Wednesday, May 6, 2015

On Failures of Imagination

Yesterday I talked about 'expected surprises' with regards to Yi qi. Yi qi is a surprise because its anatomy is so unlike other theropods, and it suggests that dinosaurs were experimenting with flight and/or gliding in some ways that were quite different from our current understanding of feather and bird wing evolution. But it was also not entirely unexpected, because scansoriopterygids had super weird anatomy to begin with that gave us enough information to speculate about possible gliding adaptations in those dinosaurs, even though the general consensus was that it was pretty far-fetched.

But today I wanted to talk about a related feeling, which I like to call the Failure of Imagination. Last summer I was working my way through a DVD set of classic sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure movies that I had picked up at some point. I wound up watching a lot of these with friends and basically Mystery Science Theatre 3000-ing the films, and in particular the old space adventure movies from the 40s-60s provided much entertainment. It's really fun to take a look back and see what sorts of things people envisioned the future holding for us – space travel, exoplanet exploration, robots. But what also struck me was the things that the filmmakers and storywriters couldn't even imagine. 

They could imagine spaceships and robots, but they couldn't imagine wireless technology. Or storing information in digital form rather than on spools of tape. 

They couldn't imagine non-button-and-dial-based instrumentation. 

And they definitely couldn't imagine women in roles other than administrative assistants (or as the bad guys). SO MANY SPACE SECRETARIES.

I kept thinking to myself – what sorts of failures of imagination are we having in palaeontology today? We can imagine so many things. But I wonder what kinds of things we won't even know we don't know. When we try our hand at speculative biology, what will scientists 80 or 100 years from now think was charming, or quaint, or ahead of its time. Failures of imagination are one of those things that make me nervous as a scientist, because I don't like the idea that I won't even know what I'm not imagining.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

On Surprises

I love surprises. Which is unfortunate for me, because I am extremely bad at being surprised. And it's hard to be surprised by things as you get older, and as easier access to more and more information becomes available to us every day.

But boy, when a surprise comes along that actually takes me by surprise, what a thing to be able to savour.

An extraordinary painting of Yi qi by Emily Willoughby, CC-BY.

So, enter Yi qi. In many ways, it's hardly a surprise at all – numerous artists produced wonderful speculative art about scansoriopterygids predicting membranous wings and/or gliding abilities, and there was even this neat hypothetical Archaeopteryx ancestor that I found in a paper a few years ago. At the time, I wrote on Facebook: "I had not realized that a bat-winged proto-bird was an idea that was on the table!"

(I also wrote, "I like his smirk, lack of neck, and skinny skinny tail", and I agree with Past Victoria about all of those things.)

While Yi qi might not really be a proto-bird, it's still an amazing discovery that shows there was a lot of experimenting with flying and gliding going on back in the Mesozoic, which is perhaps unsurprising, given that lots of disparate groups of animals use gliding to their advantage today – fish, frogs, rodents, marsupials, dermopterans, you name it. And yet, even though there's lots of precedent for gliding vertebrates, and others had predicted something kind of like Yi qi before, I was still genuinely shocked when I saw the paper and press images. What a great feeling.

What I love best about Yi qi, apart from it's extremely meme-able name, is that it's a great example of maybe what I'll call an 'expected surprise'. A surprise that, as soon as you see it, it seems so obvious and like it should have been there all along. It's like the opposite of a failure of imagination. Surely there is a long German word that captures this specific emotion? What other expected surprises are lurking out there in our futures? What things have we speculated on today, dismissed as being way too out there to take seriously, and yet will pop up as really-for-real things later on?

I guess I need to get to work on some ankylosaur speculative biology! Maybe we'll find the real Yee?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

May your mountains dark and dreary be.

Just wanted to give a quick shout out to some old fossil friends of mine. Horton Bluff/Blue Beach is a pretty cool place and I have fond memories of field trips out there during my Dalhousie days. Between this new paper and the recent paper describing the Permian to Jurassic assemblage of tetrapods, it's been a good time for Nova Scotia palaeontology.

Your friendly neighbourhood ankylosaur palaeontologist, in the before time (i.e. 2003), at Horton Bluff, following in her tetrapod ancestor's footprints. It's goopy there.

Which of course makes me miss it all terribly.

Anderson JS, Smithson T, Mansky CF, Meyer T, Clack J. 2015. A diverse tetrapod fauna at the base of 'Romer's Gap'. PLOS ONE 10:e0125446.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Brontobyte of Sauropods

Palaeontology emergency alert! This is not a drill! Brontosaurus is back!


I mean, Brontosaurus never really left. That's the nice thing about taxonomy – once a name is out there, it's there forever, even if we decide later on that it might represent the same kind of animal that another name does. And so every now and then, we get to bring an old name back from the dead. Today, Tschopp and colleagues have published some very good support to indicate that Brontosaurus really is distinct from Apatosaurus after all, and we can all use that name and stop telling people that Brontosaurus isn't real. OMG, WHAT A RELIEF. 

To recap: Brontosaurus has not been an accepted name in the palaeontological community for more than 100 years, but because of its use in some museum exhibits, and things like the 1964 World's Fair and the "Rite of Spring" passage in Fantasia, for example, the name has become entrenched in the popular consciousness in a way few other dinosaur names have. It is very disappointing to learn that palaeontologists don't call that big dinosaur Brontosaurus, but the decidedly less evocative name Apatosaurus instead.

Click for sauropod-size. With many thanks to the authors and PeerJ for creating such a useful diagram, which I'm sure will be reproduced often and with much gratitude by palaeontologists, teachers, and other science communicators.

The new paper is staggering in its length (almost 300 pages!) and the amount of work it represents, and I'm not a sauropod specialist, so I'll summarize it here without delving into sauropod anatomy very much:
Two of the Big 3 diplodocids: Apatosaurus (in the back) and Diplodocus (foreground) face-off at the Carnegie Museum.

  1. Tschopp et al. did a specimen-level phylogeny of diplodocids, the sauropods like Apatosaurus and Diplodocus, but not Brachiosaurus or Camarasaurus. This means that individual specimens were coded, rather than species. Often, phylogenetic studies have just looked at the 'classic' diplodocids Apatosaurus, Barosaurus, and Diplodocus (the 'Big 3', shall we say?). And most of those studies elide the many species represented by these three genera. So a specimen-level phylogeny is a much-needed approach to resolve some questions about diplodocid diversity.
  2. They then used some techniques to quantify differences among specimens – pairwise dissimilarity, and apomorphy counts – that would help justify dividing clusters of individuals into different genera. There isn't a rule in palaeontology that individuals need to be a certain amount 'different' from each other in order to be a new genus or species, so the authors looked at how many unique characters separate some sauropods that everyone seems pretty comfortable calling different species and genera. Apatosaurus ajax and Apatosaurus louisae had 12 different features, and Diplodocus carnegii and Diplodocus hallorum had 11 different features. So 13 different characters was set as the baseline for separating out genera in the specimen phylogeny. Using the same approach, they also set 6 differences as the baseline for separating species within a given genus. These numbers only apply to this particular analysis, but it's an interesting approach that I think would be worth considering for other dinosaur phylogenies.
  3. Using this, they wind up doing some taxonomic reshuffling:

a.       Diplodocus longus lacks any diagnostic features at the species level and is a nomen dubium, which is bad because it's also the type species for Diplodocus. A petition to the ICZN to switch the type species to D. carnegii is in the works. Diplodocus includes the species D. carnegii and D. hallorum (née Seismosaurus)
b.      Dinheirosaurus (from Portugal) is a junior synonym of Supersaurus, and so Supersaurus is a cross-continental genus represented by two species.
c.       Diplodocus hayi passes the threshold for generic distinctiveness from Diplodocus and gets a new name, Galeamopus hayi. Specimens of Galeamopus are actually more complete than Diplodocus, which means that Diplodocidae is best represented by Galeamopus at present if you need a diplodocid for whatever you're working on.
d.      And finally, and arguably most significantly, Brontosaurus passes the threshold for generic distinctiveness from Apatosaurus. There are three species within Brontosaurus: B. exelsus ('classic' Brontosaurus), B. parvus (née Elosaurus), and B. yahnahpin (née 'Eobrontosaurus').

The third of the Big 3 diplodocids, the iconic rearing Barosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History.

I really hope this taxonomic shuffling gains wide acceptance, because 1) I think their approach and reasoning are pretty sound, and 2) it's going to be SO MUCH EASIER not to have to constantly 'debunk' Brontosaurus with non-palaeontologists.The oft-repeated story that "Brontosaurus" wasn't real because it had the head of one animal and the body of another is wrong, but the real story, about the rules of taxonomy and how we define species, is much more difficult to explain. (It's interesting, but it's not as easily parsed to a lay audience.) And let's face it, Brontosaurus was a really good name and it was sad that it had to be synonymized. The story of Brontosaurus now has a new and interesting chapter – our ideas about the biology of Brontosaurus have changed, but now we can talk about changes to how we think Brontosaurus looked and lived, rather than just focusing on a quirk of taxonomy. So let your Brontosaurus flag fly high, dinosaur fans, because Brontosaurus is back and that's awesome.

Old-timey sauropod in the little diorama at the Smithsonian, back in 2011.

Big taxonomic revisions are hard and important but often don't feel as 'sexy' as some of the other research that gets publicized. I like thinking about alpha taxonomy (uh, perhaps obviously) and I like doing this kind of research, and I think it's really important that we recognize how important this kind of work is – alpha taxonomy is really foundational to a lot of other studies. If you don't know how many species you have, or where they lived, or what anatomy belongs with each species, how can you do projects that look at the evolution of certain features through time, or understand changing ecosystems? 

For example, given that there's at least 14 species of diplodocid in only 11 million years of Morrison Formation, it's unlikely that there's a slice of time in there in which there's only one diplodocid species. (And remember, diplodocids weren't the only sauropods in the Morrison – this is also the home of Brachiosaurus and Camarasaurus and Suuwassea and who knows what else.) This is a pretty good reason to reject what I like to call the "Highlander hypothesis", i.e. There Can Only Be One ___(ankylosaur, tyrannosaur, whatever)___ in a given formation, something that I've encountered in conversations on occasion. It's understandable that we would feel unease at the idea of high species/generic diversity in such massive dinosaurs, because how are they dividing up ecosystem space? But over and over again it seems like lots of similarly-shaped dinosaurs were occupying similar times and spaces in terms of what we see in the rock record, which I find very interesting indeed. (Now what we need is a really good stratigraphic framework for putting all of these diplodocids into chronological and geographical context.) We can only do a good job of addressing these kinds of questions by having good data to put into those studies, and that data comes from taxonomic revisions like this one.

And revising taxonomy is probably a never-ending job, because we need to keep reassessing our definitions of genera and species as we get more information through new specimens. Let's make sure we all support this kind of research as palaeontology continues to evolve with new techniques, questions, and approaches. Bully for Brontosaurus, and bully for alpha taxonomy.

Stray observations:
  • The concept of a 'relatively small' animal that is 12-15 metres long amuses me. (re: Kaatedocus, page 2)
  • The 'brontobyte' image at the top of this post is an old joke from my Currie lab days; a brontobyte is actually 10^27 bytes. But I think it would be a good collective noun for sauropods, and it also feels appropriate given the large number of sauropod species recovered by Tschopp et al. In fact, we need more collective nouns for dinosaurs, and so I'd like to propose brontobyte for sauropods and armada for ankylosaurs, to join terror of tyrannosaurs.

Go read the paper! It's open access!: Tschopp E, Mateus O, Benson RBJ. 2015. A specimen-level phylogenetic analysis and taxonomic revision of Diplodocidae (Dinosauria, Sauropoda). PeerJ 3:857.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

#MuseumWeek Retrospective!

Last week's #MuseumWeek tweetstorm was an awful lot of fun, especially following the #SciArt event just a few weeks earlier. I thought I'd share a couple of photos and thoughts for each day's theme – I didn't manage to post something for each day on Twitter, but I'll fill in some thoughts and photos here!

Day 1: Secrets
One of the nice things about working in the Paleontology & Geology Research Lab at the North Carolina Musuem of Natural Sciences is that "behind the scenes" is part of the scene. You can actually stare at me while I'm working away at my computer each day, if you desire to do such a thing. More interesting, probably, would be to watch our staff, students, and volunteers preparing fossils in the main lab space - secrets waiting to be revealed. But hey, whatever floats your boat!

If you're in Raleigh, stop by and say hi to Carnufex!

Day 2: Souvenirs
I am kind of a Stuff Person and also have a Thing for Museum Gift Shops. As such, I have loads of doodads from my various museum visits. One of the things I like picking up are postcards, especially those that have non-Tyrannosaurus dinosaurs featured on them. For a while, I had these up on my wall at my apartment in Edmonton. Those who have visited my UofA office will also be familiar with my embarassingly large collection of ankylosaur toys, or as I prefer to refer to them, 'scientific models for grown-ups'.

Recognize any museums from your own travels?

Day 3: Architecture
I had a lot of fun with this one on twitter because I LOVE interesting museum architecture. A couple of favourites:

Permian Hall at the Moscow Paleontological Museum:

...which also had custom door hinges, like plesiosaurs!

Dinosaur museum in an old castle in Lerici, Italy:

I wasn't sure about the ROM Crystal at first, but it's grown on me:

And I think the SECU Daily Planet at the NC Museum is pretty swell (on the inside, it's a theatre!):

Day 4: Inspiration
Some non-dinosaur stuff for inspiration day: I really like learning about Canadian art and its history, and one of my very favourite museums on the entire planet is the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. If you're in Vancouver, DO NOT MISS THAT MUSEUM. It's an emotional experience to step into the exhibits at this museum and be surrounded by so much creativity and history and skill. Here's a sample to sharpen your brain.

Day 5: Family
I'm lucky to have had great parents that fed my dinosaur obsession as a kid with trips to museums near and far. I'd love to dig out some photos from the before time, but for now, I'll leave this day for my own memories. What are some of your favourite museum memories from your childhood?

Day 6: Favourites
I like busy museums that are crammed full of stuff, especially when that takes the form of a Wall of Stuff or a Hall of Stuff. Here's a few of my favourites.

Hall of Stuff at the Museo de La Plata

Day 7: Pose

I don't like posting pictures of myself very much, so I'll just include one here to finish off: here's Pinacosaurus (nee "Syrmosaurus") at the museum in Moscow, with me for scale.

That's it for now! What did you share for Museum Week?

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What's up at Wapiti River?

The world can always use some more Pachyrhinosaurus bonebeds. So hooray to my friends and colleagues Federico Fanti and Mike Burns, and my PhD supervisor Phil Currie, for publishing a description of the Wapiti River Pachyrhinosaurus bonebed (currently in 'early view' accepted manuscript form at the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences).

A friendly Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai greets students at Grande Prairie Regional College!

Most of the time, dinosaur palaeontologists look for bones in dry, barren landscapes – the badlands of Alberta, the Gobi Desert, etc – places that have lots of rocks and not much covering them up, like inconvenient forests or cities. But sometimes, you don't have vast expanses of outcrop. In Nova Scotia, we dig up dinosaurs on the beach. In the area around Grande Prairie, Alberta, you look for bones in the outcrops along rivers and streams.

The very first summer I went out with the University of Alberta crew (way back in the halcyon days of 2007; the first Transformers movie was 'good', everybody read the last Harry Potter book overnight to avoid spoilers, and...apparently not much was happening in my musical spheres, but my, how time has flown), there wasn't a Wapiti River bonebed. We knew that there were bones coming out of the riverbank somewhere, but it took the better part of a day to trace them up the hill to the bone layer. 

See if you can spot Phil for scale way up on the hill there, and remember that Phil is about 3x as tall as most humans. That's where the bone layer is!

It's a pretty steep hill, and so those first few days excavating the bone layer meant hacking out little footholds and gradually making enough of a ledge for us to sit on and walk around each other without plummeting to our death.

The last time I was there, in 2011, the ledge had expanded significantly, although you can see it's still a pretty narrow slice! It's a scenic place to work, with the river and boreal forest stretching away below; bear sightings were not uncommon (and occassionally closer than we'd all prefer), and I remember a hummingbird came down to check on us one day, buzzing around my head for a few moments!

In this bonebed, there's a layer of bones in a crazy, mixed-up layer of folded mudstones, and those are pretty easy to excavate. 

Here's a dorsal vertebra. Nice and easy.

But down beneath that, the skulls and larger bones are encased within super hard ironstones. We can't really do much with these in the field, so we need to take them out in huge pieces. 

And here's what the skulls look like. The circular depression down towards my left foot is the narial opening. The UALVP has like 15 of these suckers and they each take about 2 years to prepare with a crack hammer and chisel.

But the bonebed is also about halfway down into the river valley on a steep slope that's hard enough to just haul yourself up, let alone a huge boulder. So we've been very lucky to have helicopter support to carry out some of the heaviest pieces at the end of each field season.

Up, up and away!

Sometimes we were even visited by Aluk the Pachyrhinosaurus, mascot of the Arctic Winter Games in 2009!

This was probably the strangest day in the field.

There's still much more work to be done on this bonebed – we still aren't exactly sure what species of Pachyrhinosaurus is present. The age is right for P. canadensis, but only time will tell. And with two Pachyrhinosaurus bonebeds in Grande Prairie – the Pipestone Creek bonebed with P. lakustai, and the slightly younger Wapiti River bonebed – there's bound to be much more to learn about the evolution and biology of this unusual ceratopsian. 

Previously in Pachyrhinosaurus:
Wapiti River Fieldwork, Part 1
Wapiti River Fieldwork, Part 2

And don't forget to check out:
Fanti F, Currie PJ, Burns ME. 2015. Taphonomy, age, and paleoecological implication of a new Pachyrhinosaurus (Dinosauria: Ceratopsidae) bonebed from the Upper Cretaceous (Campanian) Wapiti Formation of Alberta, Canada. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, early view.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

It's #SciArt week on Twitter!

I think we often downplay or take for granted the role that art plays in science. High quality art is obviously a hugely important aspect of public science communication. A paper describing a new species of dinosaur will have much more impact on the public if it's accompanied by an excellent life restoration of that dinosaur. Astronomers and their spacey kin use illustrations to show us satellites, the solar system, and far-off planets we can't photograph. Biologists dealing with the very small need illustrators to show us the cells in our bodies, what's inside those cells, what DNA looks like and how it works – the list is endless.

But the #SciArt tweet storm happening this week got me thinking again about the role that art plays in my own daily scientific activities. While I don't consider myself an artist, I was always drawing while I was growing up (for a while I entertained the idea of becoming an animator!). And I'm still drawing! Every time I go to a museum, I draw pretty much everything I look at. Why draw when I've got easy access to digital photography? Well, I take tons of photos, too, but drawing makes me LOOK at the specimen. 


Sketching slows me down, in a good way. What's that weird texture in this part of the bone, how far does this groove extend, what's with this unusual hole in this spot? Is there symmetry? Asymmetry? What's missing, and what's been filled in with plaster? What exactly was I measuring when I say 'length' or 'width'? I've filled many notebooks with drawings, stream-of-consciousness-style notes, measurements, and other bits of data. Mostly I use regular ol' pencils, but I also really like coloured pens and usually travel with a set for annotating my pencil drawings. I would love to be the kind of person that could do watercolour sketching, or proper graphite drawings.

These are some of my earliest notes from my MSc research, from a 2007 visit to the Royal Ontario Museum.

I think, as scientists, we do ourselves a disservice by not teaching students more about art skills and visual design. Being able to quickly and confidently sketch something in front of you is a useful skill to have! And understanding some of the principles of visual design – lines, shapes, negative space, colour combinations, and the like – can only make you a better communicator of science, especially in scientific papers. In addition to just being personally rewarding, drawing makes me a better scientist!

If you're a Twitterer, you should really check out the #SciArt hashtag this week (and into the future), to see the variety of techniques and approaches people take to science art.