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Posts Tagged ‘dinosaur’

Short post here– I have 4 jobs now opened on my team, 1 short-term one (~4 months or less) and 3 long-term ones (5 years; negotiable down to 2-3 minimum) as follows:

Stomach-Churning Rating: -10/10 Let’s do some SCIENCE!

  1. Research Technician in Vertebrate Anatomical Imaging; until ~1 December 2016 (some flexibility), on our Leverhulme Trust sesamoid bone grant. Lots of flexibility here and on a super fun, established project! Deadline to apply: 11 August (interviews will be 22 August)
  2. Part-time (50%) Research Administrator, on our ERC dinosaur evolution/locomotion grant until 2021. I’m hunting for someone that’s super organized and enthusiastic and not afraid of paperwork (it is EU funding, after all), but there is sure to be some involvement in science communication, too. Deadline to apply: 11 August  (interviews will be 31 August)
  3. Research Technician in Biomechanics; until 2021 as above. This post will not “just” be technical support but hands-on doing science. Some vital experience in biomechanics will be needed as the research will begin very quickly after starting. If the right person applies, we could agree for them to do a part-time PhD or MRes related to the grant research (but that’s not guaranteed in advance). Deadline to apply: 26 August (interviews will be 7/8 September)
  4. Postdoctoral Researcher in Biomechanics; until 2021 as above. This second postdoc on the project will join Dr. Vivian Allen and the rest of my team to push this project forward! I am keenest on finding someone who is good at biomechanical computer simulation, i.e., has already published on work in that general area. But the right person with XROMM (digital biplanar fluoroscopy), other digital imaging and biomechanics experience might fit. Deadline to apply: 23 August (interviews will be 7/8 September)

Update: all jobs have closed for applications.

Note that on the bottom of each page linked above, there are Person Specification and Job Description documents that explain more what the jobs are about and what skills we’re looking for in applicants. I strongly encourage any applicants to read these before applying. If those documents don’t describe you reasonably well, it is probably best not to apply, but you can always contact me if you’re not sure.

The project for jobs 2-4 is about testing the “locomotor superiority hypothesis”, an old idea that dinosaurs gained dominance in the Triassic-Jurassic transition because something about their locomotion was better in some way than other archosaurs’. That idea has been dismissed, embraced, ignored and otherwise considered by various studies over the past 40+ years but never really well tested. So in we go, with a lot of biomechanical and anatomical tools and ideas to try to (indirectly) test it! As usual for projects that I do, there is a healthy mix of empirical (e.g. experiments) and theoretical (e.g. models/simulations) research to be done.

Please spread the word if you know of someone right for any of these roles. I am casting a broad net. The next year (and beyond) is going to be a very exciting time on my team, with this big ~£1.9M ERC Horizon 2020 grant starting and lots of modelling, simulation, experiments, imaging and more. Non-EU/EEA/UK people are very welcome to apply– “Brexit” is not expected to affect this project. If you’re not familiar with my team, check out my “mission statement” for what we stand for professionally and as a team. Join us!

 

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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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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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This post is solely my opinion; not reflecting any views of my coauthors, my university, etc, and was written in my free time at home. I am just putting my current thoughts in writing, with the hope of stimulating some discussion. My post is based on some ruminations I’ve had over recent years, in which I’ve seen a lot of change happening in how science’s self-correcting process works, and the levels of openness in science, which are trends that seem likely to only get more intense.

That’s what this post ponders- where are we headed and what does it mean for scientists and science? Please stay to the end. It’s a long read, but I hope it is worth it. I raise some points at the end that I feel strongly about, and many people (not just scientists) might also agree with or be stimulated to think about more.

I’ve always tried to be proactive about correcting my (“my” including coauthors where relevant) papers, whether it was a publisher error I spotted or my/our own; I’ve done at least 5 such published corrections. Some of my later papers have “corrected” (by modifying and improving the methods and data) my older ones, to the degree that the older ones are almost obsolete. A key example is my 2002 Nature paper on “Tyrannosaurus rex was not a fast runner“- a well-cited paper that I am still proud of. I’ve published (with coauthors aplenty) about 10 papers since then that explore various strongly related themes, the accuracy of assumptions and estimates involved, and new ways to approach the 2002 paper’s main question. The message of that paper remains largely the same after all those studies, but the data have changed to the extent that it would no longer be viable to use them. Not that this paper was wrong; it’s just we found better ways to do the science in the 12 years since we wrote it.

I think that is the way that most of science works; we add new increments to old ones, and sooner or later the old ones become more historical milestones for the evolution of ideas than methods and data that we rely on anymore. And I think that is just fine. I cannot imagine it being any other way.

If you paid close attention over the past five months, you may have noticed a kerfuffle (to put it mildly) raised by former Microsoft guru/patent afficionado/chef/paleontologist Nathan Myhrvold over published estimates of dinosaur growth rates since the early 2000’s. The paper coincided with some emails to authors of papers in question, and some press attention, especially in the New York Times and the Economist. I’m not going to dwell on the details of what was right or wrong about this process, especially the scientific nuances behind the argument of Myhrvold vs. papers in question. What happened happened. And similar things are likely to happen again to others, if the current climate in science is any clue. More about that later.

But one outcome of this kerfuffle was that my coauthors and I went through (very willingly; indeed, by my own instigation) some formal procedures at our universities for examining allegations of flaws in publications. And now, as a result of those procedures, we issued a correction to this paper:

Hutchinson, J.R., Bates, K.T., Molnar, J., Allen, V., Makovicky, P.J. 2011. A computational analysis of limb and body dimensions in Tyrannosaurus rex with implications for locomotion, ontogeny, and growth. PLoS One 6(10): e26037. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0026037  (see explanatory webpage at: http://www.rvc.ac.uk/SML/Projects/3DTrexGrowth.cfm)

The paper correction is here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi/10.1371/journal.pone.0097055. Our investigations found that the growth rate estimates for Tyrannosaurus were not good enough to base any firm conclusions are, so we retracted all aspects of growth rates from that paper. The majority of the paper, about estimating body mass and segment dimensions (masses, centres of mass, inertia) and muscle sizes as well as their changes through growth and implications for locomotor ontogeny, still stands; it was not in question.

For those (most of you!) who have never gone through such a formal university procedure checking a paper, my description of it is that it is a big freakin’ deal! Outside experts may be called in to check the allegations and paper, you have to share all your data with them and go through the paper in great detail, retracing your steps, and this takes weeks or months. Those experts may need to get paid for their time. It is embarassing even if you didn’t make any errors yourself and even if you come out squeaky clean. And it takes a huge amount of your time and energy! My experience started on 16 December, reached a peak right around Xmas eve (yep…), and finally we submitted our correction to PLoS and got editorial approval on 20 March. So it involved three months of part-time but gruelling dissection of the science, and long discussions of how to best correct the problems. Many cooks! I have to admit that personally I found the process very stressful and draining.

Next time you wonder why science can be so slow at self-correction, this is the reason. The formal processes and busy people involved mean it MUST be slow– by the increasingly speedy standards of  modern e-science, anyway. Much as doing science can be slow and cautious, re-checking it will be. Should be?

My message from that experience is to get out in front of problems like this, as an author. Don’t wait for someone else to point it out. If you find mistakes, correct them ASAP. Especially if they (1) involve inaccurate data in the paper (in text, figures, tables, whatever), (2) would lead others to be unable to reproduce your work in any way, even if they had all your original methods and data, or (3) alter your conclusions. It is far less excruciating to do it this way then to have someone else force you to do it, which will almost inevitably involve more formality, deeper probing, exhaustion and embarassment. And there is really no excuse that you don’t have time to do it. Especially if a formal process starts. I can’t even talk about another situation I’ve observed, which is ongoing after ~3 years and is MUCH worse, but I’ve learned more strongly than ever that you must demonstrate you are serious and proactive about correcting your work.

I’ve watched other scientists from diverse fields experience similar things– I’m far from alone. Skim Retraction Watch and you’ll get the picture. What I observe both excites me and frightens me. I have a few thoughts.

1) The drive to correct past science is a very good development and it’s what science is meant to be about. This is the most important thing!

2) The digital era, especially trends for open access and open data for papers, makes corrections much easier to discover and do. That is essentially good, and important, and it is changing everything about how we do science. Just watch… “we live in interesting times” encapsulates the many layers of feelings one should react with if you are an active researcher. I would not dare to guess what science will be like in 20 years, presumably when I’ll be near my retirement and looking back on it all!

3) The challenge comes in once humans get involved. We could all agree on the same lofty principles of science and digital data but even then, as complex human beings, we will have a wide spectrum of views on how to handle cases in general, or specific cases.

This leads to a corollary question– what are scientists? And that question is at the heart of almost everything controversial about scientific peer review, publishing and post-publication review/correction today, in my opinion. To answer this, we need to answer at least two sub-questions:

1–Are we mere cogs in something greater, meant to hunker down and work for the greater glory of the machine of science?

(Should scientists be another kind of public servant? Ascetic monks?)

2–Are we people meant to enjoy and live our own lives, making our own choices and value judgements even if they end up being not truly optimal for the greater glory of science?

(Why do we endure ~5-10 years of training, increasingly poor job prospects/security, dwindling research funds, mounting burdens of expectations [e.g., administrative work, extra teaching loads, all leading to reduced freedoms] and exponentially growing bureaucracies? How does our experience as scientists give meaning to our own lives, as recompense?)

The answer is, to some degree, yes to both of the main questions above, but how we reconcile these two answers is where the real action is. And this brew is made all the spicier by the addition of another global trend in academia: the corporatization of universities (“the business model”) and the concomitant, increasing concern of universities about public image/PR and marketing values. I will not go any further with that; I am just putting it out there; it exists.

The answer any person gives will determine how they handle a specific situation in science. You’ve reminded your colleague about possible errors in their work and they haven’t corrected it. Do you tell their university/boss or do you blog and tweet about it, to raise pressure and awareness and force their hand? Or do you continue the conversation and try to resolve it privately at any cost? Is your motive truly the greater glory of science, or are you a competitive (or worse yet, vindictive or bitter) person trying to climb up in the world by dragging others down? How should mentors counsel early career researchers to handle situations like this? Does/should any scientist truly act alone in such a regard? There may be no easy, or even mutually exclusive, answers to these questions.

We’re all in an increasingly complex new world of science. Change is coming, and what that change will be like or when, no one truly knows. But ponder this:

Open data, open science, open review and post-publication review, in regards to correcting/retracting past publications: how far down the rabbit hole do we go?

The dinosaur growth rates paper kerfuffle concerned numerous papers that date back to earlier days of science, when traditions and expectations differed from today’s. Do we judge all past work by today’s standards, and enforce corrections on past work regardless of the standards of its time? If we answer some degree of “yes” to this, we’re in trouble. We approach a reductio ad absurdum: we might logic ourselves into a corner where that great machine of science is directed to churn up great scientific works of their time. Should Darwin’s or Einstein’s errors be corrected or retracted by a formal process like those we use today? Who would do such an insane thing? No one (I hope), but my point is this: there is a risk that is carried in the vigorous winds of the rush to make science look, or act, perfect, that we dispose of the neonate in conjunction with the abstergent solution.

OK I used 1 image...

There is always another way. Science’s incremental, self-correcting process can be carried out quite effectively by publishing new papers that correct and improve on old ones, rather than dismantling the older papers themselves. I’m not arguing for getting rid of retractions and corrections. But, where simple corrections don’t suffice, and where there is no evidence of misconduct or other terrible aspects of humanity’s role in science, perhaps publishing a new paper is a better way than demolishing the old. Perhaps it should be the preferred or default approach. I hope that this is the direction that the Myhrvold kerfuffle leans more toward, because the issues at stake are so many, so academic in nature, and so complex (little black/white and right/wrong) that openly addressing them in substantial papers by many researchers seems the best way forward. That’s all I’ll say about that.

I still feel we did the right thing with our T. rex growth paper’s correction. There is plenty of scope for researchers to re-investigate the growth question in later papers.  But I can imagine situations in which we hastily tear down our or others’ hard work in order to show how serious we are about science’s great machine, brandishing lofty ideals with zeal– and leaving unfairly maligned scientists as casualties in our wake. I am reminded of outbursts over extreme implementations of security procedures at airports in the USA, which were labelled “security theatre” for their extreme cost, showiness and inconvenience, with negligible evidence of security improvements.

The last thing we want in science is an analogous monstrosity that we might call “scientific theatre.” We need corrective procedures for and by scientists, that serve both science and scientists best. Everyone needs to be a part of this, and we can all probably do better, but how we do it… that is an interesting adventure we are on. I am not wise enough to say how it should happen, beyond what I’ve written here. But…

A symptom of scientific theatre might be a tendency to rely on public shaming of scientists as punishment for their wrongs, or as encouragement for them to come clean. I know why it’s done. Maybe it’s the easy way out; point at someone, yell at them in a passionate tone backed up with those lofty ideals, and the mob mentality will back you up, and they will be duly shamed. You can probably think of good examples. If you’re on social media you probably see a lot of it. There are naughty scientists out there, much as there are naughty humans of any career, and their exploits make a good story for us to gawk at, and often after a good dose of shaming they seem to go away.

But Jon Ronson‘s ponderings of the phenomenon of public shaming got me thinking (e.g., from this WTF podcast episode; go to about 1 hr 9 min): does public shaming belong in science? As Ronson said, targets of severe public shaming have described it as “the worst pain ever”, and sometimes “there’s no recourse” for them. Is this the best way to live together in this world? Is it really worth it, for scientists to do to others or to risk having done to them? What actually are its costs? We all do it in our lives sometimes, but it deserves introspection. I think there are lessons from the dinosaur growth rates kerfuffle to be learned about public shaming, and this is emblematic of problems that science needs to work out for how it does its own policing. I think this is a very, very important issue for us all to consider, in the global-audience age of the internet as well as in context of the intense pressures on scientists today. I have no easy answers. I am as lost as anyone.

What do you think?

 

EDIT: I am reminded by comments below that 2 other blog posts helped inspire/coagulate my thoughts via the alchemy of my brain, so here they are:

http://dynamicecology.wordpress.com/2014/02/24/post-publication-review-signs-of-the-times/ Which considers the early days of the Myhrvold kerfuffle.

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2014/01/27/post-publication-cyber-bullying/ Which considers how professional and personal selves may get wounded in scientific exchanges.

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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; to exemplify the Dunning-Kruger effect.

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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