Friday, 4 January 2019

2018 highlights

Another year has gone flying by, and as I've had a really slow blogging year (and for that I apologise) here are some quick highlights of 2018.

This year the first major work thing that happened in 2018 was the annual conference for the Society of Integrative Comparative Biology (SICB) from the 3-7 January. It returned to San Francisco, and marked 5 years since my first and only other SICB conference, coincidentally also held in San Francisco (SF). As always SF is a beautiful city, even with its minor earthquakes the first night and dampened only slightly on the last day when it absolutely poured. I presented work on reconstructed dinosaur models from hatchling to adult. Using them we are able to estimate body mass and how the centre of mass (COM) moves in this species changed as they grew. Of course there was countless great talks and posters, ranging from muscle physiology, to how certain plants distribute seeds, to bird flight, cat tongues and whale swimming.

After a few weeks of work I was off again. This time to Argentina. I won't labour on the full details as I wrote another blog about it. Suffice to say, it was a lot of travelling to get down to Patagonia, but the fossils, and the area, were beautiful.

Completing animal work
Upon returning from Argentina we wrapped up our work on animals after much stress and hassle.
The papers are starting to come out (click here for the crocodile anaesthesia paper, and if you cant view the whole thing and want to read it, message me and I will get you a copy) and it looks like it was all worthwhile, but it is safe to say I will not be doing any more invasive work on animals.

X-ray image of tinamou after a jump
I spent a sizable portion of the first half of the year after completing the animal work actually starting to analyse our data. In particular, the EMG (electromyography) data. EMG is a way of recording the electrical signals associated with muscle activity. Our work combined our experimental work with previously collected but unpublished data across a range of birds and crocodiles. The manuscript is currently in review so keep an eye out for that soon.

Computer models
The second half of my year has been working towards finalising computer models. Initially the models that I presented on at SICB, in preparation for SVP (see below), and lately another dinosaur and soon to be a crocodilian relative. This has involved getting digital copies of the bones (either from CT scans or photogrammetry), putting them into a default pose, and then reconstructing muscles. These models will form parts of work on estimating the mass of the animals, but will also form the basis of a lot of our simulations of locomotion in these species for testing the DAWNDINOS hypotheses.

Testing the model poses in SIMM before all of the muscles are added
I returned to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting for the first time in far too many years (3 years in fact). This year it was in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As always I had a great time, with an abundance of incredible science (the student prize talks in particular were amazing), and even managed one of the field trips this year. The first part of the trip was to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science where we went behind the scenes to look at some of the Carboniferous fossils from a nearby quarry (Kinney Brick). The fossils ranged from plants, insects and fish up to a huge fossil shark (see picture below).

Fossil shark (head to top, tail at bottom)
After the theory of the finds in the museum, we went out to the quarry to try our hands. Some were successful finding fish, but the best I could say was that I found some nice fern fossils. The trip was cut a bit short by a heavy snow shower.

Kinney Brick Quarry
I presented an update on our dinosaur ontogeny/growth model and implications for whether the animals were walking on 2 legs or 4. Interestingly there was another talk using a different method that came to the same conclusions. Our work is now in review and will hopefully be able to write something more about it soon!

There was still some outreach this year between everything else. We had two summer schools visit  with GCSE and A level students visiting the college as part of an introduction to the school and the research to decide if veterinary/biological sciences was a career path they were interested in.

Me talking about how we reconstruct fossil species using modern relatives to help ground-truth the estimates
We also visited a local school to do a series of workshops covering a range of activities from looking at everything from species diversity through time (the paleobiology database navigator is a great interactive resource), to looking at 3D prints of bones from living and extinct species, to reconstructing fossils and even having the students try to make their models stand in stable bipedal and quadrupedal poses.

As has been the case for the last few years, I am looking for a permanent job. Lots of applications have gone out, but I have only had one more interview where pleasingly/disappointingly I came second to someone who just had more experience.

What is in store for the year ahead? Well January is looking to be a busy month as we prepare abstracts for ICVM (deadlines February, conference in Prague in July), and SVP (deadline April-ish, conference in Australia in October). The computer models will make up most of that work and hopefully will be some more papers there! Talking of papers, hopefully the dinosaur ontogeny and EMG papers will be accepted for publication, I've also got a massive backlog that have developed (PhD stuff, cat models, student projects) which I hope to work through this year. We also have an exciting outreach event lined up in April where we are taking over the vet college after hours and showing off our science in collaboration with some colleagues from around the UK to the general public. It'll be busy, but hopefully highly productive!

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Palaeontology vs Archaeology

To most palaeontologists and archaeologists, the general public often ask if we study what the other group of scientists does. For example, I can say I study dinosaurs and people will ask if I am an archaeologist (when not saying like Ross from Friends...), but I know archaeologists have the same questions about dinosaurs. So this isn't an annoyed public service announcement, it is actually an interesting point and something that is worth discussing.

So what does Google image search turn up if we look for archaeologist and palaeontologist (I'm sticking to British spellings)?

Google image search 04/11/2018 archaeologist. Spot Indiana Jones in the bottom row twice.
Google image search 04/11/2018 palaeontologist.
Generally lots of people working with bones, and of course some Indiana Jones who I discuss a bit more later. Why do these searches produce results that on the face of it look so similar if I am indeed claiming a difference? Let's do a quick etymology (their derivation, in this case from Greek) of the words palaeontology and archaeology:

Palaeontology: old life studies, i.e. the study of old life (palaios - old, on - life, logos - study)
Archaeology: ancient study, i.e. the study of old things (arkhaios - ancient, logos - as above)

As you can see from their definitions, they could easily be one and the same. And archaeology can and does involve palaeontology. It all stems from the first people who worked on studying ancient life, being antiquarians (particularly those of Europe) who in the late 1800s begin to scientifically study the ancient world. Before this, the "study" was based around collecting various artifacts/artefacts (depending on your national preference for the spelling) and oddities in a non-scientific fashion. From these early antiquarians the studies would eventually spawn into what we know today, where palaeontology tends to focus on ancient life outside of humans, and archaeology focuses on the study of human culture. They overlap in two main areas, 1) the study of early human remains through palaeoanthropology, and 2) in the remains of animals found on human sites.

Lucy the Australopithecus from 3.2 million years ago.
By 120 - own picture worked with photoshop, CC BY 2.5,
I suspect other palaeontologists/archaeologists will disagree on exactly where these boundaries are, and I would say that palaeontologists (at least to the general public) wouldn't study material that hasn't undergone at least some remineralisation (the process that transforms biological material into the rocks that we call fossils) but this can include some quite old material that are still "sub-fossils". These would include things like dodo skeletons, poo from extinct giant sloths etc. but would also likely include material mostly from the last million or so years. The lovely zone of overlap between palaeontology and biology/zoology/archaeology showing themselves here as I've rewritten this section lots of times.

Ground sloth poo, from Scott Person's twitter. Archaeological, palaeontological, zoological, all?
But what does it matter? In reality it doesn't really, we are all scientists who often study things that have been dug up from the ground. In the early days, these people may well have done the same (and in truth some still do). A great example is Roy Chapman Andrews, who was a researcher from the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In the 1920s he launched a series of expeditions to China and Mongolia hoping to find the origin of humans in a time before the "Cradle of Humanity" in eastern and southern Africa had been discovered. He wouldn't find the first humans, but his expeditions and crews would go on to find the first dinosaur eggs in nests, famous dinosaurs, and mammals. As such he became a famous palaeontologist, with his name being used in the naming of Protoceratops andrewsi. Interestingly, his stories/books about his adventures and explorations may well have been at least partial inspiration for Indiana Jones who today may be the most famous "archaeologist" to most members of the public.

Google image search of Roy Chapman Andrews. Horseback and camel riding, hat wearing, gun toting, dinosaur finding, all around explorer extraordinaire. It's not hard to see how people have drawn the link between him and Indiana Jones, although the Smithsonian Channel apparently said any link is incidental.
The separation has come from the increasing detail and knowledge gained since the 1800s where someone could know everything about the entire field. Nowadays everyone has become increasingly specialised causing this subdivisions. But we can and do often learn a lot from each other, and the techniques we use are the same. An interesting example is in digging where very little has changed since those early days. Both archaeologists and palaeontologists today upon finding a site will carefully and painstakingly map and excavate the material, sometimes with tools as basic as dental picks and brushes. Archaeologists may take it a step further with just how rigorous they are with regards to recording sites, with often only a few centimetres being exposed and the site being remapped, and then continuing.

Archaeologists also seem to get a lot tougher deal with regards to a lot of excavation. I say this using an example, a dinosaur is relatively easy to remove from a site. You dig around your dinosaur, wrap it in a burlap plaster jacket, flip, jacket, and then remove. In fact, with the exception of giant trackways, I cannot think of palaeontological material that you cannot remove from a site provided you have permission and the site is not too remote. At many archaeological sites you can remove the small material, but the finds may include far bigger things that you cannot dig out - buildings/foundations/walls/postholes for example. These foundations tend to be exposed, mapped, and in many cases reburied, or built over. In a lot of cities, large building works have associated rescue archaeologists on site to map, record, and save what can be, but ultimately a lot of old buildings will be either re-buried or destroyed during the construction. A great example in the UK is the Crossrail expansion to the railway network in London and nearby regions who have been doing a lot of rescue work and have an interactive website. Some sites are protected, and some have human remains so have a very different level of archaeological work going into them but ultimately it's a balance between the science and the development in many instances.

So the cliff notes version of the above: Archaeologists - humans, palaeontologists - other old life. Overlap with regards to digging up of things, early humans and other organisms found with early humans. Does it matter? Not hugely in reality, but ask an archaeologist about the dinosaurs they dig up, or a palaeontologist about that time you saw the pyramids and want to know more, be prepared for some disappointed scientists who probably roll their eyes and rattle off the answer anyway as they've been asked so many times before.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Jurassic World 2 - Fallen standards

I, like many people, love Jurassic Park (the original one). I must say I did not see it in the cinema when it released 25 years ago, mainly due to being quite young at the time (and would have been scared senseless of the dinosaurs, and maybe never have become a palaeontologist). In fact the first one I remember seeing in cinema was Jurassic Park 3. This weekend I saw the most recent one, Jurassic World 2.

I remember being enthralled by the dinosaurs and loving seeing my favourite animals alive on the big screen. Walking With Dinosaurs had much the same effect. How can you not love it? And the sound effects/music! The original still looks great, but sadly the love for the franchise and the recent film is not there. Don't get me wrong, I still like seeing the dinosaurs on the big screen, and there is a sort of nostalgia about it. It does show the science of palaeontology from 25 years ago with the dynamic scaly monsters rampaging around reclaiming the Earth (or at least a few islands off the coast of Costa Rica) from humans. But where to begin? Spoilers ahead (although mostly science/dino rather than major plot related, but don't say you weren't warned).

Feathered dinosaurs
We know now most later theropods had feathers (and some of the other lines too), and things like Velociraptor were mostly feathered. If you want to blow someone's mind who has never heard about feathered dinosaurs, google Microraptor. It is a close relative of Velociraptor and displays truly amazing feather preservation across its body, arms, legs and tail. I won't belabour any of the points here, it has been discussed in depth by many others before me. Jurassic Park 3 even gave a very gentle acknowledgement of feathers on the raptors by giving them some sort of filaments on the top of their heads. These reappear in the new "Indo raptor" but are more porcupine quills than feather as most know them.

The hands
Also a common gripe for palaeontologists is the "bunny" hands of T. rex. The sort of thing you can imagine them doing the air quotes at people.

T. rex in Kings Cross, London as promotional material for Jurassic World showing off the wrong hand positions.
The reason we imagine this and see it reconstructed is that mammals are able to do it easily, this pronation of our hands (as opposed to supination - like you do holding a bowl of soup).
Velociraptor in Kings Cross, London as promotional material for Jurassic World showing off the correct hand positions.
Dinosaurs generally don't have this ability to pronate their hands, and there remains debate even about some of the large ones walking on all fours exactly what extent they could rotate their hands, which is some of the the research we are doing with computers.
The walking/running
Debate still rages and hits many news headlines over T. rex walking and running. I won't get into it, but chances are they could still manage a good speed (at least compared to human sprinters) no matter what they did. However, one think I can almost certainly guarantee, even if you created a new dinosaur hybrid from a T. rex and Velociraptor, it would definitely not walk around on 4 legs for periods of time. Another thing that is almost certainly not possible will be galloping ankylosaurs (those big armoured dinosaurs).

I may be a palaeontologist by trade, but I have spent some time with geologists and learnt some things about volcanoes. Lava is hot. There, I admit I know something about geology that doesn't usually involve fossils. In fact lava is usually above 700C, and the lava in Hawaii in the eruptions at the minute is about 1100-1200C according to the USGS. What that means is it causes things to burn, and because it is so hot it doesn't even have to touch them to burn. Like Chris Pratt when he is inches from a lava flow. Worse yet is the scene where lava lands on a Baryonyx head and it roars, shakes it off and continues hunting people.

Pyroclastic flows
This stuff is searingly hot, and moves quickly. Pyroclastic flows are one of the main causes of death in volcanic eruptions. Lava is usually slow and can be outrun but pyroclastic flows are superheated, volcanic ash clouds that rolls down the slopes at hundreds of miles an hour incinerating everything in its path. Famous examples from history include ones at Mt. Saint Helens, Monteserrat, Vesuvius (the things that did in Pompeii), and tragically just over a week ago in Guatemala where hundreds of people have lost their lives. You don't run in/through one of these. You definitely don't somehow catch and carry off a T. rex within 1 minute of it arriving.

Brachiosaurus rearing
God, it was possibly the most cinematic/heart wrenching scene in the film as one gets overrun by a pyroclastic flow with the audience all flashing back to one of the most incredible scenes where we first meet the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park 1. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that no, they cannot rear, or at least not for long periods of time (I will not open the can of worms that is dinosaur reproduction).

The story
Jurassic Park 1 - Park opens for some guests, someone messes up the systems, dinosaurs get out, havoc ensues.
Jurassic World 1 - Park opens for guests, someone messes up, dinosaur gets out, havoc ensues.

Jurassic Park 2 - Go to the island for research reasons, bad guys get involved and catch all the dinosaurs to take them to mainland for money, dinosaurs get out and cause rampage. Shout-out to the pachycephalosaur involved in breaking out dinosaurs.
Jurassic World 2 - Go to island to save dinosaurs from volcano, bad guys get involved to catch all the dinosaurs, take them to mainland, auction, dinosaurs get out and rampage.  Shout-out to the pachycephalosaur involved in breaking out dinosaurs.

Jurassic Park 3 - Crazy parasailing/gliding accident, plane crash, Spinosaurus rampage.
Jurassic World 3 - PLEASE NO!

Things I liked
Actually first half was decent for the dinosaurs once you get past the above criticisms.
Rex biting the neck of another meat eating dinosaur actually does damage - Jurassic Park 3 take note.

Final notes
Would I go see it again? Nope.

Would I encourage palaeontologists to see it, probably, but not to pay for the privilege.

If you like CGI dinos running around, causing PG-13 levels of violence with minimal blood and a thin rehashed story, it is mindless fun, but a lot darker than the previous ones.

4.5/10. Worst yet.