MPT on South Today

So… you’re publishing a new, dead exciting and all round outstanding paper on a new dinosaur – like, let’s say, the new Hastings Beds Group neosauropod Xenoposeidon proneneukos Taylor & Naish, 2007 – what now? Well, you might just sit back, carry on with your other work, and just plain hope that your colleagues (and maybe the rest of the world too) will stumble across your latest endeavour and then heap upon you the accolade you deserve. Or you could be rather more proactive, and in the exclusive SV-POW! article you’re about to read, we’re going to look at one particularly successful, highly proactive media campaign that resulted in national and international recognition for the wonder that is Xenoposeidon, world’s most remarkable sauropod.

Now I’ve been involved in dinosaur-related publicity before. Things have happened in two ways. One is that some clever science-journalist type person has seen the research (usually via an online contents list) and has contacted me to cover the story. The other is that I or one of my colleagues has contacted the public relations office at the university (recall that Mike and I are both based at University of Portsmouth, UK); I’ve then spoken to the PR people about the research, and they’ve then written a press release. Understandably, Mike and I are very proud of Xenoposeidon, and (clearly) we both regarded it as newsworthy enough to announce to the world. So we got in touch with UOP’s PR people, and got telling them all about it*. A press release was written, and went through several drafts before everyone was happy with it. Among the ‘everyone’, incidentally, were our colleagues at the Natural History Museum (London). Given that we were talking about a specimen kept in their collections, it is only fair and appropriate that they be kept abreast of what was going on.

* When I say ‘we’, I in fact mean Mike: Xenoposeidon is Mike’s baby more than mine, and I’ve already done quite a lot of this sort of thing anyway, so I sat back and let him get all the glory.

Secrets of success

Let me say here how important timing is. One of the first things we did was to get the official publication date for our paper from the journal where the paper was appearing (the Palaeontological Association’s august publication Palaeontology): that date was November 15th. The press release would go out on the 14th, and the story would be embargoed until the 15th. By putting out a press release on an arranged date, you’re both controlling the publicity, and saving yourself a whole world of hurt. Back when another newsworthy British sauropod – the Isle of Wight specimen that we lovingly know either as MIWG.7306 or ‘Angloposeidon’ – was published, I collaborated with the PR people and, again, organized a press release and official release date. Unfortunately (for us), an online pre-print version of the paper (Naish et al. 2004) was spotted by an enterprising BBC science reporter. After discussing the story with me (I asked if he could wait for the press release, he replied that he couldn’t), he covered the story, and from there all hell broke loose, making our PR efforts entirely redundant (for the full story of that debacle go here). It’s important for journalists to have access to a press release; it provides all the basic info (as well as a quantity of supplementary stuff that they may or may not make use of), includes some key quotes (well, ‘quotes’), and (importantly) shows them how to spell the words properly.

Working with the PR department’s Kate Daniell, Mike had outstanding support and a fantastic amount of help in getting interviews and photo opportunities set up with multiple TV and newspaper companies. When Mike started listing the TV and radio shows that had expressed an interest in featuring the story, I was staggered – the whole world was interested. Besides the timing I just alluded to, several things helped this process run smoothly. One is that Mike put time and effort into producing a media-friendly web page where journalists (and, in fact, anyone) could download a variety of Xenoposeidon pictures. I’ve never done this in any of my PR exercises (partly because I’m all round less computer-savvy than Mike is, but also because I’m less clever in general), but I will definitely be doing it in future and would strongly recommend it to anyone else. I suppose it would save you dealing with constant requests for images – when I handled the ‘Angloposeidon’ publicity, I had to email images many, many separate times.

Luis Astrodon rules

Another incredibly wise tactic involved Mike’s whereabouts: he actually traveled all the way to London on the 15th (he lives in rural Gloucestershire, about 150 km away… let me add that traveling 150 km is a big deal in Britain), and was both able, and prepared, to move from one interview to the next. That proved really, really important. Again, contrast this with what happened with ‘Angloposeidon’: the fossil, and thus any potential photo opportunity, was on the Isle of Wight, and I was unable to get there on that day. Consequently, journalists went to the Isle of Wight and ended up filming interviews with Isle of Wight curator Steve Hutt, a person not involved in the research. Also wise and useful was the last minute appeal for charismatic artwork: Luis Rey very kindly allowed use of his awesome Astrodon vs Utahraptor piece (shown in the adjacent image), and – despite Xenoposeidon’s beauty and striking appearance and, arguably, Mike’s suave charm and chiseled features – some journalists chose to supplement their stories with this memorable, striking picture.

So, in the end, it was all an awesome success and Xenoposeidon received so much coverage on the 15th that it’s difficult to know where to start. National newspaper coverage included that of The Guardian, The Sun and The Times (shown below). Most of those articles are pretty good; in cases surprisingly so. As Mike alluded to in the previous SV-POW! article here, he did quite a few radio and TV interviews. The good news is that you too can now watch at least some of the TV pieces by going here. The Meridian TV pieces – Mike is interviewed by Caroline Hole next to the Camarasaurus skeleton at the NHM – are particularly good, but, having said that, none of them are particularly bad. Channel 4 News broadcast a live feature on Mike and Xenoposeidon during lunchtime: I missed this, and last I heard Mike hasn’t seen it either. Another live TV interview – this time for BBC News 24 – was broadcast about an hour later, and again both Mike and I have failed to see it.

Times online

Because I was working from home on the day the story was released (‘Xeno day’ will forever be November 15th) I decided to keep Sky News on in the background. They advertised the story at 12:50pm and even showed a few NHM dinosaur skeletons. However, perhaps because the 15th wasn’t a particularly light news day (there were high-profile stories about O. J. Simpson, a Russian lady who gave birth to five babies, the deportation from the UK of a muslim charged with inciting racial hatred, and on Barry George, the alleged murderer of TV personality Jill Dando), they never got round to showing it, and by 4pm I gave up and switched the TV off. I did get to see a very abridged version of the piece produced by local BBC news programme South Today at 10:30pm, and very abridged it was too.

As I write (Monday morning), BBC TV’s The One Show have expressed their interest in covering the story. Mike is not available right now for work reasons, so I’m doing this one: if all goes ahead as planned, it’ll be going out live tomorrow (Tuesday 19th) some time between 7 and 7:15pm. If you’re in the UK – make sure you watch it! [UPDATE: it’s just been cancelled!]

Almost certainly because of the large amount of information we provided both in the press release and on Mike’s website, there was a general lack of spurious nonsense or silliness in the reports. Admittedly, a few clangers made it through, but nothing major. The most bizarre and amusing statement I heard came from Freddie Rostand’s report for South Today. His (generally quite good) piece on Xenoposeidon opened with a photo of Mike cupping R2095 in both hands, accompanied with the line ‘This is Mike Taylor, holding his future in his hands’. Say what? The sequence also referred to Mike as ‘A quiet phd student’. Anyone that knows Mike will tell you that he’s not particularly noisy – he’s not like Animal from the muppets, or Dilbert’s colleague Loud Howard – but he’s not particularly quiet either, so I have no idea where this comes from.

Of uber-nerdy interest is the fact that this news piece not only showed Luis’s Astrodon vs Utahraptor painting, it also featured the head of a metallic brachiosaur model currently on display at Sandown’s Dinosaur Isle Museum on the Isle of Wight. South Today filmed this model when they were doing their story on ‘Angloposeidon’ in 2004, and I strongly suspect that they recycled the exact same bit of footage for the Xenoposeidon feature. Both news articles also featured the same scene from BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs (the clip where Brachiosaurus emerges from the woodlands, towering above the diplodocids and engaging in some trademark neck-wobbling).

Local newspaper Portsmouth Today quoted me as saying that the discovery of Xenoposeidon will ‘make other palaeontologists sit up’. I find it hard to believe that I really said that, and I don’t remember doing so. Actually, that particular article did something rather more controversial: they titled their article ‘Meet Pompeysaurus, the new dinosaur’ (Pompey is a vernacular term for the city of Portsmouth) [you can see the article in question here]. I don’t personally have a problem with this and didn’t think anything of it, but it apparently bothered some people in our fine institution, as it intimated that ‘Pompeysaurus’ was the new taxon’s name. Apparently a representative of the newspaper phoned our department to apologise for any offence this may have caused!

Newspapers and TV news programmes have a horrible habit of knocking up their own god-awful in-house graphics, and just as bad is their other habit of recycling artwork from the 1950s or earlier. But, again, this time round things weren’t too bad: I didn’t balk at any of the mediocre sauropod pictures I saw masquerading on TV or in the papers, and nor did Mike I think.

All in all, Mike and Xenoposeidon were all over the global news media on the 15th, and everyone is happy that the entire event was an outstanding success. Sure, Mike got lots of publicity, but so did science in general, the study and awesomeness of sauropod vertebrae, the University of Portsmouth, and The Natural History Museum. We really couldn’t wish for anything more. As most readers will know, the 15th saw the release of some other exciting sauropod news: that on Paul Sereno and colleagues’ work on the African rebbachisaurid Nigersaurus. When I first heard that this long-awaited news was due to break on the 15th I thought that it would overshadow Xenoposeidon. It didn’t… in fact there didn’t seem much on Nigersaurus at all, and Xenoposeidon very much got its time in the limelight.

The blogosphere reacts

Cryptomundo does Xeno

Finally, many of our fellow bloggers agreed with us about the awesomeness of Xenoposeidon and wrote about it on their sites. I kicked things off over on Tet Zoo: incidentally, I had huge problems posting that article, and gave up on it entirely several times. Bora Zizkovic of A Blog Around the Clock put up a piece here: this is awfully nice of him, given that he’s editor of PLoS ONE (where the Nigersaurus paper appeared). Matt Celeskey of Hairy Museum of Natural History covered us in A great day for goofy sauropods; Brian Switek of Laelaps wrote about us here; Julia of The Ethical Palaeontologist said nice things here; Matt Bille’s Sci/Tech blog covered us here; Loren Coleman covered the story on Cryptomundo [see adjacent image]; and Matt Wedel, aka Dr Vector, told us how awesome we are here. That’s not all of it – there’s even more coverage if you can be bothered to search for it! There is now a Xenoposeidon wikipedia entry; it’s a start, but leaves much to be desired I’m sorry to say (it’s nothing to do with any of us).

So, all in all, the Xeno PR drive was huge, and a total success that went very, very well. I suppose I haven’t really congratulated Mike on his many excellent media appearances, nor have I thanked him for bigging up research that is not only relevant to me, but does everyone in palaeontology, and indeed science in general, a great servive. Well done Mike, and thanks indeed for putting so much time and effort into this.

PS – I thought this site was called ‘Sauropod Vertebra Picture of the Day’?

Refs – –

Naish, D., Martill, D. M., Cooper, D. & Stevens, K. A. 2004. Europe’s largest dinosaur? A giant brachiosaurid cervical vertebra from the Wessex Formation (Early Cretaceous) of southern England. Cretaceous Research 25, 787-795.

Taylor, M. P. & Naish, D. 2007. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England. Palaeontology 50 (6): 1547-1564. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2007.00728.x

So, by now, most people in the known universe have heard about Xenoposeidon, know what a big deal it is, and understand its immense value and significance. A longish article on the history and anatomy of Xenoposeidon, and about how interesting it is in terms of Wealden dinosaur diversity, is now up at Tetrapod Zoology (here). And as you’ll know if you’ve seen Mike’s article from yesterday, the story was all over the national and global media yesterday. To their credit, not one reporter or interviewer said ‘but it’s just a single bone’. After Sky News advertised a piece on Xenoposeidon at 12-50pm yesterday, I kept the TV on. But by 4pm they hadn’t shown it, and I was so maddened by hearing the same several news stories about 400 times each that I could not stomach any more TV that day. So I missed Mike’s many actual appearances… bar a very brief one on the 10-30pm edition of local news programme South Today. Anyway…

figure5-reconstruction1.jpeg There’s so much to say about Xenoposeidon; so much more ground to cover [if you need help with some of the following anatomical terms do remember you’ve got our excellent tutorial on vertebral anatomy to help you]. The picture shown here (it’s Fig. 5 from Taylor & Naish 2007) shows Xenoposeidon as, we think, it would have looked when complete. As interesting and anatomically revealing as the single known specimen is, it lacks the anterior condyle, the neural spine, and the zygapophyses, so we had to do some reasonable extrapolation when imagining what these missing bits looked like. Because the posterior articular surface of the centrum is concave in Xenoposeidon, it makes sense to assume that the (mostly missing) anterior condyle was somewhat convex, as it is in macronarians (the group of sauropods that includes camarasaurs, brachiosaurs and titanosaurs). The condition where the centrum is concave posteriorly and convex anteriorly is known as opisthocoely. Note, however, that the opisthocoely of Xenoposeidon is not as well developed as that of macronarians.

The neural arch of Xenoposeidon is strikingly tall: about as tall as the centrum. That’s odd. The forward-sloping of the neural arch is even more odd, and in fact is a unique feature of the taxon – we have yet to see this character in any other sauropod (making it a Xenoposeidon autapomorphy). We can see several structures on the side of the neural arch: the parapophysis (the more ventral of the two attachment points for the two rib heads) is located really high up, and it’s this high location which has led to our conclusion that this vertebra comes from the posterior part of the dorsal sequence (the articular processes for the rib heads don’t stay in the same place along the vertebral sequence. In anterior dorsals, the parapophyses [plural of parapophysis] are positioned way down on the centrum, but in mid- and posterior dorsals, they rise up onto the neural arch). Because Xenoposeidon doesn’t preserve any trace of its prezygapophyses, we have to conclude that these were located even further dorsally than were the parapophyses. This indicates that the specimen is not among the most posterior of the dorsals in the sequence for, in those vertebrae, the parapophyses are located further dorsally than are the prezygapophyses.

Darren in Wealden

The least knowable thing here is how tall the neural spine was; what we depict is a generic not-too-gracile, not-too-robust conservative sort of neural spine. It will be interesting to see how this reconstruction matches reality when a complete Xenoposeidon dorsal vertebra – hopefully associated with the rest of the skeleton – is discovered, which of course it will, one day, now that everyone in the English Weald is looking (in the adjacent image I’m looking for dinosaurs in Weald Clay Group rocks of East Sussex; if Mike can include a photo that shows him posing with a dalek, I can justify one involving field work).

The Xenoposeidon image above shows the left side of the specimen. Curiously, the right side is rather different: it exhibits a shallow accessory fossa located dorsal to the large lateral pneumatic opening, and also has an extra bony boss positioned about half-way up and near the anterior margin of the neural arch. We don’t really know what’s going on here. Asymmetry in vertebrae – particularly in complicated ones like the heavily pneumatised vertebrae of some birds – is fairly common, and a small amount of asymmetry in the limbs, skulls and pelvic girdles of vertebrates is also pretty widespread and not that remarkable. Asymmetry in pneumatic openings is (so I understand) common, and – partly because of this – some workers have suggested that pneumatic diverticulae can be imagined as opportunistic structures that will ‘invade’ spaces on or in a bone when the opportunity arises. Matt might want to correct me or elaborate on this point, as he’ll know what he’s talking about. More on the wonder that is Xenoposeidon tomorrow!

Ref – –

Taylor, Michael P. and Darren Naish. 2007. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England. Palaeontology 50 (6): 1547-1564. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2007.00728.x

Postscript, added by Mike at 16:57

I know it’s a bit cheeky to add a postscript to someone else’s post, but I don’t want to make a “day 2-and-a-half” post, and I do just want to mention a bit more media coverage. I’ve heard from Vin Morgan in America that they’ve been running Xenoposeidon on CNN, and I know that the Canadian Discovery Channel is going to do something, probably tonight. And I know from my brother-in-law, who emigrated to Spain, that it’s in Spanish newspapers today. I’ve also seen it mentioned on Greek, Russian and Chinese web sites — although not being able to read any of those languages I can’t tell whether the articles just say “Xenoposeidon stinks”. Spanish TV slot still to come. Not bad for a paper that was rejected WITHOUT REVIEW from Name Of Journal Withheld on the grounds that “the paper is rather of a local significance”. (Sorry, was that last part a bit petty?)

Today is an exciting day here at SV-POW! Towers, with the publication of the new dinosaur Xenoposeidon proneneukos, based on — you guessed it — a sauropod vertebra. The reference is:

Taylor, Michael P. and Darren Naish. 2007. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England. Palaeontology 50 (6): 1547-1564. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-4983.2007.00728.x

And what a vertebra it is! Let’s take a look:

Xenoposeidon holotype vertebra BMNH R2095 in left and right lateral views

Here we see the vertebra from both sides: on the left side, we see it in left lateral aspect, and on the right, in right lateral. The images at the top are photographs, and those at the bottom are the interpretive drawing, so you should be able to find all the parts.

Those of you who are long-time sauropod-vertebra lovers will immediately spot two things: first, this thing is weird. And second, the left and right sides are significantly different. We’ll show you the anterior and posterior views later this week: we have a lot to say about the vertebra, and we don’t want to dump it all on you at once. There is a lot to say about this bone, and I’ll talk in detail about the autapomorphies and asymmetry later today. (By the way, Autapomorphies and Asymmetry would have been a good a name for Jane Austen novel). I’d love to do it now, but as I write (5:07am) I have eight minutes before a taxi arrives to whisk me away to Gloucester station, whence a train will take me to London for a day of filming news stories about this awesome bone. I have to say in all honesty that I am surprised at the level of media interest: pleasantly surprised, but surprised. For example, there are articles in Nature News, The Guardian (where it’s on the front page of the online edition), The Times, The Mail, The Sun (though happily thire photograph shows me fully clothed), The Scotsman, Metro (a free daily paper that people pick up on the tube in London) and no doubt many others that I’ve not yet seen.

For those of you who can’t wait, the paper describing this specimen formally can be downloaded. But stay tuned: we can say things here on the blog that we couldn’t say in the paper.

Sorry to rush: the taxi waits; and so do ITN, Sky News and Channel 4. Plus I need to photograph some bird skeletons while I’m at the museum (hey, they’re saurischians, right?)

Here is another beautiful but (so far) unidentifiable isolated dorsal vertebra from the Wealden Supergroup. Rather than the usual orthogonal views (anterior, posterior, lateral) this is in an oblique view: right anterolateral.


This vertebra is one of two that, together, make up the specimen BMNH R90. For my own convenience I have assigned them lower-case latters so each can be referred to individually. I call this one R90a. R90b is pretty similar, and it seems a reasonable assumption that they are from the same individual.

As with the wonder that is BMNH R2523, I don’t know what R90a is yet. A preliminary cladistic analysis indicates that it is a neosauropod, probably macronarian and most likely somphospondylian, but that is based on very weak resolution and will quite likely change once I’ve added my suite of new dorsal-vertebra characters to the matrix.

Welcome to another SV-POW! world first: the first ever outing (to my knowledge) of a photo of BMNH R5333, an articulated set of two-and-a-bit titanosaur caudal vertebrae. These vertebrae come from the famous Wessex Formation of the Isle of Wight: they are from the Lower Cretaceous, and specifically from the Barremian. The specimen is shown here in left lateral view: contrary to what you might expect, the bulbous, convex condyle on these vertebrae is located on the posterior articular surface, while the concave cotyle is located on the anterior articular surface (see Tutorial 2 if you need help with these terms). Vertebrae that have their concave articular faces positioned anteriorly are termed procoelous, and many (but not all) titanosaurs are characterised by procoelous caudal vertebrae. Why titanosaurs had procoelous caudal vertebrae is a good question. Some dinosaur workers have suggested that the ball-in-socket articulations present here might have given their owners a particularly strong or flexible tail that they might have used as a prehensile organ, or as mobile ‘fifth limb’ used when the animals were rearing up to eat from trees.

For those of you that care, BMNH R5333 was figured (but not discussed or mentioned) by Blows (1998): other than that I don’t think it’s ever been covered in the literature. For shame!

Just a quick post to feed the desire for sheer sauropodous beauty. This picture shows a single partial vertebra in six different views. The top row, from left to right, shows the vertebra in left lateral view (i.e. the front is pointing to the left as you look at it), then in an oblique view, then in anterior view (i.e. from the front). The bottom row shows it in right lateral, oblique, and posterior (i.e. from the back).

BMNH R2523, isolated Wealden sauropod dorsal

This is a dorsal vertebra (i.e. from the back rather than the neck, hips or tail – see Matt’s “Regions of the vertebral column” tutorial. It’s probably from quite far back in the dorsal column, near the hips.

What kind of sauropod is it? I’m not sure. At first, I thought it was rather Camarasaurus-like, which would be an exciting result because there is no convincing camarasaurid material known from the Wealden. But then when I put it into a cladistic analysis, it popped out as a basal diplodocoid, though very weakly supported. I have a lot more work lined up to do on Wealden sauropod dorsals, so hopefully I’ll be able to get back to you with a firmer identification at some point.

What is this Wealden, I hear you ask?  It’s a big chunk of rock from the Early Cretaceous, extending across much of southern England and into the continent.  Darren is a real Weald Jockey, so I’ll leave it to him to tell you more about it in a future post (or, more likely to point you to one of the Wealden posts on his Tetrapod Zoology blog).