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Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Happy Birthday Tetrapod Zoology: SIX YEARS of blogging

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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.

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

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