Well, not Xenoposeidon, anyway

November 27, 2007

After eight consecutive posts on Xenoposeidon, I have to admit that even I am getting just a tiny bit bored of it, so I can only imagine how the rest of you feel. So now for something completely different:

BMNH 96 “Chondrosteosaurus”

You see before you a badly battered cervical vertebra, BMNH R96, which if I remember correctly is catalogued as belonging to “Chondrosteosaurus“. That genus, like so many from the Wealden, was erected on non-diagnostic material, and there is really no reason to think that R96 belongs to the same taxon as the Chondrosteosaurus type specimen BMNH R46869. It’s best regarded as Neosauropoda indet. (and, no, before you ask, we will not be naming it and promoting it as “The world’s second most amazing sauropod”).

The interesting thing about this specimen is that its condyle is completely eroded away. We’re looking at it in anterior view, right into the front of the centrum, and we can see a classic camellate pattern. The network of thin lines is bone; everything in between, now filled with matrix, used to be filled with air when the animal was alive. A while back, Matt ran the number on this photo and concluded that this vertebra was 78% air — a very high proportion even by sauropod standards, exceeded only by Sauroposeidon (the world’s third most amazing sauropod).

Of course it’s a shame that this bone is so poorly preserved; on the other hand, if it were complete, we wouldn’t be able to see the internal structure. Matt’s firmly of the opinion that bone not broken is a bone wasted, and I sometimes think that if he had his way, he’d go through the world’s sauropod collections with a sledgehammer, smashing all the vertebrae open in search of pneumaticity. (Note to collections staff: Just kidding! Har har!) It’s certainly true that more is known about the “Angloposeidon” vertebra than would be known if it weren’t snapped in two; and of course, we’d not have known about the internal structure of the Xenoposeidon vertebra were the condyle not blasted off.

Up till now, internal structure has been badly neglected in terms of informing sauropod phylogeny, despite Matt’s work on its evolution and distribution (Wedel 2003a, 2003b). The analyses of Wilson (2002) and Upchurch et al. (2004) each included just a single character for presacral bone texture in their matrices; and the Grand Unified Analysis of Harris (2006), which merged the Wilson and Upchurch matrices, discarded even this one character, as discussed in the supplementary data. That may be fair enough: we might not yet know enough about vertebral bone texture to code it well. But hopefully that will soon change, because there is a lot of information out there that’s not getting used.

References

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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

Welcome to the third SV-POW! post. Given that this is my (me = Darren Naish) first post, I cannot resist using it as another excuse to post a picture of, and talk briefly about, the wonder that is MIWG.7306, the immense* brachiosaur cervical vertebra that I and colleagues described in 2004. A series of blog articles (on Tetrapod Zoology ver 1) were previously posted on this specimen and its history, starting here.

* Immense in terms of what experience I have with British sauropod vertebrae. With a centrum length of 745 mm, MIWG.7306 is the longest cervical vertebra yet reported from Europe… however, it is very much outclassed by far bigger vertebrae from Argentina, the USA and elsewhere.

7306 left lateral, posterior half

You’re looking here at the posterior half of the left side of MIWG.7306: the bone is broken in two. That’s actually a really useful thing with sauropod vertebrae, as it allows us to examine the internal anatomy. More on that subject another time, I’m sure.

MIWG.7306 serves as a reasonable introduction to a few subjects that we will, no doubt, be coming back to again and again. Firstly, it is an elongate bone: the centrum (the main ‘body’ of the vertebra) is stretched relative to the condition present in most other vertebrates, and at least some of the elongation present in the sauropod neck was evolved by way of this vertebral elongation. The different sauropod groups differed in the degree of elongation of their neck vertebrae: some exhibited a fairly moderate degree of elongation, and others went over-the-top silly with it.

Another interesting thing concerns the cavities you can see on the sides of the vertebra. Based mostly on the close similarity apparent between these cavities and similar cavities present on the vertebrae of birds, we think that – in life – these structures housed air sacs. This means that sauropods were pneumatic animals… there is lots more to say about this subject, and we’ll come back to it in future posts, I’m sure (particularly given that Matt is a leading world expert on the subject of sauropod pneumaticity).

Anyway, there we have it. My first SV-POW! post.