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At this writing (17 October, 2013), I am headed home after a 10-day trip to China as part of an RVC delegation participating in a London Universities International Partnership (LUIP) event (celebrating London innovations, especially those developed with Chinese input) as part of a broader UK/London-China trade mission. I am still processing what has been an astonishing, exhausting, exhilarating, chaotic, lavish, smog-ridden, and inspiring visit. As a simple scientist, I’ve found myself in the midst of major global politics, business and science policy, with little time to assimilate what has happened but still learning plenty about how the bigger world, way beyond my lab, operates. I thought I’d share that experience, by way of pictures illustrating key – or just unusual or interesting – events and places from my journey. It was surreal, in so many ways…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 except for a couple of odd statues. No squat-toilets; I will spare you those.

Odd sight above entrace to the art gallery building that housed the LUIP event.

Odd decoration above entrance to the art gallery building that housed the LUIP event.

Several months ago the RVC selected me to help RVC Access director Nina Davies and colleagues set up an exhibit, as part of the LUIP event, featuring the work that my team has done, and is still doing, with Chinese collaborators at the IVPP in Beijing (exemplified by this past post). Dinosaurs and 3D computer modelling were thought to be a good potential draw for the public (ya think?) as opposed to more controversial subjects such as avian flu, with which the RVC also has research strengths and Chinese collaborations. I saw it as a great chance to go spend time at the IVPP’s spectacular fossil collection and develop ongoing collaborations with scientists there like Drs. Zhou Zhonghe and Xu Xing. Subsequently, I learned that it was a small enough event that I’d probably be meeting Boris Johnson (Mayor of London) there as well, possibly even presenting our research to him.

Hallway lined with art galleries, one of which is the Yang Gallery.

Hallway lined with art galleries, one of which is the Yang Gallery, which the event was held in.

The preparations for the exhibit were full of surprises, as you might expect a long-distance interaction between UK and Chinese people to be, especially if you’ve spent time in China and know some of the broad-brush cultural differences (e.g. “Yes” can mean no, and “maybe” usually means no). There were many cooks involved! Artists, policymakers, scientists, universities… and then the Mayor’s office got thrown into the action, and then it snowballed, with UK Higher Education and Science minister Rt Hon MP David Willetts coming to the LUIP event, and UK Foreign Chancellor George Osborne then scheduling a related trip to China at the same time. Meanwhile, I just supplied some images (courtesy of Luis Rey) and a video (by Vivian Allen and Julia Molnar) from our past paper to illustrate what we’re doing with Chinese collaborators.

There wasn’t time to prepare a fancy exhibit with lots of bells and whistles, but I was pleasantly surprised by what the LUIP organizers cooked up from what we provided, as photos below show. The addition of four great casts of fossils on loan from the IVPP was crucial and made us stand out from all the other exhibits in a big way! The event was held in the trendy 798 Art District in eastern Beijing, which is an old industrial area converted to a surprisingly bohemian, touristy area that still sports its rusting old industrial infrastructure, but bedecked with modern art! That really worked for me as a setting. This was my third visit to Beijing/China but my first time in this gritty area of the city, which I recommend spending an afternoon in sometime if you visit– the streets are lined with cafes and art galleries.

Boris bike and nice design of exhibits (placed on/around the giant letters LONDON) .

Boris bike and nice design of exhibits (placed on/around the giant letters LONDON). The back wall sports a Communist slogan, partly painted over, exhorting the workers to give their full effort for the glory of Chairman Mao or something (seriously). The building was once a weapons factory, I was told.

All the work we put into this event was a big deal to me, but as the event developed, and the schedule for my 10 day visit shifted almost daily as various political factions shuffled the LUIP and UK trade mission plans, I became aware of the vastly broader issues at play, and humbled by their scope. Sure, studying the 3D changes of dinosaur body shape across >225 million years is truly awesome to conduct, but the socio-political issues around the LUIP event boggled and baffled me. Issues like “How do we get more Chinese students to come study at London universities?”, “How do Chinese parents feel about their students studying to become veterinarians?” and “What are the key obstacles limiting UK-Chinese collaborations and how can they be resolved?” gradually eclipsed the technical, scientific issues in my mind, and I started to feel lost. I learned a lot from this eye-opening experience.

These two news stories here (with video; me speaking at ~01:15) and here (with pic of me w/exhibit) give a good idea of the scale and potential importance of the events.

The rest of his post is mostly a photo blog to illustrate the goings-on, but I consider some psychological/philosophical matters toward the end.

The London innovation event lighting gets tested out-- and looks sweet.

The London innovation event lighting gets tested out– and looks sweet.

Boris arrives, and proceeds to tour the exhibits rather than give his speech as planned. But it worked out OK in the end; he had 2 exhibit tours and a speech in the middle.

Boris arrives, and proceeds to tour the exhibits rather than give his speech as planned. But it worked out OK in the end; he had two exhibit tours and a speech in the middle.

Minister Willetts arrives and prepares to speak about UK higher education for Chinese students.

Minister Willetts arrives and prepares to speak about UK higher education for Chinese students.

I give Minister Willetts a tour of our fabulous fossil casts.

I give Minister Willetts a tour of our fabulous fossil casts.

Left to right = back in time through avian evolution, represented by Yixianornis, Pengornis, Jeholornis and Microraptor casts courtesy of the IVPP.

Left to right = back in time through avian evolution, represented by Yixianornis, Pengornis, Jeholornis and Microraptor casts, courtesy of the IVPP.

Arguably one of the most important fossil finds, the "four-winged" dinosaur Microraptor.

Arguably one of the most important fossil finds (ever?), the “four-winged” dinosaur Microraptor.

Added benefit of thaw in UK-Chinese relations: Microraptors for everyone!!! Well, for me anyway. And a cast, not a real one. But still pretty damn cool, and now it’s in my office for comparative research and teaching. See?

Darwin greets Microraptor in my office.

Darwin greets Microraptor in my office.

Like I said at the start, I don’t have a profound insight from this trip, not yet if ever. But it has obviously made a strong impression on me. It has reinforced some thoughts about Big Life Stuff. With the jetlag, the big geopolitical issues, the foreign country, the opulence, and my research thrown into that heady brew (ahem, along with some Tsingtao beer), I became lost. And I liked it, even though I was totally clueless at times, just looking around wide-eyed at the events unfolding and hearing about the political manoeuvring behind the scenes (e.g. how would big figures like Boris and Willetts share the limelight? And the news media was playing up the question of whether Boris’s or Osborne’s contingents were “winning” in some sense of some struggle, even though ostensibly they are on the same Tory team).

But we’re all clueless; we’re all lost. In some ways that’s a good thing. We have work to do; broad landscapes to explore whether evolutionary or socioeconomic or whatnot. There are big questions left, and no easy answers sometimes. That’s a bad thing, too; if we were less lost in major issues like climate change or habitat destruction or gross imbalance in wealth/power, the world would be a better place.

Quite apropos! Rockin' artwork found in the 798 art district surrounding the Yang Gallery.

Quite apropos! Rockin’ artwork found in the 798 art district surrounding the Yang Gallery.

I find it helpful at times to ground myself in the knowledge that I am lost just like everyone else. There are different ways we can get lost: such as in pondering how dinosaur anatomy and physiology transformed over the Mesozoic era, or in throwing ourselves into weighty issues of business and diplomacy in the real world. To pretend we’re not lost risks becoming foolhardy.

It might be helpful for others to remind themselves of this sense of being lost, and that we all feel it or at least should at times. Students may sometimes look to their professors and think they have some monopoly on wisdom, but they’re lost too, and surely in some ways more lost than any of their students.

Smaller scale dino art.

Smaller scale dino art in a local shop.

Boris got a bit lost, too, when he came to my exhibit – pondering the dinosaur-bird fossils, he pondered out loud “There’s some bone that birds and reptiles both have that shows they’re related… the, umm, the ischium?” Not understanding what he meant by this (all tetrapods have an ischium), I redirected him, along with a reassuring comment that he’d done his homework. I did this a bit clumsily as the multitude of news cameras and lights and boom-mikes hovered around us in eager anticipation of Something Interesting Happening, and as his minders began to urge him to move onward through the LUIP exhibit. I noted the wrist of a dinosaur like Microraptor and how it already had the unusual wing-folding mechanism that modern birds now use during flapping flight or to keep their feathers off the ground when standing. He seemed to sort of like that, then shook my hand and said something like “very impressive, well done” and moved on to the next exhibit. (Willetts fared a bit better and stayed longer, but science is his business)

funky statue (4)

Random artwork from the Yang Gallery and around the 798 Art District follows… I liked the style. My kind of funky art. The statue above combines childlike toy aspects with sinister jingoistic imagery. And the next one, well… see for yourself.

In that brief, frantic conversation, we were both lost, and I think none the less of Mayor Johnson for it. He’d come off the plane, rushed to hotel and to the LUIP event, gave an impassioned speech about London and China, and then was whisked around between a dozen or so exhibits, pursued all the while by a throng of media and minders and gawkers- was he expected to know all the sundry details of maniraptoran evolution at that point? No. But we had some fun and smiled for the cameras and then it was all over as we spun off, reeling into our different orbits. I wouldn’t be surprised if, from time to time, a politician like Boris pinches himself and thinks privately, “Wow, these issues I am embroiled in are so convoluted. I am totally, utterly lost.” I think that’s a healthy thing, and I enjoyed repeated doses of that feeling during my trip. funky statue (2) In science, we often deal with a sense of awe or wonder—that is the sunny side of being lost. The other side, which can coexist sometimes in duality with awe/wonder, is the more fearful/anxious side, like when you’re stuck in a foreign city far from your hotel; surrounded by alien, fantastic scenery; and night is falling but no taxis are around to take you back, and the locals are starting to watch you to see if you’ll do something stupid (this was me, briefly, after doing some evening mall-shopping in Shanghai). How we react to that duality is, in some way, our choice. I point to a scientist studying evolution and a creationist freaking out about the subject as a good example of two polar opposites in how an awesome topic in science can evoke very different reactions within that duality. A seasoned traveller who likes to throw themselves into a city and experience blissful, unpredictable immersion, and a worrisome tourist who can’t stray far from their tour group provide analogous examples. But I digress; this post is in danger of becoming lost… Enjoy some cool statues as the denouement. funky statue (3) Get lost in the comments—what makes you have that sense of awe, or being lost, and how do you deal with it? funky statue (1)

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Yesterday I encountered the question that, as a scientist who has studied a certain chunky Cretaceous carnivore a lot, most deflates me and makes me want to go study cancer therapeutic methods or energy sources that are alternatives to fossil fuels (but I’d be useless at either). I will explain why this is at the end of the post.

The question stems from a new discovery, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and thus expected to be one of the more important or exciting studies this year (no, I’m not going to get into the issue here of whether these “high impact” journals include the best scientific research or the most superficial or hyped “tabloid” science; they publish both, and not in mutual exclusivity). It’s a broken Tyrannosaurus rex tooth embedded in a duckbill dinosaur’s tail bone, which healed after the injury, showing that the animal survived the attack.

If you’re with me so far, you might be making the logical leap that this fossil find is then linked to the hotbed of furious controversy that still leaves palaeontology in crisis almost 100 years after Lambe suggested it for the tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus. If the hadrosaur survived an attack from a T. rex, then T. rex was a habitual predator and OMG JACK HORNER AND OTHERS BEFORE HIM WERE WRONG!

And you’d be right.

My encounter with the question stemmed from an email from a science journalist (Matt Kaplan) that, as is normal practice, shared a copy of the unpublished paper and asked for comments from me to potentially use in an article he was writing for the science journal Nature’s news site. Here, then, was my off-the-cuff response:


“Ooh. I do have a pretty strong opinion on this. Not sure if you’d want to use it but here goes. I may regret it, but this hits my hot buttons for One of the Worst Questions in All of Palaeobiology!

The T. rex “predator vs. scavenger” so-called controversy has sadly distracted the public from vastly more important, real controversies in palaeontology since it was most strongly voiced by Dr Jack Horner in the 1990s. I find this very unfortunate. It is not like scientists sit around scratching their heads in befuddlement over the question, or debate it endlessly in scientific meetings. Virtually any palaeontologist who knows about the biology of extant meat-eaters and the fossil evidence of Late Cretaceous dinosaurs accepts that T. rex was both a predator and scavenger; it was a carnivore like virtually any other kind that has ever been known to exist.

While the discovery is nice evidence, it is not particularly exciting in a scientific sense and is only one isolated element from species that lived for hundreds of thousands of years, which to me changes nothing and allows no generalizations about the biology of any species, only the statement that at one point in time a Tyrannosaurus bit a hadrosaur that survived the encounter. There is no real substance to the controversy that T. rex was “either” a predator or scavenger. It is just something that scientists drum up now and then to get media attention. I hope that soon we can move on to more pressing questions about the biology of extinct animals, but the media needs to recognize that this is just hype and they are being played in a rather foolish way; likewise scientists that still feel this is an exciting question need to move on. Maybe this specimen will allow that. But somehow my cynical side leads me to suspect that this “controversy” will just persist because people want it to, regardless of logic or evidence. (bold font added; see below)

Great galloping lizards, I am so tired of this nonsense. Maybe there is educational value in showing how science deals with provocative half-baked ideas about celebrity species, but scientists in the community need to speak up and say what the real science is about. It’s not about this “controversy”. Modern palaeontology is so much better than this.

Sorry for the rant. Maybe it’s too extreme but I’m just fed up with this non-issue! I suspect a huge proportion of our field feels similarly, however.”


(I later redacted a bit of it where I got a little too excited and used the word “curmudgeon”; a mistake, as that could be seen as ad hominem rather than a term of endearment, and this issue is about the science and not the people, per se. That bit is redacted here, too. I’ve also redacted a sentence in which I made an opinion on whether the paper should have been published in PNAS; that is mostly irrelevant here. I was not a reviewer, and authors/reviewers/editors have to make that decision. This would be a massive tangent away from what this blog post is intended to be about! I know some of the authors and don’t want to offend them, but this is about the science and how it is represented to the world, not about these particular authors or even this paper itself.)

Importantly, Kaplan’s story did include my skeptical quote at the end. I am curious to see how many other news stories covering this paper go that far.

Would a T. rex prey on, or just scavenge, a giant chicken? (art by Luis Rey)

Would a T. rex prey on, or just scavenge — or have a great time racing — a giant chicken? (art by Luis Rey)

I will stop right here and acknowledge that I’ve published a lot on a somewhat related topic: how fast a T. rex could run or if it could run at all. To me, that’s a great scientific question that has consequences not only for the predator/scavenger false dichotomy, but also for general theories of locomotor biomechanics (can an animal the size of a large elephant run as well as or better than said elephant? What are the thresholds of size and maximal running/jumping/other athletic abilities and how do they vary in different evolutionary lineages? And so on.). I’ll defend the validity of that question to the bitter end, even if it’s a question I’ve grown a little (but only a little) tired of and generally feel is about as well settled as these things can be in palaeontology (see my review here). I’ll also defend that it has been a real controversy (I have plenty of old emails, formal rebuttals submitted by colleagues, and other discourse as evidence of this) since I tackled it starting in 2002 and sort of finishing by 2011. I am sensitive about the issue of hyping my research up– this is something I’ve been careful about. I set a reasonable bar of how much is too much, check myself continuously with reflective thought, and I do not feel I have ever really crossed that bar, away from science-promotion into darker realms. This is partly why I’ve stopped addressing this issue in my current work. I feel like the science we’ve done on this is enough for now, and to keep beating the same drum would be excessive, unless we discovered a surprising new way to address the questions better, or a very different and more compelling answer to them.

T. rex: scavenger or predator?” was controversial back  in 1994 when Horner published “The Complete T. rex”, where he laid out his arguments. Brian Switek covered this quite well in his post on it, so I will not review that history. There was a big Museum of the Rockies exhibit about it that toured the USA, and other media attention surrounding it, so Horner’s name became attached to the idea as a result. Other such as Lambe and Colinvaux had addressed it before, but their ideas never seemed to gain as much currency as Horner’s did. But this post is not about that.

What this post is about is a consideration of why this is still an issue that the media report on (and scientists publish on; the two are synergistic of course), if most scientists aware of past debates are in good agreement that a T. rex was like most other carnivores and was opportunistic as a switch-hitting scavenger-predator, not a remarkably stupid animal that would turn down a proper meal that was dead/alive. Indeed, the Nature news piece has a juicy quote from Horner that implies (although I do not know if it was edited or if important context is missing) that he has been in favour of the opportunistic predator-scavenger conclusion for some time. Thus, as Switek’s article notes, even the strongest advocates of the obligate scavenger hypothesis(?) have changed their minds; indeed, that 2011 blog post intimates that this had already happened at least 2 years ago.

For many years, nothing has been published in the main peer-reviewed literature that favours that extreme “obligate scavenger” hypothesis. If I am wrong and there is a scientific debate, where are the recent papers (say within the past 5 years) that are strong, respectable arguments in favour of it? I contend that it is a dead issue. And if it is just about the middle ground; i.e. what percent of its time did a T. rex spend hunting vs. scavenging; we have no clue and may never know, and it’s not a very interesting question.

But who then is feeding off of this moribund equine; this defunct tyranno-parrot?

In thinking about my reply to the journalist over the past 2 days, I am reminded again of my general feeling that this is no longer a question of scientific evidence; the important bit in bold font above. Maybe we just like this “hypothesis” or the “controversy”, or maybe we’re lazy and don’t want to have to hunt for real debates in science.

But who are “the people?” I do not feel that The Public should be blamed; they are the people that The Scientists and The Media ostensibly are seeking to inform about what the state of modern knowledge and uncertainty is in science. So when I get asked about the controversy after a public lecture, I always try to go into detail about it. I don’t sigh and say “go Google it”. Nor do I do this to a journalist. Indeed, I’ve generally headed this issue off at the pass and added a blurb to press releases/webpages explaining my T. rex research to explain how it relates to the non-controversy; example here.

I have to begin turning my finger of accusation away from scientists and toward some of the media, because they must play a huge role in the shennanigans. Yes, scientists should know better then to play this up as a valid, heated, modern controversy. That is true. Yet I have a feeling that the balance of blame should also fall heavily on the side of media (general and science news) that continue to report on this issue uncritically as a real controversy. Thus the general public thinks it still is, and scientists/journals keep issuing papers/press releases that it is, leading to more reporting on this “controversy”, and the beast refuses to die. Switek’s article is a good counter-example of balanced coverage with clear application of critical thinking.

This is trivially different from other non-controversies in palaeontology such as whether birds evolved from a subgroup of theropod dinosaurs and hence are dinosaurs by virtue of descent (consensus = yes). So it is reflective of a broader problem of not calling a spade a spade.

And it’s embarassing, to a scientist, as my quote above expressed, to see dead controversies trotted out again and again, feeding the public perception that they are not dead.

That’s what leaves me frustrated. When do the shennanigans end?

I am reminded of a quote from a Seinfeld episode:

“Breaking up is like knocking over a Coke machine. You can’t do it in one push. You gotta rock it back and forth a few times, and then it goes over.”- Jerry, from the episode “The Voice”.

But this predator/scavenger relationship-from-hell leaves me, as a specialist working in this general area, feeling like I am trapped under that fridge. Help!

That’s why I started off this long post talking about feeling deflated, or disappointed, when asked this question. I do feel that way. I have to admit, I sometimes even feel that way when a sweet young kid asks me that question. Deep inside, I wish they wondered about something else. I wish that science had reached them with a deeper, more contemporary question. But when a journalist asks me how I feel about a new paper that revisits the “controversy”, I feel embarassed for palaeontology. Can’t we get past this? It makes us look so petty, mired in trivial questions for decades. But we’re not like that. This is a dynamic, exciting, modern field, but every news story about non-issues in palaeontology just perpetuate bad elements of palaeontology’s image.

To the scientists– why don’t we put our foot down more and say enough is enough, this is a dead issue? We have a role not only in peer review, but also in communicating our views about published work to the media when asked (AND when not asked, as in this blog post). But if you call them on it, do they listen? Which brings me to…

To the media (science/general journalists etc; I know this is a huge category and please don’t think I am blaming 100% of journalists or assuming they are all the same; they are not!)– if scientists tell you that a “controversy” is not such, at what point do you accept their judgement and kill the story, or at least use that quote? Does that ever happen? In what way are you at the mercy of senior editors/others in such issues? What power do you have? Is a shift in the balance of editorial power needed, or even achievable, in your case or in good exemplar cases? I’d really like to hear your experiences/thoughts. I am sure there is a lot I am not understanding, and I know many journalists are in a tough situation.

To the public– You’re often being misinformed; you are the losers in this issue. How do you feel about all it? (While this post focuses on a very tiny issue, the T. rex scavenger/predator unending drama, it is also about a broader issue of how the media perpetuates controversies in science after they have already gone extinct.)

What did this post have to do with freezers? Nothing. I’m just (H)ornery. Although I was once filmed for a planned Discovery Channel film about scientists who find a frozen tyrannosaur in polar regions and have to decide what to do with it before it slips into a chasm and is lost forever. Probably better that this never aired; it was cancelled. Segue to this post.

The Berkeley cast of the Wankel (MOR555) specimen of T. rex. Will we ever see the end of the predator/scavenger non-issue?

The Berkeley cast of the Wankel (MOR555) specimen of T. rex. Will we ever see the end of the predator/scavenger non-issue?

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astro-dino

Keith Feinstein of Eureka Exhibits sent me this sketch he did, and when I expressed my reaction of hey-dude-this-is-awesome, he welcomed me to put it up on the blog. Well why the hell not? Awesome belongs here. Dinosaurs (especially space-tyrannosaurs) belong here. Astronauts go into space and space is cold– like an ultra-freezer? So there you are. Additional context: we’ve worked together on Eureka’s “Be the Dinosaur” simulation/exhibit and are now doing “Be the Astronaut.” I suppose this sketch foreshadows the next step: “Be The Astronaut Riding the Dinosaur in the Land of Badassedness”.

Stay tuned for a big post tomorrow…

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