Posts Tagged ‘sci comms’

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stemmed from an email from a science journalist (Matt Kaplan) that, as is normal practice, shared a copy of the unpublished paper and asked for comments from me to potentially use in an article he was writing for the science journal Nature’s news site.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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Hotel Fira Palace: view of the city

Hola from Barcelona, where 500ish of us are telling each other about the latest research in the field of morphology (like anatomy, but broader, deeper, more explanatory; but if you prefer to think of it as anatomy that’s OK by me)!

#ICVM and #ICVM2013 (favoured) are the hashtags, and http://icvm2013.com/ is the website, and there’s Facebook and all that too! You can read the full programme and abstracts here. It’s the best damn conference in the universe and I am not remotely biased. It happens every 3 years somewhere in the world and is always chock full of 5 days of glorious new information on animal form and function and much more, with just too many interesting talks to ever be able to take it all in.

I am speaking a few times and want to share a talk that is about sharing the glory of morphology in public.

Morphology research, that is; please put your clothing back on!

It’s a text-heavier talk than my rules-of-conference-talks normally would allow, but I’m going for it, as that makes it better for sharing because my dulcet tones will not accompany the version I am sharing online. Someday in the future, at a conference venue  that is better set up for reliably live-broadcasting a talk (this is NO FAULT of the excellent organizing committee of ICVM/ISVM!), I would just do it live, but not today, not here.

The point of the talk should be obvious from the first slide (as in my last post). But I’ll presage it by saying that another subtext, which might not come through so strongly in the slides as opposed to my spoken words, is that we need to tell people that we’re doing morphology/anatomy research! We should not be shy of that label because deans or geneticists or conventional wisdom or what/whomever might say (very, very wrongly!) that it is a dead or obsolete science.

While natural history, evolution, palaeontology and other fields allied to morphology do pretty well in the public eye, I don’t see people often reminded that what they are being told about in science communication is a NEW DISCOVERY IN ORGANISMAL MORPHOLOGY and that we are still discovering such new things about morphology all the freaking time! (e.g. my team’s research on elephant false sixth toes, or Nick Pyenson‘s team’s research on whale chin sense organs to name just 2 such studies, both published on the same day in Science!)

Indeed, many of those discoveries such as new fossils/exotic living things with cool features, cool developmental mechanisms that produced complex structures, or insights into how organisms are able to do amazing things are implicitly morphological discoveries, but the fanfare too often goes to natural history, palaeontology, evo-devo or some other area rather than explicitly to morphology.

In contrast, I too often hear people poo-pooing anatomical research as yesterday’s science.

Vesalius's classic skeleton, which is great but to me also conjures misleading connotations of anatomy as a  defunct discipline.

Vesalius’s classic skeleton (from Wikipedia), which is great but to me also conjures misleading connotations of anatomy as a defunct discipline that old dead dudes did.

We need to sell ourselves better not only in that regard, of a renaissance of discoveries and insights in our field, but also in the sense of being in a renaissance that is driven by TOTALLY AWESOME TECHNOLOGICAL AND METHODOLOGICAL ADVANCES, especially computerized tools. We’re just as fancy in terms of techy stuff as any other biologists, but we don’t shout it from the rooftops as much as other disciplines do.

We’re not just primitive scientists armed only with scalpels and maybe a ruler now and then, although that simple approach still has its sublime merits. We’re building finite element models, running dynamic computer simulations, taking high-resolution CT or synchotron scans, manipulating embryos, digging up fossils, sequencing genes– you name it, morphologists may be doing it! (For similar views see Marvalee Wake’s recent review of herpetology & morphology; I’m by far not the first person to make the arguments I’m making in my talk, but I am putting a personal spin on them)

And of course, as the talk is being delivered by me, you might rightly expect that I’ll say that we need to do more of this kind of cheerleading where we have maximal visibility and interaction, which includes online via social media, etc. I’ll discuss one other venue which has featured prominently here on this blog, too: documentaries. Oh I’m not done with that hobby horse, no sirree, not by a long shot!!

ICVM intro

Anyway I should get back to preparing my talk but here is the link to the slideshow (props to Anne Osterrieder for the inspiration to put my slides up here):

Please discuss anything related to this topic in the Comments– I’d love to hear what you think!

I am happy to clarify what my shorthand notes in the slide text mean if needed. There are links in the talk to other sites, which you can click and explore.

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So in my last post I promised to put up the videos of my cat biomechanics footage online (cut scene from “The Secret Life of the Cat” documentary). Here I deliver on that promise.

Note that all this footage was filmed at 250 frames/second, so it is 10 times faster than conventional UK/EU (PAL format) video and thus it plays 10x slower if replayed at PAL format speeds. Hence it is often called “slo-mo”/slow motion video. However, most experts would call it high speed video due to the high frame rate that gives us higher temporal resolution, ideal for studying fast movements.

It was cold that day; indeed the Colchester Zoo area where we filmed the tiger videos below had been snowed in earlier; so the posting of these videos on my freezer-based blog is DEFINITELY apropos.

First, the cat (named Ricochet, not Rocket, I now recall; I’m sure you’re all ineffably outraged at this mistake in my prior post) that we filmed to show how a standard; if rather shy; cat walks:

Second, here I am goofing off. High speed video is so fun! OK actually I was testing the video camera to ensure it worked; we only got one chance with each of 2 tigers. As you can imagine it’s not easy to get a tiger back in its indoor enclosure when it’s nice and sunny outside! So my gear needed to work, and it did, despite the cameraman’s bum being in the shot here:

Third, a tiger whom we filmed at Colchester Zoo. It nonchalantly strolled out of its indoor enclosure upon release. No drama. It was a bit unnerved by our presence but took its time.

Finally, this is the video that we were really hoping for with the tiger; a dramatic turn and gallop out of the “tiger chute” into its main enclosure:

Pretty nice! And thanks to the magic of blogging, you get to see it, rather than having it banished forever to the purgatorial cutting room floor!

Here are some parting shots of the male tiger happily checking out his snowy paddock upon release, and then…

Tiger outdoors

I turned around and he was checking me out; I was just on the other side of the fence. That was a fun surprise! Some close-up time with a curious tiger.2013-03-12 12.38.13

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This is a rant, but stick with me and this rant might have a silver lining toward the end, or at least a voice of reason within the roiling cloud of bitter blog-scowling. And there are pictures of cats.

My little tiger.

My little tiger, Karmella.

Like probably almost anyone in the 21st century that does research in a field of biology, I grew up watching nature documentaries on TV, and that influenced me to become a scientist. Doubtless it remains a powerful influence on other people, despite the massive de-science-ification of certain cable channels ostensibly, or at least potentially, dedicated to communicating science and nature (Animal Planet and History Channel, we’re looking at you).

But now I’ve seen behind the curtain. There’s still magic to behold there (e.g. working with early episodes of Inside Nature’s Giants), to be sure. However, some of my experiences have led me to become increasingly discontented with the relationship between TV documentaries and scientists.

Black leopard with motion capture markers on it, and glowing eyes; from our past studies.

Black leopard with glowing motion capture markers and eyes; eerie image from our past studies.

Here’s a common flow of events, and how they sometimes veer into frustration or worse:

Once a month or so, especially concentrated around this time (May-June-ish), I get a call or email from a documentary producer or researcher who is fishing for expert advice as they build a proposal for a documentary. I’m always very happy to talk with them and direct them to the best researchers to speak to, or papers to read, or to aspects of my own work that fit in with their idea for a documentary. Sometimes their idea is a bad one and I’m not afraid to tell them that and try to steer them toward a better idea; on occasion that seems to work, but more often they have their plan already and are reluctant to deviate from it.

About 3/4 of the time, I either never again hear from these nascent documentaries or else hear back maybe one more time (even to meet for coffee or give them a tour of our campus)– presumably, the proposal fails at that stage as it doesn’t excite executives. I’ve easily grown to accept this status quo after some initial disappointments. Much like in science, some ideas just don’t pass the muster of “peer review”, and documentary makers are operating under more of a market economy than science tends to be. Sifting is inevitable, and the time I spend helping people at this stage is quite minimal, plus it’s fun to see the sausage being made in its earliest stages. All fair so far…?

Alexis and technician setting up gear for one of our past studies of how cats move.

Alexis and technician setting up gear for one of our past studies of how cats move.

The frustration naturally ramps up the more one invests in helping documentaries through their gestation period. I’m sure it’s very frustrating and stressful for TV makers, too, to spend days or months on a project and then have the rug pulled out from under them by those on high. Hopefully they are getting paid for their time; all I can speak to is my experience. My experience is that all this early input I regularly provide is pro bono.

I used to mention that my time is not cheap, and I had a policy (after a few disappointments and lost time) that I should get paid around £100/hour for my time, even at the early consulting stage. That fee went straight into my research funds to help send grad students to conferences or buy small consumables; it was definitely worth my effort and felt very fair. Since the 2008 economic downturn, I’ve rapidly abandoned that policy, because it seems clear to me that documentary makers of late tend to be working on more austere budgets. I’m sympathetic to that, and the payoff for a documentary that gets made with my input is often quite substantial in terms of personal satisfaction, PR/science communication, happy university/grant funders, etc. On rare occasions, I still do get paid for my time (albeit essentially never by the BBC); Inside Nature’s Giants was generous in that regard, for example.

How the leopard got glowy spots: motion capture markers from our past studies.

How the leopard got glowy spots: motion capture markers from our past studies.

But at some point a line needs to be drawn, where the helpful relationship between scientists and documentary makers veers from mutualism into parasitism, or just careless disregard. I’ve been featured in roughly eight different TV documentaries since 2004, but there were almost as many (six or so) other documentary spots that went beyond the proposal stage into actual filming (easily 8+ hours of time) and never aired; either being cancelled entirely or having my scenes cut. All too frequently, I don’t hear about this cutting/cancellation until very late and after my inquiries like “Any news about the air date for your programme?”

Several times I’ve heard nothing at all from a documentary after filming, only to watch the programme and reach the end credits to find no sign of me or my team’s research (in one embarrassing case that really soured my attitude, the RVC had broadcast to the college to watch the show to see me in action, and upon watching we found out I was cut. Ouch!). At that point I really do wonder, is it all worth it? Hours or days invested in calls, emails, paperwork, travel, arranging and replicating an experiment, repeating filmed scenes and lines, working to TV producers’ scripts and demanding timetables. All that is totally worth it if the show gets made. But if the odds are ~60/40 or so that I get cut, I think I have cause to do more than shrug. The people I’ve worked with on documentaries can be wonderfully kind and full of thanks and other approbations, and they often impress me with their enthusiasm for the programme and their very hard, tenacious work making it all happen. It is jarring, then, to find out “Oh, you’ve been cut from the show, I’m so very sorry, the executives made that decision and it was a bitter pill for us to swallow, believe me– take care and I hope we can work together again.”

Above: Performance art illustrating what it’s like to have your science filmed for a documentary, then cut; graciously acted out by a cat (R.I.P.).

My aggravation has resurfaced after filming with BBC Horizon’s new documentary on “The Secret Life of the Cat,” airing right now. Alan Wilson’s team, from our lab, is featured prominently there, so that is fantastic for the Structure & Motion Lab (also check out his purrfectly timed Nature paper on cheetah agility vs speed, also from this week!). It’s hopefully going to be a nifty show; I’ve seen some of the behind-the-scenes stuff develop. (EDIT: I’ve seen it now and it was pretty good in terms of imagery and showing off Alan’s team’s technology, but the science was pretty weakly portrayed– even laypeople I’ve spoken to said “Cats avoid each other… duh!” and the evolutionary storytelling didn’t convince me as much as I’d like; it came across as arm-waving, which is a shame if the two featured cat researchers actually have built a scientifically reasonable case for it. One could not tell if the “changes” in 1 village’s cats evidenced by 1 week’s observation were happening within a cat’s lifetime or were truly evolutionary and recent. I don’t think I’ll watch the 2nd segment.)

I was filmed for a segment which probably would have been in the 2nd part of the show airing on Friday night, but I found out last week that it got cut with a week left before airing. I will be watching the show anyway, of course. I’m not that bitter. The segment featuring my team’s research was about how cats of different sizes do not do what other land mammals do, which is to straighten their legs as size increases across evolutionary spans. This helps support their body weight more effectively, but I explained in the filming segment that in cats, the lack of a change of posture in size may have other benefits despite the cost in weight support: it can make them more stealthy, more agile/maneuverable (segue to the cheetah paper cited above!), or even better able to negotiate rough terrain. Hence a domestic cat is in a biomechanical sense in many ways much more like a tiger than it should be for a “typical mammal”– an athlete, specialized for the hunt. And smaller cats are relatively much more athletic than bigger ones because they don’t suffer from the reduced ability to support body weight that bigger cats do. This may be, for example, why cheetahs are not very large compared with tigers or lions; they are at a “happy medium” size for agility and speed. But this all got cut, I am told.

Random cat that sidled up to us during some research into cat movements; so meta!

Random cat that sidled up to us during some research into cat movements; so meta!

For my would-be-part in the show, we recreated experiments that I did with then-postdoc Alexis Wiktorowicz Conroy and others (a paper yet to be published, but hopefully coming very soon) that showed how cats large and small use such similar mechanisms in terms of postures as well as forces and moments (rotational forces). In these recreations, I got an RVC clinician to bring her cat Rocket (?IIRC) Ricochet over to be filmed walking over forceplates with high-speed video recording it. The cat didn’t do much for us; it probably found our huge lab a bit overwhelming; but it did give us at least one good video and force trace for the programme. Next we did the same thing with two tigers at Colchester Zoo, and got some excellent footage, including a tiger launching itself out of its indoor enclosure to come outside, while rapidly making a turn past the camera. The latter tiger “ate” (well, ripped to shreds, literally) the rubber mat that covered my pressure pad, too, which was mostly funny — and the film crew has reimbursed me for that as well as for the drive to/from the zoo. The filming experience was good; the people were nice; but the end result was a bummer.

Advantage of visiting Colchester Zoo: meeting a baby aardvark (not a cat).

Advantage of visiting Colchester Zoo for research:  going behind the scenes and meeting a baby aardvark (that’s not a cat).

My segment, as far as I could tell, had cool footage and added a nice extra (if intellectual) context to the “secret life of cats” theme, so it’s a shame that it got cut. I heard that famed Toxoplasma-and-cat-behaviour researcher Prof. Joanne Webster‘s segment also got cut, so at least I’m in good company. I don’t have those cool videos of slo-mo cats and tigers with me now but will put them up early next week on my Youtube channel; stay tuned. They won’t ever show up on a documentary anyway; typically when footage gets cut it just vanishes into TV-land’s bowels.

So I’m not happy. Not at all. Bitter? Yeah, a bit. Spoiled brat scientist? I’d say that would be an overly cynical perspective on it. I do recognize that I am lucky that the research I do has a strong public appeal sometimes; many scientists will never be in a documentary or get much PR of any kind. But I think anyone has a right to examine their situation in life and ask, applying basic logic, whether it is fair treatment under the circumstances. Hence I have become disillusioned and angry about the relationship of documentary makers and scientists. Not just me, but us scientists in general. We’re unpaid actors playing sizeable roles and with major expertise. We give documentaries some sci-cred, too, simply by appearing onscreen with “Professor Snugglebunny from Smoochbridge University” in the caption. Supposedly, and often truly, we get good PR for it, when our segments don’t get cut or are not edited to obliterate the context or due credit. But it’s those latter instances that raise the question of fairness. If the segment gets cut, we simply have wasted our time. And to a busy scientist, that is like jabbing me with a hot poker.

Serenity now!

Serenity now!

[Aside: I’m waiting to hear what has happened to another documentary I was filmed for, and again spent ~2 days on, Channel 5’s “Nature Shock: Giraffe Feast” which should be airing soon… no word yet if I’ve made the final cut but the show’s airing has been delayed; hopefully not a bad sign. I am crossing my fingers… it seemed like a great show with a cool idea, and my segment raised some fun anatomical and biomechanical issues about giraffes.]

I know I’m not alone. I’m going to end my rant and see what feedback it draws.

But don’t get me wrong— it’s not all sour grapes, not by any means. I’ve still had eight-ish pretty good TV documentary experiences (cough, Dino Gangs, cough!).  I’ve had great experiences working with documentaries; indeed, Inside Nature’s Giants was one of the best experiences of my career to date. And I’m sure many other scientists have had positive experiences. In answer to my provocative “Why bother?” in the headline, there are plenty of good reasons to bother working with documentaries if you are a scientist whose research they want to feature… but only if you have some assurance that it will be worth your while, perhaps? How much of a gamble should we be bothering with? That brings me to my main point, a general query–

But what about the bad? And is it all worth it, in your views, given the risks of wasting time? Do we deserve some scientists’ bill-of-media-rights or something; a documentary-actor-scientists’ guild (90% joking here)? What should our rights be and should we push harder for them? Or do we just sit back and take the good with the bad, biting our lips? (I’m obviously not the type…)

I’d like to hear from not only the seasoned veterans who’ve experienced various ups and downs, but also from anyone that has views, anecdotes; whatever. I’m not aware of anyone collecting horror stories of documentary mishaps and mistreatments experienced by scientists, but that could start here. Please do share; even if you just got a call wondering if you’d want to help a documentary and then never heard back. Who knows where it would lead, but I think it’s helpful to bring these issues to the fore and discuss them openly.

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A quick plug here for BBC Radio 4’s fourth episode of “Just So Science”, playing at 13:45 GMT today (this is the link). I was interviewed a few weeks ago for the show “How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin,” a la the classic Kipling tale. This series is revisiting Kipling’s tales in light of modern evolutionary science and evidence, whereas Kipling only had crude, Lamarckian or early Darwinian insight. Check out their earlier episodes on whales, leopards and armadillos– good stuff, and with real scientists.  Richard Dawkins may appear again (EDIT: yep! Dawkins manifested) in this episode to provide some gravitas and evolution street cred, too.

And Freezersaurus gets a big plug! From the website: ” Rhinos and horses have much in common. John Hutchinson studies both, but just don’t ask to look inside his freezer.” 🙂  NOTE: I am not a vet (I am a biologist), and definitely not a horse specialist like others in our lab, but I do study horses a little, in a comparative context.

While the original Kipling story focuses on rhino skin, and the producers were interested because of my popular post here on rhino skin, we discussed other issues such as gait, fossil record, feet, and more. I owe thanks to rhino skin expert Dr Tobin Hieronymus for helping me bone up on the unusual skin of rhinos, which has a surprising amount in common with the tough hide of walruses, boars, some water deer, and a few other species. It’s not just normal thickened skin, as Tobin and others have shown. Anyway, I don’t want to give away what’s on the radio programme; afterwards I might embellish this post more with some rhino anatomy and mechanics facts.

Coincidentally, I’m receiving four white rhinoceros feet today from a zoo mortality. So it’s rhino-fest here!

I hope you like the show— please let me know what you think in the comments below! I really enjoyed listening to it, but I’d like to know what you thought.

White rhinoceros forelimb (left), ready for dissection.

White rhinoceros forelimb (left side), ready for dissection.

How did the rhinoceros get her foot tendons?

How did the rhinoceros get her foot muscles?

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Title is so meta?

OK Londoners, and Olympics visitors, and anatomy (or just science/biology) buffs, and those not lucky enough to see other versions of the animal Body Worlds show. You have a mission. And that mission is to go see “Animal Inside Out”, a special (£9 for adults is well worth it!) exhbit at the Natural History Museum, open until September 16. This blog will self destruct, very messily, by turning itself inside out in 5 seconds… Boom.

Hippopotamus attempting to outdo elephant guts.

Anatomy to me is beautiful even when it’s “ugly” (messy, wet, mucosal, intestinal, asymmetrical, unlike human, whatever), and that’s a major theme of this blog. Hence I am embarrassed that I hadn’t yet gone to see this Body Worlds spinoff exhibit until now, but can begin to shake off that shame by means of an almost exclusively effusive gushing of blood love for said exhibit. Wow, wow, wow! I went in with no particular expectations, having seen some pictures and knowing some of what to expect, and having other things on my mind. I came out very pleased; the NHM exhibits folks and von Hagens’s crew have created an inspirational spectacle that could do wonders for anatomical sciences and natural history. More about that at the end.

(Warning: possibility of spoilers, but the exhibit is so visual that I don’t think my descriptions can spoil it)

The entrance

No photos are allowed as usual, so all I have to show you is the entrance and some anatomy pics I’ve interspersed from my team’s research to lighten up the text. I suppose I could have asked for special permission to take photos for review usage but this was a very impromptu visit, and with ~4 months of showing left I may well be back again.

Weighing a hippo; spot on at 1600 kg!

There is a brief panel on homology and why it is the major concept underlying comparative anatomy (and a key part of evolution, co-opted from the not-so-evolutionary ideas of Sir Richard Owen, whom the NHM rightly mentions here). Another panel rightly brings up the issue of ethics, which has plagued Body Worlds before. It comforts the visitors that animals were not slaughtered just for this display and that the NHM applied its strict collections criteria to them. Convincing enough for me, and absolutely necessary to bring up early on.

The entry hall then presents you with about five cephalopods (labelled “squid” and “octopus”—a gripe is that species names/details are not given for most specimens on show) prominently occupying the view. The cephalopods, like basically everything else, are plastinated (by a now US-patented set of procedures, I learned from the exhibit book detailed later). They are stunningly frozen in lifelike poses or with gaping cuts to show their interior anatomy, although there was very little explanation here about cephalopod biology and anatomy (about 1 smallish panel). No mention of Cthulhu. Damn. He’d approve of the Grand Guignol scenery.

Toward the back of the first corridor of specimens and cases, there is a stunning scarlet haze outlining the body of a “shark” (species not given) with its huge liver lying below it. The haze, a technique used repeatedly throughout the exhibit, is some kind of corrosion cast of the circulatory system, I gather. A bunch of cross/longitudinal sections of cephalopods, crocodiles, fish, horse hooves and other animals decorate blank spaces on the walls, some with labels showing basic features and some just hung like paintings. Fair enough, but a missed opportunity for a bit more educational content here.

Gratuitious Melanosuchus (black caiman) shot.

A smallish whole shark confronts you as you turn the corner from the crimson chondrichthyan; again of unknown classification. One would think a museum exhibit would care about classification beyond “shark,” but oh well, I am banging the same drum here too much and missing the point, that the exhibit is really a visual, visceral expose rather than a deep prose-driven intellectual dissection. On one of the shark panels it is noted that sharks have red and white kinds of muscle used for slower and faster swimming, but not clarified that this is a very widespread vertebrate (chordate?) feature. This forms my second gripe, that a truly evolutionary approach, such as that taken by dozens of the museum’s research staff as their major paradigm of phylogenetic systematics, could have helped the public grasp the evolutionary, hierarchical nature of homology and depart with accurate information about what features characterize groups at which levels. I’m not asking for cladograms laid out on the floor as at the American Museum of Natural History, although maybe that could work, but the exhibit tended to fall back on an outmoded “this animal has this feature, and that animal has that feature, and these are cool adaptations” shopping list approach rather than a modern comparative approach. Granted, almost all museum exhibits fall into this trap, for various reasons and some of them justified. But with a spare word or phrase here or there, this could have been done better without drowning the visitors in that dreaded sea of bloodprose.

Passing the sharks, we come to one of several thematic sections about body systems, this first one on the skeleton (later, brain/nerves, circulation, muscles, etc.). A few small skeletal specimens of the type that are seen throughout the museum are presented, with a scallop reminding us that skeletons can come in many types among multicellular organisms. There is a horse skull and a stark white whole skeleton of a young-ish ostrich, which was very nicely mounted. However, I was caught off guard by the pelvis, which lacked the curved, ventral “boot” like connection of the pubic bones that ostriches have—presumably explained by its juvenile status although I wasn’t 100% sure it was even an ostrich pelvis. OK, I am having a serious pelvis-nerd moment here; forgive me as my PhD was on this stuff.

Ostrich in the midst of disassembling.

BUT, once again the small interpretive panel had a moment of Fail. The ostrich was explained to have two toes, in contrast to normal birds which have “five”.  HUH? Birds have three main toes and variably also a fourth, inner (first) toe called the hallux, used for perching and other activities including walking. None have a fifth toe; indeed their dinosaurian forebears lost that feature some 230ish million years ago. Just an embryonic vestige of the base of the fifth toe is visible in bird embryos today. Furthermore, the panel said that two toes in ostriches can grip the ground more strongly than more toes in other birds. I know of no evidence that shows this, and suspect that the contrary might be true. The standard explanation for toe reduction in ostriches is that it is a lightening feature characteristic of “cursorial” (long-legged, sometimes fleet/efficient) animals, to make swinging the long legs easier. These errors really should have been caught by involving experts in polishing the scientific content of the exhibit.

But I don’t want this post to grumble too much; wrong message. There was so much to celebrate in this exhibit, which was felt impressively spacious and full of cool specimens! Visitors pass some plastinated whole sheep and goats, with panels nicely explaining that goats and sheep look quite similar on the inside and are evolutionary relatives. Having “four stomachs” (technically, a four-chambered stomach; not four distinct organs that were duplicated) is attributed as a sheep trait, then being a ruminant is said to be a goat trait; this might get a little confusing for non—anatomists (both are ruminants and have similar stomachs).

I learned that goats have an extra tail muscle that allows them to swing up/down as well as side-to-side. Hey, I teach veterinary anatomy and I don’t know that!? I must tuck my tail between my legs in shame, but I am no goat so I do not think I can (do satyrs count?). But I wasn’t so sure that goats, as described, were the first animals to be domesticated—I thought that was dogs? Ahh, Wikipedia says dogs, then sheep, then pigs, then goats? I’m outside my expertise here, I admit, and resorting to Wikipedia out of ignorant desperation. Anyway, here, another instance of coulda-been-more-phylogenetically-specific presented itself: the forelimb of goats was said to be connected to the thorax by muscles and ligaments, not a joint, but this is a feature common to most Mammalia. Although audience attentions might be wandering at this point, waiting for the next big spectacle (goats and sheep are not a big crowd draw, even plastinated), some more care as to what was written would be good. Some reindeer and horses and other animals join in the fun later on. Good, but mostly ‘filler’ (wise to put these in the middle of the exhibit, after sharks/cephalopods and before climax) unless you’re a big fan of fairly familiar ungulates with fairly homogeneous postcrania. OK, my bias is showing…

Gratuitious image of emu curled up for CT scan.

Next along the path, a longitudinal section of a whole ostrich caught my attention. Wow again! I had no idea that one could make a section like this of such a large animal, all in one plastic sheet like a giant microscope slide! I stared at this for a while, wondering how both legs could be fit in a ~1cm thick panel, and gave up trying to understand the technology. Von Hagens, you got me there; I’m stumped. Were multiple sections glued together somehow to produce a pseudo-2D slice from many thin 3D sections? I could not tell, and felt humbled and deeply impressed by the technical skill shown in the exhibits so far…

And then the punches kept coming, one-two-three! The exhibit approaches its climax with a crescendo of great specimens in the final hall. First, another maroon marvel. A whole ostrich, standing with wings askew, showing off its entire circulatory system (plus a few wing plumes for aesthetics) from head to toes! Gorgeous, technically brilliant, and well worth at least a 5 minute walk around (you can stroll around many of the displays in 360 degrees- very good move!). A plastinated whole ostrich stands next to it, and for a muscular anatomy geek like me, it was nirvana. However, in a churlish moment I had to look away from a panel explaining that an ostrich is “too heavy to fly” (I admit some younger visitors may need reminding of this). But then I looked into the big open space of this main hall, and the climax was before me. I think I’d had my climax a few times since this, but wow this was enormous in so many ways. All the ways. Mind-blowingly, vastly, geektastically kewl.

Gratuitious rhinoceros leg.

Across from the two posed ostriches and flanked by numerous smaller specimens, the elephant and giraffe stand frozen in vigil. There is also a lovingly detailed dissection of a huge male gorilla by the back wall and exit, with a panel reminding us that gorillas are (among) “our closest relatives.” The giraffe is precariously poised on one front toe-tip, in mid-gallop. What a great pose! There is the requisite explanation of how they solve the blood pressure problem in their neck (e.g. arterial valves), but also the statement, news to me, that they are the only animals able to ruminate while running. Who figured that out and how? I really want to know! Must be hard to check. (or was walking intended? Are my notes wrong?) Across from the full-fleshed plastinated giraffe (which I could see with my eyes closed after all our dissections from a month ago), there was another visually arresting and technically monumental giraffe on exhibit: one represented completely by small, reddish cross-sectional slices, from head to toes in a standing pose. That took me a while to absorb, it was so lovely, almost like a hanging mobile of morphological splendour.

There is a panel about genes and variation and inheritance. It is brief. (and it belongs there) Thank you. Let’s celebrate anatomy for anatomy’s sake for once!

“But John,” you might say, “What about the elephant? No love for the elephant? The star of the show?”

Zoinks! I want one! Stoic and triumphant (except against death and plastination), the Asian elephant is the centrepiece of the collection. (The book explains it was “Samba” from Neunkirchen Zoo, Germany, dead of some circulatory problem in 2005 and the first one plastinated, plus the inspiration for the animal show). I was speechless and paralyzed for a moment. I didn’t even know how to start looking at the partly-exploded-to-show-its-insides elephant. I actually avoided it for a while, looking closely at the other specimens, and building up anticipation, before stepping up and taking a long, intense look at this tall drink of water.

Go see the elephant. If you know basic anatomy, look at its leg muscles. Check out the huge triceps, still attached to the elbow; I like to say it is the size of a graduate student. Same for the analogous superficial gluteal and somewhat-fused biceps femoris muscles on the rear end, around the thigh/knee joint. Huge! I’ve never been able to view a standing dissected elephant, so this really impressed me more than a table full of giant muscle slabs like I normally deal with. And best of all, for me, the “false sixth toes”; the prepollex and prehallux; are visible in all four feet (but not noted anywhere, even in the book; too bad, these things were widely known by anatomists before my work on them). So much to marvel at here. It is an anatomical treasure. I wish I had a 3D image of it to use for anatomical studies- it was so easy to identify every single muscle group (except for a few missing around the shoulder/neck), even in the distal limbs. Hmm, photogrammetry might be possible (nugget of idea begins to crawl around John’s brain like a Zimmerian parasite)…

Behold, the triceps muscle of an elephant!

Behind that gorgeous elephant, don’t miss the wall mountings of two cross-sectional slices: through the head/neck of a moderate-sized elephant (How!?!?) and distal leg (no predigits but good features). And definitely don’t miss the stool (non-fecal, furniture form). I almost did. A wooden stool is shaped like a newborn elephant and a cross-section of the body is adhered on top of it. I assume you cannot sit there, and I am very glad that it was not, as I first imagined, an actual plastinated baby elephant turned into a stool. That would be bad taste.

The exhibit is in very good taste, without exception, and although I am gore-desensitized to say the least, it is not gory in my view. The plastination process preserves the reality and even some of the colour faithfully, but renders it just unreal enough (past uncanny valley territory?) that it should not be very disturbing to most viewers.

You can’t leave with your own photographs, but you can be schnookered into buying the exhibit book (£12.99) and a couple of packages of nice colour postcards (£4 for six; excellent quality images and cardstock IMO). The book and postcards show many of the exhibit specimens but not all, and include some others that are not on exhibit. I was saddened that the bear was left out—very cool image of that in the book. I’ve only skimmed the book a bit. I was annoyed by a few mistruths about elephants (25mph running speed, “have no ankle joints, which is one of the reasons why elephants cannot jump”, the bones “do not contain any marrow”—wrong, 15mph and there are ankles, they just are not very flexible (but not immobile either); also the bones do contain marrow (how could a large vertebrate survive entirely without it???) but just not as much of it per unit volume, due to lots of spongy bone). But I am still very happy with the 139 pages chock fulla pretty images, which is all I really wanted. Indeed, the book is a great pictorial anatomical reference- some of the species such as elephants and giraffe lack a really good anatomical resource in the modern, or any, literature! The exhibit shop also sells some good anatomy texts, mostly on humans but I recommend “Animal Anatomy for Artists” very strongly; I use that regularly in my own work.

So, £29.99 of schnookering later (haha, poor victimized me!), I emerged and reflected more on what I’d seen. I’m still a bit giddy about it all. I like the minimalism in most aspects- black backgrounds, minimal signage (but just enough to make it educational—when they got the facts right), focus kept on the specimens. Well done there. The spectacle of the specimens I’ve raved plenty about- it is not at all disappointing. It is AWESOME in every sense. I feel I easily got £9 of value from the ticket, and would (probably will!) pay it again. It is a profound experience to see the rich anatomical detail exposed, and be able to circumnavigate the specimens to absorb multiple perspectives. If you know some anatomy, you’ll be doubly rewarded at least, and if you bring your own phylogenetic perspective that can be trebled.

Baby white rhinoceros. Sad infant mortality.

What makes me happiest after my visit is realizing that we are in an anatomical renaissance for science and public interest therein. Exhibits like this and documentaries like “Inside Nature’s Giants” have tapped a public interest and curiosity in the wonders of basic anatomy. Anatomy is at the core of so many biological sciences and is so immediately accessible to people, because we all have anatomy. Anatomy is at the crossroads of art and science; it is visual, variable and complex, yet concrete, objective and easy to relate to. “Animal Inside Out” is a spectacular blend of art and science. They nail the artistic aspect, and the science is done reasonably well (despite my few gripes)—the exhibit’s science speaks for itself, in a way, although many visitors will need a nudge to grasp that.

I’d like to make a call for a permanent exhibit of the likes of “Animal Inside Out” in the UK. We deserve this! Museum exhibits could use something new, other than lame, quickly broken digital pushbuttons and bland skeletons devoid of soft tissue context (although the latter can be sufficient, e.g. at the Paris NMNH). That’s what makes “Animal Inside Out” (and Body Worlds) such a hit- as Hagens is quoted on the book dustcover, animal anatomy that goes beyond digitized abstractions and dusty bones is able “to sharpen our sense of the extraordinary by looking at the self-evident.” I could not say it better myself. This exhibit is extraordinary; that is self-evident after even a peek. It is a loving tribute to how fantastic the totality of animal structure is. Go! Enjoy. Absorb. Gape. Stare. Thrill. Revel. Think. Question. IT’S BEAUTIFUL.

Impressive hippo mouth says “Farewell for now.”

Edit: @samjamespearson on Twitter has kindly posted some photos (for free NHM/AIO publicity) of the exhibits and here are the links, now that they’re out there– SPOILERS! And thanks, Sam! I don’t think these really spoil the intense visual experience of actually being there and walking around the specimens, not at all.

octopus, whelk, squid, needlefish, scarlet haze of shark, hare brain, cat nerves,  bactrian camel, another camel,  bull (I forgot to mention it; this one was pretty great!)

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There’s no better way to kick things off after a holiday than with a celebration of the Inside Nature’s Giants series, which I had a small part in early on, including these shots I took during the time they spent filming at the RVC >3 years ago (!?!?); most of these animals spent multiple holidays inside The Freezers:

Elephant arriving…

Elephant revealed

Private moment with elephant

Stunning emergence of The Guts

So you are impressed by the guts too, ehh? It was pretty amazing to watch it happen. The tension was intense- the animal had been dead for a while and was rather bloated. So cutting it open was a task gingerly taken…

Bloated elephant

RVC dissector Richard Prior stuck a scalpel in the upper abdomen when the time was right… the piercing whistle and the sulphuric odour silenced the crowd watching… and then quickly out came the guts.

Everyone was pretty amazed by the scale.

The guts just went on and on…

Not a 1-person job by any means.

Spreading them out to see the whole GI tract.

I waited patiently and watched the show filming; what a great, professional crew. Then I got to take the legs away for our research.

But not just elephants, no sirree! The Windfall Films/ING team filmed giraffe, crocodile and big cats episodes (4 total) at the RVC too; a crazy period of a few weeks (including a major blizzard that hit us during the croc filming) in 2009. Some of the stars follow:

Frozen lion waiting for CT scan, shot 1

Frozen lion waiting for CT scan, leg shot

Frozen lion waiting for CT scan, shot 2; eerily contorted pose

Frozen tiger waiting for CT scan, shot 1

Frozen tiger waiting for CT scan, shot 2

Frozen tiger waiting for CT scan, shot 3

…and here is the tiger’s head after scanning

…and I’m rather fond of that tiger’s neck– check out the hyoids (roaring/tongue apparatus in throat; bottom of movie)!

…and here is the adult Nile crocodile’s head after scanning

…and another view of that big Nile croc, just because I like how this reconstruction turned out

…and here’s one of the small (~1m long, 10kg) juvenile Nile crocodiles from the show, with a pilot CT scan showing the skeleton nicely- and possibly a last meal or stomach stone on the left side of the abdomen (bright white blob; I need to check this now that we’ve dissected it)

Foetal giraffe; stillborn; from the show, in process of dissection in our lab to measure its limb anatomy. Trust me, it looked –and smelled– better on the inside than it did from the outside. Eew.

How most of the specimens from the first 4 episodes ended up after all dissection was done (part of my/RVC’s collection of skeletons). Sadly, I did not get great photos of the 3.7m Nile crocodile or the two giraffes before they were reduced to bits, but I do have the skeletons and CT scans.

Giving a tour (including The Freezers) to A Certain Esteemed Visitor.

(Another) Gratuitous shot with one of the sweet old Red Kangaroos at Alma Park Zoo near Brisbane, Australia. Experiments on hopping we did there will be briefly featured in the new Inside Nature’s Giants show on Channel 4, 16 April @2000- details at http://t.co/SkjsMeVC.

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