATE: Final details on Vicki’s talk are out. It will start at 6:00, she’ll be signing copies of her book, Broken Bones: Anthropological Analysis of Blunt Force Trauma, and admission is $5.

My public talk on sauropods and whales in January

In January it will be my turn to give a talk at the Western Science Center. I’m on for the evening of Thursday, January 18. Title is not quite finalized but it will probably something along the lines of, “Dinosaurs versus whales: what is the largest animal of all time, and how do we know?” That’s me with the gray whale skeleton at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz, back in 2006. I was helping Nick Pyenson measure whales, back when we were both grad students. Ancient blog posts about that here: gray, blue.

See me in Seattle at Norwescon over Easter weekend

If you want to see me star-struck, come to Norwescon, home of the Philip K. Dick Award, next spring, where I’ll be rubbing shoulders with some vastly more famous people. Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award winner Ken Liu will be the Writer Guest of Honor, legendary SF&F visionary Wayne Douglas Barlowe Hugo- and World Fantasy Award-winning artist Galen Dara will be the Artist Guest of Honor, Green Ronin is the Spotlight Publisher, and, er, I will be the Science Guest of Honor. Yes, I’m alert to both the honor and the incongruity of the thing. When I’m not Freaking. Out. about hanging with two of my favorite creators, I’ll probably be giving talks on dinosaurs and astronomy (my other thing) and participating on some panels and signing books. I’ll try not to disappoint.

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?

rabbit-facial-tilt-and-locomotion-kraatz-sherratt-2016-fig5

Facial tilt in extant leporids is strongly correlated with locomotor mode – fast movers have more strongly tilted faces. There’s a lot of homoplasy, which is to be expected with characters that are strongly driven by current function. Kraatz and Sherratt (2016: fig. 5).

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.

lagomorph-facial-tilt-evolution-kraatz-sherratt-2016-fig7

That homoplastic pattern shown in figure 5, above? It’s been going on for a while. I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that Hypolagus was a rocket. Kraatz and Sherratt (2016: fig. 7).

References

DSCN1044b

Not much to say this time – the pictures tell the story for now.

DSCN1033b

It was a pretty transcendental experience, as I imagine it must be for anyone who loves dinosaurs, or has a pulse.

DSCN1059b

A huge thank-you to Dan Chure, the Park Paleontologist for the Monument, who conveyed us safely up and down the Wall, taught us about the prehistory of the site and the human history of its excavation and conservation, held scale bars, moved backpacks, took photos, and generally seemed to be having just as much fun as we were. This has been a common theme on the trip – every single person we’ve interacted with at a museum or fossil site has been unfailingly welcoming and generous with their time and knowledge. Whatever challenges vert paleo faces, a lack of wonderful people is not one of them.

DSCN1112b

I was up there, too, for the second time in my life – that will be a post for another day. For now, just bask in the glory of Mike basking in the glory of a literally mind-numbing array of amazing fossils.

The European Commission is putting together a Commission Expert Group to provide advice about the development and implementation of open science policy in Europe. It will be known as the Open Science Policy Platform (OSPP).

This is potentially excellent news. The OSPP’s primary goal is to “advise the Commission on how to further develop and practically implement open science policy”.

But there’s potentially a downside here. We can be sure that the legacy publishers will attempt to stuff the committee with their own people, just as they did with the Finch committee — and that, if they succeed, they will do everything they can to retard all forms of progress that hurt their bottom line, just as they did with the Finch committee.

Unfortunately, multinational corporations with £2 billion annual revenue and £762 million annual profit (see page 17 of Elsevier’s 2014 annual report) are very well positioned to dedicate resources to getting their people onto influential committees. Those of us without a spare £762 million to spend on marketing are at a huge operational disadvantage when it comes to influencing policy. Happily, though, we do have one important thing on our side: we’re right.

So we should do what we can to get genuinely progressive pro-open candidates onto the OSPP. I know of several people who have put themselves forward, and I am briefly describing them below (in the order I hear about their candidacy). I have publicly endorsed the first few, and will go on to endorse the others just as soon as I have a moment. If you know and admire these people, please consider leaving your own endorsement — it will help their case to be taken on to the OSPP.


Björn Brembs is a neuroscientist who has been a tireless advocate for open access, and open science more generally, for many years. He has particularly acute insights into the wastefulness of our present scholarly communication mechanisms. His candidacy is announced on his blog, and I left my endorsement as a comment.

Cameron Neylon falls into the needs-no-introduction category. Every time I’ve talked to him, I’ve come away better informed and wiser, thanks to his exhaustive knowledge and understanding of the issues surrounding openness: both the opportunities is presents, and the difficulties that slow our progress. His candidacy is announced on his blog, and I left my endorsement as a comment.

Chris Hartgerink is an active researcher in text and data mining, whose work has repeatedly been disrupted by impediments deliberately imposed by barrier-based publishers. He knows what it’s like on the ground in the content-mining wars. His candidacy is announced on his blog, and I left my endorsement as a comment.

Daniel Mietchen both practices and advocates openness at every stage in the scientific process, with a special focus on the use of Wikipedia and the ways its free content can be enhanced. Fittingly, his candidacy bid is itself a wiki page, and endorsements are invited on the corresponding discussion page.

Konrad Förstner develops open source software for reasearch, works on how to make analyses reproducible, promotes the use pf pre-print servers and creates generate open educational resources. His candidacy is announced on his blog, and I left my endorsement as a comment. [H/T Daniel Mietchen]

Finally (for now), Jenny Molloy, is the manager of Content Mine and co-ordinator of OKFN, the Open Knowledge Foundation. She has announced her candidacy on a mailing list, but doesn’t yet have a web-page about it, to my knowledge. I’ll update this page as soon as I hear that this has changed.


 

That’s it for now: get out there and endorse the candidates that you like!

Have I missed anyone? Let me know, and I’ll update this post.