I am briefly quoted in Times Higher Education‘s new article about the White House public access petition Since my response had to be quite dramatically cut for space, here is the full text of what I sent the writer, Paul Jump:

The success of this petition is important for several reasons. First, it puts paid to the pernicious lie that open access isn’t important because research is useless to non-specialists. Support for the petition has come from many non-academic quarters, including patient support group Patients Like MeWikipedia, Creative Commons, the American Association of Law Libraries, and the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Perhaps equally important, it’s attracted support from publishers — not only open-access publishers such as PLoS, BMC and InTechWeb, but also forward-thinking subscription publishers like Rockefeller University Press. It’s also featured widely in the non-academic media, appearing on the news-for-nerds sites SlashdotReddit, and Hacker News, in newspapers like the Guardian, and in magazines like Wired.

All of this makes the crucial point that open access isn’t just an esoteric preference of a few disgruntled academics, as the hugely profitable commercial subscription-based academic publishers have consistently tried to paint it. It’s something that has huge implications for all of our lives: for health care, education, legislative deliberations, small businesses, and ultimately the health of the planet.

Open-access advocates have seen this for a long time, but now the message is getting out. Irrespective of what response the Obama administration makes to the petition’s very rapid achievement of the required 25,000 signatures, what’s been said about it around the world lays waste the idea that open access is nothing more than an alternative business model for scholarly publishing. It’s a much bigger revolution than that.

(They managed to cut that down to 69 words!)

Research Councils UK is the aggregate of the UK’s seven research councils, which makes it overall  the most important and influential funding body for science in Britain.  A few days ago, they released a draft of their new open access policy, and they are soliciting comments now.  Comments can be from anyone — individuals or groups, British or overseas — like the recent OSTP Request For Information in the States which we have to assume was influential in the defeat of the RWA.

What does the new draft policy say?  I urge you to read it yourself: its only six pages, and they are very clear.  To  quote from the document’s introduction:

Key differences with the current policy include:

  • Specifically stating that Open Access includes unrestricted use of manual and automated text and data mining tools; and unrestricted reuse of content with proper attribution.
  • Requiring publication in journals that meet Research Council ‘standards’ for Open Access.
  • No support for publisher embargoes of longer than six months from the date of publication.

Unsurprisingly I am very much in favour of the proposed changes to the RCUK policy, and I will be a making a lengthy submission commenting on individual changes.

But any comment is significant — even you’re just writing to say “I approve of the policy changes”, or “I recommend a 12-month embargo period instead of six” or indeed “open access is a silly fad, this policy in unnecessary”.  The point is that RCUK want to hear your opinion.  Your voice matters.

So please email your comments to communications@rcuk.ac.uk with the subject “Open Access Feedback”.  I am told (by Cameron Neylon, who heard it from a colleague who’d had it from a friend of his) that the deadline is Thursday 5 April, but since that is hardly a definitive source, I recommend getting your submissions in as soon as possible.  (You can be sure that the publishers will be doing so.)

Those ostrich necks I went to Oro Grande to get last Thursday? Vanessa and I started dissecting them last Friday. The necks came to us pre-cut into segments with two to three vertebrae per segment. The transverse cuts were made without regard for joints so we got a bunch of cross sections at varying points through the vertebrae. This was fortuitous; we got to see a bunch of cool stuff at the cut faces, and those cut faces gave us convenient avenues for picking up structures and dissecting them out further.

In particular, the pneumatic diverticula in the neck of this ostrich were really prominent and not hard at all to see and to follow. The photo above shows most of the external diverticula; click through for the full-resolution, unlabeled version. The only ones that aren’t shown or labeled are the diverticula around the esophagus and trachea (which had already been stripped off the neck segments, so those diverticula were simply gone), those around carotid arteries, which are probably buried in the gloop toward the bottom of the photo, and the intermuscular diverticula, of which we found a few in parting out the dorsal and lateral neck muscles.

There is one final group of diverticula that are shown in the photo but not labeled: the interosseous diverticula that fill the air spaces inside the bone.

We have tons of cool photos from this dissection, so expect more posts on this stuff in the future.

For previous posts showing diverticula in bird neck dissections, see:

Things to Make and Do, part 7: fun with rhea necks

Things to Make and Do, part 7b: more fun with rhea necks (admittedly, not the most creative title ever)

Denver Diplodocus

November 5, 2011

Taken by me–or rather, my camera in automatic mode–earlier today, because the ole sauropod blog has been a bit light on sauropods lately.

I spend a lot of time thinking about Sauroposeidon, Supersaurus, and the like. It’s good to be reminded that even an ‘average’ sauropod like Diplodocus is still pretty awesome. And weird. I don’t know if we can be reminded often enough.

Preparing a talk is a time-consuming process, and there’s no question that getting the slides ready is where the bulk of that time goes.  But unless you understand exactly what it is that you’re going to talk about, even the best slides won’t rescue your talk from mediocrity, so before you fire up PowerPoint, go and read part 1 of this tutorial, on finding the narrative.  Seriously.  The slides are how you convey your message, and they’re important.  But not as important as what your message is.

Assuming you know what story you’re trying to tell, here is the overriding principle of slide design: make yourself understood.  Remember again that you have something less than twenty minutes in which to make your rich, complex research project understood to a hall full of strangers who have just sat through five or ten or fifteen other presentations.  They will be mentally tired.  Help them out.  Make every slide tell a clear story.

The slides for a conference talk are science, not art.  That doesn’t mean they have to be ugly — of course it doesn’t.  But it does mean that whenever you find yourself facing a choice between clarity and beauty, go with clarity.

That means you do not want your slides to look like this:

OK, that is not even beautiful.  But it does illustrate some horrible mistakes, and we’ll touch on all of them  in what follows.  For now, just remember that the purpose of a Results slide is to help the audience know what your results were.

So how do you make yourself understood?

1. Use the full size of the screen

Most importantly, don’t “frame” your content.  You have a specific amount of space in which to present your work.  Don’t throw any of it away.  Although the super-bad slide above may look extreme, I have seen plenty to slides that present, say, specimen photos in about the same amount of space as the graph above occupies.  So, then:

  • No picturesque borders.
  • We don’t need the talk title, or your name or address on every slide.  You can tell us once at the start of the talk and then, if you like, once more at the end.  If we truly forget who you are in the middle, we can always look at the programme.  If we forget what you’re talking about, then your talk has more profound problems.
  • That goes double for logos.  We do not need to see the following more than once (or indeed once):
    • Your institution’s crest
    • The conference logo
    • Logos of funding bodies

We don’t need any of that stuff, and all of it wastes precious real-estate.  Space that you could be using to tell your story.

Most important of all: use as much space as you can for your images.  Specimen photographs, interpretive drawings, reproduced figures from the literature, graphs, cladograms, strat sections — whatever you’re showing us, let us see it.

In my own talks, I like to make the picture fill the whole slide.  You can usually find a light area to put a dark text on, or vice versa.  I often find it’s useful to give the text a drop-shadow, so that it stands out against both light and dark background.  (You can find that option in Format -> Character… -> Font Effects if you use OpenOffice, and no doubt somewhere similar in PowerPoint.)

If the aspect ratio of an image that I want to use is not the 4:3 that projectors give you, then I will often crop it down to that aspect ratio, if some of the edges of the image are dispensable, so that the cropped version is properly shaped to fill the screen.

(On image resolution: most projectors seem to be 1024 x 768, maybe some these days are 1280 x 960.  There’s no point using images at a higher resolution than that: your audience won’t see the additional information.)

2. Legibility

Hopefully you won’t need too many words on your slides, since you’ll be talking to us about what we can see.  But what words you use, we need to see.  Specifically, this means:

  • Use big fonts.  There is absolutely no point in showing us an eighty-taxon phylogenetic tree: we just won’t be able to read the taxon names.  I tend to make my fonts really big — 32-point and up, which actually is probably bigger than you really need.  But you don’t want to be smaller than 20-point at the absolute minimum.
  • Use high contrast between the text and background.  That usually means black on white, or (if you must) white on black.  Well, OK — it doesn’t literally have to be black, but it needs to be a very dark colour (I often use very dark blue).  And it doesn’t literally have to be white, but it needs to be a very light colour.  (I occasionally use a very pale yellow “parchment”-type colour, but less often.)  Do not use grey text or a grey background.  Especially do not use grey text on a grey background, even if they are fairly different greys and the muted effect looks classy.  You’re not shooting for “classy”, you’re shooting for “legible”.  Because you remember the prime directive that you’re trying to make yourself understood.
  • If for some reason you must use a non-black, non-white text or background, don’t make it a highly saturated colour.  Some combinations, such as a red on blue, and virtually impossible to read.
  • No vertical writing (with the possible exception of short y-axis labels on graphs).  If your cladogram’s taxon names are vertical, turn your cladogram around.  Redraw it if necessary.  If the audience have their heads on one side, you’re doing it wrong.

3. Font Choice

Apart from size, what else matters about fonts?

  • Avoid elaborate fonts, such as the URW Chancery L Medium Italic that I used for my name and affiliation in the Bad Slide at the top.  They’re hard to read, and at best they draw attention away from the message to the medium.
  • Pick a single font and stick with it for consistency.  Or if you wish, one serifed font (for body text) and one sans-serif (for headings).  But you should have little enough text on your slides that it’s practically all headings.
  • Stick to standard fonts which you know will be on the computer that will be displaying your presentation.  In practice, the safest approach is it stick to Microsoft’s “core fonts for the web” — which is plenty enough choice.
  • You might want to avoid Arial, which is widely considered particularly ugly.  Other ubiquitous sans-serif fonts include Trebuchet and Verdana, which are both rather nicer than Arial (though Verdana’s glyphs are too widely spaced to my eye).
  • Do not use MS Comic Sans Serif, or no-one will take anything you say seriously.  I don’t just mean your talk, I mean ever, for the rest of your life.

Why is it important to stick to standard fonts?  Because of size, spacing and positioning.  Your computer may have the super-beautiful Font Of Awesomeness and it might make your slides look beautiful; but when you run your PowerPoint file on the conference computer, it won’t have Font Of Awesomeness, so it will substitute whatever it thinks is closest — Arial or Times or something.  Not only will you not get the visual effect you wanted, but the glyphs will be different sizes, so that your text will run off the edge of the page, or fall right off the bottom.

(Handy household hint for users of Debian GNU/Linux and variants such as Ubuntu.  Make sure that you have the MS core fonts installed on your computer, so that OpenOffice can properly display your slides as you’re designing them, rather than substituting.  sudo apt-get install ttf-mscorefonts-installer, restart OpenOffice, and you’re good to go.)

4. How many slides?

I need to mention this issue, if only to say that there’s no right answer.  I don’t say that lightly: for most slide-design issues, there is a right answer.  (Example: should you use MS Comic Sans Serif?  Answer: no.)  But number of slides has to vary between people to fit in with presentation styles.

I tend to use a large number of slides and whiz through them very quickly — my SVPCA 2011 talk had 80 slides, and in 2010 I had 92 slides.  Lots of them are parenthetical, sometimes just a silly joke to make in passing a point that I am already making.  If you miss such a slide, it doesn’t really matter: it’s just light relief and reinforcement, not an integral part of the narrative.


But that many-slides-slipping-quickly-past style doesn’t suit everybody. In the eighteen minutes or so that you get to give a talk (allowing a minute for messing about getting set up and a minute for questions), getting through 80 slides in those 1080 seconds gives you an average of 13.5 seconds per slide.

Lots of people prefer to use fewer slides and talk about them for longer. You can give an excellent talk with very few slides if that approach comes naturally to you: step slowly through nine slides, talk about each one for two minutes.

Once you’ve given a few talks you’ll know which approach works best for you, and you can design accordingly. For your first talk, you’re probably best off aiming initially somewhere in the middle — thirty or so slides — and then seeing what happens when you dry-run the talk. (We’ll discuss that next time around.)

5. Miscellaneous

I’ve touched on this one already, but it’s best to use as little text as possible. That’s because you want your audience listening to your story, not reading your slides. I used to put a lot of text in my slides, because I wanted the PowerPoint file to stand alone as a sort of a record of the talk. But I don’t do that now, because a talk involves talking (clue’s in the question). I include enough text to remind myself what I want to say about each slide (sometimes just one or two words; often none at all). And I try to make sure there’s enough to let the audience know what they’re looking at if I zoom straight past it. For example:


I used this slide to briefly tell a typical taphonomic story of a sauropod neck.  But I didn’t need to say that I was using diagrams of the neck of Sauroposeidon taken from Wedel et al. 2000, so I just shoved that information on the slide for anyone who was interested.  That way I didn’t have to break the flow of my narrative to impart this information.

Use a consistent colour palette.  If you’ve used dark blue text on white for half of your slides, don’t switch to black on pale yellow for the other half.  It’s not a hugely important point, but it all contributes to helping the talk go down smoothly.  You’re getting rid of mental speed-bumps that could stop your audience from giving their full attention to the story you’re telling.

Where possible, avoid putting important information at the bottom — in, say, the lower 10-15% of the slide.  That’s because the lower part of the screen can sometimes be obscured by the heads of the people in the front rows.

Avoid hatching, which can look terrible on a screen, in a way that’s very hard to predict.  In the Sauroposeidon taphonomy slide above, for example, the lost bones are “greyed out” using a flat grey colour rather the close diagonal lines of the original.  I knew it would look right on the screen.

Skip the fancy slide transitions, animated flying arrows, and suchlike. It’s just distracting nonsense that no one in the audience (or anywhere else, for that matter) needs to be exposed to. It’s just gross. Also, as with fonts, you may end up giving your talk from a machine with an older version of PowerPoint that doesn’t support the turning of animated pages and the bouncing arrival of arrows and clipart, and then your presentation will either look stupid or fail to run entirely.

You might want to draw highlighting marks on your slides, e.g. circles around the relevant parts of a specimen photos.  That will save you having to mess about with the laser pointer later.  (I will have much to say about the laser pointer in part 4).  I like to show two consecutive slides: one of the unadorned photo, then one that’s identical apart from the addition of the highlight, like this:

Then as I am talking about the first slide, “in order to mount the vertebrae in something approaching a straight line, they had to leave a huge gap between consecutive centra”, I’ll step on to the next one, which highlights what I’m saying.  Slick, no?  (This is part of why I end up with such high slide counts.)

A pet hate: don’t write “monophyletic clade”.  If it’s a clade, it’s monophyletic by definition.  “Monophyletic clade” is like “round circle”, “square square” or “boring ornithopod”.

And finally …

Show us specimens.  We are vertebrate palaeontologists, and we love vertebrate fossils.  No-one goes into the field because of a deep and abiding passion for graphs or for tables of numbers.  We understand that from time to time you’ll need to show us those things in order to tell the story, but nothing makes an audience happier than big, clean photos of beautiful specimens.

Well, that’s it — how to make good slides.  Next time we’ll look at rehearsing the talk.  (It’ll be a much shorter post than this one.)

It’s been a little quiet around here lately. Mike has been slammed with day-job work, Darren is terminally busy as always, and I’m in my fall teaching block so I’ve been too busy to think. But life rolls on and there are announcements that need making. To wit:

– My post on the long nerves of sauropods was chosen as one of ten blog posts for the Science Writer Tip Jar at Not Exactly Rocket Science, back in May. Ed Yong, the NERS mastermind, has this to say:

Throughout the blogosphere, people produce fantastic writing for free. That’s great, but I believe that good writers should get paid for good work. To set an example, I choose ten pieces every month that were written for free and I donate £3 to the author. There are no formal criteria other than I found them unusually interesting, enjoyable and/or important.

It was an honor to be chosen; Ed’s a damn fine writer and has a knack for finding good stuff and pointing people to it. So why am I just blogging about this now, in August? I didn’t cover it at the time because the Science Writer Tip Jar runs on reader donations and I thought it would be a little gross to solicit money for myself. And I didn’t cover it right after because Ed’s been busy, too, and it sorta slipped off the radar for both of us. But at the end of last month he sent me a nice donation by PayPal, and I’m finally making good with the blogging about it.

What will I do with the dough? Inevitably, it will be spent on an epic meal of sushi for Mike and I. We don’t get to see each other very often, so when we do we have a sushipocalypse, and it’s pretty common for us to have ideas worth pursuing and publishing at these events. So ultimately the money will be plowed back into science, albeit indirectly. Thanks, Ed, and keep up the stellar work at NERS.

– Speaking of money, if you’d like to win a pile of it–4500 Euros, in fact–for the paleo paper you published in 2010, and get a nice trip to Spain in the bargain, I suggest you submit to Paleonturology 11, sponsored by Fundacion Dinopolis in Teruel, Spain. I know about this awesomeness because one of my papers won back in 2006, and I got a free trip to Spain in December, 2007 (story here). Winners have included papers by grad students and emeritus professors, on everything from trilobite eyes and bivalve shells to Pliocene hominids and dinosaur gastralia. The entrance form is super-simple and the whole process takes about as much time as it does to read this post. So if you published a paleo paper in the calendar year 2010 and you don’t enter, you’re just being silly. The deadline isn’t until November 15, but there’s no reason not to just sit down and do it right now. The form is somewhere on the Dinopolis website, but if your Spanish is as nonexistent as mine, you may find this PDF handy:  Paleonturology 11 entrance form

– This Friday, August 19, I’ll be on Jurassic CSI, talking about big sauropods. Details, showtimes, and some photos are here. The photo up top, of me with an Apatosaurus pelvis at BYU, is borrowed from there.

That’s all for now; further bulletins as events warrant.

Last time around, I referred in passing, rather flippantly, to what I called Tutorial n: how to become a palaeontologist.  Since then, I realised that actually I could write a tutorial on this, and that it could be surprisingly short and sweet — much shorter than it would have needed to be even a few years ago.

So here it is: how to be a published palaeontologist.

Step 1. Publish papers about palaeontology

… and you’re done.


If this sounds frivolous or facetious, it’s not meant to.  It is the absolute, solid truth about how to be a published palaeontologist.  It is a fact that the difference between published palaeontologists and other people is that only the former have published papers about palaeontology.  If you want to move from the latter group into the former, then, that’s what you have to do.

I’m talking about proper publication in peer-reviewed journals, by the way: not just blogging (valuable though that is), not self-publication, not vanity publication.  Making a genuine contribution to the science of palaeontology through peer-reviewed articles.

But Mike, it’s not that simple!

Yes, it is.  It really is.

At times like this, I always remember Tom Clancy’s advice to would-be novelists.  I used to be on a mailing list for writers, and the administrator, Greg Gunther, once posted this anecdote:

I was on an [email] list with Tom Clancy once.  Mr. Clancy’s contribution to the list was, ‘Write the damn book’.

That’s the finest advice I know on the subject, and it applies to palaeontology papers as well as to novels.  If that doesn’t convince you, here is a post from noted science-fiction author Frederik Pohl, 87 years old at the time of writing, on the subject of establishing yourself as a short-story writer:

How do you get to be a writer?

  1. You sit down and write something.
  2. Finish what you write. Pensées don’t count. Neither do short stories without an ending.
  3. If the next morning you think it’s any good send it to some editor who might buy it.
  4. Repeat as needed.

Terse as this advice may seem, you could condense the whole thing to point 1.  Sit down and write something.  Heck, you don’t even need to sit down if you prefer to write standing up.  In which case the advice reduces to write something.

If you, dear reader, are not yourself a published palaeontologist, then you are probably thinking of all kinds of objections now.  Dismiss them: just start doing the work.  To help you out, let me smack a few common objections down for you.

Objection 1. But I’m not a professional!

What do you mean by that?  Do you mean that you don’t get paid to work on palaeontology?  No-one cares about that: journal editors and reviewers will neither know nor care.  For whatever it’s worth, both Darren and I are amateurs in this sense.

What matters — what journal editors and reviewers do care about — is whether you conduct yourself as a professional.  And that’s up to you.  Be courteous.  Write clearly.  Don’t be excessively critical of others’ work, especially if there’s a chance that you’ve misunderstood it.  Submit to peer review.  Turn your manuscripts around quickly.  These are the aspects of “professionalism” that actually matter, and they are just as available to amateurs as to professionals.

Objection 2. But I don’t have a Ph.D!

Doesn’t matter.  Lots of published palaeontologists don’t have Ph.Ds.  My own first five papers came out before I got my Ph.D.  Heck, John McIntosh, the undisputed king of sauropod science, never earned a Ph.D in palaeontology (though he has one in his day-job field of physics).

Really, what does a Ph.D get you?  Only the right to sign your submission letters Dr. Simeon Halibutwrangler instead of just plain Simeon Halibutwrangler.  Otherwise it has no effect whatsoever on the publication process.  I mean it.  Look at some papers: note how the authors’ names don’t include titles or credentials?  Journal editors and reviewers probably don’t even know whether you have a Ph.D or not, and they certainly don’t care.  What they care about is whether your manuscript is any good.

To be clear, I’m not saying a Ph.D is worthless.  For one thing, it’s a necessity if you’re looking for a job in academia.  But in terms of its effect on your ability to actually, you know, do science, it’s way overrated.

Objection 3. But I don’t have an academic affiliation!

Doesn’t matter.  Greg Paul isn’t affiliated with a university: his recent papers in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature, Paleobiology and, oh, yes, Science, give a street address rather than an institutional address.

Again, what does the affiliation really get you?  I would say three things: access to papers (see below), access to specimens (see below) and the right to put the name of a university on your papers.  If you can work around the first two things — and you can — the lack of the third is not truly such a great hardship.

Obejction 4. But I don’t have access to papers!

Yes you do.  This is a solved problem.  We’re living in the Shiny Digital Future now.

Seriously.  The rankest amateur living in 2010 has better access to the literature than the most hallowed professional of twenty years ago ever had.

Here’s a strange thing: although I’ve been affiliated with UCL for eighteen months now, I’ve never got around to setting up my off-campus institutional access to paywalled publishers like Elsevier and Blackwell.  Now partly this is just plain laziness, which I’m not proud of.  But I do think it goes to show how very much that kind of access is, these days, a pleasant luxury rather than a necessity.  Because everything is open.

Objection 5. But I don’t have access to specimens!

Finally, we come to a real objection.  Fossil specimens are held by museums, and museums are rightly careful about who they allow to play with their irreplaceable stuff.  In general, it’s easier to get access to specimens as you become better known — either through the shortcut of an academic affiliation, or through publishing papers.  But how can you publish papers if you don’t have access to specimens?  You can’t, right?  It’s a chicken-and-egg problem, right?

Well, wrong actually.

Obviously you can’t write descriptive papers without seeing the material you’re describing.  But that is only one kind of paper.  Reviewing my own output so far, I was rather shocked to find that only two of eleven papers (the Xenoposeidon description and Brachiosaurus revision) are descriptive, specimen-based work.  Of the others, three were taxonomic (Diplodocoid PN, pre-PhyloCode PN and Cetiosaurus petition); one was statistical (dinosaur diversity survey), one was palaeobiological inference (sauropod neck posture); three were about the Shiny Digital Future (electronic publication of names, sharing data, ODP report); and one is basically a literature review (history of sauropod studies).

What this means is that I could have written 81.8% of my papers without ever looking at an actual specimen.  So: write 81.8% of your papers, get them published, then when museum collection managers know who you are, go and look at their fossils and write the other 18.2%.

Objection 6. But what if my paper is rejected?

Reformat for a different journal and send it straight back out.  This happens to everyone.  It’s just part of the process.  My very first paper was rejected; we just sent it back out.  The Xenoposeidon paper was rejected without even being reviewed; we just sent it back out.  Our neck-posture paper was rejected without review twice; we just sent it back out.  As I write this, Matt and I are busy revising two papers that we co-wrote, both of which were rejected.  Any day now, we’re going to send them back out. [Update, March 2014: those two papers became Taylor and Wedel (2013a) on sauropod neck anatomy and Wedel and Taylor (2013b) on caudal pneumaticity.]

Objection 7. But I’m lazy and can’t be bothered to put in the work!

Oh.  Well, there you have me.  That really is a problem.

So what’s stopping you?

I know a whole bunch of people who should be published palaeontologists but aren’t.  Some of them know far, far more about extinct animals than I do, and I am frankly bewildered that they have somehow never made it into print: I assume they are letting themselves be defeated by some kind of psychological barrier.

Others are just feeling their way into this field, in many cases by blogging.  They have more excuse for hestitancy, but no real reason for it.  As a success story, I could cite Brian Switek of the blog Laelaps, who took a while to warm up to the idea of academic publishing but recently placed his first major paper (“Thomas Henry Huxley and the reptile to bird transition“) in the dinosaur history volume.

Well.  I could say more about the nuts and bolts of writing and submitting papers, and I will do so in Tutorial 14.  But for now, I am leaving this here.  Because the single, simple point that this article makes is such an important one.  Write papers.

Maybe all the camels are wrong

September 27, 2010

Suddenly it’s camel season here at SV-POW! In the last post, Mike was having some doubts about how far back camels could get their heads. That got me curious, so here are the results of 45 minutes worth of Google Image Search.

This live baby camel (source) has its neck extended about as far as the presumably dead juvenile camel from the last post, so that pose is not just mechanically possible, but also achievable in life. Admittedly, this is a baby, so it might have a bit more flexibility than adults. But I doubt if it is really pushing things here, since I’ve seen adults get into more extreme poses than this.

This dromedary Bactrian camel [thanks to John Scanlon for the correction] (source) has its head back pretty close to the hump, but it’s hard to tell with all the hair. People trying to work out the normal neck postures of the members of KISS probably run into the same problem.

I think we should have a caption contest for this one (source). Not terribly informative from a figuring-out-what-the-bones-are-doing point of view, but I like it.

A kneeling camel, from Werner Herzog’s Even Dwarfs Started Small, described as “the only film whose all-dwarf cast gleefully commit acts of arson and vandalism, throw themselves at or on top of moving vehicles, flick through pornographic magazines, stage a mock religious ceremony with a crucified monkey and laugh themselves hoarse at a camel as it takes a dump” (source, for both photo and quote). What’s cool here is that the camel’s back is angled down at the front, but its neck and head posture are unchanged.

Same thing, this time in color, sans dwarf (source).

Now, none of these camels are maxing out because they don’t have their heads laying back on their humps, as shown in slide 9 of this talk by Kent Stevens (thanks to Steve O’C for the link, in a comment on the last post). Which prompted Mike to write:

Yes, I’ve seen the picture you allude to, with the dorsal surface of the camel’s head in contact with the hump. (In fact I am pretty sure that either John or Kent showed that picture at SVPCA.) I initially planned to photoshop the mounted camel’s cervicals into that position, but it just seemed too ludicrous to believe in, and I’ve come to suspect that this picture might itself be the work of photoshoppers.

Look kids, the argument from personal incredulity!

It’s not Photoshop. There are more photos like this, they’re just not easily available online (believe me, I tried). The one shown by Jeff Wilson in his Jobaria talk at SVP ’99 was of a whole live camel on location in the desert, not the same posed camel you can see in Kent’s talk. Also, I’ve seen camels do this at the circus.

And why is it so hard to believe that camels can get their necks back that far? As Mike pointed out in another comment, the anterior verts aren’t extended much at all in his Cambridge camel. If they have anything like the flexibility of the posterior cervicals, getting the head back against the hump ought to be a cinch.

I am starting to think that camels might be the most interesting mammals out there. The neck of the giraffe certainly looks like it is suspended from the withers, whereas camel necks aren’t connected by any straight-line ligament from the back of the head to what pathetic withers they have (meaning that they do have a nuchal ligament, but it can’t be working like a suspension bridge cable inside that curvy neck), and must be held in those ridiculous curvy poses by continuous muscular effort. But when you look at the cervicals, there are no neural spines at all through the middle of the neck! Not to mention the very flat zygs that look like they shouldn’t allow the poses in the first place. It’s like they’re defying us to make any sense of them.

Clearly, what we need to do is visit museums with complete but disarticulated camel necks that we can put in sandboxes and pose, like I did for the chicken and the infamous rabbit way back when. It’s no good taking photos of mounted skeletons and declaring that they’re in ONP. Zyg-by-zyg scrutiny often reveals that one or more joints is not in ONP (usually more, if the animal is mounted in anything like a normal lifelike pose), and the spaces between the centra are often filled with some weird goop that is supposed to look like intervertebral cartilage, or just left open as in the Cambridge camel. Here is another shot from that talk of Kent’s, of a camel neck supposedly in ONP, illustrating both problems.

In the same talk, Kent wrote that the zygs of the camel do allow the head-to-hump posture. That’s backed up by some Photoshopped images of the same mounted camel with the goop in between the verts. I have no doubt that the craniocervical system of the camel allows the head to touch the hump, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. What I’d like to know is whether you could put a disarticulated camel neck in a sandbox and achieve the same pose without violently disarticulating the cervicals. The photos of the Cambridge camel suggest that either the zygs are going a lot farther past each other than is commonly assumed, or the intervertebral cartilage is allowing more separation of the centra.

In Kent’s talk at SVPCA he cited a pers. comm. from Kent Sanders and me at SVP ’98, that in playing with ostrich necks we could not get the zygs to completely disarticulate, and that the bone would break before that would happen. That’s true, that is what we found. But the really important part of what we found is that the zygs don’t stay parallel to one another. That is, in flexing and extending the neck, the cervical zygs don’t just slide past each other in the same plane, they can also hinge apart like the covers of a book. You’ll recall that the assumption in Stevens & Parrish (1999) was that the zygs maintained 50% overlap, but subsequent work (including work by them) has shown that much smaller overlaps are possible. My work with Kent Sanders on ostrich necks suggests that the problems of determining ROMs from bones are even worse, because the zygs can get to 20-25% overlap and then hinge open, so that only the very edge of one zyg is still in contact with the other. At that point it is meaningless to even talk about overlap. How you constrain that in your model, I have no idea.

Finally, I have a memory of Greg Paul saying years ago, possibly on the DML, that if you fed a camel into DinoMorph, it would crash the program. If anyone can find that quote, I’d be grateful. To my knowledge, that assertion has never been tested, although I think it would be an informative exercise for all parties and I would be most interested in the results.

Bonus Sauropod Image

Because it was a long dry summer (Gilmore 1932:pl. 6):


  • Gilmore, C. W. 1932. On a newly mounted skeleton of Diplodocus in the United States National Museum. Proceedings of the United States National Museum 81, 1-21.
  • Stevens, Kent A., and J. Michael Parrish. 1999. Neck posture and feeding habits of two Jurassic sauropod dinosaurs. Science 284: 798-800.

It isn’t everyday that a sauropod vertebra makes it onto the cover of a technical journal. In fact… this might be the first time that it’s ever happened (please let us know if you know otherwise. So far as I can tell, even Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology has never had a sauropod vertebra on the cover [though it has featured sauropod skeletons in their entirety]). Yes world, I give you the cover of issue 1 of Volume 31 of Cretaceous Research, a journal I do editing work for. We’ve had dinosaurs on the cover before (a Triceratops skull), but when the opportunity arose for new submissions I decided to try my luck. I submitted a nice photo of MIWG.7306 (aka ‘Angloposeidon’) – albeit it only the posterior half – and… here we are. This is a major achievement, it’s open-bar night here at SV-POW!

PS – Mike and I tried to get a sauropod vertebra on a journal cover back in 2007. We failed. Can you guess what that particular sauropod vertebra was?