Tuesday, December 22, 2009

NY Daily News Staff Writers Are Dumb As Bricks

Above: Maybe venomous, but NOT a spitter!

Check out this short piece "attempting" to condense the recent story on potentially venomous sinornithosaurs. The piece was written by New York Daily News staff writer Ethan Sacks, who does not understand one word of the subject he's covering.

The headline:
"Venomous velociraptor: Scientists discover sinornithosaurus dinosaur spit poison at prey"


I can guarantee you with 100% certainty no scientist or press release even remotely said anything like this.

What they probably told him/what he probably read on other news sites: "The dinosaur Sinornithosaurus, a relative of Velociraptor, was venomous, like the spitting dinosaurs in Jurassic Park."

What Sacks heard: "Velociraptor's relatives were venom-spitting dinosaurs, like in Jurassic Park!"

Way to make the world a dumber place, Ethan Sacks.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Venomous Dinosaurs

Above: Illustration of a Sinornithosaurus skull.
A few of you may remember a little 1993 picture called Jurassic Park. In the film as in the novel it was based on, a point was made of showing how unpredictable cloning extinct organisms could be, and that we would not be able to anticipate all the dangers dinosaurs posed just from their fossil remains. To illustrate this, author Michael Crichton invented the idea that the basal theropod Dilophosaurus was venomous. This was, of course, completely fictional and only present to make a philosophical point. There is no evidence whatsoever that this dino had venom, let alone could spit it like a cobra, let alone had a ridiculous display like a rattling frill-neck lizard (added only for the movie).

However, while Dilophosaurus in particular was probably not venomous (and if it was, the late Crichton should be hailed as a prophet for picking that specific dino out of his... orifice), this doesn't rule out the possibility that some dinosaurs were. Poison or venom of come kind exists in a wide selection of modern vertebrates, from amphibians, to lizards (like the gila monster and Komodo dragon) and even birds such as the Hooded Pitohui, which is very aptly named, as the neurotoxins in its feathers cause predators to promptly spit it out.

There has in the past been some goss to the effect that we have evidence for venomous dinosaurs (the difference between venom and poison: poison is ingested or absorbed from prey to predator, venom is injected from predator into prey). A 2 cm long tooth with a longitudinal groove, reported from Mexico in 2001, was suggested to come from a venomous theropod.

Those grooves, which are actually present in most theropod teeth to some extent, are the issue of a new controversy over a paper on the Chinese dromaeosaurid Sinornithosaurus, which we've covered before regarding it's hind wings, or lack therof. A new study looks at the unusually positioned gooves on sinornithosaur teeth, and speculates that these could have delivered venom. The researchers even identify an opening in the upper jaw bone where the venom gland may have been. (left: Sinornithosaurus by FunkMonk. Licensed.)

This is exciting stuff, but take it with a grain of salt. Ed Young does a good job covering the situation at his blog. Basically, it's entirely possible that the grooves are simply features typical of other theropods. Many animals have grooves on their teeth to negate any suction that would occur when pulling the tooth out of flesh. However, Young also reports that Bryan Fry, who discovered the venom of Komodo dragons, has stated that grooved never occur on the posterior side of the tooth surface except in venomous animals, which sounds pretty convincing.

The authors of the new paper cite the length of the grooved teeth as evidence that they were "fangs", but it really just looks like they're out of socket, the way many theropod skulls are mounted in museums. T. rex famously have 6-inch teeth, but that includes the roots. Really, only 2 or three of those inches would protrude from the jaw. Fossils that have been crushed and distorted are also susceptible to out of socket teeth making the dentition look more formidable (and more fang-like) than it really was.

Above: T. rex mount with teeth dangling out of the mouth like it just finished a brutal hockey game. Photo by Quadell from Wikipedia. Licensed.

Obviously more investigation needs to be done, but famous TV personality Dr Tom Holtz is on record saying he evidence is weak, so let's not be too hasty with conclusions here.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

V-D Day for Matt Wedel

Quick epilogue to the Clash of the Dinosaurs quote-mining incident, Matt was able to talk to someone at the Discovery Channel (which aired and distributes but did not directly produce the special). Discovery promised not to re-run the show until the offending segment was removed, and it will be fixed on the DVD and Blu-ray release as well. Congrats Matt, and way to go Discovery Channel! It is definitely the network's responsibility to ensure the integrity of the shows they air, and Discovery is certainly living by its policy here.

You can read Matt's latest post at SV-POW.

CotD: The Saga Continues

Above: If Wedel had used the words "laser" and "armor" at any time during his interview, CotD would have looked like this. Not that I'd complain.

Matt Wedel has posted his experiences trying to chase down what exactly went wrong with his infamous interview segment in the Discovery Channel and Dangerous, Ltd.'s special Clash of the Dinosaurs. You can read the letter where Dangerous, Ltd. admits that they quote-mined him like creationists and had him spouting nonsense discredited before he was born as if it were fact, here.

An excerpt of the good part:

"In your email, you said: ‘Someone in the editing room cut away the framing explanation and left me presenting a thoroughly discredited idea as if it was current science.’ In your interview you carefully set out a context in which you made your argument, a context that was perhaps not included in the show as carefully as it could have been. Whether this was in the interests of brevity or not, I entirely appreciate your position. We had no wish to suggest you were presenting an old, discredited argument, we were simply working on the show ever aware of the demands of our audience. This does not excuse a part of the program which was perhaps not edited with as much finesse as it could have been and consequently I will make your concerns clear to the production team in the hope that we may avoid such situations again."

Note that they don't apologize or say they'll fix this in future broadcasts of the show (and if it's like other Discovery shows, it will be running on a loop for months). The best part is that the lame excuse email makes clear Dangerous' motivations: They only wanted to accomodate the needs of their audience and hold everyone's attention. That means this was done ON PURPOSE, because the truth was TOO BORING.

Discovery Communications and their affiliate production companies don't care about science. Sorry if I sound like Kanye, but this is true and everybody needs to learn this fact. The only goal here is to keep eyeballs glued to the TV with whatever fake nonsense they can piece together from edited sound bites given by experts hired only to bring a veneer of credibility. They decide what they want to say and show, then hire experts and interview them until they've said enough vowels and consonants to piece together a convincing ransom-note narration.

Not that this wasn't already obvious, but there it is in print.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

CotD: More Ugly

Above: The modern conception of sauropods, as envisioned by Dangerous productions.

In last week's post on Clash of the Dinosaurs, I discussed the pros and cons from a viewers perspective. To sum up, I thought it was decent but flawed, with too much repetitive CGI and science made palatable by the presence of real experts like Matt Wedel.

Matt has chimed in with his own post about the special, which points out some really, really troubling behind-the-scenes behavior on the part of the producers, and proves once and for all that Dangerous Ltd., a production company for venues like the Discovery Channel, are not interested in science. Well maybe initially, but when it comes time to air, snazzy gee-whiz-wow anti-facts are all that matters to them. From Matt's blog post:

"I said something like, 'There was this old idea that the sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail. But in fact, it almost certainly contained a glycogen body, like the sacral expansions of birds. Trouble is, nobody knows exactly what the glycogen bodies of birds do.'"
"Somebody in the editing room neatly sidestepped the mystery of the glycogen body by cutting that bit down, so what I am shown saying in the program is this, 'The sacral expansion functioned as a second brain to control the hindlimbs and tail.'"

Matt is rightly extremely pissed about this and I'm right there with him. A show supposedly about science edited the words of a sauropod expert to espouse the idea, in a national TV program airing in the year 2009 (note: not year 1939!) that sauropods had a second brain in the tail.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Ok? Good. This is like the paleo equivalent of a documentary about Darwin, featuring Darwin on film, then editing Darwin's words to make it sound like he was a creationist. Did I just call Matt Wedel the Darwin of sauropodology? You decide.

To sum up, the only thing worse than science reporting in the news, are science "documentaries" on TV. I'd have no problem if Discovery Channel had called this a science fiction special, but they did not, and that's flat-out lying.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Baddest Dino You've Probably Heard Of

Above: CGI Spinosaurus from Monsters Resurrected.

Yesterday, I covered the first part of the Discovery Channel's night of dinos on December 6th. After Clash of the Dinosaurs, Discovery aired a less-promoted special on Spinosaurus (apparently the first in a series) called Monsters Resurrected: Biggest Dino Killer. According to Tom Holtz, who was interviewed for the show, a second (apparently better, from his POV) special focusing on Acrocanthosaurus will air in the coming weeks or months. The point of this series seems to bring focus to lesser known giant carnivorous theropods.

The "lesser known" conceit was the first in some bizarre choices, pseudo-errors, and misleading narration/imagery to come from this special. Altogether, I can't say it was "better" than CotD, but to me it was heaps more interesting because of all these little quirks, and some very cool paleontologist segments, not to mention CGI sequences that lasted more than 3 seconds apiece.

Above: For the reference, an accurate Spinosaurus head. By Steve O'Connor, licensed.

First, to call Spinosaurus little-known is a bit of a reach, isn't it? The narrator started nearly every post-commercial break segment with a line like "The most terrifying dinosaur you've never heard of." Yeah, Jurassic Park III wasn't as popular as the first film, but isn't Spinosaurus at least among Brachiosaurus in the ranks of well-known second-tier dinosaur stars nowadays? Or is it only among us dino fanboys? But who else is watching this show?

The next thing that struck me was the design of the CGI Spinosaurus. It is pretty darn inaccurate by today's standards. But... it isn't based on today's standards. It's clearly a direct copy of an older, very awesome drawing by Todd Marshall, down to the dewlap, the spikes, and the almost certainly inaccurate croc-like scale detailing. Whether Marshall was a consultant for the show, or they just ripped his design off after it turned up on Google Image Search, I don't know. Anybody know the scoop? Because if he wasn't involve, this is definitely a case of blatant plagiarism.

Above right: Spinosaurus by Todd Marshall, blatantly plagiarized by me from Google Images. Left: Spinosaurus from Monsters Resurrected.

The main inaccuracy in their Spino model is the head. Now that we have decent skull material, we know Spino has a very narrow, thin snout with a distinct kink in the top and a huge rosette of teeth on the robust lower jaw (see accurate drawing, above). This is all thanks to dal Sasso and his team, who were featured extensively in the special (very cool to see) along with a life-sized model of an accurate skull. Does nobody notice the difference? Adding to the confusion, the special also featured segments with Lawrence Witmer in his famous anatomy lab (and Dr. Holtz's segments even super-imposed him into the lab via green screen, according to his comments on the DML!) . Witmer was shown using computer modeling to re-construct Spino based on the type specimens (destroyed in WWII) and with gaps filled in from the related Suchomimus. Unfortunately, the producers don't seem to have realized that the skull Witmer used was a stand-in, and anytime the skull of Spinosaurus was discussed (that is, every 2 minutes), the (very different) skull of Suchomimus was shown. Suchomimus skull also matches the one Marshall probably based his drawing on, so the accurate, dal Sasso restoration as briefly shown ends up looking very out of place.

Above: Not Spinosaurus.

Also bizarrely, the (almost universally accepted) idea that Spinosaurus was primarily a fisher is only addressed briefly at the very end, along with the hypothesis that the sail could be used as a fish-luring shade as in modern herons. The rest of the time, the talking heads like Holtz discuss ways Spino may have dispatched their prey, probably thinking of fish and small/juvenile dinosaurs and other vertebrates, while the animation shows it picking up and eating a small Rugops like corn on the cob! Never mind that the hand articulation would make corn eating impossible for theropod dinosaurs.

The commentary throughout the episode is actually very good, and mostly accurate, as it's coming from the pros, which are given more talk time than in some other specials. However, the animation and narrator talking about how bad-ass the Spinosaurus is are clearly meant to make it look like a bigger, meaner version of t. rex, rather than a giant heron. Don't get me wrong, giant herons would be damn scary, but I doubt they'd be running around eating abelisaur shish kebab and gutting giant mesoeucrocodylians like fish (very gory and kinda cool, don't see that in a lot of docs!). Also, there was a lot of speculation treated as fact. The bite and feeding style of Spinosaurus is based on modern crocodiles, by experts, but it's just speculation, not the basis of studies, and I've already seen people trying to add this to Wikipedia in the mistaken belief that it's been demonstrated scientifically. It's not even really a well-reasoned speculation, as the snout of Spinosaurus itself is more like a gharial than a crocodile. But maybe the expert quoted was thinking of the broader- snouted Suchomimus.

All in all, an interesting, schizophrenic doc, and I'm really looking forward to the Acrocanthosaurus installment, as that's known from much better remains, not to mention footprint evidence of hunting behavior. However, Discovery needs to get the experts to help write those commercial break trivia questions, and provide pronunciation guides--the poor guy kept calling it SPIN-o-saur-us, as in the Spin Doctors.

Oh, and this is two in a row that got the sauropod feet (nearly) right! The show featured Paralatitan, and you could clearly make the hands out as fingerless stumps. SV-POW must be having some effect!

Above: Hooray for sauropod feet!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Dinosaur Sunday: Good + Bad + Ugly

Above: The T. rex has not thought this through.

Last night, the first part of a new Discovery Sunday special aired, Clash of the Dinosaurs--sort of a slightly more rigorous and scientific-sounding version of the horrible Jurassic Fight Club. Hopefully, any DinoGoss fans will know that these types of CGI action-fests are only loosely connected to reality. One of the main criticisms of these shows, often pointed out online by the very experts featured as "talking heads," is that the writer will latch onto any speculative aside a scientist might have tossed around, and then present it in the show as a concrete fact. Apparently, audiences don't want to know about the process of science or that there may be debate (or no solid evidence at all) for some of these hypotheses. It's more exciting if we just know, man!

Anyway, in this post I'll go over a few things I noticed watching the show, informed by chatter on the DML today from some of he scientists featured and what they thought of the show. I'll also talk about the (very cool if very inaccurate in some very weird ways) show that followed (which I hadn't heard about!) all about Spinosaurus.

First, Clash of the Dinosaurs:
This species tried a bit harder than others to illustrate why we think dinosaurs were the way they're portrayed based on anatomical studies. Each CGI model came with a see-through version to show off the bones, muscles, gastric system, etc. While not perfect, they looked ok, though the show seemed to only focus on the brain for most dinosaurs. It also missed a good opportunity to highlight little-known aspects of anatomy, like the air sac system (especially in the sauropod and pterosaur).

External anatomy was even better in most cases. The T. rex looked great, much better than the god-awful Walking With Dinosaurs or slightly less awful Jurassic Park versions. The sub-adult Triceratops were cool looking despite the extra front foot claw, and from what we saw of the ankylosaur, they obviously did their research (hey, Ken Carpenter was one of the talking heads) rather than just giving it a random arrangement of nodes and scutes. The Quetzalcoatlus was decent, about on par with the When Dinosaurs Roamed America version, but it was not only naked but scaly, a complete departure from known science. Nice to see the leapfrog launch and terrestrial stalking papers come to life. However, the wings looked too much like simple flaps of skin, as in a bat. And the "X-rays" and narration gave no indication that they were anything but skin. No mention of the complex system of muscluature, inflatable sacs, etc. that made these structures true organs, rather than dermis.

Above: Nice pycnofibres, dork.

The discussion of Quetz's eyesight is a good spot to illustrate one of the points I mentioned above. The show asserted that Quet could see in UV, following urine trails etc. of its prey on the ground, and that it would have been eagle-eyed, hunting mainly from the air. The reason all this was in the show, is that expert Mike Habib (one of the talking heads) had a quick back and forth with the interviewers, who asked him if its eyesight would be as good as birds. Mike said it was plausible that it would have had similar eyesight to storks and hawks, and that (since it apparently hunted prey on the ground) maybe could have spotted food from the wing. This translated to Terminator-vision and rock-solid factual statements that it could see for miles. Of course, we have no way of knowing, but I would have said that it would be more stork-like than eagle-like, hunting on the ground, not on the wing.

The sauropod segments were especially good, and the show obviously benefited from having Matt Wedel of SV-POW! as a talking head. It did a good job explaining the age segregation of juveniles, and their "flood out the predators with food" reproductive strategy. Even the CGI models of Sauroposeidon were very good, with the correct number of fingers (though the back of the front feet were still elephantine and not concave as they should have been, but they're trying!).

Above: The role of Deinonychus is played by Heath Ledger. Why so serious?

What I can't forgive is the Deinonyhcus models, which while better than usual (certainly leagues better than JFC) still looked like ugly, overgrown lizards rolled in glue with feathers slapped on willy-nilly, very unnatural, with artificially "mean" looking faces (and apparently, Joker makeup for that extra serial-killer punch). The wing feathers were barely visible, and for a while I thought the arms were naked. What's the point of retaining wings for display (as we know for a fact medium-sized dromaeosaurs did) if you can barely see them? Basically, while CGI animators are getting better at following the facts (raptors had feathers), they're not getting the implication (they should look like giant Archaeopteryx, not mini T. rex with fuzz).

Summing it all up is an excellent quote from Tom Holtz (also featured on the show):
"The documentarians often take anything that any of the talking heads speculated about, and transformed these into declarative statements of fact. In some cases this is particularly egregious, because I strongly disagree with some of these statements and believe the facts are against some of these (say, about tyrannosaurid cranial kinesis...) and they present these as facts rather than suppositions."

For the record, on that cranial kinesis point, dinosaurs could NOT flex their jaws open like pythons. Lawrence Witmer, another consultant on the show, has demonstrated this thoroughly in print, but was not given a say on the matter, which is especially bad since it implies all the experts agree with Dr. Bob on this. Really, I imagine the producers must have loved having Bakker as a talking head, since it gave them license to depict all kinds of zany speculation as fact. I owe a lot to Bakker and idolized him as a kid, but I'd hesitate to call what he does 'science' and not 'unsubstantiated speculation to hype science for kids.'

Above: Sauropods... in... space!

One last pet peeve, then stay tuned for Spino. I'd estimate the CGI segments of the show totalled about 5 minutes of footage, with clips repeated over and over and over and over again to illustrate different points. I'd gladly accept lower-quality CGI if we could at least get some actual 'action' sequences that last more than 5 seconds apiece, and it makes me wish they'd bring back cheaper methods, even stop-motion. Some of the pieces showed even more skimping, like the baby Sauroposeidon with Walking With... Dimetrodon syndrome. That is, the hatchlings use the same model as the adults, making it look like they shrunk down, Mario style. Even worse, the Sauroposeidon hatching sequence takes place at night, on a wide sandy featureless field. With no sense of scale, it looks a herd of adult brachiosaurs emerging from the soil on the moon, which is actually pretty cool.

Oh well. At least they didn't put a Suchomimus head on their T. rex, but more on that later...