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Posts Tagged ‘media’

Tonight is the debut of the ballyhooed BBC1 programme “Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur“, featuring Sir David and The Titanosaur-With-No-Name, at 6:30pm. Furthermore, this week I presided over a showing of “T. rex Autopsy” to our RVC undergrad Zoological Society, with a very enjoyable Q&A afterwards. So it seemed timely for me to do a post about a theme that links these two documentaries that I helped with, my own research, and science communication and palaeontological research more generally. But first let’s get this out of the way:

It was great.

It was great. I could gush more but that’s not what this post is about.

Stomach-Churning Rating: ~7/10; mainly the elephant leg dissection that’s not far below, which is a bit messy.

For the titanosaur documentary with Sir David, and the incomparable Ben Garrod as well, we had an old elephant “friend” of mine (subject of many biomechanics studies we’d done) walk across a pressure pad to demonstrate how the elephant locomotion works and some of the basic similarities with how a giant sauropod dinosaur might walk:

A broader feature of that documentary, which elephants are linked into, is how we can use the skeleton to reconstruct some general aspects of the soft tissue anatomy, and thereby the physiology or even behaviour, of a giant titanosaur. Which brings me to this post’s subject: We dig up dinosaurs all the time, but what about digging into dinosaurs and using what’s preserved to reconstruct what isn’t? 

The "G-suit" compressive stocking that the fascia wrapped around elephant, and other large mammals, creates, and the underlying, interwoven muscles and tendons (hindlimb of a young Asian elephant).

Some of the “G-suit” compressive stocking that the fascia wrapped around elephant, and other large mammals, creates, and the underlying, interwoven muscles and tendons (hindlimb of a young Asian elephant that sadly died in captivity). Did some larger dinosaurs have something like this? I’d expect so.

Another view, more superficially, of that G-suit/stocking under the thick, tight skin of an elephant's leg.

Another view, more superficially, of that G-suit/stocking under the thick, tight skin of an elephant’s leg. You’ll hear more about this in the Attenborough show…

Once the documentary airs, I may be able to share some more images from it showing what they did for the titanosaur, but this BBC photo gives a good idea.

Once the documentary airs, I may be able to share some more images from it showing what they did for the titanosaur, but this BBC photo gives a good idea. Here, blood vessels and other tissues surrounding the skeleton. How would a titanosaur pump blood around its body? A good question.

I’ve covered the science behind these reconstructions before, along with the art (in numerous posts, actually). Here I want to inspect how it’s communicated through the media: what are good (and not so good?) ways to cover it, especially now that displaying raw anatomy is more tolerable on TV and other media? I’m not writing about Thanksgiving dinner dinosaur dissections; not really; or in technical terms how we build a dinosaur to dissect/depict internally (digitally or physically).

I wanted to focus more on the end product; the imagery or even physical object; and how it conveys what we think we know about dinosaur anatomy. I’ll do that via examples, using photos of dinosaur anatomy that I’ve collected over the years from museums or other media. There won’t be any profound points or long musings; it’s mainly a photo blog:

What your (inner?) child most needs is a dinosaur to dissect yourself! Why not a T. rex toy like this?

What your (inner?) child most needs is a dinosaur to dissect yourself! Why not a T. rex toy like this?

I could quibble, but for the price they did a good job.

For the price (~$30 in USA), the 4D Vision dinosaurs deliver a pretty good bargain, and the anatomy is satisfactory. I’ve been collecting this series. I could quibble, but hey: it’s a dinosaur you get to build/dissect yourself, and with many major organs in reasonable positions! Not so easy to put/keep together, but it’s fine. I would not pay a ton for it, though.

Poster of Velociraptor's anatomy I've had since grad school, adorning my office. For ~1996, it's damn good, mostly... (placeholder photos until I get to the office tomorrow and take better ones!)

Poster of Velociraptor’s anatomy I’ve had since grad school, adorning my office. For ~1996 (no feathers; “zombie hands“), it’s damn good, mostly… Closer views below (sorry, photo quality is crap– taking photos of wall poster turned out to be harder than I expected! Bad lighting.) :

Closeup of the leg muscles- hey, not bad!

Closeup of the leg muscles- hey, not bad! Pretty much the right muscles in the right places more or less, and plausible proportions. No air sacs in the torso, but again, this is mid-1990’s science shown. BUT…

I was happy with this poster until I got it home and read this final bit of text... Oh, America! You silly place.

I was happy with this poster until I got it home from the western-USA museum I bought it at and read this final bit of text… Oh, America! You silly place. (And unfortunately, these dinosaurs are not from the very end of the Cretaceous anyway, so “global catastrophe” is not implicated.)

Ornithomimid in Barcelona natural history museum. This was unexpected and got me excited when I first saw it.

Ornithomimid in Barcelona natural history museum. This was unexpected and got me excited when I first saw it.

Looking down onto the opened torso of the Barcelona ornithomimid. Strikingly realistic!

Looking down onto the opened torso of the Barcelona ornithomimid. Strikingly realistic! Breastbone, heart, liver, intestines; not unreasonable positions and sizes. No feathers, but again hey– this was made in the earlier days.

Skinned Albertosaurus from the Drexel Academy of Sciences. I forget where I got this pic but I like the display.

Albertosaurus from the Drexel Academy of Sciences. I forget where I got this pic but I like the display– this is an impressive full-scale physical model. The transition from skeleton-only on the left to skinned in the middle to fully-fleshed and popping out atcha on the right is clever.

?T. rex? leg, photo that I took ages ago as a PhD student, if memory serves. Can anyone remind me where this was? California Academy of Sciences?

?T. rex? leg, photo that I took ages ago as a PhD student, if memory serves. Can anyone remind me where this was? California Academy of Sciences? I am embarrassed that I cannot recall. I remember geeking out about it. It has a toy-ish look, but I reckon they had to build this to withstand kids touching it.

Perhaps the best example I've seen in a museum: the AMNH's sauropod with internal organs and their functions projected onto it. Bravo!

Perhaps the best dino-dissection example I’ve seen in a museum: the AMNH’s sauropod Mamenchisaurus with internal organs and their functions projected onto it, in the “World’s Largest Dinosaurs” exhibit. Bravo! I stood and watched it for quite a while.

This is far from comprehensive– just several kinds of imagery that I mostly like. There’s the tension between showing too much realism, which science simply can’t back up, and being too cartoonish, losing the viewer’s immersion in the time-travelling fantasy. I do, however, like other kinds of more abstract, schematic depictions of dinosaur anatomy that simplify the details to focus on the basics of what organs should have been where and how they may have worked, such as this depiction from T. rex Autopsy, which also took the other extreme favouring ultra-realism (but with physical models, not so much with the CGI):

AIr flow through a T. rex: simplified but clear.

Air flow through a T. rex: simplified but clear. CGI used to explain, not abused. The real air sac anatomy would be too complex to show. You may see something similar with the titanosaur show.

That’s enough for now. I’ve stuck with relatively recent examples; of course in my particular field I also think back to Romer’s wonderful 1920’s drawings, which I covered in this post.

So, blog readers, help me out here: what examples of dinosaur internal, squishy anatomy from museums, documentaries or other not-entirely-done-by-nitpicky-scientists venues do you like, or not like so much? What works for you, or at least is memorable in some way?

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I think a lot about where my ideas come from as a researcher and what a “new” idea really is, in addition to the “value” (in any sense) of scientific ideas. As a senior researcher, I find more and more that such evaluations of the merits of ideas are a huge part of my job. And I hear my colleagues talking about similar things all the time. Variably, the reflections and discussions boil down to something like these (falling somewhere in the multi-dimensional space illustrated by two extremes below):

  1. “Study by so-and-so claims that it shows something novel but it’s not; such-and-such said/showed that in year XXXX”, or
  2. “I came up with the idea for the paper/grant and that is the most important thing”.

The above extremes, and perhaps all points in between, could always be debatable. There is no across-the-board, seemingly profound statement that can encompass all possibilities, like the ironically trite “There’s nothing new under the sun”, or vast oversimplification “Ideas are easy to come by; data are hard.”

What is a new idea and what is one worth? Well, yes, that varies in science. I think it’s helpful to dissect these issues separately- the origin and evolution of ideas, and then their currency in science. And so here I will do that. These are not new ideas– even for me; I’ve been sitting on this post since 18 October 2015, waiting for the ideas to coalesce enough to post this!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; ruminations, some of which may be blindingly obvious. No images; just a long read.

It’s safe to say, and I know a lot has been written about this in the history and philosophy of science, that almost all “new” ideas in science are incremental. They tend to be little steps forward; not Kuhn-ian revolutions that blindside the community. Fans of Darwin and other science heroes are constantly reminded that even the geniuses’ ideas emerged mostly from the tangled skein of scientific society; coalescing from particles suspended in the scientific group-think. That doesn’t devalue science, as science is still making big strides– by (increasingly?) small, frequent steps across the scholastic landscape (see below).

It’s easy to take a shortcut and say, for example, that evolution was Charles Darwin’s big idea (or give him the lion’s share of credit) when of course that is a huge oversimplification and highly misleading– historical evidence shows beyond question that evolutionary ideas had been bounced around for decades (or centuries) and that Darwin had come across plenty of them, his grandfather Erasmus’s Zoonomia being an obvious one out of many influences. I was recently teaching my main undergrad class about this very topic and it got me thinking more about how, on the more standard scale of us non-genius scientists, ideas always have many common ancestors and lateral transfer of heritable material (to abuse the evolutionary metaphor). Saltationism/macromutation of ideas is rare, hence precious when it truly does happen. But hybridization (multidisciplinary syntheses; integrative science; all the rage these days– usually for good reasons) is a powerful force, probably today more than ever in science, able to generate and tackle big ideas.

It’s just as easy to default to the breathless “Wow, everything is new!” shortcut. The 24-hour news cycle takes a regular tongue-lashing from scientists and other science communicators from taking this shortcut too often. We might more reflexively forgive that cycle in the breath after cursing it, because memories and attention spans are short, hectic lives are only a bit longer, and thus in the latest science news story the headline or ~500-word article can’t regale us with the entire, nuanced history of a subject *and* explain within those tight constraints what incremental advance has been made, with due credit to all antecedents. Would we prefer less science news coverage overall, to save that breathlessness for the rare occasion when it is truly deserved? Or just more boring, toned-down, long-winded coverage (cough, this post, cough?) that attracts less interest in science overall? I’d be wary of such arguments.

Scientific journal articles, too, are becoming more complex because of the increasingly specialized, technical nature of many fields that have benefited from prior scientific advances. Online journal formats are helping to loosen the noose of word limits on those articles. But good mentors (and reviewers, and editors) remind young (and all other) scientists that overly long papers will raise the risk of fewer people reading them or spotting key phrases buried in them. “Moderation in all things.” Usually. “Exceptions to all things”, too, I admit– sometimes long papers are great!

Furthermore, much as journalists can’t cover, or be familiar with, the whole history of a field, so it is becoming harder even for specialists to follow scientific progress within a specialized field. Open access to literature and online papers or emailed pdfs are helping, with even many very old classic papers becoming digitized. Yet then while you’re reading through some of the old literature you’d missed, and doing teaching and research and admin and other tasks that life as a scientist demands of you, new papers are popping up. You see some of them, and others get missed because there are too many papers getting published to follow them all, and because there are so many journals (many of the online ones being very generalist, so a paper on a given topic could appear anywhere), and even the best literature-searching tools don’t find everything. Patience, to a degree, in tolerating missed references is thus important, although it can help to point them out diplomatically.

I find it exasperating trying to keep up with the fields I work in. Seriously, I frequently look at my folders of papers “to read” and I think “*@$*! I’ll never read all that now!” Ten years ago it was different. I felt like I could, and I think I mostly did, keep up with my interests. Furthermore, I care about reading others’ research. I love reading science and I feel proud to keep up with a topic, knowing that I’m doing my scholastic duty. I want to learn what others have learned, both in the far past and far-flung countries and in the recent cutting-edge studies. I have gotten where I am from doing that– the literature routinely inspires me to take new directions in research and many of my best papers/grants/projects have come directly from that inspiration. I worry that I am missing opportunities for new ideas by not reading all of the old ones. But no one can do everything.

Aha! I have reached one of my points! The literature is there to show us the way; show us where the knowns and unknowns are in science. The peaks of knowledge where science has climbed to new heights of understanding! The valleys of ignorance where a bit of research effort or luck might get you far in making “new” discoveries! Or you can slog it on the slopes and try to conquer the peaks on that scholastic landscape (Sewall Wright fans, take note); show that your disciplinary Mt. Everest is taller than anyone thought it was. We all have our favoured routes as researchers. The point is to discover something “new” to science. It is all new, if it is worth doing, as a scientific researcher. And maybe 99.99% of that newness ascends from base-camps on older, lower landscapes.

But there is new (tiny steps), and then there is NEW (quantum leaps), and we must be wary of that’s-not-even-new-at-all (previously charted territory, or even plagiarism). The aspect of “new”-ness here that interests me is the subjective judgement we make in assessing that originality. As an example from my own research in vertebrate palaeontology, I’ve published around 12 papers that orbit the topic of whether a big theropod dinosaur such as Tyrannosaurus rex could run quickly if at all. This all began with my 2002 paper in Nature, which at the time was a “new” application in palaeontology of methods that were well over 30 years old then (inverse dynamics analysis of musculoskeletal mechanics), and owed a lot to simpler approaches by RMcNeill Alexander and others, but probably was published (and gained me some notoriety/infamy) because it answered a tough question in a clever, basic and reproducible way.

My (and coauthors’) papers in 2004, 2005, 2007 and onwards fleshed out this topic more and showed some of the nuances overlooked in that 2002 study. They were all “new”, even though that question “Was T. rex a fast runner?” was gradually beaten to death by them to the point where even I am tired of it now, although I can still see areas where I’m not satisfied with my own answers. I guess the 2002 paper was NEW in its own moderate way and the later papers, even though some of them were much fancier (e.g. using 3D imaging and cutting edge computer modelling; not just simple equations and sketches), were incrementally new in terms of the answers they gave, even if methodologically NEW-ish. We could debate the finer details of the “new-ness” there until the heat death of the universe, but I doubt it would be of more than of very niche (read: tediously nerdy and semantic/subjective) interest. Debating whether something is new or not quickly gets boring. It’s a dull criticism to level at a new study, because most studies (at least in my field) are conducted and published for a good reason and probably are new in some way; the ways they are not new are far less interesting. It’s maybe even harder to accurately delineate the “new-ness” of a study than it is to berate it for its old-ness; the latter is the knee-jerk retort too often on social media, perhaps, and easily fuelled by scientific self esteem issues.

Returning to point 1 above, then, sure. That study in year XXXX by so-and-so probably does have some relationship to the latest studies in a related field. And it behooves us as scholars to be aware of those homologies and homoplasies that are the history of any scientific discipline’s intellectual evolution. But giving the authors or the news media a tongue-lashing for talking about (incrementally) new research probably is more often wasted breath than otherwise; boiling down to debate over which hairs have been split and by whom and when. There are plenty of cases of excessive spin and hype, my personal punching-bag being the humdrum T. rex “scavenger” nonsense, but I usually find it more rewarding to look for the value in scientific ideas and data than excoriate the excesses of how they are presented to the public.

What’s more interesting, to me, is how weaving together old research to allow new ascents up scholastic landscapes moves science forward, sometimes in surprising ways. Old research provides data and ideas that are ancestors of new ideas and eventually new data. Indeed, this reticulating phylogeny of data and ideas muddies the waters between “data” and “ideas” in some cases. We need both, and different researchers fall into different positions along a spectrum. I see some scientists who take an “r selection” approach to ideas, throwing them out in a shotgun approach (sometimes with little or no peer review to control their quality) and hoping that some stick, adhering to supportive data. In contrast, other scientists fall closer to the “K selection” extreme, slowly nuturing ideas with cautious care, focusing on building up mountains of rigorous data to test those ideas with, until together they are ready to leave the academic nest and be published.

The integration of data and ideas from old research plays a variable role in that evolution of data and ideas– some of those scientists (falling on any point along that r-K spectrum) rely more on careful reading of past scientific literature to give their work firm historical footing and inspiration, whereas others mostly pluck a few references that they need to cite once they write up their work, not so keen on spending their time keeping up with the literature and thus focusing more on their own internal thought processes or other sources of inspiration. Different strokes for different folks…

What I’d like to close with, as a roughly second point of this post, is to question the inherent value of scientific ideas. I emphasize that I am unable to provide any easy answers here. What is the value of a good idea that needs testing by some kind of data? The source of inspiration may be immaterial to that evaluation; where one got one’s ideas may not matter here, it’s more about the value of the idea at hand– be it a hypothesis, a general question, a “what’s up with that?” (my personal favourite kind of research question); whatever.

For example, I can think of many cases in my career where a certain paper or grant owed hugely to an idea I had; without that idea, which wasn’t initially obvious, we’d still be stuck at some lower scientific base-camp, and big papers or grants or whatever would not have happened, and careers might not have blossomed the way they did (who knows!). My job as a senior researcher is often to “give away” ideas to those I mentor and collaborate with, and I love doing that. It’s seldom one-sided, with me playing the parthenogenetic parent and that’s it; normally these processes are intensely collaborative and thus multiparental hybrids. But I can usually trace back where the lineages of ideas came from and weigh their merits accordingly, and sometimes as scientists we have to do that.

However, it’s not just about ideas, either– a great scientific idea can be wonderfully valuable, but until it is tested its value might only be speculated upon. It takes the infamously time-consuming and technically challenging procedure of scientific  data collection and analysis to test most ideas, and different collaborators may play lesser or greater roles in that process vs. the ancestral idea-generating process(es). Along the way, we must think of ideas for how to test the main idea itself: what methods might work, what has or hasn’t been tried before to tackle similar problems, and is the method we’ve chosen even working as the scientific work proceeds or must we switch approaches? That gets messy; ideas and data begin to become entangled, and contributions of individuals intermingled, but that’s how science works.

This leads to the flip side of the value of scientific ideas, that in many cases they aren’t worth that much— they may be dead-ends for one reason or another: just foolish ideas; or untestable with current tools/data; or so obvious that anyone could have come up with them; or boring and not really worth trying to test. I’ve found it common to publish a paper and then hear, at some point before or after publication, another researcher say (in reference to some major or minor aspect of the paper) something like “Hey I mentioned that idea in this paper/book/blog post!” More often than not, I don’t want to say it in retort but my reaction is “Well, duh. It’s a pretty obvious idea”, and/or “That’s great, but you didn’t test it; that’s the hard bit”. Cheap ideas by definition aren’t worth much fuss. To abuse Shakespeare, “The science is the thing; wherein we’ll catch which idea in science is king.” (sorry!)

A common example I run across that falls within this theme of cheap ideas is to encounter a colleague (e.g. a new student, maybe one with lax supervision) who describes their new research project in which they apply some sort of fancy technique like computer modelling/simulation to an animal, such as a nice dinosaur fossil, doing what some previous study/studies had done with other species but applied to a new species. Uncomfortably often, when asked their justification for applying that method to that animal is because they can, and because they happen to have that animal accessible, rather than because there is an urgent, exciting question that must be answered for which that method and specimen are ideally suited to testing. It’s not worthless, but… more emphasis on the value of ideas and less on climbing Mt. Everest because it’s there might have been rewarding?

Returning to the main thrust of this post conveyed by the title, then, it’s not easy evaluating what the value of an idea is in science, but it’s something that we all have to learn to do as researchers, and it can bring out the best and worst of our humanity as scientists; perhaps leading to conflict; or it can even just end up with an unsatisfyingly muddled answer. So tread carefully on that scholastic landscape, and think about how you choose your way across it– there are many routes, but I think we can generally agree that the prize of discovery (whether incrementally small or uncommonly large) is a big part of why we dare the journey.

I’d love to hear your thoughts, your stories, and other insights here– it’s a very broad topic and lots of room for discussion!

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I was recently featured on Daily Planet, a great Canadian science show on TV that lamentably is not broadcast more globally. It is always high quality science communication, aided by the superb hosts Ziya Tong and Dan Riskin (and a talented crew!). What were we doing? Dissecting an elephant’s foot, of course!

Stomach-Churning Rating: 9/10; no-holds-barred dismantling of elephant feet, from the video onwards, and this post is heavy on moist, goopy photos afterwards, with some nasty pathologies. Not nice at all. I’ll give you a chance to turn around while contemplating the cart that we use to carry elephant feet around campus (each foot is 20-30kg; up to 70lbs; so we need the help!), before the video.

no_poo

Here is a snippet of the full segment from Daily Planet:

And here is more of some of my recent dissections. I’ll walk you through two dissections, via photos. This goes back to the roots of this blog: unflinching, gritty examinations of real anatomy! Of course, no elephants were harmed for this work. They died at EU zoos/parks and were sent to me for postmortem examination and research, so we hope that this benefits the future care of elephants. We’re currently finishing up a grand overview paper that describes all of the odd pathologies we’ve observed in elephant feet, for the benefit of zoo keepers and vets who are trying to detect, diagnose and monitor any foot problems.

As the post’s title alludes, elephant feet (and more proximal parts of the limbs) are no stranger to this blog. If you’ve forgotten or are unfamiliar, here are some of my past proboscidean-posts: on elephant foot pathologies (a close sister post to this one), our “six-toed” elephants paper, how to make a computer simulation of an elephant’s limb (umm, paper yet to come!), how we boil and bleach bones to clean them up, and a few others. Last but not least, there was the post that went viral in the early #JohnsFreezer/WIJF days: dissecting an elephant with the “Inside Nature’s Giants” show.

There are two feet in this post, both front right feet (manus is the technical term; singular and plural). The first one is the messier (unhealthy and bloodier, less fresh and clean) one, from the show/video. It is an Asian elephant (Elephas maximus). I kick off with photos I took after the filming, so the foot is already deconstructed:

Skinned foot, oblique front/inside view.

Skinned foot, oblique front/inside view. The wrist is on the right side of the photo; the toes on the left.

Sole ("slipper"), with a hole on the fourth toe showing where the abscess is that let infection in/pus drain out.

Sole (“slipper”), with a hole on the fourth toe showing where the abscess is that let infection in/pus drain out. The slipper here is upside-down.

Top-down view of the sole of the foot, once the slipper is removed.

Top-down view of the sole of the foot, once the slipper is removed; flipped over and rotated 90 degrees clockwise from the above photo. Some of the fat pad of the foot is on the right side of the image; it’s very hard to separate from the keratinous sole of the foot.

Looking down into the fourth toe's abscess on the other side of the above view.

Looking down into the fourth toe’s (ring finger) abscess on the other side of the above view.

Looking down into the third (middle) toe, same view as above. Some redness and greyness where this toe had some of its own pathological issues.

Looking down into the second toe (index finger), same view as above. Some redness and greyness where this toe had some of its own pathological issues like infection and a smaller abscess.

Looking up from the slipper at the fat pad and toes of the foot, where they interface with the sole/slipper. The fat pad is toward the bottom and left side; the five toes are on the upper/right side (knobby subcircular regions on the perimeter of the foot).

Looking up from the slipper (removed) at the fat pad and toes of the foot, where they interface with the sole/slipper. The fat pad is toward the bottom and left side; the five toes are on the upper/right side (knobby subcircular regions on the perimeter of the foot). The very bad infection on the fourth toe is visible on the bottom right.

The sproingy fat pad is worth a video!

And one good wiggle deserves another!

A view down onto the wrist joint. The carpal (wrist) bones are visible at the bottom of the image, whereas the flexor (palmar) tendons and muscles on the back of the "hand" are at the top. There is a LOT of musculotendinous tissue on the back side of an elephant's foot.

A view down onto the wrist joint. The carpal (wrist) bones are visible at the bottom of the image, whereas the flexor (palmar) tendons and muscles on the back of the “hand” are at the top. There is a LOT of musculotendinous tissue on the back side of an elephant’s foot. As you will see in my dissection of the second foot, further below!

Looking down onto the medial (inner/"thumb") border of the foot, where I've exposed the prepollex, or false "sixth finger" by removing the first metacarpal (knuckle) bone.

Looking down onto the medial (inner/”thumb”) border of the foot, where I’ve exposed the prepollex, or false “sixth finger”, by removing the first metacarpal (knuckle) bone.

Removed the prepollex from the foot. The white oval structure is the top of the prepollex; white is cartilage, whereas the red "islands" are blood vessels that have invaded the cartilage and are starting to turn it into patches of bone. So this prepollex is at a very early stage of bone formation, still almost entirely cartilaginous, whereas some older elephants have the prepollex largely formed of bone.

I’ve removed the prepollex from the foot. The white oval structure (bottom right) is the top of the conical prepollex, where it connected to the rest of the foot. White is cartilage, whereas the red “islands” are blood vessels that have invaded the cartilage and are starting to turn it into patches of bone. So this prepollex is at a very early stage of bone formation, still almost entirely cartilaginous, whereas some older elephants have the prepollex largely formed of bone. The fleshy pink tissue adhering to the surface of the prepollex here is a remnant of “abductor” muscle that connects it to the thumb and thus could allow some active control of the prepollex’s mobility.

Well, that was one very pathological elephant’s foot; one of the worst I have ever seen. Every foot I dissect is different and tells me a unique story about that animal’s development, history and health. This one told a very sad tale. What does a somewhat normal elephant’s foot look like? I thawed one out for comparison, and to thin out my overstuffed freezer stock. This one starts off from an intact (if severed) foot so you can witness the stages of dissection:

Whole foot. African elephant (Loxodonta africana).

Whole foot. African elephant (Loxodonta africana). You may spot in later photos that the second and fourth toes’ nails are cracked longitudinally. This happens sometimes in elephants without any obvious health problems such as infection, but if it lasts long enough and conditions are bad enough (e.g. unsanitary conditions getting bacteria into the crack; spreading the crack to let them into the foot tissue), it could worsen.

Nice clean sole.

Nice clean sole. No abscesses or other problems. You can faintly see the cracked toenails here.

Gorgeous white cartilage surfaces of the wrist joints. Nice and healthy-looking. A young animal, in this case.

Gorgeous white cartilage surfaces of the wrist joints. Nice and healthy-looking. A young animal, in this case.

Removing the skin; nice soft whitish connective tissue underneath.

Removing the skin; nice soft whitish connective tissue underneath.

Skinned foot; rear view. The yellowish fat pad is wonderfully visible through the connective tissue sheath.

Skinned foot; rear view. The yellowish fat pad is wonderfully visible through the connective tissue sheath.

Skinned foot; front view. The thin, broad extensor tendons that would draw the fingers forward in life are visible here as longitudinal lines along the foot's surface, running to the toes.

Skinned foot; front view. The thin, broad extensor tendons that would draw the fingers forward in life are visible here as longitudinal lines along the foot’s surface, running to the toes.

Ahh, my favourite thing! I've cut around the prepollex and am pointing at it. It's almost impossible otherwise to see through all the fatty tissue of the fat pad that surrounds it.

Ahh, my favourite thing! I’ve cut around the prepollex and am pointing at it. It’s almost impossible otherwise to see through all the fatty tissue of the fat pad that surrounds it.

Removing the prepollex. It's tiny and enmeshed in connective tissue; harder to see than in the first elephant (photos above).

Removing the prepollex. It’s tiny and enmeshed in connective tissue; harder to see than in the first elephant (photos above).

There is the prepollex! Maybe 12cm long. A little bit of cartilage (white) visible where it connected to the foot. These "sesamoid bones" vary tremendously in elephants I've inspected. I am still getting my head around that, after >10 years of staring at them in >75 feet!

There is the prepollex! Maybe 12cm long. A little bit of cartilage (white) visible where it connected to the foot. These “sesamoid bones” vary tremendously in elephants I’ve inspected. I am still getting my head around that, after >10 years of staring at them in >75 feet!

Gap left by removal of the prepollex, on the median border of the foot; thumb region. Imagine having a little extra thumb growing off the base of your thumb and sticking toward your palm. That's what elephants have.

Gap left by removal of the prepollex, on the median border of the foot; thumb region. Imagine having a little extra thumb growing off the base of your thumb and sticking toward your palm. That’s what elephants have.

Here, removing the slipper/sole of the foot, from the back side forwards. Hard work!

Here, removing the slipper/sole of the foot, from the back side forwards. Hard work!

The slipper. Compare with the image above (same orientation). Nothing wrong here that I could see.

The slipper. Compare with the image above (same orientation). Nothing wrong here that I could see.

Front view of the toes, where they connect to the toenails. This specimen was so fresh that they were surprisingly easy to cut through and remove the foot from the sole.

Front view of the toes, where they connect to the toenails. This specimen was so fresh that they were surprisingly easy to cut through and remove the foot from the sole.

Looking up at the palm. You can see the bulbous fat pad (yellower tissue) bulging out in the centre of the palm, and segments of it extending between each finger, separated by fibrous tracts. I love this anatomy. I can stare at it for hours and still be fascinated after all these years. So complex!

Looking up at the palm. You can see the bulbous fat pad (yellower tissue) bulging out in the centre of the palm, and segments of it extending between each finger, separated by fibrous tracts. I love this anatomy. I can stare at it for hours and still be fascinated after all these years. So complex!

Looking down onto the inside of the toenails, toes 3 and 4. Healthy, relatively intact tissue; no swelling or bleeding or other pathology.

Looking down onto the inside of the toenails, toes 3 and 4. Healthy, relatively intact tissue; no swelling or bleeding or other pathology.

Skinned foot, oblique front/inside view again, as above.

Skinned foot, oblique front/inside view again, as above.

Fat pad removed, looking up through where it was at the palm of the "hands", where the tendons and ligaments connect to the five toes. Each arc-like structure is a toe; the "thumb" (first toe) is on the upper left.

Fat pad removed, looking up through where it was at the palm of the “hands”, where the tendons and ligaments connect to the five toes. Each arc-like structure is a toe; the “thumb” (first toe) is on the upper left.

Elephant's-eye-view looking down onto the fat pad, where the palm of the foot in the image below would be placed in life.

Elephant’s-eye-view looking down onto the fat pad, where the palm of the foot in the image below would be placed in life (i.e. the limb would be coming down vertically, perpendicular to the plane of the image). The fat pad of the foot is visibly thicker toward the back of the foot (bottom of the image), as you’d expect, because the toes occupy most of the front parts.

Palmar tendons and muscles; the common digital extensor muscle group. Clenches the toes. Not a small muscle, either!

Palmar tendons and muscles; the common digital extensor muscle group, which clenches the toes. Not a small muscle, either!

Tendons of the digital flexor muscle exposed.

Tendons of the digital flexor muscle exposed.

Removed the digital flexor muscle so the three major tendons can be seen (the two short side branches to the first and fifth toes have been cut off).

I removed the digital flexor muscle so the three major tendons can be seen (the two short side branches to the first and fifth toes have been cut off).

Forefoot with flexor tendons removed, revealing the channels that they coursed through.

Forefoot with flexor tendons removed, revealing the channels that they coursed through.

Closeup of the glistening channels for the flexor tendons. They are lined with lubricative tissue to help the tendons glide through them. And the tendons do need to be able to glide- although elephant feet look very solid from the outside, and are to an extent, but we've done studies showing that they do move if you apply even a moderate load to them in a cadaver, and thus would move in life, too.

Closeup of the glistening channels for the flexor tendons. They are lined with lubricative tissue to help the tendons glide through them. And the tendons do need to be able to glide- although elephant feet look very solid from the outside, and are to an extent, but we’ve done studies showing that they do move if you apply even a moderate load to them in a cadaver, and thus would move in life, too.

Let’s finish off with some osteology, shall we? First the unhealthy Asian elephant, then the healthy African elephant; same front right feet, just the bones (from my CT scans):

Ouch, indeed!

Much better. And that’s the end!

Wow, that was an elephantine post! I wanted to take yet another opportunity to share the amazing anatomy of elephant feet with you. You’re all now qualified experts if you made it this far!

Any questions?

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Goat morphology is cool! (from work with local artist)

I posted the above photo once before, but didn’t explain any of the fun details of artist-designer Thomas Thwaites‘s visit to the RVC to dissect a goat with us. Now his show has just finished in London, celebrating the end of his project and the near-completion of his book about his experience trying to live life as a goat. This week, I went to his east side gallery and had some time to chat with Thomas about his transhuman experiences. Because the project has a strong biomechanics, anatomy, art and science theme to it, I’m posting a photo-blog post about all of that. It’s goat to be seen to be believed! I for one wouldn’t mind being a goat right now; I could use a break from my decrepit body…

Stomach-Churning Rating: Too late, there’s the goat pic above and more like it below. I’d give those a 8/10; no kidding. The puns make it worse, too.

The context

The context. Thomas never did get to gallop (sorry, spoiler!) but he did manage a trot, and some other capricious behaviours. I forgot to ask him if he’d tried the Goat Simulator. I have; it’s good for an hour of fun hircosity.

Starting the dissection at the RVC.

Starting the dissection at the RVC, to get inside a goat.

Hide.

Hide.

Fore- and hindlimbs.

Fore- and hindlimbs; comparative design for inspiring prosthetics.

Dissections!

Dissections on display!

Prototype goat-suits. Their mobility was too limited.

Prototype goat-suits. Their mobility was too limited.

The prototype in the foreground could not move without falling down.

The prototype in the foreground could not move without falling down.

Goat-suit shots.

Inhabited-goat-suit shots.

The Goat-Suit: custom made prothetics, a helmet, and some form-fitting casts.

The final Goat-Suit: custom prosthetics, a helmet, and some form-fitting casts.

Thomas Thwaites with the goat-suit.

Thomas Thwaites with the goat-suit.

The forelimb prosthesis. I was worried it would hurt his wrists but apparently it transferred the loads mainly to the forearms.

The forelimb prosthesis. I was worried it would hurt his wrists but apparently it transferred the loads mainly to the forearms. It was made by a prosthetics clinic up in Salford.

Showroom

Photos from rambling around the Swiss Alps in the goat-suit with goats.

Trip-trap-trip-trap...

Trip-trap-trip-trap… (but no trolls)

Goat-suit in action!

Goat-suit in action! With Goat-Pro camera, I see.

Acceptance?

Acceptance?

And the goat that we had dissected, skeletonized at RVC and re-articulated by Thomas:

Do goats wish they were human?

Do goats wish they were human?

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

Close-up of goat head.

Close-up of goat head and shoulders.

Goat hooves-on-hips

Goat hooves-on-hips; a gruff pose.

So like us.

So like us.

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Well, that was an eventful week for me, although today’s post will focus on one event: the debut of the film Jurassic World. Briefly though, the awesome “T. rex Autopsy” documentary debuted (I was going to post more about it but all I’d have left to say is that I was very pleased with the result), I also showed up briefly in “Top 10 Biggest Beasts Ever” talking about the giant rhinocerotoid Paraceratherium and the stresses on its feet, our paper on ostrich musculoskeletal modelling was published (more in a future post) after ~12 years of me diddling around with it, and much more happened. Then to cap it all off, very shortly after I hit the “publish” button on my last post, I had four tonic clonic seizures in a row and spent a hazy night in the hospital, then the past week recovering from the damage. Nothing like another near-death (no exaggeration there, I’m afraid) experience to cap off an exciting week. But strangely, what I feel more interested in talking about is, like I said, Jurassic World, but this is not a review, as you will see here.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10; just SPOILERS if you haven’t seen the film yet!

I guess I have to give a brief review of the film and say that I was entertained, to a degree, but it was not a great piece of film-making. It was a far cry from the original but then so were the sequels, and maybe it was better than them. The mosa-star was the most novel, memorable bit. I didn’t care for the Indominus villain, but then when you bring genetic engineering into a film like this, you’ve basically thrown out the rulebook and can make your dinosaurs as magical as you want; we’re already in “X-Men” territory here and almost in “Pacific Rim”-land.

Chris Pratt has signed on for at least another sequel to Jurassic World and the ending of the film already started that ball rolling. So I find it fun to speculate wildly, and certainly incorrectly, on what the sequel might do. What does the Jurassic future have in store?

First of all, who survived to re-appear in the next film? We’re left with the Bryce Dallas Howard character, who probably will return with Pratt to further develop their rather uninteresting social/romantic dynamic, rather than start afresh with someone else. The kids of course survived, as always, and as always they won’t return, as that’s not interesting and they didn’t have much to do except scream and (highly implausibly) hotwire an old car. Much as I’d like the parents from my hometown of Madison, WI to return, they won’t either for the same reasons. But we really only need Pratt and his high-heeled sweetie for the next film. Everyone else memorable(?) seems to have died, although it would be wonderful to bring Goldblum back for some smarmy wit (please!).

Second of all, the next film can’t be set in Jurassic World. There’s not much left to do there (JW already spent much of its time hearkening back to JP), and there’s no way the park would re-open. We need something new. I think by now we’re (very) tired of characters running around islands full of dinosaurs and the Blackfish parallel was milked dry in the latest movie. We need to spend a film with the dinosaurs amongst humanity (as Lost World briefly did), and much as I’d love to see the crazy drug lord/kidnapping plot happen, it won’t. But JW did set one thing up that has to happen now in its sequel: the paramilitary role of engineered, trained dinosaurs. We now know they can sort of train their dinosaurs and they can forge them to be anything they want to in terms of geno/phenotypes. They’ll learn from some mistakes of JW and engineer (or already did by the end of JW, at some remote site) some more compliant, deadlier animals, having largely given up on the public exhibition angle. The naked raptors and T. rex probably have to re-appear (sigh), but enough already of the giant uber-theropods like Spinosaurus and Indominus. The latter was already enough of a reprise of the former (plus psychic talents and chameleon powers etc.). Something truly novel is needed.

Unless they engineer a hyper-aggressive, intelligent sauropod or ceratopsian, which would admittedly be neat, I have this prediction (which is probably wrong but hey!): they have shown they can hybridize anything. There must be fewer and fewer “normal” (1990s…) dinosaurs now in the JW universe. So the next big step, which someone in the JW universe surely would do, is to hybridize dinosaurs and humans. Maybe some raptor-human hybrids, maybe also saving a tyranno-human hybrid for a surprise late appearance. But this is the sensible next step because it allows them to play with the (tired) Frankenstein monster trope but also touch on the hot topic of human cloning and human GM.

Abandoned concept art from JP4; from here

Abandoned concept art from JP4; from here

And by unleashing dino-human hybrids, or at least some freaky clicker-trained and engineered super-dinos, they could also explore the military theme, which the JW universe still hasn’t delved into much. What if those hyper-smart, deadly hybrid dinos, led by Pratt and Howard’s expert training, were used to combat an ISIS-analogue terrorist threat? Dino-Avengers in the badlands of Afghanistan or Iraq? Too predictable perhaps, but that’s a film that the public will want to see. Yeah there’s plenty of stupid there, but there’s no turning back– each film ups the ante, as JW ironically reminds us several times. We’re already in firmly in stupid-land, and the science has largely advanced to the point of magic. My idea is too uncomfortably close to the abandoned John Sayles plot, true. Darn. And (groan) kids have to be involved in some way to make it a family film so it rakes in the $$$ again, so either they get caught in the middle of the paramilitary mess or they are the ones that have to be saved… or the hybrid dinos are cute-ish kids themselves that Pratt and Howard must manage… (shades of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Kick-Ass?) I’ve found that more fun to think about than dwelling on the flaws of the movie, which is frankly too easy.

(Another good theme that Vivian Allen suggested to me would be climate change and invasive species—i.e. planet warms, dinos are already loose and go feral in waterlogged Central America, ecological disaster is looming and something must be done to round up the dinos… could work in some other bits like ecotourists or drug runners?)

That’s as far as my wildly speculative ruminating has taken me, but I wanted to turn it over to you, Freezerinos. If you were to make the next film (will it be “Jurassic World 2”? “Jurassic Army”? or as I’ve proffered in the post’s title, “Jurassic Future”?), what would it be (A) in your ideal world where you call all the shots (yes, lots of colourful feathery dinos, I know), vs. (B) in a more likely (less daring, more Hollywood) reality, along the lines of what I’ve tried to do here? (but I surely will be wrong, although we’ll see in 2-5 years!)

 

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In early 2011, I got a fun email from a producer at National Geographic TV about a new project they were planning, which involved dissecting a full-scale model of a Tyrannosaurus rex in a documentary to be called “T. rex Autopsy.” Things fell silent for some months, then I got another email saying they were moving forward, then things fell silent again. Three and a half years later I got another email, this time from a producer at Impossible Factual films (working with NatGeo), saying that the show was finally moving forward for real. (This sort of thing is normal for documentaries; time scales can be long and unpredictable, or very fast-paced) This email invited me to be a primary scientific consultant in the design of the creature and show. Of course, anatomical dissection and T. rex are what I’m about as a scientist; two of my major research areas; so bringing them together was like a dream come true and I leapt into that dream with enthusiasm.

(Meanwhile, circa 2010-11, another TV channel filmed me for a different programme in which a whole, fresh-ish T. rex was found weathering out of an Alaskan cliffside and scientists had ~2 days to study it before it fell into an abyss– it’s probably best that that show never happened… there were fundamental flaws.)

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10. Merciful. No gory images here, just text descriptions and 2 glamour shots, for various reasons. The TV show is not for small children, though. I am guessing that the final programme will be about a 7/10 SCR because of gooey, seemingly rancid, but rubbery (so it doesn’t look overly real, but still looks great) dinosaur vital organs. For more pictures, see the links to tweets, trailers and news stories below.

I introduced T. rex Autopsy to you in the previous post, I’ve been tweeting and retweeting extensively since then, and one of my later posts will be a “postmortem” of the show, which airs June 7 worldwide. My feeling is that, if what I’ve seen so far is indicative of the whole show, it will be a landmark moment in palaeontological documentary history. T. rex Autopsy fuses the best aspects of “Inside Nature’s Giants” with “Walking With Dinosaurs”, and without “Alien Autopsy” pseudoscience. Indeed, it seems to be a very science-based documentary (once you get past the requisite conceit that scientists could actually find a very fresh T. rex body– that’s the only sci-fi bit of the show, quickly dispensed with!). T. rex Autopsy is packed with evidence-based palaeobiology, and has consistently been so since I first spoke to producers, which was a great comfort to me.

This post is about my role in the show, my perspective on it, and an attempt at a spoiler-free prelude. I’m willing to go out on a limb a bit and urge people to watch it, because I’m already proud of what was attempted in the show– it was a bold vision by NatGeo and laborious execution by everyone involved. I especially want to give a big shout of respect out to creature designers Crawley Creatures (led by Jez Gibson-Harris [interview here], who helped create Jabba the Hutt and the Dark Crystal beings, among others). Around 14 people on Jez’s team worked full time for ~4 months to make the T. rex. The designers based the proportions on the Field Museum’s scans of “Sue”, which I helped them get access to (I’d used them for our PLOS ONE paper in 2011). That, and numerous comments on their draft dinosaur’s body proportions and limb positions (e.g. avoiding “bunny hands“), was some of my first major involvement in the programme.

Edwina revealed! 

(photo credit:  National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman)

Edwina revealed! 

(photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman)

Over 200 emails (I was curious; I counted them!) and a bunch of phone calls and 7 months later, my input on the T. rex Autopsy film shoot and production was finishing. Just last week, I sent what supposedly was my last email of input on the show, about predatory habits (NOT the dumb scavenger debate we’re all tired of; more about ambush vs. pursuit habits). I’d spent many hours going over drafts of T. rex‘s anatomy and function and behaviour from head to tail with the superb Impossible Factual film production team (mainly Assistant Producer Cressida Kinnear). Very often, to their credit, they’d already done a lot of literature searching and speaking with key experts on dinosaur jaws or brains or breathing, so I just had to check the fine details, but in some cases I had to recommend experts to speak to and/or do my own sleuthing and educate myself about aspects of T. rex biology I’d never pondered much.

For example, how big was T. rex‘s heart? I’d been asked the same question about sauropods lately for another show so I had references and an Excel spreadsheet ready to go, and plugged in some values, but the estimates I got seemed too small relative to the thoracic cavity (mediastinum if you must). I had some interesting back-and-forth discussions with the producers and we settled on one size that seemed “right”. No one that I knew of had tried to scientifically estimate the size of a T. rex‘s heart, probably because there hadn’t been a good reason to try. Sauropods get all the dino-love in regards to blood pressure issues and heart size, for good reasons- for them, it should have been a serious biomechanical challenge to pump blood up the long neck to the brain. For an elephant-sized T. rex, it doesn’t boggle the scientific mind so much that blood pressure wasn’t such a major evolutionary design constraint. See the show and find out more about what the intrepid team of dissectors found…

Did T. rex have feathers? This was important to get right, I felt, and not just show T. rex as a leathery or scaly beast, which is outdated. As I put it, it’s more speculative to show T. rex without any feathery thingies than to show it with some. We passed around draft images and thoughts and agreed on a slightly fuzzy, bristly body, especially in some regions of the head/neck, arms and tail tip. I encouraged the design team to go for more colour (I wrote to the designers “Skin colouring: go nuts! Feathery things should be colourful. Big animals tend to be more drab in colour but that doesn’t mean a boring grey/green, and certainly there should be some regional patterning. I like the idea of there being brightly coloured areas on the face”). We can be confident that dinosaurs could see colour like most land animals (except many mammals!) can. All of this is pretty familiar to palaeo-artists and fans of modern dinosaur reconstructions, so I won’t belabour it more. I’m glad that much of this made it into the final design. It’s not your overly familiar Jurassic Park T. rex.

Cheeks, eye pupils, brain/senses, how big a mouthful of meat it could swallow, furcula (wishbone), gastralia (belly ribs- I gave a lot of detailed criticism here), reproductive anatomy and biology, eggs, body fat, growth, air sacs, stomach, and excretory system, among other things: we covered them all in discussing the dino’s design, and I learned a lot along the way.

A memorable part of my discussions with the designers, in early March, was about the intestines and cloaca (rear-end opening): they initially put the cloaca too far forward on the body, I got them to move it backward, then I later realized in a panic that, making a neophyte error, I’d missed a key anatomical feature in the hips that clearly would put the “vent” even further backward, so I send them a hasty email apologizing that I’d missed this and urging that they fix their graphics and animations. I felt bad about this as it was late in the design phase and I’m sure I stressed out the team to make this change, but I thought it would be embarrassing to get the position of that hole wrong. Yet it was also funny to me to be scrutinizing where the “poop hole” of a dinosaur should go, and worrying so much about getting it right… my scatological sense of humour was in overdrive. By the middle of March they had this detail right. Phew!

There is another dinosaur that makes an appearance in the documentary but I don’t want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that one dinosaur from another time period and continent was initially chosen, and I (echoed by Dave Hone, I know) urged them not to do that, choosing a more appropriate Hell Creek Formation dinosaur. Phew! Perhaps more about that later.

Finally, of course we talked about legs and muscles and locomotion. I was filmed at the RVC discussing this, and it looks like it will be a cool segment, including an explanation of how the bones reveal the anatomy of the soft tissues of limbs and other parts of the body (i.e. bread-and-butter from my PhD thesis work). I hope that makes the final cut! (Edit: I’m told it has; yay!) There may even be footage of me dissecting a chicken and talking about enlarged and reduced leg muscles in birds, in any “making of” side-programme.

But I was not one of the four people doing the T. rex dissections in the show. That arduous job (2 looooooong days of filming!) fell to vet Luke Gamble and palaeontologists Tori Herridge, Steve Brusatte and Matthew Mossbrucker, with a crew of assistants including some from Crawley Creatures. The clever idea the producers had, as they explained it to me, was to keep my and others’ scientific input on the show’s design separate from the dissectors’ knowledge, so that when the dissection team arrived and cut into the dinosaur, they’d be discovering things without much advance inside knowledge of what to expect to find. We’ll see how that worked when the programme airs– I’ve only seen the trailer and behind-the-scenes footage, as well as the first day of filming. Scientists like me aren’t Shakespearean actors so it’s hard to act surprised when you sort of know what’s coming and have to redo takes of that same surprise. But if you come to T. rex Autopsy expecting Oscar-worthy theatrics, you’ve missed the point. :-)

A taxi drove me to Pinewood Studios (west of London; site of filming many blockbusters) on a Sunday morning in late April. I walked into the giant studio where a 12+ meter long T. rex carcass lay in dramatic lighting. Cue the freezing of my giant grin in place and my eyes wide open. I was stunned! It was gorgeous, and the scale of the carcass left me gobsmacked. I’d only seen various incarnations of it during the design phase, from wire mesh scale models to clay sculptures to full-on foam casts and CGI representations; and all of these just as digital files emailed to me. But to see “Edwina,” as she was called, in the pseudo-flesh, was a moment I may never forget. Emailed JPGs definitely didn’t prepare me for that visual splendour. Crawley’s team were still inserting some of the last ~20,000 goose feathers as bristles into the hide, one by one…

I was at Pinewood to spend a day hobnobbing with VIPs and international press visitors as a “tour guide” to the Edwina autopsy event, and then for a day to watch the initial half of filming with the press in a room overlooking the studio. I got excellent hospitality, was called the “on-screen talent” in documents, which felt really weird to me (I’d never been called that in >10 shows before), and I spent a lot of time explaining the show and dinosaur science to that receptive, inquisitive audience. And gawking at the unfolding spectacle before and during filming. And cracking jokes with journalists during long breaks between actual filming of the documentary. It was a surreal, awesome experience and I loved it. (And, as I’ve insisted scientists in documentaries are, I got paid for it.)

A few minutes after I met Edwina. Still in awe. 

(photo credit:  National Geographic Channels/Stuart Freedman)

A few minutes after I met Edwina. Still in awe.

This documentary was a blast to be involved in and challenged all my skills as a dinosaur expert and biologist as well as a fan of documentaries, monster movies and anatomical artistry! I give a big hat-tip to NatGeo for taking the plunge on this adventure in the first place, to the amazing creature creators, to the film and production crew, to the many jovial journalists I met, and to the four faux-bloodied, surely exhausted dissectors starring in the show– and to Edwina. This was an impressive collaboration drawing together the best that the media, monster-makers and an international team of scientists (aside from the ones I’ve mentioned already, many others too!) can do together. I feel lucky to have been involved, and I think I’ll be looking back on this event as a highlight of my career, especially as a science communicator; much like consulting on Inside Nature’s Giants is a highlight.

I’m as excited as anyone to see how it turns out. Just 2.5 weeks to go — are you excited too? What would you want to see in a T. rex dissection? Where would your first cut be if you did the dissection? “Jurassic World”, what’s that?

EDIT: The first 5 minutes of the show are here!  https://www.yahoo.com/tv/t-rex-autopsy-watch-the-first-5-minutes-who-119918868060.html 

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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, in a better state of preservation than the adults. Photo by James Proffitt.

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 nice muscles that gave us some useful data. 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?

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