Thursday, May 28, 2009

Panphagia & Aerosteon live!

An update to the previous concerns over the validity of the name Panphagia (see original post on the new species here, and the ICZN controversy here). In the comments section of the later post, an author of the Panphagia description in the online journal PLoS ONE, had this to say:

  • "Regarding to the ICZN requierements, I let you know that PLoS made the printed copies. So, the problem of the validity or not of the new species is over."
    --Ricardo Martínez, Panphagia paper author
So there you have it, PLoS ONE, after the Darwinius debacle, is probably going back to correct any past oversights in this area. The name Panphagia protos Martínez & Alcober 2009 is officially valid and doesn't need to be emended (just note the change in exact publication date, in case some claim-jumper has published another name or alternate spelling or something in the mean time). EDIT: Aerosteon and Maiacetus have been similarly addressed. The official publication date for Aerosteon is now 2009 as far as the ICZN is concerned.

[Illustration Panphagia above is from here, copyright Jorge Gonzalez.]

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Science Reporting Today: Sauropod Necks

And finally, we have the first of (unfortunately) probably very many entries under the heading of Science Reporting Today. That is, how god-awful it often is.

[Above: Cast of Diplodocus carnegii at the NMH in London. This mount has not been made obsolete!]

The big dino news today has been the paper by Darren Naish, Matt Wedel, and Mike Taylor (all of the glorious SV-POW! blog) that, contrary to studies in the early 2000s, sauropod necks were not constrained to a horizontal position. Note that, if you read the papers or their own blog posts, they're very careful to spell out that this is not to say that sauropods are just going from one constrained pose to another. I read one comment on a news story, where some poor dim soul honestly said the new study must be bogus, because if they held their heads up high, how did they drink? For serious, a human being, presumably without any mental defects, said that. For a second I thought I'd been frozen for 500 years and woken up in Idiocracy.

Generally, the problem with science reporting, as detailed in the comic I posted a few days ago, is that science reporters, who are rarely specialists in whatever particular area they're reporting on, must not only interpret the information given to them by experts, but they also feel the need to severely dumb the info down for a general audience (and, often, try to spice it up or over-exaggerate the importance of discoveries, so people who aren't interested in science will be impressed. See exhibit A).

Here are some examples of news stories discussing today's sauropod neck paper, and either getting things wrong or dumbing it down so much that they're misleading people rather than educating them.
  • "Generations of children have been brought up on the idea that that long necked dinosaurs like sauropods, lumbered along with their necks stretched out horizontally." --Channel 4 News
Really? Generations of children. When I was a kid, every dinosaur book and toy I had depicted sauropods with an erect neck posture. This is the stereotypical brontosaur image, after all. This is the posture that lead people to mistakenly surmise that sauropods lived under water and used their long necks like snorkels. In reality, though some older museum mounts depicted sauropods with horizontal necks (mainly due to lack of ceiling space), the low-slung, horizontal necks didn't gain popularity until Walking with Dinosaurs was released in 1999. Ten years is hardly "generations." This is an example of exaggerating the impact of a find. It's important, sure, but not that earth-shattering, as its overturning a view that's only been entrenched a decade.

The headline of the Times Online article:
  • Natural History Museum's sauropod exhibit 'anatomically wrong': The Natural History Museum's flagship dinosaur exhibit may be misleading because sauropods held their heads up high rather than keeping them low, claim scientists.
"May be misleading", well that's arguably true, but anatomically wrong? No. Of course sauropods could achieve a horizontal position. Here's an example of a headline making a bold, exaggerated, and incorrect claim, and only backpedaling if you read the fine print (i.e., the actual article).

Anyway, those are just the first few examples I noticed. The SV-POWsketeers are keeping track of news stories about their research here, if you'd like to play along at spotting shoddy science reporting practices. If you find anything truly ridiculous, drop it in the comments!

Also, bear in mind that this is not a criticism of science reporters per se. Whenever trying to communicate complex ideas in a simple way, you're going to mislead some people. Take a look at the graphic I did for the previous post (linked at the top). Big ol' red X over the WWD Diplodocus. What I meant to convey is that this is no longer the standard, default posture for these animals. Will somebody look at that and think I meant they could not hold their necks horizontally? Unfortunately, it's possible. But maybe it's a problem inherent to the whole approach all the science news outlets seem to be taking. Rather than "New discovery disproves conventional view of sauropods," wouldn't a better tack be, "New discovery shows sauropods had greater range of neck motion than previously thought"? Or does that not sound earth-shattering and controversial enough for Joe Average to care?

Put Your Heads Up For Detroit!

A quick note on a new paper out today on sauropod anatomy. Always exciting stuff, obviously, but today especially so.

As many of you may have heard, the days of sauropods with their heads held high and proud came to a crushing end in 1999, when Kent Stephens, using his DinoMorph computer anatomy program, found that contrary to decades of portrayals in art and museum mounts, sauropods did not carry their heads much higher than their shoulders. The neutral pose of the long neck was found to be that of a vertical beam, dipping towards the ground to mow down field after field of ferns, not a high, swan-like S-curve.

Enter the SV-POWsketeers, the new guard of sauropod experts who made a splash a few years back by starting a collaborative blog about nothing more than Sauropod Vertebrae (Pictures Of the Week, hence the acronym).

In thier first formal paper as a team, the SV-POW! guys became the first to really challange Stephens' findings, which had by now become the orthodox view, represented in such pop culture icons as Walking with Dinosaurs. Stephens stated in his paper that no modern animals normally held their necks out of neutral pose, except to drink, display, etc. When just walking around, they were, as Zapp Brannigan said with disdain, "So beautiful, yet so neutral."

But, were they? And are they? According to the SV-POWsketeers, who looked at living animals from all major tetrapod groups using X-rays and studies of the existing scientific literature, no. Living animals never walk around with their necks in a neutral pose. In fact, far from being disgustingly neutral, the normal position for most animals is to flex the head and neck as much as possible! Doing this to sauropods means that (barring any unusual, unknown specilizations, like pressurized air sacs in the neck), not only can the poor things reach the ground to drink, they walked with heads held high, able to browse from the treetops as traditionally depicted without having to rear up onto two legs (though they could do that too, at least the diplodocids).

Note that this still rules out the traditional swan-curve. Everybody seems to agree that the neck vertebrae acted sort of like a long, rigid pole that would have been straight along the whole middle section, just bent severely at the base of the neck and at the head.

Read more about it in the scientists' own words over at SV-POW!

[Images used above are of Diplodocus carnegii, from Walking with Dinosaurs and SV-POW, copyright the BBC and Mark Witton, respectively.]


Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Up Side of Hype

Darwinus is not a dinosaur. I've gritted my teeth and resisted posting on the whole whirlwind of ridiculous media hype, fallout from said hype, shady purchases from private collectors, TV deals forcing incomplete science through the fast track, and online publications that laugh in the face of actually officially naming and describing new finds.

For those who want to catch up, here's a few links, which have all unfolded in the bloggy goss-o-sphere (these are from The Loom, but check literally any paleo or science blog for more):
And because it's a really nice fossil, I've even included a pretty picture from the paper, but that's all I have to say about that.

Anyway, the whole controversy over Darwinius not meeting ICZN standards for valid publication has implication for dinosaurs as well. Namely, Aerosteon and Panphagia, both of which were published in the same online journal, PLoS ONE. Now, you'd think an online journal would go out of its way to make sure species published in it were valid, however this does not seem to be the case. It's apparently on the authors to make sure their papers have proper printing and distribution to meet ICZN criteria. Aerosteon and Panphagia, as far as we know, do not meet these criteria and are not valid names. Their papers are unpublished manuscripts at this point. If and when the names are printed in 50 or more copies and made publicly available for sale or to libraries, then they'll be valid, but at least the year of publication for Aerosteon will need to be amended from 2008 to 2009, assuming it happens this year. The same goes for the early whale Maiacetus, which is a Stinking Mammal.

Because of all the hype and the potential PR fallout should somebody pull an Aeto-Gate on "Ida" (Rioarribasimius as Mike Taylor jokingly threatened), PLoS ONE has acted quickly and pushed Darwinius through the proper print channels, checked with the ICZN higher-ups, and gotten the green light. Who will think of the poor dinosaurs in all this?

So, a warning to anyone publishing online: Make sure you arrange for a print run of your paper. Think of poor Epidendrosaurus--there but by the grace of the ICZN go you.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Four Wings Bad, Two Wings Good?

While helping to review a painting of Velociraptor posted to Gondolend, the artist brought up an outdated drawing of Sinornithosaurus she'd found among the top hits on Google, showing generally poor drawing skills and a likely inaccurate frond-tail of feather extending all the way to the hip (dromaeosaurs all seem to have had only a spray of vaned feathers at the tip of the tail, the rest being covered in down). This drawing is one of mine. As I've been updating my web site, I figured Sinornithosaurus should go to the top of the list for things to take a second stab at illustrating.

But how? In his book Dinosaurs of the Air, Greg Paul gave his sinornithosaurs something no fossils of them preserve--Microraptor-like wings on the back legs. It's a close relative of Microraptor, sure, but why do this with no evidence? In the travelling Feathered Dinosaurs exhibit I was lucky enough to see at the AMNH, the Liaoning diorama also contained a sinornithosaur with small, microraptorian hind wings. I checked the fossils again. Was I missing something? It seemed like a consensus was emerging with no published evidence. Sounds like some juicy behind the scenes goss was at work here.

It was. I present to you an unpublished specimen (NGMC 00-12-A, from Ji's thesis) of Sinornithosaurus (EDIT: Or is it a large, old Microraptor? See Mickey Mortimer's comments below) with what looks to be small wings on the hind legs.
Not only that, but as predicted by GSP and the AMNH model, it also appears to have full wings with primary (not just secondary as suggested by the preservation of the "Dave" specimen) wing feathers.

But... is it real? A few posters to DinoForum have admitted tentative wariness about even the hind-wing sporting Microraptor. After all, portions of the published Micro specimens are known to have been, ah, "enhanced" to make them more appealing to fossil collectors on the secondary fossil market (which is like half the Chinese economy and is only illegal in name). Sure, many specimens of Microraptor have been found with hind wings, but only two have been published on, and all came from private collectors. Specimens dug up by pros have lacked this feature, but are also more poorly preserved.

In the photo above, you can see that the feathered portion of the leg is on a separate piece of rock from the rest. Granted, specimens like this, at this size, are generally pretty fragmented, but it also gives fakers leeway to swap pieces in and out in order to make the piece more attractive. This practice isn't necessarily malicious, the enhancers just want to create a more artistic piece with no concern for science. Nor is it limited to China (remember Irritator? It got that name for a reason). Still, it's very prevalent there, to the point where many "museums" (mostly private collections that admit the public like the old Cabinets of Curiosity) contain mostly faked fossils. Professional museums in China, like the IVPP, are mainly clean from what I've heard. The pros are aware of this problem and I'd like to think most specimens that hit press are properly vetted, especially in the aftermath of Archaeoraptor. But when it comes to unpublished specimens, all bets are off, so be careful out there, paleoartists!

Long story short, I'll be re-illustrating Sinornithosaurus, but the hind wings will go in a separate layer, just in case...

[Top image: Very old, outdated Sinornithosaurus drawing by yours truly. All rights reserved.]
[second image from top: Sinornithosaurus by FunkMonk, lisenced.]

How Science News Works

Ok, not DinoGoss, but one of my main ideas for this blog that I haven't (fortunately!) gotten to delve into yet is "science reporting so tragically bad it's almost funny." You all know what I mean, so I'll just show this awesome comic I picked up from Brian Switek's blog Laelaps:
(click for full size).

Comic copyright Jorge Cham, all rights reserved. Check out PhD Comics!

Thai One On

Here's a blast from the past:
If you follow ostrich dinosaurs (and really, who doesn't?), you may have heard of a genus called "Ginnareemimus." This name has been popping up on genus lists enclosed in quotation marks for years. That's because, while the remains were found in Thailand over a decade ago, they have never been described and the name has only cropped up in a caption in some obscure journal published in 2000.

Well, this month the paper finally came out, only the name is... wait for it... Kinnareemimus! Subtle change to avoid (or because of) Jim Jenson's fate (see previous post for more on that)? Nah, some intrepid poster to the DML found the spelling "Kinnareemimus" in a Thai language journal article, from 1998 or 1999, so "Ginnareemimus" may just have been a typo all along (EDIT: Or, as mentioned in the comments, an alternate transliteration of Thai characters). The Thai article, if you're curious, can be downloaded here as a pdf. The crack team of dino fans at Wikipedia have already been able to translate the relevent bits. The journal is "Reports of the Annual Meeting of the Geology-something" (hey I said "crack team of dino fans" not "linguists") and the author appears to be Sasithorn Kamsupha.

So that's the saga of Ginnaree, err, Kinnareemimus. For all that, the remains aren't anything spectacular, just post-cranial bits including a severely pinched arctometatarsalian foot (i.e., it was probably a good runner). The authors found it to be more advanced within ornithomimosaurs than Harpymimus due to this, though its early Cretaceous age would make it the oldest known ornithomimosaur. However, Mickey Mortimer reckons it's not diagnostic enough of that group and might be a different kind of coelurosaur entirely. Still, it is kinda cool to get more of the Thai dinosaur record, which until now has consisted mostly of the possible spinosaur Siamosaurus and some tiny little eggs with an embryo that must have been laid by an unknown scansoriopterygid or something equally small in size.

[The image at left shows the metatarsals of Kinnareemimus khonkaenensis, from Buffetaut et al. 2009 and is copyright The Geological Society of London. Check out the severely pinched middle MT.]

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Story of Lori

The origin of birds has always been a dicey subject. If you define "bird" as the clade including Archaeopteryx and modern species, as most paleonotolgists currently do, then the Late Jurassic Archaeopteryx ("Archie"--all the really cool and/or important fossils need a good nickname!) has always been the first bird, and because of the definition, probably always will be unless some of it's very close cousins are ever unearthed. The problem is that the closest supposed relatives of birds, the deinonychosaurs ("raptors" and relatives) should naturally pre-date Archie, if they're generally ancestral to it. Unfortunately, fossils from this group come almost exclusively from the Cretaceous period, well after Archie went extinct. The dwindling bird-are-not-dinosaurs crowd (BANDits) has historically seized on this as an attempted "gotcha" to rational human beings. After all, if birds evolved from dinosaurs, how come all the bird-like dinosaurs lived after the first birds?

It's true that the fossil record of pre-Archie maniraptorans is pretty slim, but paleontologists infer they must exist based on ghost lineages (see previous post on this topic). In that previous post, I mentioned the case of "Lori", the pre-publication nickname Scott Hartman has given to his (wait for it) Late Jurassic troodontid! Found in the Morrison Formation (not exactly known for its small dinosaur preservation, its more of an 8-foot vertebrae kinda spot), Lori would have lived at roughly the same time as Archaeopteryx, not early enough to be ancestral, but still enough to shoot down the old ghost lineage problem pretty thoroughly.

Scott (pic at right) first started discussing this find in more private venues like Gondolend, but it's safe to say the goss has spread far and wide in the years since then. He's provided some of us with an exclusive sneak peak at his own skeletals (he's pretty much a skeletal illustration guru, check out his awesome Web site), but the years have gone by and Lori has still not seen print nor a proper name.

Well, inside sources have sent the goss stunning evidence that a name has indeed been chosen, and possibly, that an official publication is getting close (it appears to be a cladogram for the paper, with the old Lori skeletal clearly labelled with its shiny new genus name). Far be it from me to leak the name pre-pub and risk creating sticky nomen nudum situations (I'm sure Scott doesn't envy Jim Jensen), but rest assured it preserves a traditional troodontid naming convention, as well as bearing some similarity to a recent dromaeosaurid name.

I wanted to post some of the great reconstructions of Lori that have already been produced and shared by members of the private boards where it's a well-known subject, but I can't seem to find any online. Scott is a pretty active member of these communities so it's only natural people are showing his find a little more discretion than would be normal for exciting, unpublished dinosaurs. I feel the same way, so the censored clipping of my source is all you're getting out of me. I'm sure a 3-year backlog of killer illustrations will appear out of the woodwork once it's officially published (didn't we even do a Lori draw-off at some point?) so as Tom Holtz would say, W4TP...

(pic above right: Jim Jensen with his Ultrasauros. He probably would have preferred to use a 'u' at the end there instead of an 'o', but the goss got a little out of hand).