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Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Happy 6th Birthday, Tetrapod Zoology (part II)

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More stuff from 2011: pregnant plesiosaurs, gekkotans, books, crocodyliforms.

Welcome to part II of my ‘review of the year’/Happy 6th Birthday Tet Zoo stuff. The previous article took us up to May or thereabouts. Tet Zoo – still based at ScienceBlogs at this time – gave us the viviparous sauropod meme, part VII in the pouches, pockets and sacs series (still not finished), and birds vs planes. I investigated one of those seemingly mundane but actually fascinating local wildlife ‘mysteries’ by finding out where (some of) my local House sparrows go to sleep, I learnt of the then-whereabouts of those giant azhdarchid models (close to Milton Keynes), and I encountered birds-of-paradise on a London street.

It was also in May that I took the plunge and committed myself to another social networking experience: I’m now on twitter (follow me @TetZoo). I really enjoy tweeting, though don’t yet have enough followers to have any sort of influence. I’m also on facebook (there’s a Tet Zoo facebook page, if you don’t already know). Aaaand I’m on Google+ as well, but I find this absolutely impossible to use and don’t (yet) see any benefit to it.

Mike and our partly dissected baby giraffe neck. Giraffes start out small.

May also saw the publication of the paper I published in Journal of Zoology with Mike Taylor, Dave Hone and Matt Wedel (Taylor et al. 2011). This was our response to the ‘necks for sex’ hypothesis as applied to sauropods. I’ve covered this research quite enough already: the original write-up is here should you want it; the pdf is here. This bit of research can be considered part of two research programmes I’m currently involved in - one on dinosaur neck morphology and posture, and one on sexual selection in ornithodirans. Fitting in with the first of those areas is the baby giraffe neck dissection I got to do in March (following kind invitation from the Royal Veterinary College’s John Hutchinson, and involving Mike P. Taylor and John Conway). Wow, living the dream. We learnt loads about how a giraffe neck is put together and about how many of the things said about zygapophyses and such in the literature are just not true.

Ashdown maniraptoran on TV - soooo many graphics! Artwork at bottom right by Matt Martyniuk.

Soon after the appearance of this paper, another one was published – that on the ‘Ashdown maniraptoran’: a tiny theropod from the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Group of southern England, represented only by a single cervical vertebra 7.1 mm long (Naish & Sweetman 2011). I think that a 7.1 mm-long theropod vertebra is definitely worthy of putting on record (my coauthor Steve Sweetman would agree), but it would be embarrassing if anyone were to make a big song and dance out of this discovery. But, naturally, I blogged about the paper. And this is where we find out how influential blog articles can be, since the story was immediately picked up by journalists. Within hours it had gone national, and then international. It quickly became a terrifying example of runaway journalism – stories on the Ashdown maniraptoran were everywhere, including on the radio and TV. Yikes. I have a bit more to say on journalistic sensationalism below. I made a mistake when calculating the total length for the Ashdown maniraptoran, by the way – its probable total length isn’t 16-40 cm as we say in the paper (Naish & Sweetman 2011), but more like 33-50 cm, with c. 33 cm being most likely.

Naish (l), Taylor (r). Spot the difference.

I did some survey work on bats in May. With my elite posse of ecologist buddies (Louise Fairless, Vicky Russell, John Poland et al.), I went to a specific location (one that – ha ha – must remain secret) to test for the alleged presence of Leisler’s bat Nyctalus leisleri. Seeing bats is great; hanging around in an English churchyard at night also means close-up encounters with hedgehogs and slow-worms. John Conway and I went to London’s Grant Museum in May as well. Oh, Chris Taylor and entourage – yes, Chris Taylor of Catalogue of Organisms – dropped in for a visit at Tet Zoo Towers in April. Here’s photographic proof. Chris and I look disturbingly alike.

Dibamids were discovered in Cambodia in May – a worthy discovery that I reported on Tet Zoo – and the ‘Mersey Monster’ was photographed off the coast of Liverpool. It was a Grey seal, exactly as the photographer (Mark Harrison) said when he saw it. It was about this time that Greg Paul challenged the idea (promoted by Mark Witton and myself) that the biggest azhdarchids might be “as tall as giraffes” (Paul 2011). The reason for the disagreement here is that Greg imagines azhdarchids to walk with sprawling humeri, whereas trackway and other data actually shows that their forelimbs were held in a more erect pose (Witton & Naish 2008). The still incomplete Tet Zoo gekkotan series continued with several articles on the brilliant pygopodids (starting here). Bearded pigs, giant owls, owls in general, hornbills and bird bite strength all featured on Tet Zoo.

Keepin' it real in Romania. Evidently, I'm not into the whole arm-folding thing. L to r: Vremir, Naish, Brusatte, Dyke.

In June I went to Transylvania in Romania. I worked in the field with Matyas Vremir, Gareth Dyke, Zoltan Csiki and Steve Brusatte and saw (and helped collect) a load of fascinating new Cretaceous fossils (none of which have yet been published), and spent time pursuing local frogs and toads and watching loads of bats and birds. I also travelled to Hungary where I got to see more fossils. I’ve written about some (though not all) of the anurans I saw there, starting here. Lots more on anurans to come at Tet Zoo.

Immediately on returning, I had the upcoming Zoological Society of London (ZSL) cryptozoology meeting to worry about and the specialist read of the BBC book Planet Dinosaur. The ZSL meeting happened on July 12th and proved pretty popular. So far as I know, it was a great success. I certainly enjoyed it, and I very much enjoyed the talks given by my co-speakers Michael Woodley and Charles Paxton. As I’ve said before, it proves difficult at times to get people to understand that you can be sceptical about cryptozoological claims and anecdotes and yet still be interested in the subject.

What about the Planet Dinosaur book? Written to accompany the BBC series of the same name, it was basically a narrative of the series, augmented with facts and figures about the animals and their world. Cavan Scott wrote the text; I tweaked the technical stuff and am pleased to say that I had full, unconditional control. Mostly, Planet Dinosaur the TV series succeeds where so many other dinosaur documentaries have failed.

I did get riled about a few things while doing the book, however. The whole ‘venomous sinornithosaur’ thing, for example, makes it into the TV series, yet is one of the most poorly constructed palaeobiological cases ever proposed in the proper literature. The good news: Planet Dinosaur the book includes an appropriate critique of the idea, concluding with “The idea that Sinornithosaurus might have delivered a venomous bite was never well supported and the majority of dinosaur experts regarded it as poorly founded right from the start” (Scott 2011, p. 197; see also Gianechini et al. 2010). You might note that the authors who posited the idea of venomosity in Sinornithosaurus (Gong et al. 2010) are more or less the same ones who argue that birds aren’t dinosaurs, but I’m sure that’s coincidental (kidding: it’s definitely not. And I say this on the same day that I’ve been reading Alan Feduccia’s new book Riddle of the Feathered Dragons). Anyway, I could talk a lot more about Planet Dinosaur but this isn’t the time. Cavan was great to work with and the book was a big seller (here in the UK, anyway) over the 2011 Christmas period.

July was also the month in which we said goodbye to Tet Zoo ver 2, hello to Tet Zoo ver 3 here at Scientific American. I get asked about this a lot and have never elaborated. Basically, a bunch of ‘push’ factors at ScienceBlogs combined with a bunch of ‘pull’ factors from SciAm to make the move seem like a wise one. Of course, things haven’t panned out at SciAm exactly as I hoped they would – no decent blogroll, no sidebars that are any good, no easy way to navigate to older articles, a retarded commenting system – but being associated with SciAm is a very positive thing and I’m happy to be here. Tet Zoo ver 2 STILL gets more hits per day than ver 3 does, even though the commenting system there has been disabled for months. I suppose ver 2 still wins hits due to google presence, but it might also be because of the nice blogrolls I compiled there – even I find them useful and regularly visit the old site solely because of them. Anyway, Tet Zoo ver 3 officially opened its cyber-doors on July 5th, and here we are.

Alternative reconstructions of Samrukia as if it were a giant bird, by John Conway.

Several other projects came to fruition during the summer. Early in August I and colleagues published our description of a new giant bird from the Late Cretaceous of Kazakhstan: Samrukia nessovi (Naish et al. 2011). This was deemed such an interesting story that a press release was generated, and the story quickly became the second of those examples of runaway journalism I wanted to talk about. But all was not well. Working on fragmentary material is dangerous since you can often get things very, very wrong, and I realised within a few days of the paper appearing that Samrukia was no bird. It seemed, in fact, to be a pterosaur. Naturally, those of us on the paper were surprised that this hadn’t become obvious before, especially given that we’d compared the specimen to pterosaurs during our research, and had made a point of showing the specimen to just about everyone who might know. One paper reidentifying Samrukia as a pterosaur has already appeared (Buffetaut 2011): I haven’t written about it because this isn’t the end of the story. All I’ll say for now is that Samrukia is not just any old pterosaur.

And - by the way - the cladogram we generated doesn't become irrelevant. Stay tuned... (click to enlarge).

If Samrukia was indeed misidentified, is the massive publicity that surrounded its initial publication inherently damaging to palaeontology’s profile, or to my own reputation? Some are of the opinion that publicity of the sort associated with Samrukia trivialises palaeontology and mischaracterises it as a subject where silly people waste time and money playing with crappy bone fragments, and not on doing Proper Science with statistics and graphs. Others says that popularisation and outreach can only be good things, even if we’re talking about trivial or erroneous claims, especially in an age where universities increasingly try to bring attention to the work done in their departments and where scientists and other academics are under pressure to demonstrate their efforts at public engagement. I’m not personally embarrassed about Samrukia because I think the bird hypothesis was a reasonable proposal, and I reiterate the point that attempting to identify fragmentary fossil remains is often a dangerous pastime where fingers can get burnt.

We all make mistakes, and the Samrukia story has taught me to be a lot more cautious about the interpretation of fragmentary fossils.

Illustrations by C. McCormick.

A somewhat less controversial paper appeared in September when Michael Woodley, Cameron McCormick and I published our reanalysis of Captain Hagelund’s ‘baby Cadborosaurus’ (Woodley et al. 2011). We think it was most likely a pipefish. Predictably, Bousfield and LeBlond (the champions of the ‘marine megaserpent’/’Cadborosaurus is real and is a serpentine plesiosaur’ hypothesis) think that our proposal is nonsense and recently published a very brief letter saying that we can’t be right because baby cadborosauruses are real and Captain Hagelund really found one (Bousfield & LeBlond 2011). We have submitted a response to this response. I’ll let you know what happens. The dead-tree versions of my reviews of Kaiser’s The Inner Bird (Naish 2011a) and Chiappe’s Glorified Dinosaurs (Naish 2011b) appeared at about this time, as did my reviews of Paul Brinkman’s The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush (Naish 2011c) and Dingus and Norell’s biography of Barnum Brown (Naish 2011d). Tetrapod Zoology Book One (Naish 2010) was itself reviewed by mammalogist Henry Pihlström (Pihlström 2011). He pointed to a few shortcomings but mostly said very nice things about it. Notable Tet Zoo articles covered in this latter part of the year include the ones on fossil hoatzins and vombatiform marsupials part I and II. Already there have been over 55 articles on Tet Zoo ver 3, with this being the 56th.

My new academic home, for real.

Here we come to my personal situation. If you read part I you’ll recall that I started 2011 working as a freelance author/editor/consultant. This is a job I’ve had for a few years now (previous post-PhD experiences in employment involve office temping, life as an e-learning course designer, and a stint as a TV researcher). I love it, but it’s a tremendously risky lifestyle when you have dependables, a mortgage and all that crap. I’m pleased to say that, as of October 2011, I’ve had a post-doc position at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Centre [adjacent photo by Ralf Prien]. Technically, I’m there to assist in a major project on extant animals, but I finally have the opportunity to devote time to completion of the various dinosaur, pterosaur and marine reptile projects that have been on the backburner for, literally, years now.

So, representing the University of Southampton for the first time since 1997 or so (I did my BSc degree there), I flew out to Los Angeles in late October to meet with Gareth Dyke and ornithologist Gary Kaiser. We spoke about birds a lot.

Holotype specimen of Megachasma pelagios, discovered entirely by chance off Hawaii in 1976 when it became snagged on an anchor. Ruined by the shadow of my hands and camera, sorry.

We met up with Luis Chiappe at the amazing Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (LANHM) where they have the new dinosaur exhibition, the famous pregnant polycotylid, new mosasaurs, and a ton of other stuff. One major highlight I totally forgot about until I stumbled upon it while on my way to the bathroom was the original 1976 Megamouth shark Megachasma pelagios. It’s true, sharks aren’t tetrapods, but I do love them, and I love megamouths in particular.

The dioramas they have at LANHM are amazing (a selection of some are shown below, sorry about tiny size). They’re old-school, of the sort seen at the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the AMNH, featuring brilliantly mounted taxiderm mammals set within beautifully crafted recreations of their original habitat. Numerous smaller animals from the same habitats await discovery in each scene, and details like footprints in the mud and local landmarks on the painted backdrops are also there.

After LA, Gareth, Gary and I drove to Las Vegas to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. It was pretty neat, but I discovered that I really hate Las Vegas. Like other conference-goers, I was subjected to the same subdued, mid-evening level of lighting all day and every day within the confines of the surreal Paris hotel complex. I lived on a diet of pizza, fries and hot dogs. I met many people I haven’t seen for years, and others for the first time. Here I am with Brian Switek (the photographer was none other than John Hutchinson).

I gave several conference talks during the year, including one (with Max Blake) on a historic British ‘big cat’ specimen and one on Robert Appleby’s unpublished ichthyosaur work. I said earlier that work on ichthyosaurs was a consistent background theme throughout the year. Some of the respective projects came together at September’s Symposium on Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy, held in Lyme Regis, and of course one of the papers my colleagues and I have been collaborating on only came out a few weeks ago (Fischer et al. 2012). I refer of course to the description of the new Cretaceous ophthalmosaurid Acamptonectes densus. Another manuscript resulting from the Appleby project – Jeff Liston spoke about it at SVPCA – is currently in review.

Dinosaur Record Breakers. Excellent Shantungosaurus by Raul Lunia.

November saw the publication of the children’s book I mentioned in the previous article: Dinosaur Record Breakers (Naish 2011e). Like the other kid’s books I’ve done (e.g., Dinosaurs Life Size), I mostly like it. Nearly all of the CG dinosaurs (and other Mesozoic animals) were produced by the very competent Raul Lunia. They include animals that will be relatively unfamiliar to kids, such as Coahuilaceratops, Loricatosaurus, Fruitadens and Nigersaurus, but also staples such as Tyrannosaurus and Stegosaurus. Coming up with 50 ‘record breaker’ categories was quite difficult and, as always, there are a few errors or things that some will disagree with. I included Zhuchengosaurus as ‘biggest duckbill’, yet 2011 was the year in which Zhuchengosaurus was argued to be just another Shantungosaurus. And is Stegosaurus really the dinosaur with the smallest brain? Surely it’s beaten hands-down by various sauropods? Anyway, kids like the book. I gave a dinosaur-themed talk at my son’s school as a result of its publication, and I’m soon to do the same at another school. I mostly find young children to be well informed on dinosaurs, though they still think that Tyrannosaurus is the biggest theropod and still don’t get the ‘birds are dinosaurs’ thing.

'Longest head crest' page from Dinosaur Record Breakers. Art by Raul Lunia.

During 2011 I also acted as consultant on Dorling Kindersley’s Dinosaurs: A Children’s Encyclopedia and John Woodward’s Dinosaur. The latter, featuring more good CG work (this time by Peter Minister), is an augmented reality book: kids are meant to hold the pages of the book up to their webcam, and a 3D animation, depicting the animal or animals on the pages, then appears on their computer screen. We have a webcam but haven’t tried this yet.

So, finally, we come to the end of 2011. I pretty much ended the year with a visit to Germany when, with many excellent colleagues, I attended (and spoke at) the sauropod biology workshop (see write-ups part I and part II). With that out of the way, I got back to work on my Eotyrannus monograph (I’ve been live-tweeting progress – or lack of progress – on that, by the way: follow #Eotyrannus). Both the Wealden field guide – including Naish (2011f) and Salisbury & Naish (2011) – and the mutual sexual selection paper (Hone et al. 2011) appeared in December. While we’re here I should note that the paper version of the Cornet bird and pterosaur paper also appeared in 2011 (Dyke et al. 2011).

What's in the boxes? I'll give you a clue: an English Lower Cretaceous tyrannosauroid theropod.

Aaaand, we’re done. Basically, 2011 was crazy. I feel that, year on year, life shifts up a gear and everything moves faster, pressure to achieve and complete stuff increases, and demands for time, effort and money become ever more numerous. From the blogging point of view, I think I covered some totally awesome stuff, but yet again I feel frustrated that I didn’t complete some of the things I wanted to, nor did I get to make inroads into several areas I’ve been planning on writing about since day 1. Maybe part of the problem is that there’s too much stuff I want to write about. The big move – the transition from Tet Zoo ver 2 to ver 3 – was meant to be a step forwards, but I have to admit that it doesn’t definitely feel that way at the moment. I do so appreciate the fact that at least some of my readers made the transition with me, but I know that others were lost along the way. As always, sincerest thank you to those who read and comment, and offer advice, assistance and support. Here’s to the seventh year. Let’s see what it holds in store.

For previous Tet Zoo birthday articles see...

Refs - -

Bousfield, E. L. & LeBlond, P. H. 2011. Pipefish or pipe dream? Journal of Scientific Exploration, 25, 779-780.

Buffetaut, E. 2011. Samrukia nessovi, from the Late Cretaceous of Kazakhstan: A large pterosaur, not a giant bird. Annales de Paléontologie doi: 10.1016/j.annpal.2011.10.001

Dyke, G., Benton, M., Posmosanu, E., & Naish, D. 2011. Early Cretaceous (Berriasian) birds and pterosaurs from the Cornet bauxite mine, Romania. Palaeontology 54, 79-95.

Fischer, V., Maisch, M. W., Naish, D., Kosma, R., Liston, J., Joger, U., Krüger, F. J., Pérez, J. P., Tainsh, J. & Appleby, J. M. 2012. New ophthalmosaurid ichthyosaurs from the European Lower Cretaceous demonstrate extensive ichthyosaur survival across the Jurassic-Cretaceous boundary. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29234. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029234

Gianechini, F. A., Agnolín, F. L. & Ezcurra, M. D. 2010. A reassessment of the purported venom delivery system of the bird-like raptor Sinornithosaurus. Paläontologische Zeitschrift doi: 10.1007/s12542-010-0074-9

Gong, E., Martin, L. D., Burnham, D. A. & Falk, A. R. 2010. The birdlike raptor Sinornithosaurus was venomous. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences doi: 10.1073/pnas.0912360107

Hone, D., Naish, D. & Cuthill, I. 2011. Does mutual sexual selection explain the evolution of head crests in pterosaurs and dinosaurs? Lethaia doi:10.1111/j.1502-3931.2011.00300.x

Naish, D. 2010. Tetrapod Zoology Book One. CFZ Press, Bideford.

- . 2011a. [Review of] The inner bird: anatomy and evolution. Historical Biology 23, 313-316.

- . 2011b. [Review of] Glorified dinosaurs: the origin and evolution of birds. Historical Biology 23, 435-438.

- . 2011c. [Review of] The second Jurassic dinosaur rush: museums and paleontology in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Historical Biology DOI:10.1080/08912963.2011.614404

- . 2011d. [Review of] Barnum Brown: the man who discovered Tyrannosaurus rex. Historical Biology DOI:10.1080/08912963.2011.630260

- . 2011e. Dinosaur Record Breakers. Carlton Books, London.

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

- ., Dyke, G., Cau, A., Escuillié, F. & Godefroit, P. 2011. A gigantic bird from the Upper Cretaceous of Central Asia. Biology Letters doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0683

- ., & Sweetman, S. C. 2011. A tiny maniraptoran dinosaur in the Lower Cretaceous Hastings Group: evidence from a new vertebrate-bearing locality in south-east England. Cretaceous Research 32, 464-471.

Paul, G. S. 2011. Azhdarchids were NOT as big as giraffes! Prehistoric Times 97, 22.

Pihlström, H. 2011. [Review of] Tetrapod zoology book one. Historical Biology 23, 439-440.

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

Scott, C. 2011. Planet Dinosaur. BBC Books, London.

Taylor, M., Hone, D., Wedel, M. & Naish, D. 2011. The long necks of sauropods did not evolve primarily through sexual selection. Journal of Zoology 285, 150-161.

Witton, M. P. & Naish, D. 2008. A reappraisal of azhdarchid pterosaur functional morphology and paleoecology. PLoS ONE 3(5): e2271. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002271

Woodley, M. A., Naish, D., & McCormick, C. A. 2011. A baby sea-serpent no more: reinterpreting Hagelund’s juvenile “cadborosaur” report. Journal of Scientific Exploration 25, 495-512.

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

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