When does a science story “end”? Never, probably. Science keeps voyaging on eternally in search of truth, and few if any stories in science truly “end”. But as science communicators of any stripe, we routinely have to make decisions about when a certain story has run its course; when the PR ship has sailed and the news cycle has ended. As scientists, we’re lucky if we have to consider this and should be grateful if and when our science even attracts media/science communication attention. But the point of today’s post; perhaps an obvious one but to my mind worthy of reflection on; is that scientists are not slaves to the PR machine– as a flip side to the previous self/science-promotion post, at some point we may have to say “This story about our research is done (for now).”
I routinely reflect on this when the media covers my research; I always have. My recent experience with New Yorker and BBC coverage of our penguin gait research (with James Proffitt and Emily Sparkes as well as Dr. Julia Clarke) got me thinking about this issue a lot, and talking about it quite a bit with James. This morning, over coffee, this blog post was born from my thoughts on that experience.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 7/10 for some mushy penguin specimens; PR officers might also get queasy.
I was waiting for a call from BBC radio one night almost three weeks ago, to do a recorded interview about our penguin research-in-progress, when I woke up surrounded by paramedics and was whisked off to the hospital. I never did that interview or any further ones. I won’t go into what went wrong but it relates to this old story. I’m OK now anyway. But for me, the penguin story had mostly ended before it began. However, I’d already agreed with James that we’d try to avoid doing further media stories beyond the New Yorker one and the BBC one, which was due out the next day and for which James (fortuitously instead of me!) was doing a live appearance on BBC Breakfast (TV). I got a few emails and calls about this story while recuperating in my hospital bed, including the one below, and turned down interview invitations for obvious reasons, with no arguments from anyone– at first.
For Jerry, the story never should have started, apparently. We all have our opinions on what stories are worth covering. A “kind” email to receive in one’s hospital bed…
Then, after I recovered and got back to work, we kept getting a trickle of other interview/story invitations, and we declined them. Our PR office had suggested that we do a press release but we had already decided in advance not to, because we saw the story as just work-in-progress and I don’t like to do press releases about that kind of thing– except under extraordinary circumstances.
Finally, over a week after the BBC story aired, a major news agency wanted to film an interview with me about the story, which would get us (more) global coverage. They prefaced the invitation with the admission that they were latecomers to the story. Again I firmly said no; they could use existing footage but I could not do new interviews (these would inevitably take a half day or so of my time and energy). They wrote back saying they were going to go forward with the story anyway, and the journalist scolded me for not participating, saying that the story would have been so much better with a new film sequence of me in it. Maybe, but (1) I felt the story had run its course, (2) I’d had my hospitalization and a tragic death in the family, and (3) I was just returning, very jetlagged, from a short trip to the USA for other work. Enough already! I had other things to do. I didn’t follow up on what happened with that story. Maybe it didn’t even get published. I wasn’t left feeling very sympathetic.
Above: The BBC story
I kept thinking about being pressured and scolded by journalists, once in a while, for not joining in their news stories when they contradicted my own threshold for how much media coverage is enough. This reaching of a personal threshold had first happened to me 13 years ago when I published my first big paper, in Nature, on “Tyrannosaurus was not a fast runner.” After ~3 weeks of insane amounts of media coverage, I was exhausted and pulled the plug, refusing more interviews. It felt good to exert control over the process, and I learned a lot from learning to wield that control. I still use it routinely.
But… I am of course passionate about science communication, I feel it is a great thing for science to be in the public eye, and I actually love doing science communication stories about research-in-progress– too much science is shown as an endpoint, not a process. Indeed, that’s why I do this blog and other social media, most of which is science-in-progress and my thoughts about it. So I was and still am thrilled that we got such positive, broad, good quality media attention for our penguin work, but it was plenty.
More sphenisciform science in progress: Penguin bodies awaiting dissection for our latest work. Unfortunately, years of formalin, freezers and thawing cycles had rendered most of the soft tissues useless for our work. Photos here and below are of Natural History Museum (Tring) specimens from the ornithology collection; most collected in Antarctica ~50 yrs ago.
Probably to many seasoned science communicators and scientists, my post’s message is blindingly obvious. Of course, scientists have rights — and responsbilities– in deciding how and when their research is covered. This is a negotiation process between their research team, their university, PR officers, journalists/media, funders and others involved– including the public. But less experienced scientists, and perhaps the public, might not realize how much control scientists do have over the amount of media attention they get. It’s easy to get caught up in a media frenzy surrounding one’s science (if you’re lucky enough to generate it at all) and feel the wind in one’s sails, thereby forgetting that you’re at the helm– you can decide when the journey is over (just be sure you communicate it diplomatically with others involved!).
This penguin did not survive the preservation process well; for whatever reason it had turned to mush, fit only for skeletonization. Gag. Its journey was definitely over.
As scientists, we have to balance enormous pressures and priorities: not just science communication and PR, but also our current main research, teaching, admin, personal lives, health, and so on. So we have to make hard decisions about how to balance these things. We should all reflect on what our dynamically shifting thresholds are for how much attention is enough, what priority level a given story has in our lives, and when the timing is right for any media attention. And as collaborative teams; more and more the norm in science; we should be discussing this issue and agreeing on it before it’s too late for us to exert much control.
One of our penguin chicks from the Natural History Museum, in a better state of preservation than the adults. Photo by James Proffitt.
Penguin chick’s right leg musculature in side view, exposing some decent muscles that gave us some useful data. Photo by James Proffitt.
Much like an over-played hit song, it’s not pretty when a science story gets over-milked and becomes too familiar and tedious, perhaps drawing attention away from other science that deserves attention. And we all will have our opinions on where that threshold of “too much attention” is. If we, as scientists, don’t think about those thresholds, we may end up rudderless or even wrecked on lonely islands of hype. I’ve seen scientists ostracized by their peers for over-hyping their work. It’s not fun. “Hey everybody, John is having a celery stick with peanut butter on it!” Celebrity culture doesn’t mean that everything scientists do deserves attention, and any amount of attention is deserved and good.
A great thing about science is that, in principle, it is eternal– a good science story can live forever while other science is built upon it. Each chapter in that story needs an ending, but there’s always the next chapter waiting for us, and that’s what keeps science vital and riveting. As scientists, we’re all authors of that story, with a lot of power over its narrative. We can decide when to save parts of that narrative for later, when the time is right. With our penguin story, we’ve only just begun and I’m incredibly excited about where it goes next.
How about other scientists, journalists and other afficionados of science? What examples of scientists taking charge of how their research gets covered do you find particularly instructive?
I am reposting a blog post that I co-authored with Anne Osterrieder in 2012. I’ve always liked this post and been proud that we did it. A colleague brought it up to me yesterday, and I was sad to hear that the blog had been killed by hackers, with the original post lost, but Anne and I reconstructed it and I’ve decided to put it up on my blog, as I still feel strongly about its main points and Anne concurred.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; just words and ideas.
This blog is about freezer-promotion.
Here we present two views on public engagement (PE) or public relations (PR) and the thorny issue of “self promotion” in scientific research, from two scientists who might on the surface seem to be as different as scientists can be in regards to PE/PR. Yet we hope to convey the common ground that lies between these “extremes” and use it to explore, and spark discussion in, what self-promotion is and when it is a good vs. bad thing for scientists. Similar points came up in another blog post at around the same time, linked here.
Professor John R. Hutchinson (here, simply John will do!) does research on dinosaurs and elephants and other “celebrity species” (well, some of them anyway; some others aren’t so sexy but he doesn’t care). Thus getting PE/PR is often all too easy. It is often said that “dinosaur” (or fossil) is among the “holy trinity” of media story subjects; space and health being two others. That status lubricates the gears of a science PE/PR machine. Sometimes, even, the problem is keeping a lid on the “sexy” research until it is “thoroughly cooked” and ready for PE/PR, rather than releasing it prematurely. A flip side to this issue is that this easy success with PE/PR means that almost everyone is doing it, albeit with varying aplomb. So it takes some extra effort to achieve relative excellence at PE/PR in John’s line of research, but he’s not complaining. In contrast, many (indeed, most!) scientists might not have it so easy getting PE/PR and hence need to actively engage in it to draw audiences in. However, when they are successful at PE/PR it might be easier for them to then stand out from the crowd.
Dr. Anne Osterrieder (again, let’s stick with Anne for short) is a Research and Science Communication Fellow, doing research on plant cells – – hello? Hello?! Are you still there? Nine out of ten people will react to this revelation with the question: ‘Why do you work on plants? Plants are boring, they don’t really do anything, do they?’ Most plant scientists agree that the apathy or even contempt displayed towards our poor plants stems from a lack of proper engagement, starting with the way plants are taught in schools. As such plant scientists need to make a conscious effort to engage the public with current plant research and highly topical issues such as food security or plant pathology. Cells have a higher ‘fascination potential’, as the huge success of BBC’s ‘The Hidden Life of the Cell’ showed. Communicating current cell biology becomes more challenging however the deeper we go.
With those introductions done, let’s see what our two scientists think about self-promotion and PE/PR:
You might have spotted John and collaborator James Proffitt on the BBC or in the New Yorker lately, engaging in penguin-promotion.
While self-promotion among scientific researchers could be a slippery slope that leads to a spiral of egomaniacal aggrandizements and delusions of grandeur, how justifiable is this seemingly common perception? In extreme instances, namely the stereotyped – but perhaps relatively rare– “media whore” or “press hound” committing the faux pas of science-by-press-release, perhaps it is. But more commonly among scientists it may just be healthy behaviour. Almost every scientist probably does research because it brings them profound joy and satisfaction, indulging their curiosity. Is it selfish to share that positive, personal message? By turning the issue around like this, one might instead wonder, what’s the problem? Put it all out there, fly your science banner high! Screw the cynics.
But as in much of life, there probably is a happy medium of moderation: a middle ground, because both selfish and generous reasons might underlie “self promotion”. Such reasons can and probably do coexist not only in perfectly non-pathological, but highly PE/PR-committed, researchers, but perhaps even in most scientists. The problem is, self-promotion has taken on bad connotations to some, or even many, scientists. It can frequently be seen couched as “shameless self-promotion” when a person promotes their science, as if to apologize for the promotion and commit it in one fell swoop. Why apologize? Just do it?! If you’re having fun with it, someone else probably will too, and that’s reason enough.
And a second issue is what kind of self-promotion is being performed– is it about the individual and their self-perceived, self-appointed glory? Or is it about the science, even in a detached third person view? Or is not even self-promotion, but team-promotion, if we consider that so many scientists these days are vital parts of a team, not lone wolves? Such a distinction of self “vs.” science is too artificial a dichotomy because scientists, as human beings, tend to feel personally enmeshed in their research. Without it, they would lack the drive to do it, even though every good supervisor is “supposed” to warn us to stay objective as researchers. And the subtext behind that “stay objective” is to stay impersonal; i.e. detached, inhuman, drained of character, passive voice and all that. Boring! But there is still some merit in considering both (and other?) sides of the matter, because it is not unreasonable to predict that the first kind of promotion (selfish; aggrandizing) is more dangerous than the second (generous; celebratory), because it is the ego taking the stage rather than the science. At the same time, we need both sides: the human, fallible, witty, emotive ego and the dry, objective, methodical, taciturn science. Without the former; warts and all; science could be too frigid to be fun.
Many researchers probably find it healthy to reflect on how much self-promotion is too much, whatever the reasons (and to some degree the reasons may not matter!). But it is not just the promoters who deserve introspection about their own practice. Those perceiving others’ “self-promotion”, especially in a negative light, could benefit from scrutiny of their own perceptions. What makes them presume that the motivation behind self-promotion is a malignant one, or not? And is the reasoning behind their judgement as sound as they’d apply to other scientific judgements they make on a daily basis– what behaviour are they reading into and how?
Alternatively, why worry about it? Isn’t a good scientist one who celebrates good science, yours, your team’s, or someone else’s? Again, this comes back to how much self-promotion is too much, but from an external perspective. Researchers are likely to judge others’ promotional activities by their own standards, not those of the promoter. They may be making value judgements with no objective basis, or (with colleagues that are not well known to the individual, all too common on the internet) no empirical evidence to go by except a brief press release, blog post, tweet or news article. Indeed, a case could be made that there is no objective basis to such a value judgement, by definition. Semantics and slippery slopes toward postmodernism aside, perhaps there is even no point to judging others’ self-promotions– and why does one wish to judge? An inward look at our own motivations for judging others’ can be salutary.
A major point here is: it is easy to conflate or confuse selfish promotion and unselfish sharing-the-joy-of-science, and to a degree it does not matter. This is because inevitably it is what is presented that matters: the content, not so much as the intent, in addition to the feedback one gets from engaging the public with research. That content-with-feedback is what almost everyone outside of academia says we should be doing—who are we to argue? Maybe we should try harder to put self esteem and other internal issues aside, and enjoy good science promotion for what it is, not what we might fear it could be. Whether a scientist is a lone wolf or team wolf, there’s no big bad wolf’s huffing and puffing to fear from good self-promotion of science. Let’s focus on building a strong house of science, brick by brick; one that lasts, and one that people hear of and care about.
Anne’s great Vacuole Song; plant organnelle-promotion!
Whenever I write something about science communication, I feel like I am treading on an extra-slippery slope. Science communication, outreach, public engagement, PR and promotion all can have very different meanings depending on who you talk to. When I was a full-time researcher, I’d never even have thought about that they could mean different things. To me they all were synonyms of ‘Hey, let’s tell the world how amazing our research and science is!’ Since I became involved in science communication, I have realised that promoting our research isn’t necessarily the same as engaging non-expert audiences. While promotion certainly has its place and benefits (for example institutions highlighting their groups’ research achievements in external newsletter and online), real engagement is not so much broadcasting but two-way communication. I would like to point to an excellent article by Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement at University College London in a recent issue of British Science Association magazine ‘People & Science’. Steve writes: ‘I don’t tell members of the public that ‘science is fun’ or that ‘science has the answers’. I don’t even treat science as one great big unified thing. Instead I help researchers to share what they do. The message is less ‘We’re great!’ and more ‘Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think?’
Participating in this dialogue-centred way of public engagement means however that, invariably, our specific research project will be the centre of attention. Most likely our person would be as well, since science isn’t (yet) carried out by autonomously working nano-robots. I would be very surprised if our audience saw such activities as self-promotion. I predict that they’d rather appreciate researchers ‘stepping out of the tower’ into the public and interact with non-experts. Would our peers see it as self-promotion? Probably not. What if we promoted our activities beforehand on Twitter and other online or offline channels? What if we wrote a summary of the event and reflections on it afterwards? What if we posted links to our content at different times during the day to make sure that different audiences saw it? What if we had several projects running in parallel and did this for all of them? The problem becomes apparent now and I am certain that at this point some peers would drop cynic remarks about ‘self-promotion’ or ‘attention whores’.
So, self-promotion is frowned upon. But if you think about it, our wole current academic system is based on self-promotion. When we submit a manuscript, we need to state in the cover letter why our research is novel and interesting. Even though scientific conferences are supposed to be about disseminating scientific results and initiate collaborations, they also serve the purpose of self-promotion. I don’t recall many talks with mainly negative, confusing or boring results (except maybe if a well established principal investigator was talking about their newest project and asking for feedback). Most early-career scientists would rather not submit an abstract if they haven’t got good data and wait until they can show nice results. Fact is, conferences are a big job interview for PhD students and post-docs. What about grants? Each proposal has dedicated sections for promoting yourself, your research group and your institute to increase your chances of getting a grant. Early-career researchers quickly have to learn how to write these bits, as otherwise they quickly will be at a disadvantage compared to those who can sell themselves well. I believe that there is a certain double standard around the issue of self-promotion in academia. On the one hand researchers accept it as a necessity to climb up the career ladder. On the other hand they might sneer at peers who put all of their Nature and Science references on slides in their talk. ‘What a complete showoff!’
If I follow someone on Twitter whose work I admire, say science writer Ed Yong or blogger Prof. Athene Donald, or who does cool research I am interested in, I want to read everything they publish. I appreciate them linking to their articles and papers, repeatedly, since I am bound to miss it otherwise. I loved seeing John’s BBC clip of rhino foot pressure experiments because I wanted to learn more about his research – and I loved seeing him talk about it in ‘real life’ rather than only reading his words! But if someone at my professional level, who I am competing with for fellowships or grants, was constantly posting links to their achievements, I would probably be less tolerable of them. I’d roll my eyes and think “show-off”! But I admit honestly that this would be based on a less-than-noble notions: envy, feeling threatened and insecurity about my own achievements being sufficient to succeed.
When I talked about Twitter and enhancing your online profile at our departmental Away Day someone said: “Our generation has been brought up as being humble, as not showing off, as not shouting out our achievements. So where is the border between self-promotion and being a complete d***?” I don’t think that this is a generational thing, as many senior academics have no difficulties promoting themselves. At that time I bounced the question back to the audience and asked: ‘What do the younger ones think?’ There was silence and one PhD student said: ‘I think it’s OK. You have to do it – who else would do it otherwise?’ I suspect that being willing and able to sell yourself might be a personality rather than an age thing and that the line between ‘selling yourself’ and ‘showing off’ subjectively lies in the eye of the beholder. Whatever you think, times have changed and academic positions are getting scarce. Maybe we need another motto next to ‘publish or perish’ – ‘self-promote or perish?’ Having a decent publication record won’t guarantee a research job anymore, as the competition is fierce. ‘Getting your name out there’, enhancing your profile, building a network and being engaged however will make you stand out of the crowd – as long as your self-promotion activities build upon solid achievements and not on hot air. In that case, you might deserve eye-rolling.
Self-promotion is often frowned upon in academic circles. Generally it seems to be all right to promote ‘science’ or a whole field. Numerous times I have seen blogging scientists state – defend themselves! – that in many years of writing they never blogged about their own paper. But why not? If we follow the two-way model of public engagement described above, it would be perfectly fine to write a non-expert summary about one’s latest publication and say: ‘This is what I just published, and the story behind it. What do you think?’ Similarly, the benefit of open access papers embedded in a social media site structure is that it allows discussions with non-experts. This will work significantly quicker and efficient if the authors alert and direct potential audiences to their paper through as many communication channels as possible- an act that again can be seen as self-promotion. Is our academic culture with its subtle or open contempt of self-promotion maybe inadvertently hindering effective engagement?
What do you think? Chime in on the poll below.
If the poll does not show up above in your browser, click the link here to go directly to it (new window):
Some context, first. As we finished this post together, Anne and John reflected on what got us working on it, back in August 2012:
Anne: “You wrote that you had these thoughts on self-promotion after you returned from the [British] Science Festival. Was there a specific incident that raised these thoughts, or just general thinking?
John: “I often think about what I tweet and the amount of it, and whether “me-tweeting” is such a bad thing as some on Twitter say it is. I was me-tweeting a bunch of responses to my BSF talk and I thought I should, much as I do the same when people post stories about my research papers etc. But in particular this BSF event, which was heavy PE, got me thinking on the train ride home about why some people would (cynically, in my view) see that as PR and shameful self-promotion.”
While the two views we presented above are from different backgrounds and perspectives and such, our thoughts reveal many elements common to both. Perhaps these commonalities apply to most scientists, but, but… There is a hulking science-gorilla in the room: cultural similarities and differences. We cannot neglect the HUGE issue of Western scientific culture that John and Anne and others have in common! In other cultures, self-promotion might be seen very differently; indeed in UK it seems to sneered at more than in the USA, as Brits tend to be less comfortable tooting their own horn (easy, now!). Some other cultures might have no problem with it at all. Others might find it abominable. However, how culture factors into self-promotion and PE/PR perceptions is a huge kettle of fish that we’re not quite ready to tackle, so we will turn that over for discussion in the comments here! How does your culture, whether very local (department?) or very broad (country/ethnicity) factor into this?
Or, if you prefer, please contribute your thoughts on how you handle or perceive the self-promotion vs. science-promotion (false) dichotomy as a scientist, science communicator and/or layperson? How do you determine what is a tolerable level of promotion?
Happy Third Blogoversary, WIJF blog! I am thick in some paper-writing, so I can’t write my usual detailed summary of the past year. Or so I thought, then I started writing and finished it, so here it is! I didn’t feel I needed to post this, but I like retrospectives and writing this helps me recall what happened here and gives me new ideas for the future (or things to avoid!). I continue to enjoy blogging here and you’re still here too, so that’s enough for me, regardless.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10; some unpleasantness in the images ahead…
Indeed, this year saw an odd leap in blog subscribers, from about 200ish to now >1500 since around August 2014; an astonishing sevenfold increase in about as many months! I did not see that coming. I’d love it if some of the new folks could speak up in the Comments and say what brought them here (this WordPress recommendations link? BBC Dinosaur story link?). Otherwise, Twitter won the social media “war” again against Facebook for bringing people here.
It was also a deeply introspective year for me, for reasons made clear by this post, which links to other posts like it exploring my experiences jousting with mortality and its reverberations. It has been an… eventful year. Leading to many thoughts bouncing around my head like happy little blood clots.
My two-post stroll through the British Museum also got me writing about how animal anatomy plays a physical or at least visual role in human art and culture; that was fun for me. Likewise, I did another anatomically-focused museum exhibit review for the NHM’s mammoth exhibit, and yet another on my visit to another “home of anatomy” in Jena, Germany‘s equivalent of the NHM. That post’s ontogeny-phylogeny theme, echoed in my Owen post, also tied into a long-form version of a Nature News & Views article I wrote but also posted here, on “plastic fishapods.” Expect more evo-devo from me in the future; it has become part of my research programme to tie together form, function, development and evolution in my team’s work.
Keep wearing layers of clothing. I’ve got plenty more freezerness in store on this blog; freezerburnout has been avoided. Expect posts on dissecting dinosaurs, that promised komodo dragon post, more cats and penguins and then definitely more bird (and lizard, and mammal!) knees, and something special about genomes. I also have some changes in mind for the blog, with a new flavour of regular, short posts. I’ll save the explanation for later.
What are your memories of the past year in my freezers?
Think of a region of general mammalian anatomy. You’re probably not thinking of the tail. We’re mammals and yet have reduced ours to a puny coccyx embedded in muscle and fat. It’s an alien organ to us. Let’s face it, the tail gets the short shrift when it comes to morphological, functional and evolutionary studies in tetrapod vertebrates. There are notable exceptions such as in studies of prehensile tails or the role of the tail in cetacean locomotion, but broadly we know far less about the caudal vertebrae of mammals than we do about heads or limbs or some other bits. It is timely to coddle caudals: to talk about tails, not turn tail and run rostrally. This post wags its tail affectionately at the topic.
No blog post on tails is complete without a photo of the business end of Euoplocephalus’s (Ankylosauria) caudals.
Thagomizer of Stegosaurus. But of course!
Stomach-Churning Rating: well, there are some rancid emu butts, so I’m giving a 7/10; but otherwise mostly just line drawings.
Don’t be afraid to touch the tail pics- they lead to bigger versions.
Mallison and Pittman know how to coddle caudals!
“Emu butt”- the tail is hidden in the smelly bulb of fat on the left side.
Bending an emu tail to measure its mobility.
Emu tail bones: our collection
I was inspired to write this post because of Michael’s visit, which gave me the opportunity to shoot some deliriously disgusting images of “emu butts” during the dissections and CT scans, but also got me thinking more about tails. And as usual, I poked around the literature looking for tall tales of tails.
I ran across one of those great review papers that is fodder for a hundred or more research projects: “The mammalian tail: a review of functions” (1979) by Graham C. Hickman (Mammal Review 9(4): 143-157. The rest of this post reviews his review.
Hickman, like I do here, starts off by reminding us of the tail’s neglect in science; e.g. “modifications of caudal vertebrae such as lengthened zygapophyses and neural spines are not as striking as the flexibility shown in the changing length and fusing of limb bones.” True that, but Hickman adds the great turn of phrase “A rodent chewing off its leg to escape a trap seems much more of an extreme than chewing off the tail, though it has four legs and but one tail.” Then he runs through a general overview of the diversity of tail forms and functions in mammals, with plenty of citations of older literature (there’s bound to be much to find in the tailings from the goldmine of 1800s German morphology papers, too).
What would a giant anteater look like without its tail? Odd indeed.
Mammalian tails range from four caudals in us freakish humans (does no mammal naturally have fewer, or have truly lost the tail? I wonder if anything has been missed) to fifty in pangolins (huzzah!). Breeds of dogs seem not to vary as much in terms of tail bone count as I’d expect: 20-23. But Hickman’s mention of Thorington’s (1970) study showing that mouse embryos raised at higher temperatures develop longer tails grabbed me… and reminded me of groundbreaking work that RVC PhD student Andrea Pollard is doing with temperature effects on bird and crocodile limbs (stay tuned).
Figure 2 in Hickman (1979) was what grabbed me most, depicting tail disparity in mammals. It’s a figure that gets your tail thumping. Check it out:
Anatomical disparity of mammalian tails! A, Black Rat; B, 9-banded Armadillo; C, Grey Squirrel; D, Horse; E, Fallow Deer; F, Wooly Spider Monkey; G, Coatimundi; H, Beaver; I, Bottle-nosed Whale; J, Manatee; K, Flying Squirrel; L, Fat-tailed Gerbil; M, Scaly-tailed Squirrel, N, Plains Pocket Gopher; O, Porcupine; P, Grey Kangaroo; Q, Naked Sand-rat; R, Big Brown Bat; S, Merriam’s Kangaroo Rat; T, anonymous Glyptodont; U, Ceylon Shrew.
Hickman continues on to consider tail functions and behaviours, commenting that most bipedal mammals have long tails whereas humans buck the trend. Pangolins and anteaters get due mention here, but I really liked the factoid that “Beavers occasionally walk bipedally with an armload of mud” (p.145).
Mammals, like other vertebrates, that have substantial tails tend to use them for locomotor support at least when moving slowly, and Hickman lists kangaroos+kin, anteaters, pangolins and beavers as examples of mammals that thus use their tails as “fifth limbs”. But there are stranger tail functions in mammals than this ancestral tail-prop role. The bat Nycterishas a singular tail that ends in a “T”, bracing the uropatagium (tail-leg membrane).
Lovely kangaroo sculpt/skeleton from the incomparable comparative anatomy museum in Paris.
However, some mammals also don’t use their tails the way we might expect- the platypus (Ornithorhynchus) doesn’t power its swimming with its tail so much as it uses it for stabilization, according to Hickman; paddling with the limbs seems more important (but this could use some modern scientific study using proper hydrodynamic testing). Yet they do use their tails to tamp the earth of their burrows and, curling them up to their belly, to bring in vegetation and such to provision their nests, as well as using their tails as energy stores (like many animals do). In contrast, beavers don’t transport much with their flat tails, whereas the more prehensile tails of pangolins may be used for carrying their babies.
Hickman notes how few mammals use their tails as weapons to harm others, although he properly brings up glyptodonts as a counter-example. And then comes the striking description of how, by a “grinding motion of the tail against the body” a pangolin “almost severed the fore paw of a dog.” (p.148) And then, other mammals do the opposite of tail weaponry: Hickman cites that some 15 species of rodents can shed their tails (autotomy) as a defense, and like salamanders or lizards, regenerate them. Autophagy (self tail-cannibalism), however, Hickman rightly infers is a pathological, desperate condition, not a normal adaptation in mammals.
Big Glyptodon tail club!
More glyptodont tail clubs! Neosclerocalyptus
Giant armadillo Priodontes, showing glyptodont-lite version of the tail.
Need to motivate a rat to solve a maze puzzle or eat food? Pinching the tail had been shown to help, Hickman explains. This fits with the more obvious role of the tail in mammalian communication, including scent-marking. Here, Hickman notes that rather than using scent glands, hippos take the feces way out and just whip their tails around while pooping to spread their perfume. Which the internet knows well…
And then, finally, Hickman gets to the Rat Kings, which had me incredulous at first… but there are a bunch of references, so… What’s a Rat King? A “ball” of rats (from 3 to 32 of them!) with their tails tangled together for “group cohesion”, fabled in European stories for centuries but possibly “a frequent phenomenon” (p.152). An explanation for this phenomenon, Hickman explains, is confinement of rat in enclosed spaces where their tails do get entangled, only to be “found during a cold part of year, usually as a result of loud squealing noises which drew attention to the hide-away.”(p.153) In surveying the amusing range of explanations through history for Rat Kings (“itchy tails”?), Hickman relents and concludes “perhaps the tails of Rat Kings function best as cocktail discussion.” I concur—and append blogging discussion to that!
Tails you win, pre-caudals you lose, but Hickman’s review article is full of win! There’s plenty more of interest in there. I hope you enjoyed the look back at this classic paper, and at the tales that tails tell. This is the tale end.
I’ll let Ray get your caudals shakin’ as we depart:
It’s Darwin Day 2015 (or will be shortly), and also on this blog it’s Freezermas, a time of contemplative dissection of morphology and its history. This year I won’t be doing the crazy 7 posts in 7 days that I’ve done before (see 14 past ones here), and I won’t be doing a customary homage to Darwin. Instead, I’m dedicating today’s post to Richard Owen, oft characterized as Darwin’s greatest nemesis. Blasphemy? Nah. I’m a Darwin fan, sure, but today Owen gets his due from me. This post is like a “Top ten things you didn’t know about Richard Owen” post, but without the list, and some of them might be things you know, and I’m not even sure if there are ten of them, but they tend to be about Richard Owen. I feature a bunch of Owen’s papers’ coolest artwork, with links to the free versions of those papers, too. Bone up!
Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10 for woodcuts that would otherwise be graphic. 7+/10 for rabid Darwin fans.
Owen was one of greatest (vertebrate) anatomists ever, if not the greatest (Alfred Romer gives him a run for his money in my opinion, but was less of a conceptual revolutionary). He was a key player in the divorce of the Natural History Museum from the British Museum and thus its move to its current South Kensington home in London as well as its autonomy and rise to scientific and cultural prominence. Hence, like today’s post’s title indicates, we owe Owen a lot as morphologists and as fans of biology (i.e. natural history). Indeed, his contributions are often undersold in deference to Darwin’s, and in service to a conventional narrative (written by the victorious Darwinians) in which he plays a villainous role. Even if one cannot admire the man as a touchy-feely kind of dude, his work demands respect and historiographic justice.
I was inspired to write this post after reading a biography of Richard Owen some months ago: “Richard Owen: Biology Without Darwin, a revised edition”. It’s a fascinating read, and makes some points that challenged my naïve views of the history of biology, especially evolution and Victorian science. Author Nicolaas Rupke hammers home that pro-Darwin propaganda relegated Owen to a more minor and infamous position in the history of science than he deserved, defaming him as a cold-hearted, scheming, inconsistent jerk. This biography admits truth to Owen lacking some social graces and playing tough politics sometimes, but reminds us of his eminence in British science, which reverberated globally and was in no small part due to his determined drive and strategic rigour. I recommend the book to any fans of natural history and science, especially morphology. Indeed, Rupke’s 2009 edition was released in paperback for the Darwinian centennial, as an abridgement of his 1994 book. If you want to know more about Rupke’s 2009 book, there are informative reviews by Switek here and Lynch here. This biography humanizes Owen and casts away some of the demonizing. Scandalous snippets of Darwinians politicking against Owen are memorable– e.g. Owen’s “contest against the surrounding agencies” was a predecessor to Darwin’s “struggle for existence” and natural selection, which Darwin downplayed (Rupke, pp.157,169-171).
As Rupke’s work emphasizes, Owen was a pre-Darwininan evolutionary biologist, not a creationist. He devised an “axiom of the continuous operation of the ordained becoming of living things” that qualifies as evolutionist, but not transmutationist. He had ideas about evolution that just seem odd to a post-Darwinian mind, especially an “internalist” driving mechanism for evolution (something about the embryo that causes evolution to proceed; not a primarily external, environmental impetus as Darwin favoured), leading to orderly patterns of evolution, not the higgledy-piggledy bushy evolution of Darwin and his successors (e.g. Gould). To a modern evolutionary morphologist, Owen’s “transcendental morphology” echoes of earlier continental European work by Oken (& fellow Germanics), Cuvier (& fellow French) and others, and as such often feels strange – even mystically religious (pantheistic) or unscientific. And, like many Victorians, the idea of apes including, and a subset being ancestral to, humans repulsed Owen. That revulsion seems to have clouded his judgement on the scientific matters involved, which he famously sparred over with Thomas Huxley.
Forelimbs of Archaeopteryx compared with falcon, Pterodactylus, and humerus of a raven (left to right). Owen classifed the former as a bird, with potential relationships to pterosaurs (Rupke, pp.175-6); Darwinians like Huxley instead saw the dinosaurian, reptilian ancestry. From: Owen, R. (1863). On the Archéoptéryx of von Meyer, with a description of the fossil remains of a long-tailed species, from the lithographic stone of Solenhofen. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 33-47. http://www.jstor.org/stable/108788 FREE!
However, we can credit Owen- like Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hiliare in France- as an early “evo-devo” scientist trying to link transformation across lineages with developmental mechanisms. We can also celebrate Owen as one of the foremost early champions of the study of osteology as a worthy scientific pursuit in and of itself. Much of Rupke’s biography is structured to focus on the institutional structures that Owen played such a pivotal role in creating, especially the curated collections of the Natural History Museum (which Owen spent ~1856-1881 fighting to establish as its own facility!). Owen’s vast monographs on Cretaceous Reptilia, the flightless moa (e.g. Dinornis; with papers covering 40 years of research that continued almost up until Owen’s demise) and odd Gondwanan mammals of the Australian colonies (many of these specimens having been shipped to the museum by Darwin for Owen’s own studies) cement his status as an integrative collections-based researcher who did not eschew palaeontological research “because biologists don’t do that”, or some such divisive nonsense that we still encounter today.
Foetal skeleton of a human, with skull exploded for comparison of homologies. From Owen 1847 as above.
Speaking of palaeontology, and science communication, 1841 was when Owen coined the “Dinosauria”, tying together disparate forms such as Hylaeosaurus,Megalosaurus and Iguanodon by the recognition that they were not “typical reptiles” but rather advanced in many distinct ways (e.g. locomotor adaptations) that united them as a group. We owe a lot to that early recognition, which was no facile achievement considering how fragmentary most of the early (pre-“Bone Wars”) dinosaur fossil discoveries were. Like Darwin, Owen realized that the giant ground sloths that he described (and Darwin found many of during his Beagle voyage), such as Megatherium, were related animals, too, and in this case having extant relatives.
Most broadly, within comparative biology, Owen searched for the principles of and codified the concept he called homology, which was part of his very French/Germanic quest for “unity of type” as an fairly essentialist (but not always Platonic, as Rupke cautions- pp. 126-7,130), typological (even teleological?) principle underlying common themes in comparative anatomy. His tome on the “archetype” and vertebral components of the skull (see pics above) is lavishly detailed and a challenging but rewarding read, with fascinating (even if sometimes quite wrong) ideas about homologous parts of vertebrate heads. Again, Owen’s work in comparative anatomy easily became an integral part of evolutionary theory– homology as a consequence of (and reciprocally, evidence for) common ancestry featured prominently. As Rupke notes (p.179), “With little more than a flick of the fingers, Owen’s archetype could be turned into an ancestor.”
Jawsome! Thylacoleo, marsupial lion. From: Richard Owen, Additional Evidence of the Affinities of the Extinct Marsupial Quadruped Thylacoleo carnifex (Owen). Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B: 1887; 178: 1-3 http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/178/1 FREE!
This year (2015) is the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, in which Owen published key studies of exotic Gondwanan animals such as the giant, tail-clubbed early turtle Meiolania and the “marsupial lion” Thylacoleo (see pics above). Some of Owen’s most outstanding and earliest work, likewise published in Phil. Trans., concerned seemingly aberrant mammals like the platypus (Ornithorhynchus), whose egg-laying and milk-excreting organs he detailed in 1832-1834 (see pics below). Like so many of his discoveries, these detailed descriptions and gorgeous commissioned woodcut illustrations often were sound, groundbreaking work, and are still cited and comprehensible today. Yet Owen’s interpretations sometimes became re-evaluated in a Darwinian rather than transcendentalist light, ironically building the case for Darwinian-style evolution (transmutation). Was the platypus a mammal, reptile or bird? Owen correctly assigned it to the Mammalia and recognized its relationship with the spiny anteaters (echidnas), but today we understand it better as a member of an early branch off the mammalian stem that includes a broad diversity of other species such as the multituberculates. Brian Hall wrote a review of the history of the “platypus paradox” here— it’s a fascinating story.
“Areola” of the female platypus in the abdominal region, with embiggened version below. From: Richard Owen, On the Mammary Glands of the Ornithorhynchus paradoxus. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Vol. 122 (1832), pp. 517-538 http://www.jstor.org/stable/107974 FREE!
Dissection of a female platypus, showing the egg-laying apparatus. From: On the Ova of the Ornithorhynchus paradoxus Richard Owen Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Vol. 124 (1834), pp. 555-566. http://www.jstor.org/stable/108077 FREE!
As a PhD student of Prof. Kevin Padian, a Richard Owen afficionado and historian, I couldn’t escape awareness of Owen. His visage decorated many parts of Padian’s office and we were often reminded of Owen’s prodigious prowess (and his sly politics- e.g., his “Parthian shot” letter that Padian described). But I didn’t go back and read much Owen until recently, while researching the evolution of the avian patella with my own PhD student Sophie Regnault. Owen described a patella in the moa Dinornis, but we re-interpreted this as an ankle sesamoid bone (common in moa)– although the described fossil “patella” itself seems to have been lost. Then Owen’s patella research came up in a later, often vitriolic, debate (featuring the eminent bird anatomist Shufeldt as well as other scientists Jeffries and Gill) in Science magazine over what bones cormorants and other birds have in their knees– read more about it here. In perusing Owen’s moa and other anatomical work, I gained a deep appreciation for it and now I’m a fan. I even feel a special kinship with Owen– like me, various zoos sent him their specimens for scientific study via dissection, and he was an active science communicator. I’m sure he’d have appreciated my freezers. Not so sure about this blog…
So that’s my ode to Owen, which lightly touches on highlights of his storied career. Opinions vary on how fun he would have been to quaff pints of ale with (what do you think?), but as fabled (if flawed) heroes of science go, he deserves the label, and morphologists should continue to imbibe and savour his scholarly works, seeking draughts of inspiration within their contents as gourmands of Owen-ia. With some 600 papers published by Owen, there’s surely more for us all to discover.
Morphologists and friends, what’s your favourite Owen paper and why? Speak up!
[If you remain silent, at least do that while reading some Owen today!]
Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10 for ambiguous sacks.
I mainly post here about my team’s research and interests, but today I felt like sharing something special and concrete: the contents of our freezers. They are not just John’s and there’s more than one freezer; thus there is room to share, within reason. So if you’re a researcher, especially in the UK/EU, needing unusual research specimens/tissue, you might want to contact me to use them. This blog’s posts summarize most of what I have available, and for security/other reasons I don’t want to get into deep detail here, but we sport a respectable collection of limbs/bodies of animals like:
Birds: ostriches, emus, broiler chickens, guineafowl, assortment of others.
Crocodiles: Nile, Osteolaemus, Morelet’s and some others (1 Melanosuchus, 1 normal Caiman).
Squamates: a monitor lizard or two and some other random lizards.
Amphibians: a few fire salamanders and such.
Mammals: of course, plenty of elephant bits (no ivory!), rhinos too (no horns!), giraffes, a dwarf forest buffalo, alpacas, deer, pieces of camels and zebras (feet etc.), wild cat species (no penises!) and a few other things. And then the usual assortment of veterinary species like cows and horses. A heavy focus on limb material– very few if any heads, torsos, etc.
This is in addition to a nice little comparative skeletal collection, focused on cleaned members of the above groups and a smattering of others. Nothing on the scale of RVC’s marvellous Anatomy Museum, but we’re young.
And two African land snail shells (inhabited) I was reminded of during a recent inventory… Here are some of my helpful helpers in that inventory extravaganza!
Especially if you’re searching for CT scan data (sooner or later these data will appear online; I want it to happen!), tissue samples for genetics or cell biology (if frozen is OK!), comparative anatomical specimens to inspect, or other uses of frozen anatomy (photography? other art? We’ve helped artists before!), the freezers might be able to help you! The less destructive, the better, but even some destructive analysis might be OK. We regularly accommodate visitors, either independent ones or collaborators, and I aim to provide good hospitality when I can accommodate them!
Get in touch with me if the above description is you. It’s not an open invitation to everyone, but for valid research purposes I can and should try to help. But I don’t run a museum-style collection (yet), I’m limited by time and other human factors, so I can’t do everything and help everyone. The primary purpose of all the hard work we’ve done accumulating these specimens remains to support our research, but there’s room to help others too, and we want to maximize the impact of our research collection, including potentially on teaching and public engagement with science where feasible. So I’ve put it out there, and that ends this post.
Is there something in the “Non-Elephant Freezer” for you?
Stomach-Churning Rating: 8/10 don’t look at the gooooaaaaaaaaaaaat!!!! Too late.
Goat morphology is cool! (from work with local artist)
Morphology in biology, to me, is about the science of the relationship of anatomical form to function (including biomechanics), evolution, development and other areas of organismal biology. It thus encompasses the more descriptive, form-focused area of anatomy. But in common parlance I use the two terms interchangeably, because many scientists and the general public do know what anatomy is but get confused by the word “morphology”. Not wishing to wage a semantic skirmish or get into what linguistic or other morphology is, I shall move on. But as the title betrays, this post is about morphology and how we should be proud of it as scientists who study it. This is a companion post to my earlier post on Anatomy, which was aimed at a more general audience than at my colleagues. Yet general audience, stick around. You might find this interesting.
I’m a morphologist at heart. What interests me most about organisms is how their form is not only beautiful and amazing itself but tells us profound things about other aspects of biology, as I stated in the first sentence above. I tend to call myself an evolutionary biomechanist, but morphology is in there too, at the heart of what I do, and biomechanical evolutionary morphologist — while more accurate — just does not roll off the lingual apparatus. I’ll dodge that semantic minefield of branding issues now. I’ll instead move on to my more important point that many (but not all) morphologists go through a phase in their career in which they have some strong feelings of being looked down on by other biologists/scientists as doing outmoded or inferior science. I explained in my Anatomy post that this “inferiority” is not the case today, moreso than ever; that the field is in a dynamic renaissance; so if you want some talking points go there. Regardless, these feelings of being almost stigmatized can exacerbate Imposter Syndrome, especially early in a scientific career.
Lizard morphology is cool! And museums exist to house morphological specimens like these.
I can think of one such case of bad feelings in my not-too-distant memory: at a conference dinner, one colleague sitting to my right said to my colleague to my left “What do you think about anatomy? Should students even do any research on it?” and went on with a bit of diatribe about the why-bother-ness of anatomy relative to other areas such as biomechanics. They both knew of my interests in this area, I’m quite sure, so it was as if I was not there sitting in between them. I was so appalled I was stunned into silence, but seething, and the colleague to my left didn’t defend the field either, even though they did a fair amount of research in it. It took a long time for me to cool down, and I still feel a bit offended and shocked that my colleague would say something so awkward and obliquely confrontational. Similar situations occurred during my PhD work at Berkeley, where biomechanics was having a heyday and anatomy was just beginning to rise from the ashes. It’s odd to me when biomechanists devalue morphology, because so much of mechanics depends on and relates to it, but to each their own. In many biological fields there are reductionist schisms that think they can divorce organisms from other aspects of their biology without losing something, so I’m not surprised, but maybe I am falling into my own trap of condescension here…
Anyway, I had those feelings of being on the receiving end of collegial condescension for a long time myself, and maybe that’s part of why I settled on calling my speciality something other than morphology. Shame on me, and double shame for getting back to that branding issue. But maybe not– maybe it IS important to talk about branding. I’ve been thinking a lot about my career and morphology in recent years, and keep returning to the thought that I need to embrace morphology in an even tighter love-hug. This blog has long been intended as a step in that direction (my Pinterest “Mucho Morphology” page is another step), but I could do more. Speaking of morphologists generally, perhaps we all could. Morphology still has some PR issues, most of us would probably agree, despite its arguable renaissance.
Fetal whale morphology is cool! (at Queen Mary UofL)
Thus my point of this post is simple: let’s try using the words morphology or anatomy more often in our scientific communications. Put those words out there and say them with pride. Let’s keep name-dropping morphology everywhere we can, within reason, and defending its value if challenged. To do this, we’ll need to know how we individually feel about morphology, and ensure we’re well informed to defend it. So think about those things, too, if you join this cause. By waging a PR battle against the forces of anti-morphology condescension, be they waxing or waning, we can get others to give our field its due credit. Fly that flayed banner of morphology high.
See a cool picture of an animal and want to post it on social media? Emphasize that it doesn’t just look cool but has amazing anatomy. Publish a cool new paper showing how a novel adaptation evolved? Remind readers of the morphological (or at least phenotypic) basis of that adaptation and how it interacts with the environment. Summarizing your research interests and discipline to a colleague or on a website/CV? Put morphology in there. Stand up straight when you do, too. Morphology, morphology, morphology. Learn to love that word and it will serve us all well. Branding and PR are only part of the struggle that needs to happen, but much as they may be to our distaste they can help. Doing great morphology-based science is the most important thing, but as social human beings the PR issue cannot be ignored.
Cat shoulder morphology is cool! (RVC teaching collection)
This was a shortish post for me but it’s something I feel strongly about. My feelings have been magnified by taking on the role of Chair-Elect of the Division of Vertebrate Morphology at SICB, assisting the awesome current Chair Dr. Callum Ross and wise past-Chair Alice Gibb in addition the the rest of the committee and division, and as an Executive Committee member in the International Society of Vertebrate Morphology. I now have some extra responsibility to do something. Complaining about the state of affairs doesn’t help much– doing something can. If you’re a vertebrate morphologist, you should join these professional societies/divisions, attend their superb meetings and join their increasing presence on social media like Facebook (and soon Twitter?). Speak up and join in, please, these societies exist to help you and morphology!
Did you notice I didn’t use the title of the post as a lead-in to altered lyrics from a certain hit U2 song? Well I did. Maybe you’ll appreciate me resisting the temptation here. My Xmas song about our three new morphology papers didn’t exactly evoke angelic choruses.
What do you think, morphologists and non-morphologists? I am sure there are analogous situations in other fields. I’m curious how other morphologists or fields deal with or have struggled with this kind of image problem before. Especially under situations where the science itself is vigorous and rigorous, but the perception may be otherwise.