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Happy Birthday Tetrapod Zoology: SIX YEARS of blogging

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


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Montage of assorted things from the previous year of blogging. Passerine phylogeny, flightless ibises, ophthalmosaurid ichthyosaurs, books. Click to enlarge.

It’s that time again. Today is January 21st, meaning that it’s this blog’s birthday. Lo, for the internet blogging sensation known as Tetrapod Zoology came into being on this very day, six years ago. Yes, SIX YEARS ago. As is normal on Tet Zoo birthdays (or blogiversaries), it’s time once more to look back at the year that’s passed. This is something I’ve done every year since I started blogging; apologies if you find it tedious or self-indulgent. If you haven’t read these articles before, they basically involve a fairly messy, meandering compilation of musings on my personal research and adventures, the publications and discoveries I was involved in, and so on.

If you don’t like this sort of thing, I’ll remind you that this is my blog, and that the internet is a very big place with lots to look at. Among the necessary bits of background info you need to appreciate is that the 2011 blogging year started with my employment as a freelance author/editor/consultant, academically affiliated with the University of Portsmouth and attempting in spare time to push out technical publications. At this time, my blogging was done over at ScienceBlogs. To those of you with young kids and full-time jobs: think of all the copious spare time you have, and now try to imagine using that spare time to write scientific papers. I could whinge on a lot more; note that I haven’t even bothered to put quotes around the term spare time. Anyway, enough. Rather than group the events of 2011 by subject, I’m going to go through things chronologically.

Notorious goniopholidid crocodyliform skull. We'll be talking about this skull later on.

Regular readers will know that various of the book projects I’ve been involved in have sometimes rumbled on for years (and, hey, you might know that this happens anyways, especially if you’ve authored stuff yourself). During January, discussions were underway on a planned book for kids called Dinosaur Record Breakers. This volume saw publication later on in the year – more on it later. And work on various book chapters took up a lot of time during 2011. Some of these have now been published – I’m thinking of Salisbury & Naish (2011) on Wealden crocodyliforms and Naish (2011) on Wealden theropods – but others haven’t. There’s one big book chapter in particular that I’m really looking forward to blogging about.

Naish and Sakamoto above; Brad Livezey below.

In February, Manabu Sakamoto and I met up for our collaborative work on big cats. The project concerned is now done but – at the time of writing – hasn’t yet been submitted for publication since I just haven’t had time. Very nearly there though. I’ve mentioned on a few occasions that a major project on ichthyosaur diversity has been chugging along in the background for a few years now. So it was also in February that Jeff Liston, Valentin Fischer and I began to make headway on several of those ichthyosaur projects – we’ll pick this story up later on too.

Topics covered on Tet Zoo during this part of the year include the Rekhmire tomb elephant, bulbuls, bird hand anatomy (focusing in particular on claws, clubs and spurs), vesper bats and matamata turtles. I was saddened to hear of Brad Livezey’s untimely death.

Image courtesy of Junchang Lü, Institute of Geology, Beijing.

It was during February that Lü et al. (2011) published their neat paper on a Darwinopterus specimen preserved in association with an egg [shown here]. I covered it here on Tet Zoo. I didn’t quite agree with some of the stuff they inferred from pterosaur nesting habits about physiology (my main point is that it’s not really possible to be confident about any correlation between egg burial and physiology), so I submitted a response to Science. It went back and forth for weeks, soliciting a response from the authors and apparently being considered worthy of publication. I should add that I’m on good personal terms with the authors of this paper and we were discussing the respective issue behind the scenes in any case. In the end, Science decided not to run it, ho hum, and I put my thoughts onto Tet Zoo instead (here). I was to make several other efforts to get into the glamour mags during the year. Some were successful. Gareth Dyke and I submitted a brief comment on Xu et al.’s paper on the new alvarezsaurid theropod Linhenykus (Xu et al. 2011) to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and this made it into (digital) print at least (Dyke & Naish 2011). We were mostly interested in pointing out the existence of purported European alvarezsaurids (Naish & Dyke 2004, Kessler et al. 2005), in the fact that various of the phylogenetic definitions proposed for some alvarezsaurid clades are conflicting, and in drawing attention to the possibility that Linhenykus might actually be the same thing as Parvicursor, named in 1996.

Ordinarily in any year I get asked to do various TV spots on fossil animals, and especially on cryptozoology. During March I did some filming at London’s Horniman Museum for a documentary on the Loch Ness monster. You might think that getting involved in such efforts is a bad move, but it generally isn’t. TV documentary makers want people like me because they use us as sensible sceptics, not because they want to make us look silly, or indicate that we support the existence of monsters.

Image on left by David Maas; photo on right shows 'Bownessie'.

I happened to catch the final version of that Loch Ness documentary entirely by chance in October (the programme makers never sent a DVD). It’s not too bad, but it’s annoyingly pro-monster. It was clear right from the start that they’d be going this way, as the researchers were coming up with new ways of responding to the various biological objections to the monster’s existence. So – get this – they asked me if plesiosaurs could be parthenogenetic. The implication here is that the hypothetical Loch Ness animal population could consist of unisexual clones, not that individuals could practise parthenogenesis on rare occasion. Given that parthenogenesis is known for several extant reptile lineages (it’s not unique to Komodo dragons as implied in the documentary), we can’t rule out the possibility of parthenogenesis in plesiosaurs, but it’s not exactly a reliable inference. And, as I was careful to point out, there are indications from extant lizards (whiptails in particular) that parthenogenetic populations are short-lived phenomena, relatively poor at keeping up with changing environmental conditions and reliant on the persistence of particular ‘marginal’ habitats (Wright & Lowe 1968, Cole 1984). Having mentioned lake monsters, note I that covered the stupid ‘Bownessie’ story in February. A supposed monster photographed in England’s Lake Windermere looks lame and not much like an animal. The goddam Loch Ness monster would raise its head again later on in 2011 – more on that in the next article.

Screenshot used with permission of Tigress Productions. Raccoon skeleton to my right.

In March (in North America) and April (in the UK), National Geographic screened the Montauk Monster episode of their new series Wild Case Files (a screenshot from the episode is shown here). I actually did the filming for this back in June 2010, and remember being really pleased that (after a considerable amount of needless running around) I managed to get hold of a mounted raccoon skeleton. It turned out that one was stored in the office right next to the lab where we did the filming. As you can read in this article from May, the final product was great. Nat Geo did a brilliant job of setting up the Montauk Monster story, of showing why said ‘monster’ was actually a decomposing raccoon (as were a few additional specimens found later on), and of declaring ‘case closed’ at the end.

Alice Roberts!

During May I was interviewed for a BBC documentary called ‘How to Build a Dinosaur’. Alice Roberts (best known for her anthropology stuff) did the presenting, and we spent the better part of a day filming at the brilliant Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Here’s the funny thing. I initially became involved in this programme because the makers wanted me to talk about the discovery and recognition of Xenoposeidon (an enigmatic sauropod that Mike Taylor and I named in 2007… from just a single vertebra (Taylor & Naish 2007)). After all, the idea that palaeontologists can rummage around in museum basements and find new species is a fun and interesting one, and the people behind the TV programme wanted to convey the idea that new discoveries are sometimes made in historic collections inside buildings, not just out in the field in exotic locations. This is actually a tediously familiar idea (I mean, ‘new’ species are found in old collections all the time), but journalists and TV people never tire of it (my favourite take on this specific subject: Moron Paleontologists Find New Species of Dinosaur in Their Own Museum).

The brilliant T. rex display at LANHM (Carnotaurus and other stuff in the background). That dude in the cap is not Bob Bakker.

Anyway, during the discussion of Xenoposeidon I happened to cover the story of how this is the ‘golden age’ of dinosaur discovery, of how a ridiculous number of new species are named every year, etc. etc. They liked this segment so much that it was the only bit of my interview they ended up using. Sorry, Xenoposeidon - I’m sure one day you’ll get your time in the limelight. Most of ‘How to Build a Dinosaur’ was dedicated to the story behind the setting up of Luis Chiappe’s fantastic new dinosaur display at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, an exhibition I got to see myself later in the year (wait for part II).

Some local wildlife encountered during 2011. Juvenile male Slow-worm (from Furzey), vile stinking Hedgehog (from Alresford).

A fourth TV thing I did happened in July – it concerned British big cats and hasn’t yet been screened, so I don’t want to talk about it too much. For those unfamiliar with my writings on this topic, let me say that I am extremely confident (I mean, about as confident as I can be) that non-native felids of several species really are living wild in the UK (a note on terminology: the British animals that people describe as ‘big cats’ are not necessarily big cats in the strict technical sense). The problem as I see it is that, while the evidence (the bodies of prey animals, tracks, droppings, hairs and even corpses of the cats themselves) is out there – and familiar to people with a special interest in the British big cat phenomenon – it has never been presented in the technical literature, and hence we’re stuck with the situation where most scientists think that said evidence doesn’t exist. I remain astonished that Jungle cats Felis chaus and lynxes found or shot dead in the UK have yet to be reported in the technical literature. The best technical thing we have so far on mystery British cats is Coard’s (2007) paper on tooth marks. I am (together with Max Blake and Ross Barnett) working on a paper about this subject, however. More on that when we’re done.

Ok, despite sterling efforts to get the whole of this 6th birthday thing finished in one article, constraints of time mean that it just hasn’t been possible. Sorry, dear readers: I hope you’re ok with the fact that I’ll be doing more of the same in a second article. There’s a lot more to talk about. Romania, the move to Scientific American, frogs frogs frogs, Samrukia, the Planet Dinosaur adventure, the baby cadborosaur wars, Las Vegas, baby!, and more. Until then…

For previous Tet Zoo birthday articles see…

Refs – -

Coard, R. 2007. Ascertaining an agent: using tooth pit data to determine the carnivores responsible for predation in cases of suspected big cat kills. Journal of Archaeological Science 34, 1677-1684.

Cole, C. J. 1984. Unisexual lizards. Scientific America 250 (1), 84-90.

Dyke, G. J. & Naish, D. 2011. What about European alvarezsauroids? Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America doi:10.1073/pnas.1101602108

Kessler, E., Grigorescu, D. & Csiki, Z. 2005. Elopteryx revisited – a new bird-like specimen from the Maastrichtian of the Haţeg Basin (Romania). Acta Palaeontologica Romaniae 5, 249-258.

Lü, J., Unwin, D. M., Deeming, D. C., Jin, X., Liu, Y., & Ji, Q. 2011. An egg-adult association, gender, and reproduction in pterosaurs. Science 331, 321-324.

Naish, D. 2011. Theropod dinosaurs. In Batten, D. J. (ed.) English Wealden Fossils. The Palaeontological Association (London), pp. 526-559.

- . & Dyke, G. J. 2004. Heptasteornis was no ornithomimid, troodontid, dromaeosaurid or owl: the first alvarezsaurid (Dinosauria: Theropoda) from Europe. Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie, Monatshefte 2004, 385-401.

Salisbury, S. W. & Naish, D. 2011. Crocodilians. In Batten, D. J. (ed.) English Wealden Fossils. The Palaeontological Association (London), pp. 305-369.

Taylor, M. P. & Naish, D. 2007. An unusual new neosauropod dinosaur from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Beds Group of East Sussex, England. Palaeontology 50, 1547-1564.

Wright, J. W. 1968. Weeds, polyploids, parthenogenesis, and the geographical and ecological distribution of all-female species of Cnemidophorus. Copeia 1968, 128-138.

Xu, X., Sullivan, C., Pittman, N., Choiniere, J. N., Hone, D. W. E., Upchurch, P., Tan, Q., Xiao, D.,  Lin, T. & Han F. 2011. A monodactyl nonavian dinosaur and the complex evolution of the alvarezsauroid hand. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, 2338–2342.

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at darrennaish.wordpress.com. He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at tetzoo.com!

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





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  1. 1. Hai~Ren 11:02 am 01/21/2012

    Hurrah! It’s really amazing how 6 years have gone by just like that, from the good ol’ days of Blogspot to Scienceblogs, and now on to Scientific American.

    2011 proved to be another year full of excellent posts and insightful discussions, not just with Darren, but with fellow commenters as well.

    Link to this
  2. 2. naishd 11:46 am 01/21/2012

    Thanks loads. Increasingly I hear how other bloggers are giving up, how blogs are dying or becoming less interesting, yada yada. I remain frustrated that I can’t get through as much as I want to on Tet Zoo, but there are no plans to slow down. Thanks to all readers and commenters for their participation and support.

    Darren

    Link to this
  3. 3. Cameron McCormick 12:56 pm 01/21/2012

    the baby cadborosaur wars

    I shall be stealing this, and perhaps clumsily photoshopping a picturing of myself holding a pipefish like a rifle.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Heteromeles 1:45 pm 01/21/2012

    Gee, if blogs are dying,where will good science journalism go next? Tweets?

    Glad this blog is still going strong, Darren. Way to go.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Jerzy New 2:27 pm 01/21/2012

    Happy birthday, Darren!

    I wanted to send you virtual birthday cake, but due to limitations of the internet I am sending only the start of the file: 0100100110110101101

    Link to this
  6. 6. Jerzy New 2:35 pm 01/21/2012

    ;)

    Link to this
  7. 7. MikeTaylor 5:38 pm 01/21/2012

    “Gee, if blogs are dying,where will good science journalism go next? Tweets?”

    Science blogging isn’t going anywhere. When people say “blogging is dying”, what they mean is “the number of blogs written by people who have nothing to say except that they fed their cat today has decreased, as those bloggers have realised that their messages will fit into 140 characters.” The blogs written be people like Darren, who have plenty to say, are going more strongly than ever.

    [Oh! And: congratulations, Darren!]

    Link to this
  8. 8. MikeTaylor 5:39 pm 01/21/2012

    By the way, I just noticed this at the bottom of the page:

    “© 2012 Scientific American, a Division of Nature America, Inc.”

    Do Scientific American really hold the copyright to the articles you post here? If so, that presumably means no TZ books based on these articles?

    Link to this
  9. 9. Henrique Niza 6:53 pm 01/21/2012

    Happy birthday! I have not been here from the start but I have been following the blog long enough to know it’s one of the top science blogs out there. Congratulations!

    Link to this
  10. 10. Christopher Taylor 10:07 pm 01/21/2012

    Blogs have come and gone, and there aren’t that many around that were going six years ago. Happy birthday!

    Link to this
  11. 11. naishd 6:31 am 01/22/2012

    Thanks to all for comments and best wishes. On SciAm and copyright holding (comment #8) – the deal is that we bloggers have to wait 90 days, and then we can do with our text as we please.

    Darren

    Link to this
  12. 12. BrianL 7:32 am 01/22/2012

    Congratulations with the six years of Tet Zoo and may there be many more years to come!

    Link to this
  13. 13. BilBy 10:49 am 01/22/2012

    As someone who probably has more spare time than Darren I’d just like to say that I am hugely impressed at his output of scientific publications while at the same time producing the articles for this blog. Please keep it up! Now I really should go and finish the… (counts)…nine (bloody hell) manuscripts hanging over my head.

    Link to this
  14. 14. pmurphy98 3:54 pm 01/22/2012

    I’m also really impressed with the sheer amount of intensive scientific writing you manage to get done while still living an actual life (family, job, etc.). That level of dedication to all these wonderful tetrapods is really quite inspiring.

    Congratulations Darren! And thanks for another Tet Zoo-riffic year!

    Link to this
  15. 15. David Marjanović 6:30 pm 01/22/2012

    *fireworks*

    Notorious goniopholidid crocodyliform skull. We’ll be talking about this skull later on.

    I can wait. I only hope this isn’t another crocodyliform that takes 19 years from quasi-description to official publication. Keyword Fruita form.

    Link to this
  16. 16. naishd 6:54 pm 01/22/2012

    Thanks for more positive comments, I love you all.

    David: relaaax, it’s Goniopholis willetti Salisbury & Naish, 2011. It’s already endured several decades of languishing without a name, and in fact for a time some people were saying that it was “lost”.

    Darren

    Link to this
  17. 17. anthrosciguy 8:24 pm 01/22/2012

    Congrats on your blog anniversary. You’ve been pretty busy this year it seems, and on interesting stuff, which is the best way to be busy.

    Link to this
  18. 18. ValFisch 1:47 am 01/23/2012

    Congrats Darren! Actually, I cannot imagine an internet world without the daily delight that is Tet Zoo. This just wouldn’t be right.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Dartian 3:41 am 01/23/2012

    Congratulations from me too for the first six years! I hope this new Year of the Dragon will see many neat archosaur publications.

    Link to this
  20. 20. SRPlant 11:50 am 01/23/2012

    Allow me to add my name to your list of well wishers.

    Like many others I’ve come to rely on Tet Zoo as a place to learn things that I could never learn elsewhere – where else would I learn that Great Tits eat bats’ brains? If it wasn’t for Tet Zoo I’d still be putting out peanuts!

    Link to this
  21. 21. abrashtx 6:26 pm 01/23/2012

    Congratulations, Darren! TetZoo, Brian Switek’s blogs, and SV-POW have been my inspirations for getting serious about studying paleontology on my own. Enjoyed meeting you at SVP.

    Link to this
  22. 22. David Marjanović 6:16 am 01/24/2012

    where else would I learn that Great Tits eat bats’ brains? If it wasn’t for Tet Zoo I’d still be putting out peanuts!

    …erm.

    They eat bats’ brains precisely because they can’t find enough peanuts. The post actually states this, as far as I remember.

    Link to this
  23. 23. BilBy 11:06 am 01/24/2012

    So, do I have to take the brains OUT of the bat skulls first, or can I just leave them whole?

    Link to this
  24. 24. llewelly 11:09 am 01/24/2012

    er, I thought SRPlant was trying to be humorous; I doubt he really puts bat brains in his bird feeder.

    Link to this
  25. 25. BilBy 1:58 pm 01/24/2012

    Talking of humorous – I just read the comments on the Montauk monster posts again. It’s hard to laugh when your jaw is on the table. Damn you Darren, these mss. are NOT getting finished…

    Link to this
  26. 26. David Marjanović 4:14 am 01/25/2012

    er, I thought SRPlant was trying to be humorous; I doubt he really puts bat brains in his bird feeder.

    I thought s/he had simply developed a hatred for great tits and refused to feed them anymore.

    Link to this
  27. 27. SRPlant 5:35 am 01/25/2012

    David M; Truth is I (a he as it happens) am fond of Great Tits and still put out the occasional peanut (even here in France bats’ brains are hard to come by), it’s just that they’ve been giving my cranium funny looks recently.

    Link to this
  28. 28. vdinets 5:40 am 01/25/2012

    Congratulations! Thanks for all the time and effort.

    Since tits eat bat brains and Nyctale bats eat tit brains, I can see a pathogen evolving, with alternate hosts. What should we call it: mad bat disease, mad tit disease, or mad bat great tit disease?

    Link to this
  29. 29. David Marjanović 8:09 am 01/26/2012

    Holy Great Tit Disease, Batman!!!

    Link to this
  30. 30. Dartian 1:46 pm 01/26/2012

    Batshit craze? Tits-up condition?

    Link to this
  31. 31. nescio 1:30 pm 02/1/2012

    The “Notorious goniopholidid crocodyliform skull.” picture immediately reminded me of one of the “Cow Tools” in the infamous Far Side cartoon.

    Link to this

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