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Posts Tagged ‘fossilicious’

Who needs “Ice Road Truckers” when you have the “John’s Freezer” team on the road with fossils, amphibians, felids and 3D phenotype fun? No one, that’s who. We’re rocking the Cheltenham Science Festival for our first time (as a group), and pulling out all the stops by presenting two events! Here’s the skinny on them, with updates as the week proceeds.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10 for now (just bones), but it could change once the cheetah dissection is under way… 8/10 bloody cheetah bits but only at the end (updated)

Right now, Lauren Sumner-Rooney (of “Anatomy To You” and other fame) is on-site with a rotating team of others from our lab, in the “Free Activity Tents” area of the Imperial Gardens/Square, inside a marquee where we’ll be showing off our NERC-funded tetrapod research all week. This “First Steps” event features not only our past and present work with Jenny Clack, Stephanie Pierce, Julia Molnar and others on Ichthyostega & its “fishapod” mates, but also our “scampering salamanders” research in Spain, Germany and England. I’ve blogged a lot about all that, and won’t repeat it here, but you can see a 3D-printed Ichthyostega skeleton, view the skeleton in a virtual reality 3D environment, see related specimens and engage in kid-friendly activities, and talk to our team about this and other related research.

Ichthyostega 3D printed backbone is born!

Ichthyostega 3D printed backbone is born!

The central themes of that event are how bone structure relates to function and how we can use such information, along with experimental measurements and computer models of real salamanders, to reconstruct how extinct animals might have behaved as well as how swimming animals became walking ones. How did fins transform into limbs and what did that mean for how vertebrates made the evolutionary transition onto land? If you know my team’s work, that encapsulates our general approach to many other problems in evolutionary biomechanics (e.g. how did avian bipedalism evolve?). Added benefits are that you too can explore this theme in a hands-on way, and you can talk with us about it in person. That continues all week (i.e. until Saturday evening); I’ll be around from Thursday afternoon onwards, too. Kids of all ages are welcome!

Ichthyostega 3D print taking shape!

Ichthyostega 3D print taking shape!

Then, on Saturday for our second free event we join forces with Ben Garrod (master of primate evolution, the secrets of bones, and “Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur”) and RVC’s forensic pathologist Alexander Stoll as well as Sophie Regnault (“sesamoid street” PhD student w/me). As the “Large Animal Dissection” title hints, it’s not the right kind of gig to bring small kids to. There will be blood and stuff— we’ll be dissecting a cheetah together from 10am-4pm. This will involve walking through all the major organ systems, giving evolutionary anecdotes, and plenty more, with an aim to understand how the magnificent adaptations of cheetahs evolved—but also to investigate what problem(s) this animal faced that led to its sad demise. By the day’s end, there will just be a skeleton left. Get a front row seat early for this event, which serendipitously ties into “Team Cat”’s Leverhulme Trust-funded research project (we wanted a big animal and it just happened to be a cheetah; I had hoped for a giant croc or a shark or something but can’t complain!).

Ichthyostega 3D print is ready!

Ichthyostega 3D print is ready!

If you miss these events, please do cry bitter tears of regret. But don’t despair, there will be another “big cat dissection” in the London area in ~November (watch here for details), and plenty more fossil tetrapod stuff to come, plus a LOT more dinosaurs on the horizon!

Guess the bones! (photo by Zoe Self)

Guess the bones! (photo by Zoe Self)

And please come back to this blog post for more pics and stories as the week carries on… For hashtag afficionados, you can follow the fun on Twitter etc. at #firststepsCSF16. What a world we live in!

Update 1: While you’re here, check out our Youtube playlists of tetrapod-related videos:

Lobe-finned fishes

Ichthyostega‘s awesome anatomy

Tetrapod evolution: Tiktaalik to salamanders!

Update 2: Photos of our main stand (about tetrapod evolution)

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Our poster/banner display looks nice.

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Our tent brings in some punters.

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Our bones excite people young and old, sighted and blind.

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Fun with stickers and lab t-shirts.

And…

Update 3: Cheetah meat & greet
Ben, Alex, Sophie and I tackled the cheetah dissection today and it went GREAT! Much better than I’d optimistically expected. Rain didn’t scare the crowds off and neither did the gore, which there was some of (gelatinous spinal cords, lumpy tumors and at least one flying tiny bit of cheetah flesh that landed on a good-natured audience member!). Photos will tell the tale:

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Peek-a-boo!

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Sophie and Alex help us get set up in our tent.

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Our initial rough schedule- although we ended up improvising more after lunch.

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Dissectors assemble!

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The beast revealed. It was skinned by the museum that loaned it to us.

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Alex showing his talent: removing the viscera in one piece from end to end, starting with the tongue.

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Impressive finding of a surgical fixture (plate and wires) on the tibia, which had been used to hold the shattered bone back together long enough for it to heal. Added to the kidney disease and liver-spleen-lung cancer, this cheetah was in the sorriest shape of any cadaver I’ve seen yet.

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Cheetah coming to pieces: (from bottom) lumbar/pelvic region, hindlimb, thorax, forelimb and other bits.

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Dr Adam Rutherford, an eye expert, did a nice dissection of the cheetah’s eye, here showing the tapetum lucidum (reflective membrane), which shows up as light blue colour. Its small size befits the not-very-nocturnal habits of cheetahs.

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The lens of the cheetah’s eye. Now cloudy because of dehydration and crystalization, but still fascinating to see.

Want to see more images and the enthusiastic responses from the audience (we got some great feedback)? Check out Twitter’s #cheltscifest feed, or more simply my Storify condensation of the cheetah-related tweets here.

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Seeking adaptations for running and swimming in the vertebral columns of ancient crocs

A guest post by Dr. Julia Molnar, Howard University, USA (this comes from Julia’s PhD research at RVC with John & colleagues)

Recently, John and I with colleagues Stephanie Pierce, Bhart-Anjan Bhullar, and Alan Turner described morphological and functional changes in the vertebral column with increasing aquatic adaptation in crocodylomorphs (Royal Society Open Science, doi 10.1098/rsos.150439). Our results shed light upon key aspects of the evolutionary history of these under-appreciated archosaurs.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10; a juicy croc torso in one small photo but that’s all.

Phylogenetic relationships of the three crocodylomorph groups in the study and our functional hypotheses about their vertebrae. * Image credits: Hesperosuchus by Smokeybjb, Suchodus by Dmitry Bogdanov (vectorized by T. Michael Keesey) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

Phylogenetic relationships of the three crocodylomorph groups in the study and our functional hypotheses about their vertebrae. * Image credits: Hesperosuchus by Smokeybjb, Suchodus by Dmitry Bogdanov (vectorized by T. Michael Keesey) http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0

As fascinating as modern crocodiles might be, in many ways they are overshadowed by their extinct, Mesozoic cousins and ancestors. The Triassic, Jurassic, and early Cretaceous periods saw the small, fast, hyper-carnivorous “sphenosuchians,” the giant, flippered marine thalattosuchians, and various oddballs like the duck-billed Anatosuchus and the aptly named Armadillosuchus. As palaeontologists/biomechanists, we looked at this wide variety of ecological specializations in those species, the Crocodylomorpha, and wanted to know, how did they do it?

Of course, we weren’t the first scientists to wonder about the locomotion of crocodylomorphs, but we did have some new tools in our toolbox; specifically, a couple of micro-CT scanners and some sophisticated imaging software. We took CT and micro-CT scans of five fossil crocodylomorphs: two presumably terrestrial early crocodylomorphs (Terrestrisuchus and Protosuchus), three aquatic thalattosuchians (Pelagosaurus, Steneosaurus, and Metriorhynchus) and a semi-aquatic modern crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Since we’re still stuck on vertebrae (see, e.g., here; and also here), we digitally separated out the vertebrae to make 3D models of individual joints and took measurements from each vertebra. Finally, we manipulated the virtual joint models to find out how far they could move before the bones bumped into each other or the joints came apart (osteological range of motion, or RoM).

 

Our methods: get fossil, scan fossil, make virtual fossil and play with it.

Our methods: get fossil (NHMUK), scan fossil, make virtual fossil and play with it.

Above: Video of a single virtual inter-vertebral joint from the trunk of Pelagosaurus typus (NHMUK) showing maximum osteological range of motion in the lateral direction (video). Note the very un-modern-croc-like flat surfaces of the vertebral bodies! (modern crocs have a ball-and-socket spinal joint with the socket on the front end)

While this was a lot of fun, what we really wanted to find out was whether, as crocodylomorphs became specialized for different types of locomotion, the shapes of their vertebrae changed similarly to those of mammalian lineages. For example, many terrestrial mammals have a lumbar region that is very flexible dorsoventrally to allow up-and-down movements during bounding and galloping. Did fast-running crocodylomorphs have similar dorsoventral flexibility? And did fast-swimming aquatic crocodylomorphs evolve a stiffer vertebral column like that of whales and dolphins?

Above: Video of how we modelled and took measurements from the early crocodylomorph Terrestrisuchus gracilis (NHMUK).

Our first results were puzzling. The Nile croc had greater RoM in side-to-side motions, which makes sense because crocodiles mostly use more sprawling postures and are semi-aquatic, using quite a bit of side-to-side motions in life. The part that didn’t make sense was that we found pretty much the same thing in all of the fossil crocodylomorphs, including the presumably very terrestrial Terrestrisuchus and Protosuchus. With their long limbs and hinge-like joints, these two are unlikely to have been sprawlers or swimmers!

So we started looking for other parts of the croc that might affect RoM. The obvious candidate was osteoderms, the bony scales that cover the back. We went back to John’s Freezer and got out a nice frozen crocodile to measure the stiffness of its trunk and found that, sure enough, it was a lot stiffer and less mobile without the osteoderms. If the fairly flexible arrangement of osteoderms in crocodiles had this effect on stiffness, it seemed likely that (as previous authors have suggested; Eberhard Frey and Steve Salisbury being foremost amongst them) the rigid, interlocking osteoderms running from head to tail in early crocodylomorphs would really have put the brakes on their ability to move their trunk in certain ways.

Testing stiffness of crocodile trunks to learn the effects of osteoderms, skin, muscles, and ribs. We hung metric weights from the middle of the trunk and measured how much it flexed (Ɵ), then removed bits and repeated.

Testing the stiffness of (Nile) crocodile trunks to learn the effects of osteoderms, skin, muscles, and ribs. We hung metric weights from the middle of the trunk and measured how much it flexed (Ɵ), then removed bits and repeated. Click to em-croccen.

Another cool thing we found was new evidence of convergent evolution to aquatic lifestyles in the spines of thalattosuchians. The more basal thalattosuchians, thought to have been near-shore predators, had stiffness and RoM patterns similar to Crocodylus. But Metriorhynchus, which probably was very good at chasing down fast fish in the open ocean, seems to have had greater stiffness. (The stiffness estimates come from morphometrics and are based on modern crocodiles; see here again, or just read the paper already!) A stiff vertebral column can be useful for a swimmer because it increases the body’s natural frequency of oscillation, and faster oscillation means faster swimming (think tuna, not eel). The same thing seems to have happened in other secondarily aquatic vertebrate lineages such as whales, ichthyosaurs, and mosasaurs.

So, our results were a mixed bag of adaptations particular to crocs and ones that seem like general vertebrate swimming specializations. Crocodylomorphs are important because they are the only group of large vertebrates other than mammals that has secondarily aquatic members and has living members with a reasonably similar body plan, allowing us to test hypotheses in ways that would arguably be impossible for, say, non-avian dinosaurs and birds. The take-home message: crocodylomorphs A) are awesome, and B) can teach us a lot about how vertebrates adapt to different modes of life.

Another take on this story is on our lab website here.

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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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[This is the original, unedited text of my shorter, tighter (and I think actually better) News & Views piece for Nature, on the paper described below)

Ambitious experimental and morphological studies of a modern fish show how a flexible phenotype may have helped early “fishapods” to make the long transition from finned aquatic animals into tetrapods able to walk on land.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10. Cute fish. Good science. Happy stomachs!

Photo by Antoine Morin, showing Polypterus on land.

Photo by Antoine Morin, showing Polypterus on land.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s military excursions into Egypt in 1798-1799 led a young French naturalist, Ètienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, to cross paths with a strange fish that had paired lungs and could “walk” across land on its stubby, lobelike fins. In 1802, he dubbed this fish “Polyptère bichir”1, today known as the Nile bichir, Polypterus bichir La Cepède 1803. The bichir’s mélange of primitive and advanced traits helped to catapult Geoffroy into scholarly conflict with the reigning naturalist Georges Cuvier back in France and to establish Ètienne as a leading anatomist, embryologist and early evolutionary researcher of repute even today2. Now, on their own excursion under the very “evo-devo” flag that the discoverer of Polypterus helped raise, Canadian scientists Standen et al.3 suggest how the remarkable plasticity of the skeleton of Polypterus (the smaller west African relative of P. bichir, P. senegalus or “Cuvier’s bichir”) reveals a key part of the mechanism that might have facilitated the gradual transition from water to land and thus from “fishapods” to tetrapods (four-limbed vertebrates).

In a bold experiment, the authors raised 149 young bichirs on land and in water for eight months, then studied how they moved on land vs. in water, and also how the ultimate shape of the skeletal elements of the paired front fin bases differed between the land- and water-raised bichirs. Standen et al.3 discovered that both the form and function of the fins’ foundations transformed to better satisfy the constraints of moving on land. Land-acclimated bichirs took faster steps on land, their fins slipped across the substrate less, they held their fins closer to their body, their noses stayed more aloft and their tails undulated less, with less variable motions overall—behaviours that the authors had predicted should appear to enhance walking abilities on land. In turn, the bones of the neck and shoulder region altered their shape to produce a more mobile fin base with greater independence of fin from neck motion, along with improved bracing of the ventral “collarbone” region. These environmentally-induced traits should have fostered the locomotor changes observed in “terrestrialized” fish and aided the animals in resisting gravity, and they represent a common biological phenomenon termed developmental plasticity4,5. Interestingly, the land-reared fish could still swim about as well as the wholly aquatic cohort, so there was not a clear trade-off between being a good swimmer and a good walker, which is surprising.

Considered alone, the developmental plasticity of bichir form and function shows how impressive these amphibious fish are. But Standen et al.’s study3  ventured further, to apply the lessons learned from bichir ontogeny to a phylogenetic context and macroevolutionary question. The phenotypic plasticity during bichir development, they infer, could have been harnessed during the evolutionary transformation of fins for swimming into limbs for walking, in the “fishapod” ancestors of tetrapods. Indeed, bichirs are close to the base of the family tree of fishes6, and other living relatives of tetrapods have reduced or lost their fins (lungfishes) or adapted to strange deep-sea swimming lifestyles, never walking on land (coelacanths). Thus perhaps bichirs and the “fishapod” lineage share what Geoffroy would have called “unity of type”, today termed homology, of their developmental plasticity in response to a land environment. Surveying the fossil record of early “fishapods” and tetrapods, Standen et al.3 found that the macroevolutionary changes of neck and shoulder anatomy in these gradually more land-adapted animals parallel those they observed in terrestrialized Polypterus, providing ancillary support for their hypothesis.

A further test of the application of Polypterus’s plasticity to fossil tetrapods is naturally difficult. However, the “fishapod” lineage has some exceptional examples of fossil preservation. With sufficient sample sizes (e.g. fossil beds that reveal growth series, such as the Late Devonian Miguasha site in Canada7) and palaeoenvironmental gradients in fish or tetrapods, one could imagine performing a rigorous indirect test. Even small samples could be helpful– for example, the early tetrapod Ichthyostega exhibits some developmental changes in its forelimb suggesting that it became more terrestrial as it grew, whereas the related Acanthostega does not evidence such changes8— this hints at some developmental plasticity in the former animal.

During the Devonian period (~360-420 million years ago), were the “fishapod” ancestors of tetrapods floundering about on land now and then, gradually shifting from anatomy and behaviours that were more developmentally plastic (as in bichirs) to ones that were more canalized into the terrestrialized forms and functions that more land-adapted tetrapods retained? An attractive possibility is that the developmental plasticity could have led to fixation (reduction of plasticity), an evolutionary phenomenon called genetic assimilation, which another intellectual descendant of Geoffroy, Conrad Hal Waddington, promoted from the 1950s onwards9, a concept that now enjoys numerous cases of empirical support10 that this one may eventually join.

The nature of the genetic and developmental mechanism that bichirs use to achieve the observed developmental plasticity is still unclear. If it has a high enough degree of heritability, then it could be selected for in cross-generational experiments with bichirs. With sufficient time and luck raising these unusual fish, the hypothesis that their plastic response to a terrestrial environment can become genetically assimilated could be directly tested. This study could thus become an epic exemplar of how genetic assimilation can contribute not only to microevolutionary change but also to major macroevolutionary events, as was presciently suggested in a seminal review of developmental plasticity4.

This genetic assimilation is the Polypterus study’s reasonable speculation, and one that Geoffroy likely would have applauded, all the more for involving his beloved bichirs. Much as Napoleon’s landfall in Egypt was not a lasting success, bichirs never left wholly terrestrial descendants despite their malleable locomotor system. But the same type of plastic developmental mechanism that bichirs use today to make tentative, floppy incursions of the terrestrial realm might have been harnessed by our own “fishapod” forebears, leaving a far more revolutionary dynasty upon the Earth.

 

References

  1.  Geoffroy, E. (1802). Histoire naturelle et description anatomique d’un nouveau genre de poisson du Nil, nommé polyptère. Annales du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle 1:57-68.
  2. Le Guyader, H., & Grene, M. (2004) Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire: A Visionary Naturalist. Univ. Chicago Press.
  3. Standen, E. M., Du, T. Y., & Larsson, H. C. E. (2014). Developmental plasticity and the origin of tetrapods. Nature, published online.
  4. West-Eberhard, M. J. (1989). Phenotypic plasticity and the origins of diversity. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 20:249-278.
  5. Pigliucci, M., Murren, C. J., & Schlichting, C. D. (2006). Phenotypic plasticity and evolution by genetic assimilation. Journal of Experimental Biology 209(12):2362-2367.
  6. Near, T. J., Dornburg, A., Tokita, M., Suzuki, D., Brandley, M. C., & Friedman, M. (2014). Boom and bust: ancient and recent diversification in bichirs (Polypteridae: Actinopterygii), a relictual lineage of ray‐finned fishes. Evolution 68:1014-1026.
  7. Cloutier, R. (2013). Great Canadian Lagerstätten 4. The Devonian Miguasha Biota (Québec): UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Time Capsule in the Early History of Vertebrates.Geoscience Canada40:149-163.
  8. Callier, V., Clack, J. A., & Ahlberg, P. E. (2009). Contrasting developmental trajectories in the earliest known tetrapod forelimbs.Science324:364-367.
  9. Waddington, C. H. (1953). Genetic assimilation of an acquired character. Evolution 7:118-126.
  10. Crispo, E. (2007). The Baldwin effect and genetic assimilation: revisiting two mechanisms of evolutionary change mediated by phenotypic plasticity. Evolution 61:2469-2479.

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This is the mammoth image I remember, from a 1971 book, with no artist credited. It's actually not as good as I remember, by modern standards at least.

This is the mammoth image I remember, from a 1971 book, with no artist credited. It’s actually not as good as I remember, by modern standards at least.

Mammoths and I go way back, not quite to the Ice Age but at least to the late 1970s with my family’s visits to the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum, and Milwaukee Public Museum, to name two prominent places that inspired me. And one of my favourite science books had a colourful mammoth painting on the cover (above), an image that has stayed with me as awesomely evocative.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 3/10. But there’s a butt below, but that’s too late for you now. And there’s poo and other scatological (attempts at) humour. Otherwise, bones and a baby mammothsicle.

Fast forward to the 2000’s and I’m studying mammoths, along with their other kin amongst the Proboscidea (elephants and relatives). I even bumped into a frozen mammoth in Sapporo, Japan, nine years ago–

Yep. That's what it looks like. Nope, not the front end. That orifice is not the mouth. This is the XXXXX mammoth.

Yep. That’s what it looks like. Nope, not the front end. That dark orifice is not the mouth. This is a mammoth that was found on Bolshoi Lyakhovsky island, in the east Siberian arctic (New Siberian Islands archipelago), in 2003. Just think of finding this and being all excited then realizing, “Jackpot! Wait… Oh man, I just found the ass. I’ve discovered a mammoth bunghole, dammit.” Still, it’s pretty damn amazing, as frozen Ice Age buttocks go. I’d love to find one. I would not be bummed.

found on Bolshoi Lyakhovskiy island in 2003

What I know now that I didn’t realize as a kid, is that a mammoth is an elephant in all but name. Mammoths are more closely related to Asian elephants than either is to African elephants, and all of these elephants are members of the group Elephantidae. If we saw a smallish Columbian mammoth, we’d probably mostly look upon it as similar to a slightly hairy Asian elephant (but a scientist would be able to spot the distinctive traits that each has). Only woolly mammoths adopted the uber-hirsute state that we tend to think of as a “mammoth” trait. Think about it: a big animal would benefit most from a thick hairy insulation in an extremely cold habitat, and Columbian mammoths ranged further south than Woolly ones. No mammoths were radically different from living elephants, unless you count the dwarf ones. But as a kid, like most people do, I saw them as something else: an exotic monster of the past, eerily unlike anything today, and bigger too. And mammoths have the added mystique of the extinct.

Now I see mammoths as neither exotic nor that far in the past. Giant ground sloths, now those are still alien and exotic to me. I don’t get them. I know elephants pretty well, and I can understand mammoths in their light and in light of mammoth fossils. Various mammoth species persisted as late as maybe 10,000 (for the Woolly and Columbian species; the latter seeming to vanish earlier) to <4000 (for isolated Siberian forms) years ago, into quasi-historic times. And only some mammoths got larger than African elephants (Loxodonta) do, such as Columbian mammoths (~10,000 kg or more maximal body mass; Loxodonta is closer to 7-10 tonnes at best).

Lately, coincidence has brought me new knowledge of – and even greater interest in – mammoths.

First, a fortunate last-minute visit to Waco, Texas’s “Mammoth Site” (see my Flickr photo tour here) two weeks ago during a short visit to give a talk in that fine central Texan city.

Second, the subject of today’s post: the Natural History Museum’s new special exhibit “Mammoths: Ice Age Giants“, which is open until 7 September. The exhibit was created by the Field Museum in Chicago, but the NHM has given it a special upgrade under the expert guidance of mammoth guru Prof. Adrian Lister of the NHM, who was very kind to give me a tour of the exhibit.

What follows is primarily a photo-blog post and review of the exhibit, but with some thoughts and facts and anecdotes woven through it. Dark setting, glass cases, caffeination, crowds, and mobile phone camera rather than nice SLR in hand means that the quality isn’t great in my images– but all the more reason to go see the exhibit yourself! All images can be clicked to em-mammoth them.

On entry, one views a mammoth skeleton with a timelapse video backdrop that shows how the landscape (somewhere in USA) has changed since ~10,000 BCE.

On entry, one views a mammoth skeleton with a timelapse video backdrop that shows how the landscape (somewhere in USA) has changed since ~10,000 BCE.

The first part of the exhibit does a nice job of introducing key species of Proboscidea (elephants and their closest extinct relatives), with a phylogeny and timescale to put them into context, starting with the earliest forms:

The first part of the exhibit does a nice job of introducing key species of Proboscidea: from early species like Moeritherium...

from species like the tapir-sized Moeritherium

Skull of Moeritherium, reconstructed. Not that different from an early sirenian (seacow) in some ways, and general shape.

Skull of Moeritherium, reconstructed. Not that different from an early sirenian (seacow) in some ways, and general shape, whereas still quite a long way from a modern elephant in form– but the hints of tusks and trunk are already there.

...To the early elephantiform Phiomia, here shown as a small animal but I'm told it actually got quite large. And continuing with giant terrestrial taxa...

…To the early elephantiform Phiomia, here shown as a smallish animal but I’m told it actually got quite large. And continuing with giant terrestrial taxa…

I was awed by this reconstruction of the giant early elephantiform relative Deinotherium, with the short, swollen trunk and downturned tusks-- so bizarre!

I was awed by this reconstruction of the huge early elephantiform-relative Deinotherium, with the short, swollen trunk and downturned tusks– so bizarre!

Looking down onto the roof of the mouth of a NHM specimen of Deinotherium.

Looking down onto the roof of the mouth of an NHM specimen of Deinotherium. Big, sharper-edged, almost rhino-like teeth; far from the single mega-molars of modern elephants.

The lower jaw (top) and fairly straight tusk (bottom) of the widespread, early elephantiform Gomphotherium.

The lower jaw (top) and fairly straight tusk (bottom) of the widespread, early elephantiform Gomphotherium.

The big "shovel-tusker" elephantiform Amebelodon. This was one of the earliest stem elephants I learned of as a kid; the odd tusks still give me a sense of wonder.

The big “shovel-tusked” elephantiform Amebelodon. This was one of the earliest stem elephants I learned of as a kid; the odd tusks still stir wonder in me.

Amebelodon lower jaw, sans shovel tusks.

Amebelodon lower jaw, sans shovel tusks. Extended chin looks like some sort of childrens’ fun-slide. To me, anyway.

Next, there are some fun interactive displays of elephant biomechanics!

How would a mammoth hold up its head? This lever demonstration shows how a nuchal ligament helps.

How would a mammoth hold up its head? This lever demonstration shows how a nuchal ligament helps. Tension on the nuchal ligament is a force that acts with a large lever (represented by the big neural spines on the vertebrae around the shoulders, forming the mammoths’ “hump” there), creating a large moment (i.e. torque; rotational force) that holds the head aloft.

I love this robotic elephant trunk demonstration. It captures some of the weirdness of having a muscular hydrostat attached to your lip.

I love this robotic elephant trunk demonstration. It captures some of the weirdness of having a muscular hydrostat attached to your lip and nostrils. Not so easy for a human to control!

But forget the myths about elephants having 40,000 to 150,000 muscles in their trunk. They have three muscle layers: a circumferential one, an oblique one and a longitudinal one. Like any muscles, especially ones this large, the layers each consist of many muscle fibres. That’s where the 40-150k myth comes from, but muscle fibres (cells) are at a more microscopic level than whole muscles (organs). Elephants do have excellent control of their trunks, but it’s not magical. It’s just different.

Then we come to the centrepiece of the exhibit, the ~42,000 year old Woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) baby “Lyuba“, which the NHM added to the original exhibit in this new version, as a star attraction — and a big win. Adrian Lister related to me how he’d never seen Lyuba in person before (access to it was tightly guarded for years). So when the NHM received the crate and held a press event to open it and reveal Lyuba, a journalist asked Adrian to act excited, to which he responded something like, “I don’t need to act! I’m very excited!” I would be, too! Full story on Lyuba’s arrival, by NHM site here. A key paper on Lyuba by Fisher et al. is here.

Studies of tooth growth in Lyuba reveal her gestation period (like living elephants, around 22 months), season of birth (early spring), and age at death (1 month), among other information.

Studies of tooth growth in Lyuba reveal her gestation period (like living elephants, ~22 months), season of birth (early spring), and age at death (~1 month), among other information.

Here we can see the right ear, which was gnawed off along with the tail by dogs of the reindeer herders that found and retrieved Lyuba. Regardless, there's loads of anatomy preserved! A hump of juvenile "brown fat" atop the head, very strange flanges on the trunk (also visible in 1 other frozen mammoth specimen, but here preserved very clearly!), and more visible postcranially...

Here we can see the right ear, which was gnawed off along with the tail by dogs of the reindeer herders that found and retrieved Lyuba in 2006. Regardless, there’s loads of anatomy preserved!

A hump of juvenile “brown fat” sits atop the head and neck of Lyuba. This probably was  metabolized during growth to warm the baby; brown fat is packed with mitochondria and thereby conducts what is called “non-shivering thermogenesis”. Furthermore, Lyuba has very strange flanges on the trunk (also visible in 1 other frozen mammoth specimen, but here preserved very clearly! What were they used for?). More details are visible postcranially…

The body was naturally “freeze-dried”, with the addition of later rounds of soaking in formalin and ethanol, leaving the body dessicated and stiff, permanently stuck in a lifelike pose as seen below:

Whole view from an exhibit panel (you cannot photograph the specimen but these are fair game!). Here we see hair on the right forearm and remnant of the ear, and the labia and nipples showing it is a female mammoth are also preserved. The head-hump is lost during growth, and the shoulder changes to change the Asian elephant-like convex curvature of the back into the characteristic humped-shoulder form of a mammoth. But ontogeny still reveals the evolutionary connection of Elephas and Mammuthus.

Whole view from an exhibit panel (you cannot photograph the specimen but these are fair game!). Here we see hair on the right forearm and remnant of the ear, and the labia and nipples showing it is a female mammoth are also preserved. The head-hump is lost during growth, and the shoulder changes to change the Asian elephant-like convex curvature of the back into the characteristic humped-shoulder form of a mammoth. But ontogeny still reveals the evolutionary connection of Elephas and Mammuthus.

Lyuba and scientists studying her, which also shows how rigid the carcass is.

Lyuba and scientists studying her, which also shows how rigid the carcass is; one can almost stand it up. Inside the digestive tract, researchers found chewed up plant material that was probably dung eaten by the baby to gain vital bacterial digestive flora, and Lyuba had plenty of body fat and ingested milk, indicating that she did not starve to death. Rather, vivianite in the respiratory tract indicates drowning as the cause of her demise. Perfusion of the body by these vivianites may have helped to preserve the body.

Answering an question the public may be wondering about: is the hype about cloning a mammoth very soon true? Nope. Well addressed, including what to me is the urgent question: would cloning a mammoth be ethical?

Answering a question the public may be wondering about: is the hype about cloning a mammoth very soon true? Nope. Well addressed, including what to me is the urgent question: would cloning a mammoth be ethical?

The fourth part of the exhibit takes on a largely North American focus to first illustrate what mammoths were like biologically, and second to wow the visitor with some huge beasts in full body, full scale glory, as we shall see!

Mammoth hair! These samples and recent molecular studies show that mammoths were not ginger-coloured as we long thought, but rather the ginger color comes as the dark grey-brown-black colour fades postmortem, as a preservational artefact. I didn't know that; cool.

Mammoth hair! These samples and recent molecular studies show that mammoths were not ginger-coloured as we long thought, but rather the ginger color comes as the dark grey-brown-black colour fades postmortem, as a preservational artefact (story here). I didn’t know that; cool.

Mammoth chow!

Mammoth chow! I liked this addition to the exhibit. This brought mammoth ecology closer to home for me.

Mammoth poop!

Mammoth poop!

After the biology explanations, let there be megafauna!

Mammoth skull! A nice one, too.

Mammoth skull! A nice one, too.

Top predators of Ice Age North America: Arctodus (short-faced bear) and Homotherium (sabre-toothed cat).

Top predators of Ice Age North America: Arctodus (short-faced bear– does the short face mean they were happy, unlike a long face? Sorry but they never are shown as very happy, unless it is the joy of whupass) and Homotherium (the other sabre-toothed cat; not the longer-toothed Smilodon).

Skulls of North American megafauna: left to right, top to bottom: horse, short-faced bear, giant sloth, then camel, sabretooth,  rabbit, direwolf (viva Ned Stark!), and pronghorn antelope.

Skulls of North American (mega)fauna: left to right, top to bottom: horse, short-faced bear, giant ground sloth, then camel, sabretooth cat, rabbit, direwolf (viva Ned Stark!), and pronghorn antelope.

Mastodon skeleton!

Mastodon (Mammut americanum) skeleton!

Mammoths seem to have been wiped out by a combination of climate change and habitat fragmentation, combined with what this item symbolizes: human hunting. This beautiful piece is the main part of an atlatl, or javelin-hurling lever. It would give Ice Age hunters the extra power they'd need to penetrate mammoth hide and cause mortal injuries.

Mammoths (and perhaps mastodons, etc.) seem to have been wiped out by a combination of climate change and habitat fragmentation, combined with what this item symbolizes: human hunting. This beautiful piece is the main part of an atlatl, or javelin-hurling lever. It would have given Ice Age hunters the extra power they’d need to penetrate mammoth hide and cause mortal injuries. It is also a great tie-in to my recent post on the British Museum’s odd-animals-in-art.

Finally, the exhibit surveys the kinds of mammoths that existed- there is a huge reconstruction of a Columbian mammoth near the mastodon (above), then smaller kinds and discussions of dwarfism, which is another strength of NHM mammoth research:

Woolly mammoth lower jaw (right) and its likely descendant, the pygmy mammoth of the Californian coastline, Mammuthus exilis.

Woolly mammoth lower jaw (right) and its likely descendant, the pygmy mammoth of the Californian coastline, Mammuthus exilis.

The world's smallest mammoth (left), molar tooth compared with that of its much larger ancestor Palaeoloxodon. The status of Mammuthus creticus as a dwarf mammoth from Crete was cemented by Victoria Herridge and colleagues, including Adrian Lister at the NHM.

The world’s smallest mammoth (left), molar tooth compared with that of its much larger ancestor Palaeoloxodon. The status of Mammuthus creticus as a dwarf mammoth from Crete was cemented by Victoria Herridge and colleagues, including Adrian Lister at the NHM.

Pygmy mammoth reconstruction. Shorter than me. I want one!

Pygmy mammoth reconstruction. Shorter than me. I want one!

In the end, from all that proboscidean diversity we were left with just 2 or 3 species (depending on your species concepts; it's probably worth calling the African forest elephant its own species, Loxodonta cyclotis). The exhibit closes with a consideration of their conservation and fate. Ironically, this elephant skull could not be mounted with its tusks on display, because that would be commercializing ivory usage-- even though the whole point of the exhibit's denouement is to explain why elephants need protection!

In the end, from all that glorious proboscidean diversity we were left with just 2 or 3 species of elephantids today (depending on your species concepts; it’s probably worth calling the African forest elephant its own species, Loxodonta cyclotis). The exhibit closes with a consideration of their conservation and fate. Ironically, this elephant skull could not be mounted with its tusks on display, because that would be commercializing ivory usage– even though the whole point of the exhibit’s denouement is to explain why elephants need protection!

Reactions to the exhibit: the photos tell the tale. It’s undeniably great, in terms of showing off the coolness of mammoths, other proboscideans and Ice Age beasties, to the general public. I felt like the factual content and learning potential was good. It didn’t feel at all like pandering to the lowest common denominator like some other exhibits I’ve seen (cough, Dino Jaws, cough). I loved the reconstructions, which were top quality in my opinion. I could have done with some more real skeletons, yet more realistically the exhibit hall was already large and full of cool stuff. But give me a break: Lyuba. This trumps everything. Going to see a real friggin’ frozen mammoth baby buries the needle of the awesomeness meter on the far right. That’s pretty much all I need to say. The spectacle was a spectacle.

This exhibit shows a lot of work, a lot of thought, and a personalized NHM touch that reflects the actual research (even very recent work!) that NHM staff like Prof. Lister are doing with collaborators around the globe. What more could we want, a herd of cloned mammoth babies frolicking around and tickling guests with their flanged trunks? Don’t hold your breath.

You’ve got just over 2 months to see the exhibit. Don’t come complaining on September 8 “BBBBBbbbut I didn’t know, I didn’t think it would be that cool! I just thought there’d be a guy in a Snuffleupagus suit signing autographs!” You have a duty as a Freezerino to go bask in the frozen glory of these Ice Age critters. There may be an exam at the end.🙂

Is the exhibit kid-friendly? More or less. The text is more targeted at teenager-level or so, but the visual impact is powerful without it. I’d warn a sensitive child about the withered baby mammoth body before showing it to them, so they aren’t caught off guard and scarred by the experience. I saw plenty of kids in the exhibit and they all seemed happy. Parents may want to linger longer and absorb all the interesting information, whereas kids may blitz through or goof around, so plan accordingly if you’re inbound with sprogs.

You know what I was eyeing up in the gift shop...

You know what I was eyeing up in the gift shop…

Aside: The frozen mammoths get me wondering- what else does the Siberian (or extreme northern Canadian/Scandinavian) permafrost conceal? There are a lot of awesome Ice Age megafauna I’d cut my left XXXXX off to study quasi-intact… think about how amazing it would be to find a giant ground sloth (not bloody likely), sabretooth cat, or other species. There’s a lot of north up north. A lot of space and ice. A lot could happen. And climate change will make discoveries like this more likely, while the melting (and humanity) lasts…

Wool we ever find the Lyuba of woolly rhinos? It could happen.

Wool we ever find the Lyuba of woolly rhinos (Coelodonta)? Cast of a mummified woolly rhino from the NHM’s entry hall. More of these finds are likely, I’d say.

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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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