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#2012SVP – what do Vertebrate Paleontologists talk about?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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If you are not a vertebrate paleontologist, or play one on TV, what do you think vertebrate paleontologists do?

If you were a kid who knew all dinosaur names, but now only remember that period occasionally when paleontology appears in the media, what would you expect you’d hear if you suddenly appeared at the annual meeting of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology?

You may have missed it, but I was there, so I will tell you. I am not that different from most of you. Childhood fascination with dinosaurs, graduate studies in physiology and behavior of perfectly living animals, a brief burst of intense study during one semester taking ‘Dinosaur Osteology’ course with Dale Russell, followed by getting my paleo news from media and blogs.

My colleage Kate Wong will cover several stories from the meeting (here is the first) and we’ll have some syndications from Nature (here’s the first)

My assignment? “Blog it!”, said the Editor-In-Chief.

Big Questions

If your paleo diet depends entirely on mainstream media, you may be excused if you think that all paleontologists do is dig fossils and announce discoveries of new species. Sure, a few new fossils were presented at the meeting, and they were interesting. But that was not the centerpiece of the meeting, or topic of most conversations. It is not what you find any more, but what you do with what you find once you found it. Digging it up is just the first step, the interesting science happens later.

If you have not paid attention lately, you may think that some old questions and controversies are still around and unresolved. For example, “were dinosaurs warm-blooded?”. That is a poorly worded question, and it was answered, with some reframing of the question, a decade ago. “Warm-blooded” probably does not mean what you think it means (that would be “endothermic”), but today’s researchers are working out the details of thermoregulation mechanisms, not re-fighting the old wars of decades past.

Likewise, “did birds evolve out of dinosaurs?” has been answered more than a decade or so ago. And the answer is: birds are dinosaurs, the only surviving, living dinosaur lineage. Much more interesting is the current work on details of the origin of flight and feathers.

So, what are the current big questions (and methodological approaches)?

How the animals of the past evolved, developed, looked, lived, made a living, behaved, and died? What information can we extract out of fossils beyond “it belonged to species X”?. And new, often hi-tech approaches are now all the rage.

First, there is math. Lots of math. Math used to analyze taphonomy and what one can infer from the exact position of fossils at the site where they died. Math used to calculate lift and drag and other forces required for powered flight or gliding. Math for computer analysis of evolutionary relationships.

Then, there are machines. Machines that grind teeth against each other to mimic chewing, to see how different kinds of chewing affect the tooth wear, thus enabling us to learn more about the diet of extinct animals. Machines that plop claws into mud to analyze how track fossils are shaped. Different kinds of microscopes that can be used to analyze fine structures of bones, teeth and egg-shells. X-rays, and CAT-scans, and high-speed video. And of course, computers.

Molecular techniques. Combining genetic and anatomical data to build better phylogenetic trees. Using molecular techniques to see if we can find DNA or proteins in dinosaur fossils. A poster from Mary Schweitzer’s group suggests that melanosomes – intercellular packets of pigments we are now using to figure out colors of fossil feathers – may not be melanosomes, after all, but remnants of bacterial films aggregated on the surfaces of feathers.

Eggs. Lots of work on eggs, embryos and development. Especially interesting, to me, was the work by MSU students whose China Paleontology Expedition was documented on our Expeditions blog, using microscopy to explore fine structure of egg shells, then using that structure to figure out relationships between different kinds of extinct animals, including dinosaurs, turtles, etc., and learning some new things about evolution of eggs.

Comparative studies in living animals. And not just dissection of an ostrich (although that, too). Dissections of many species (and individuals) to study the variability, relationship between anatomy and function, between anatomy and ecology, and between anatomy and behavior. There is no such thing as a “model animal” when one studies evolution – good inference from fossils requires understanding of anatomy in a wide variety of related organisms.

If you want to figure out from fossil record if extinct horse species at a particular locality were under strong or weak selection for a particular level of performance, you compare the anatomies of a bunch of tightly selected modern horses (eventers) and a bunch of protected, semi-wild horses where selection is now relaxed (mustangs).

If you want to know if ichtyosaurs bit or sucked their prey, you observe and dissect a lot of aquatic organisms that do one or the other and make a comparison. Ichtyosaurs did not suck, some turtles do:

If you want to know how extinct reptiles, mosasaurs and dinosaurs moved, you put a bunch of different species of alligators and crocodyles in a tunnel, motivate them to run as fast as they can, film them and analyze the videos:

And if you are interested in origin and evolution of flight, you take an X-ray video of a guinea fowl during flight, then scare it to force it to turn in mid-air. And you discover stuff about anatomy and function of living birds that it never occurred to zoologists, veterinarians or poultry scientists to ask, yet it may be useful knowledge to them as well:

Species.

I was pleasantly surprised by how evenly different groups of animals were represented. I expected much more primates, especially those fossils interesting for human evolution, but there were not that many talks and posters about them – I guess those folks go to their own meetings.

While there was a lot of dinosaur stuff – and yes, that is very exciting! – they did not dominate the meeting nearly as much as I expected. There was a lot of work on birds, mammals, extinct and living reptiles, including aquatic and flying reptiles, some work on amphibians, and quite a lot on fish.

Perhaps it is only my own biased perception, but it seemed to me that fish people are somewhat a world of their own – unless it’s an absolutely terrifying shark or bone-plated fish with enormous jaws, I did not detect much interest in fish work by researchers who study more terrestrial organisms. Which is a pity – I saw some interesting posters about fish. Or, if we think phylogenetically, everyone was interested in fish:

People.

One of the beauties of paleontology is that the rewards are mainly intrinsic. It is hard to find a job, and if you snag one, it’s unlikely to be at Harvard. No matter how much of a superstar you become, you cannot just hire an army of students, postdocs and technicians to do the work for you while you sit in the office writing grant proposals or travel around the world giving talks – you still have to go out in the field, suffer the heat and dust, and wield the hammer, then come back to the lab and do some manual work yourself. You can become famous, but are unlikely to get rich. No patents, no Nobel Prizes. And importantly, the findings are unlikely to directly affect lives or livelihoods of millions of people (as in medicine, for example), which allows one to follow one’s curiosities wherever they may lead.

Thus, paleontologists are a really fun bunch to be around. They are not secretive about their work, instead they want to tell you everything about it. No fear of scooping, as this is a small, tightly knit community where everyone knows what the others are doing, where they are digging, etc. I asked a bunch of people “Where will this work be published?” and in nine out of ten cases the answer was PLOS ONE (and in one case “PLOS ONE, or perhaps PeerJ”). Only once I heard “so, so sorry, but this will be behind a paywall, ugh”. Openess rules.

Controversies are big and loud, people disagree, but in the end everyone’s a friend, have beer together at the end of the day, and let the scientific process work its charm and come up with the resolution in the end. Was Torosaurus a species or just a juvenile Triceratops? They can argue in a really heated way, yet in the end they are not enemies, they do not hate each other.

I am not much of a star-seeker or fanboy. And I did not really have much to ask of the big stars of the field. I think, in any field, the most interesting work is done by junior researchers and students, and what they say (and the enthusiasm by which they say it) may be more revealing about the future of a field. Which is why I focused on the posters.

Yes, I did see a bunch of talks (and it seems all the talks of greatest interest to me were happening simultaneously on the last afternoon of the event, on Saturday). But I went to see the posters every day during lunch break when the posters are already up, but people are not there yet. I checked out every single poster, in order to get a feel for the field as a whole. Then I would focus on, and completely read, 4-5 posters each day. In the afternoon, when the poster sessions starts, I homed in on those 4-5 posters and talked to the authors, asked more questions. A number of those posters will end up here on our site, written by authors on the Guest Blog, over the next several weeks and months.

One more observation. It appeared to me that the sex-ratio of the meeting was roughly fifty-fifty. But the age distribution was different between the sexes. Males were of all ages. Most veterans are male. Females were mostly younger, usually students. As I have not been to a SPV meeting before and cannot observe trends over time – this is just a snap-shot – I cannot make a good explanation for this. It can mean two things. First, a traditionally male-dominated field is getting a healthy influx of women, and what we see if a transitional period toward equity. Second possibility, there are always young women entering the field, but they exit from the leaky pipeline around the postdoc/job transition, leaving only men to achive seniority in the field. Perhaps long-time members of the society can chime in, in the comments, about this.

Media.

Twitterfall in the hallway
Twitterfall in the hallway

I attended the ‘Paleontology and the Media’ workshop on the first day. Dana Ehret explained how to work with a PIO to craft a good press release. Matt Kaplan gave good advice on how to work with a journalist. And Brian Switek explained the ways researchers can now bypass the PIO and the journalist, and communicate directly to the audience via blogs and social media.

Apart from Matt Kaplan, Brian Switek, Kate Wong, Michael Balter and myself, I am not sure if there were any other representatives of the traditional media at the event. Thus Brian’s advice appears to be most important: not so much about bypassing traditional media, but getting your work out in the vacuum where there is no media. Which is why I wish more people attended the workshop to hear what Brian had to say.

In 2012, the notion that shameless self-promotion is a dirty word is anachronistic, dangerously so.

The number of paleontology bloggers and twitterers is pretty small – though a great bunch!

#2012SVP tweetup

#2012SVP tweetup

Being active on Twitter certainly has some advantages:

But what I was most careful about was always asking people what is and what is not OK for me to blog about. There is still so much misunderstanding about the way publishing works these days, and especially about the notorious Ingelfinger Rule (see this Embargo Watch post specifically about SPV policy, and Tony’s post about the utter illogic of not making the meeting’s abstracts public, which is also why I cannot link to individual abstracts in this and future posts). People don’t seem to understand it, and assume much harsher rule than it really is. Much of the communication stuff they are afraid of doing is actually perfectly acceptable (and not considered as “prior publication”) by the major publishers like Nature, Science and PLOS.

Society meetings used to be semi-private events. They certainly felt private. A bunch of friends and colleagues get together, exchange data, results, ideas, have a beer and assume nobody else will know anything about it. If there is media at the event, it is carefully corralled away and spoon-fed information under harsh embargo rules.

But today, meetings are truly public events. When the means of production of media change hands, and is now cheap and easy to own by anyone, there is no such thing as media any more. Everyone is potentially “the media”. Researchers are now their own media. Thus, the media cannot be controlled. Thus, the researchers (and scientific publishers) need to adapt to the new world.

Reminder: “to publish” means “make public”.

No, your paper in a journal is not the only “publication” of your work.

If you give a talk or poster, that’s a publication. If you tweet or blog about your work, it’s publication. If others livetweet your talk, it’s publication. If others discuss your work on their blogs, it’s publication. When your paper appears in a journal (typeset and formatted in traditional ways to appeal to traditionalists), that is also publication, one snapshot of it. Media and blog coverage of your paper is publication. TV and radio appearances are publication. Your own blog post detailing the background information and context of your research is also publication. People who tweet out links to your blog post are also publishing it. Every blog post and comment in the back-and-forth you may have with colleagues on blogs (or social media, from Twitter to Facebook to Google Plus) about your work is an item of publication. Your next paper is also a part of the publication cycle of your previous paper (unless you suddenly switch your research interests from Hadrosaurs to particle physics).

Just like science, publishing is not a singular event – one piece, one date, one time. It is a continuous work and continuous conversation. It is not a single paper-bound broadcast by just one lab. It is a discussion between a number of players, continuously, in various venues, and in different forms and formats. My bugging SVP (several tweets, a blog post, an email, and saying it out loud during the media workshop, especially about the availability of free wifi as an essential element of a modern conference) are not bugging, not angry criticism – they are intended to help the society move faster into modern media times. Those things help publication, in all of the forms I noted above – researchers’ presentations, livetweeting/blogging, traditional media coverage, everything. And publishers are quickly adapting to the new world as well, gradually diminishing the scope of Ingelfinger Rule, hopefully to abandon it entirely in the near future. And as a result, science will do better. Don’t we all want that?






Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. Glendon Mellow 9:15 pm 10/21/2012

    Fantastic summary Bora! I hope I can attend some year in the future. Looks fascinating.

    It sounds as though the lack of Twitter followers on the hashtag suffered similar problems to the Association of Medical Illustrators meeting I attended in the summer (a juicy full-time illustrator job came up in my Twitter, perfect for that crowd, yet 90% of the attendees would never see it, as I pointed out on the lonely hashtag.)

    I should add, I love the visuals in your post. Kept my macro-eye attentive and scrolling while my micro-eye read with great interest.

    Link to this
  2. 2. MikeTaylor 7:31 am 10/22/2012

    Thanks, Bora, for this excellent outside perspective on our field. It’s very enlightening to see ourselves as others see us! You’re also very quotable :-)

    Link to this
  3. 3. Mythusmage 8:43 pm 10/23/2012

    If we’re talking about regular folks, other paleontologsts. Gossip is fun.

    Link to this

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