Monday, June 29, 2015

Woe betide those who summon the Galactic Coelacanth

A couple of years ago I had an existential crisis when I realized that, in the time one of my papers had been in review (almost 8 months!), I could nearly have physically created an entirely new human being in my body, if I had so chosen. Thus began the saddest game in the universe that I like to play when I submit a paper: "What kind of animal could have been gestated in the time this paper has been in review?". And this became an even better running joke when one of my colleagues had a highly unusual review experience that lasted for several years, which completely exhausted the gestation times of real animals.

My amazing and lovely sister saw us talking about this on Facebook and went ahead and wrote an R script that tells you exactly what kind of animal you could have birthed while waiting for reviewer comments. And because I am always forgetting to save this amazing piece of code, I've gotten permission from Jessica to post it here for posterity. My sincere apologies to anyone who gets the Space Whale, and my deepest condolences to anyone who is graced by the presence of the Galactic Coelacanth. 

Click here for the R script!
Updated 30 June 2015: If you don't have R, you can also download a text file to see the code!

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Dinosaurs Unearthed!

Growing up in Nova Scotia, despite its many excellent and significant palaeontological treasures, meant that there weren't many dinosaur fossils for me to gawp at regularly. The Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History (which I loved) had only a few small fossils on display, and besides an exciting appearance by the Dinosauroid when I was small, did not have any big traveling dinosaur exhibits come through. But when I was in Grade 1 or so, DINAMATION came to town and seared its robotic dinosaurs all over my brain forever. And so I think I will forever have a soft spot in my heart for animatronic dinosaur displays.

Mike Burns and I ran into some of the old Dinamation robots puffing away at the New Mexico Museum back in 2012!


Like Jurassic Forest and Dino Dino Dreampark, the traveling exhibit Dinosaurs Unearthed (at Telus World of Science in Edmonton for the summer) mostly features large animatronic dinosaurs, as well as some casts and interactive displays.

One of the main focuses of the exhibit is showcasing Chinese dinosaurs and fossils, and talking about recent research on the evolution of birds from dinosaurs. Probably one of the best parts of the exhibit is the large number of casts of feathered dinosaurs from China, including Sinosauropteryx, Caudipteryx, Microraptor, and Confuciusornis. These are still not particularly household names, so it's nice to see these on display, especially given the lack of feathers in Jurassic World's dinosaurs!



Just past the casts we have a diorama of Jehol Biota feathered dinosaurs, including (from left to right) the dromaeosaur Microraptor, the compsognathid Sinosauropteryx, the tyrannosaur Dilong, and the bird Confuciusornis. Some of the animatronics are better than others, and all are kind of weirdly oversized, but I think if there was a sign that said this was a diorama at 4x life size or something like that, that it would work pretty well.



My favourite cluster of dinosaurs was the set of Mongolian dinosaurs, including the first time I've ever seen Gigantoraptor anywhere! There's also a pretty dapper Alxasaurus in the front there.


I would have liked to see more cast fossils rather than sculpted reconstructions, and perhaps more fossils overall and a couple fewer animatronics. But generally the information presented in the exhibit was pretty good and had been recently updated, with references to the new research on Brontosaurus, and lots of recent behavioural, biomechanics, and ecology facts as well. Here's a nice display showcasing some of the cool imaging work done by the WitmerLab!



Until next time...watch out for that Shantungosaurus as you leave! 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why does Jurassic World hate dinosaurs?

I have some Thoughts and Feelings about Jurassic World! Spoiler alert, I'm going to talk about details and plot points and this post is really for people who have seen the film. Also, while I'm going to talk about the dinosaurs a bit, this isn't really a review of the science of the film, because that's already been done to death. Ok, onwards and upwards into something that wound up being way too long!



Does Jurassic World hate dinosaurs?

I think the answer to that question is yes. Jurassic World keeps making these little homages and throwbacks to the earlier films (there are lots of shots that echo iconic moments in the earlier films, and some of the plot points mirror the original film almost exactly), and yet I feel like we could consider the theme of Jurassic World to be about rejecting nostalgia and childhood. It's buried under an interesting discussion of the role of the military in funding scientific research, and why some kinds of research are prioritized over others, and it may actually be unintentional, but it's the theme I took away most immediately from this film.

There are two characters that I think are supposed to represent the audience, and neither are treated particularly well by the other characters. And by 'the audience', I'm going to be really self-centered and say that I mean the 30-somethings like myself who saw the original film when we were in that 8-12 year old bracket, or 'peak Jurassic Park' age, and who this film is clearly pandering to. Firstly, we have Gray Mitchell, a 10-ish year old who represents us when we first saw Jurassic Park: he's a dinosaur geek and is one of the only characters to show unrelenting enthusiasm for dinosaurs while visiting Jurassic World. Secondly, we have Lowery, the 30-something computer room dude, who wears an original Jurassic Park shirt and has dinosaur toys on his desk and is obviously super into the dinosaurs in the dinosaur theme park. He is us, now, grown up and nostalgic for the original film. Multiple times throughout the film, Gray's older brother tells him he needs to grow up, and points out that many of the things are for little kids. Claire makes fun of Lowery's shirt, and I think in general we're supposed to think he's kind of a weird man-child who hasn't really grown up.

There's a moment in the film where Gray and his brother Zach stumble upon the old Jurassic Park visitor center building. The T. rex cast skeleton lies on the ground covered in vegetation, and a little piece of the "When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth" banner is visible. Zach uses it to make a torch so they can investigate the rest of the suspiciously-well-lit ruins. Visiting the old building felt like some gratuitous fan-service to me, but then burning the banner felt like a purposeful statement about rejecting the nostalgia of the original film.

Jurassic World is constantly setting up little nostalgic moments and then seemingly stomping all over them. It's like the filmmakers wanted to pay tribute to Jurassic Park but then were embarassed to show that they liked it – or maybe they didn't really like that movie at all, but wanted to make lots of money (success!). I don't know, but I find it thematically problematic and a bit sad, since the excitement over DINOSAURS! in the first movie is one of the defining aspects of that film, and that sense of wonder and grandeur has rarely been replicated. Jurassic World feels jaded, and like it's too cool for dinosaurs.


Can we talk about ladies in this movie for a moment?

Did we really need to introduce our main female character with the camera sweeping up her legs to her face? Was that absolutely necessary? Also, could we just not use the 'frigid, uptight workaholic woman needs to learn to loosen up and become sexually free with a man, and also needs to remember that all women will have children eventually' stereotype? COULD WE JUST NOT?

It's an intriguing throwback to the original Jurassic Park movie, which I feel successfully used the kids as a character development point for Alan Grant. But Sam Neill managed to portray Grant's discomfort with kids in a more organic way, and the movie gave that plotline a bit of breathing room to develop during some of its quieter moments AND its action sequences (see: sitting in the tree feeding Brachiosaurus; escaping the falling car in the tree; the fence). It's less believable with Claire Dearing, because she doesn't even spend any time with the kids in peril until almost the very end of the movie, at which point she basically worried herself into liking kids? Or something?

Look, not every movie is going to have (or should have) a Strong Female Character(TM), because there are lots of ways to be a lady just like there are lots of ways to be a dude. But the first two Jurassic Park movies had some cool female characters: Ellie Sattler, a palaeobotanist, who was brave and curious and smart! Lex Murphy, who knew those UNIX systems! Sarah Harding, who was a bit foolish but was also brave and curious! Kelly Curtis Malcolm, who gymnastic-ed a Velociraptor to death! In Jurassic World, we get a woman who has great power and authority (she runs a theme park full of dinosaurs!) being told she should be different at almost every opportunity, and we get a distracted babysitter who is killed in the most gratuitous, drawn-out sequence of all. Thanks, movie.


Ok, now let's actually talk about dinosaurs (and other prehistoric creatures) in Jurassic World.

Other palaeontologists have already beaten me to much of this, but I still had a few thoughts I wanted to share. Ultimately I don't have a big problem with the 'retro' dinosaurs of 1993 appearing in this film, because I'm willing to go with the flow in terms of continuity. But there were some pretty dumb things in this film:
· The pterosaur sequence was pretty godawful and brought the action to a screeching halt. I can't suspend disbelief that the pterosaurs would immediately rampage and murder a bunch of people, and I can't suspend disbelief over the physics of that sequence. Refrigerating that babysitter lady was also pretty awful. Sweet jeepers, Jurassic World, you're going to make me say something horrible: this sequence was better in Jurassic Park III. THERE. I hope you're happy.
·  I never really bought Indominus rex as anything more than a really big Allosaurus or Saurophaganax. (Sorry, theropod people! Allosaurus is cool, but not, like, THAT cool.) I did, however, like the incorporation of the camouflage idea from the Carnotaurus in the Lost World book, something that I had missed from the film adaptation. Overall, I'm frustrated that Indominus exists mostly so they had a dinosaur they could trademark. Because that's totally what that is, and everything else is secondary to that, including its incorporation into the plot.
· That mosasaur is just so gigantic. I'm on board, but that was starting to stretch credulity as well.
·  Why doesn't Rexy eat Blue after the fight? The mind boggles.

Ok, things I liked!
·  The Ankylosaurus gives Indominus the old what-for and doesn't immediately die like everything else! Indominus needs to really work at murdering that poor fellow. The design of the Ankylosaurus themselves is pretty terrible (wrong osteoderms, tail too curly, nostrils in the wrong spot, head generally a bit off), although I think it's meant to be consistent with Jurassic Park III.

Here's what Ankylosaurus REALLY looks like!

·  Dinosaur petting zoo! It should be for all ages!
· The big kaiju battle between Indominus and Tyrannosaurus was pretty well matched. I liked the little kick to JPIII when the Tyrannosaurus busts through the Spinosaurus skeleton on the way to the fight.
·  "Are they safe?" "Oh no, under no circumstances, not even a little."


Some final Thoughts and Feelings

I haven't decided yet if I liked Jurassic World. I can't help but think back to the original Jurassic Park with its iconic visual moments and charming, if hokey, dialogue. While it was fun to see an operational Jurassic Park with rides and attractions, I don't feel like Jurassic World had much visual flair. It's really hard to beat dramatic, symbolic visuals like this:

Interesting camera angles like this:

Or quiet moments of terror like this:


And I miss the yellow and green and red colour palette of the original park, replaced here with chrome and blue and silver like every other washed out movie in theatres lately. It is also interesting that all of the big sweeping themes from the original soundtrack are used not for the dinosaurs, but for the manmade structures of the park itself. It really does feel like Jurassic World doesn't care about dinosaurs.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Cornelius says hello

Say hello to Cornelius! I got to meet him during a brief visit to the ROM last week, and he seems like a pretty nice guy.

This cool new ceratopsian is on display in the Age of Dinosaurs gallery in an exhibit called "New Dino Discovered", and was also featured in Dino Hunt Canada, which aired earlier this year. It should have a new name soon, but for now Canada voted to nickname it Cornelius. The really nice skeletal mount was put together by Research Casting International based on about a 50% complete disarticulated skeleton.

Here's a close-up of that winning smile. This new dude is a centrosaurine ceratopsid with some pretty neat ornamentation going on at the back of the frill.

I really liked the inclusion of a quarry map on the floor, which highlights some of the bones that are on display. The skeleton was found in southern Alberta in the Milk River area, and comes from the Oldman Formation.

The mounted skeleton is a cast, but there are some original bones on display, like the radius and ulna shown here.
 
In particular, I liked this set of panels on the wall showing differences in frill ornamentation between centrosaurines, and how we identify different species. On the right is the original frill material for Cornelius, the bottom left is Centrosaurus, and the top left is Styracosaurus.

And look, there was even an ankylosaur osteoderm on display! These are some of the fossils found in the Milk River area, which tell us a bit about the ecosystem that the new centrosaurine lived in.

It's a cool new dinosaur and a nice exhibit, so definitely don't miss it if you're visiting the ROM anytime soon!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Quarry

There's a hadrosaur underneath this cliff. (Probably.)

For the second week of our field expedition, we drove from Utah to a site near Rangely, Colorado, to help the Colorado Northwestern Community College with a specimen poking out of a cliff. We've shifted into the Upper Cretaceous here, and are working in the Mesaverde Formation. There's not very much known about the dinosaurs from this formation, so hopefully this will shed some more light on the dinosaurs in this region!



In between Utah and Rangely, we spent a night in Grand Junction and went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, which was way more awesome than any of us had really anticipated and which was basically all we could talk about all week. And so I must also share this great photo that Lindsay took! According to buzzfeed, my Mad Max name is Roop Duststorm, which seems appropriate given the dustiness of working around a rock saw all day.



I did a lot of jackhammering last week, which was great fun if terrible for my lower back, but my favourite thing to do is to pop off the blocks made using the rock saw. You cut a grid into the rock, position your chisel at just the right point, give a couple of hearty whacks with a crack hammer, and off pop these incredibly satisfying 'brownies' of sandstone. It's still slow going, but you can move a lot of rock a lot more quickly this way. (Thanks to Lindsay again for snapping this fun photo!)



Early in the week we were plagued with constant large thunderstorms that rolled in every few hours and made things kind of cold and miserable. Thankfully, this was the last one and it missed us! Instead, it just looked dramatic, which is fine by me.


By last Saturday we had made a lot of progress, although there is still a long way to go to get down to the bone level and (hopefully) find a good dinosaur down there. Best of luck to the crew as they keep working furiously away!



*'Fury Quarry' is also shamelessly stolen from Lindsay.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Crystal Geyser Quarry Quest

I just got back from my first stint of fieldwork for the year, and my first time doing fieldwork in the States. This was just a brief jaunt out to Utah and Colorado for two weeks, but it was a nice sampling of some interesting and different field localities compared to my previous experiences. Today's post: Crystal Geyser quarry in Utah!

So scenic, so majestic. Such altitude.


Crystal Geyser is a non-geothermal, carbon dioxide geyser near Green River, Utah; although we didn't visit the geyser itself, it lends its name to a series of quarries of a massive bonebed in the Yellow Cat Member of the Cedar Mountain Formation (about 125 million years ago). The bonebed is mostly composed of the early therizinosaur Falcarius. The bones in this quarry are incredibly delicate - sometimes even using just a brush through the sediment felt like it was too aggressive! Definitely a challenging site to work at.




Ominous clouds brewed up frequently and then dumped rain and hail on us.


But then sometimes there were rainbows, so I guess it was ok.


We camped in the Morrison Formation and walked up to the Cedar Mountain Formation each day, which was kind of fun.

I'm not accustomed to walking through such a dramatic shift in time and faunas: the Morrison is characterized by lots of classic dinosaurs like Allosaurus and Apatosaurus and Stegosaurus from about 156 to 146 million years ago, but the dinosaurs of the Cedar Mountain Formation have only recently begun to receive much attention and are still poorly known. There's a gap of about 20 million years between the two formations, and in the Yellow Cat Member we find dinosaurs like Falcarius, the ankylosaur Gastonia, the iguanodontians Hippodraco and Iguanacolossus, and dromaeosaurs like Utahraptor and Geminiraptor. The world was changing.

We'll be returning to Utah later in July to work in the Mussentuchit Member. Up next: jackhammering in the Mesaverde Formation of Colorado!

Epilogue: I made a friend at lunchtime one day. D-:

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

On Failures of Imagination

Yesterday I talked about 'expected surprises' with regards to Yi qi. Yi qi is a surprise because its anatomy is so unlike other theropods, and it suggests that dinosaurs were experimenting with flight and/or gliding in some ways that were quite different from our current understanding of feather and bird wing evolution. But it was also not entirely unexpected, because scansoriopterygids had super weird anatomy to begin with that gave us enough information to speculate about possible gliding adaptations in those dinosaurs, even though the general consensus was that it was pretty far-fetched.

But today I wanted to talk about a related feeling, which I like to call the Failure of Imagination. Last summer I was working my way through a DVD set of classic sci-fi, fantasy, and adventure movies that I had picked up at some point. I wound up watching a lot of these with friends and basically Mystery Science Theatre 3000-ing the films, and in particular the old space adventure movies from the 40s-60s provided much entertainment. It's really fun to take a look back and see what sorts of things people envisioned the future holding for us – space travel, exoplanet exploration, robots. But what also struck me was the things that the filmmakers and storywriters couldn't even imagine. 

They could imagine spaceships and robots, but they couldn't imagine wireless technology. Or storing information in digital form rather than on spools of tape. 

They couldn't imagine non-button-and-dial-based instrumentation. 

And they definitely couldn't imagine women in roles other than administrative assistants (or as the bad guys). SO MANY SPACE SECRETARIES.


I kept thinking to myself – what sorts of failures of imagination are we having in palaeontology today? We can imagine so many things. But I wonder what kinds of things we won't even know we don't know. When we try our hand at speculative biology, what will scientists 80 or 100 years from now think was charming, or quaint, or ahead of its time. Failures of imagination are one of those things that make me nervous as a scientist, because I don't like the idea that I won't even know what I'm not imagining.