Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hitting the wall

Manuscript A: Alright. I have a problem. My goal was to finish my pterosaur manuscript a long time ago, and for sure finish it by the end of this month. Of course, that did not happen, and isn't going to. Part of the reason is that I discovered I did some very silly things originally that I need to correct and address in order to get it to publication quality. The problem is, this involves re-doing several of my analyses. Do you know how much time it takes to re-analyse all the CT scans I've done so far? And it's not exactly the most stimulating, it's sitting with ImageJ all day. So needless to say, I have hit the wall with this paper right now. I suspect that when I get back to the UK I'll be more productive again. But we'll see.

Then we have Manuscript B: the dreaded undergrad thesis. I have been working on this thing for a few years, and I really want to see it through, but it's getting harder and harder to stay motivated. It's on something completely unrelated to what I'm working on now (I looked at skull morphology in Centrosaurus to be exact), which makes it hard. I've started working on it again, and I need to re-learn all the ceratopsian skull terminology. Met with my former supervisor and co-author last week, and he decided that I need to do a phylogenetic analysis, which I've never done before outside of an assignment. Thanks to Andy Farke, I have a matrix to work with, and I'm slowly combining a few different matrices. I'm slowly learning how annoying it is when people use slightly different characters (like one paper uses one character as 0-75% and others use 0-80%. Why you have to be so difficult!), or switch around the character states. All in all, it's not too bad, just time consuming.

I suppose that after this year of ups and downs, I'm just burnt out. I've needed this break so badly without even realising it. What I would like to know is how people deal with the loss of motivation? What makes you push to get stuff done? I'm in serious need of being prodded into productivity... Help!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The 70 kg Quetzalcoatlus debate

Last week, a press release went out from Texas Tech University on some findings that were presented recently at Geological Society of America annual meeting. This is not abnormal. What is unfortunate, is that the press release covers a talk based primarily on a study by Chatterjee and Templin from 2004, and other results that have not been peer reviewed. Mark Witton, Mike Habib, and Brian Switek have all done a great job discussing why this is bad, troublesome, and poor science (you can check those out here, here, and here), so I won't get into that. For me, having spent the last year looking at pterosaur mass and how we estimate it, my big problem is the mass of Quetzalcoatlus associated with this study.

For a super brief explanation on how some mass estimates are determined for pterosaurs, check out my previous post on pterosaur mass estimation. Chatterjee and Templin (2004) determined that 70 kg was the absolute maximum that Quetzalcoatlus could be, based on estimates by Atanassov and Strauss (2002). This was determined using a principal component regression method based on different skeletal measurements. For more information, check out their poster here. The rest of the conclusions in Chatterjee and Templin (2004) are based on the 70 kg mass, and fail to take into account recent studies like the quadrupedal launch hypothesis by Habib (2008). They determine that if Quetzalcoatlus was more than 70 kg, it would not have been able to take off, and that at 70 kg, it would have needed a hill or cliff to successfully take to the air. This is based largely on the theory that pterosaurs took off the same way as birds, from two feet, rather than the quadrupedal launch. When accounting for the quadrupedal launch, and other adaptations, a higher mass is possible. Other estimates for Quetzalcoatlus range from 259 kg (Witton 2008) to 544 kg (Henderson 2010).

Aside from that, there is a huge problem with a 70 kg Quetzalcoatlus, which has been discussed by Witton (2008): in order for Quetzalocoatlus to be 70 kg, it would have required it's body to be about 60-90% full of air. Recently, the 70 kg estimate was put into prospective for me. First of all, an important piece of information is required. Quetzalcoatlus is about as tall as a giraffe, with a wingspan of 10-12 m, as seen in a great image by Mark Witton:
That is a HUGE flying animal! Now picture a 70 kg giraffe. For the record, giraffes are about 1600 kg on average. Putting it down to 70 kg is a bit impossible. This was even more obvious to me when I realised that my brother is about 70 kg, and probably pretty similar in size to the guy in the picture. So now imagine taking that mass, and spreading it over the size of a giraffe. It doesn't work! Yes, pterosaur bones are lightweight, but they are not THAT lightweight. According to Witton (2008), the skeleton itself was 18 kg, and other evidence suggests that might be a low estimate (Martin and Palmer 2012). How then is it supposed to have only 52 kg (maximum!) of muscle, still be able to successfully cover its body in skin and muscle, AND be able to fly?! It's not possible! I do not understand at all how someone can justify a 70 kg pterosaur with a wingspan of 10-12 m, and to my knowledge, they have not tried to explain it, or to scientifically address the heavy mass estimates. Not cool!

So basically, my question is this: how does anyone expect a 70 kg Quetzalcoatlus to have the muscle necessary to fly, walk, or even live?! The answer: it doesn't. Which is why the 70 kg estimate and anything based off of this estimate is incorrect.

Atanassov, M. and Strauss, R. 2002. How much did Archaeopteryx and Quetzalcoatlus weight? Mass estimation by multivariate analysis of bone dimension. Poster at Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting. Download here
Chatterjee, S. and Templin, R. 2004. Posture, locomotion, and paleoecology of pterosaurs. Geological Society of America Special Publication 376: 1-64.
Habib, M. B. 2008. Comparative evidence for quadrupedal launch in pterosaurs. Zitteliana Reihe B 28: 159-166.
Henderson, D. M. 2010. Pterosaur body mass estimates from three-dimensional mathematical slicing. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 30: 768-785.
Martin, E. G. and Palmer, C. 2012. A novel approach to estimating pterosaur bone mass using CT scans. Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy oral presentation. Abstract on page 18 and can be downloaded here.
Witton, M. P. 2008. A new approach to determining pterosaur body mass and its implications for pterosaur flight. Zitteliana Reihe B 28: 143-158.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Dinos at the Bristol Zoo

Until November, the Bristol Zoo has one of those travelling dinosaur exhibition, featuring a number of animatronic dinosaurs spread throughout the zoo. Seeing as I work(ed) at an educational park in Canada that features over 40 animatronic and mostly life-size dinosaurs, I was of course interested in what the zoo had to offer (shameless plug for Jurassic Forest of course). Here's a short review of what I saw at the Bristol Dino Zoo.

Ok so I may be slightly biased by the fact that I have a lot riding on the success of Jurassic Forest in Canada, but I have to say, these dinosaurs are quite unimpressive compared to what I'm used to. First of all, most of them are not even close to life-size, which makes them kind of sad. The animatronics were pretty bad as well. At Jurassic Forest, the animatronics run on motion sensors and cycles, so when the sensor is triggered, they will go through their cycle of movement, then a cool-down period required to keep them from overheating. The dinos at the Bristol zoo seem to go off constantly, which although is really neat, means that the movements are pretty bad. They are quite slow and restricted, presumably to prevent overheating. Here is a video of the Amargasaurus and baby to get an idea.
Another thing that I found very interesting is the noises. I have no idea who decided on the noises for these dinosaurs, but man, some of them are bad. The Coelophysis sounded kind of like someone was shooting something, and I can't even begin to explain the noise of Edmontosaurus. One description given by my friend Davide, who came with me to check out the dinos, was that it sounded vaguely like a rubber ducky. Unfortunately the video has a lot of background noise, so I won't post it here. I will however post a picture of the Edmontosaurus, which made me want to cry a bit.

In general, the the information about each dinosaur was pretty good, even if the actual reconstructions weren't. For example, they had a Dilophosaurus that spat water ("venom"), but if you actually read the sign, it stated that there was no evidence that it did that, and that it was made up for the movies. Even though having a dino do that gives the wrong impression, thumbs up for accurate signage! 

In general, I would say the worst dinosaur was the Brachiosaurus. I have no idea what they were trying to do to it, but it just looked funny. I don't know what I would say is the best. The T. rex wasn't too bad, but he was very fat, and the Ornithomimus wasn't bad (so I've been told, I really know little about ornithomimds). All-in-all, it was good fun, even if it was mostly laughing at the reconstructions. Here's a few pictures of the dinos they had. 
Fat T. rex
Dilophosaurus - I still can't figure out what is up with his giant hands
Triceratops actually wasn't too bad
Baryonyx also did this weird spraying thing. Not sure what that was all about
And of course I did see some actual animals. My favourite would definitely be the seals. I could watch seals for hours! Monkeys of course are always fun to watch. I really wanted to see the pygmy hippos and the river otters (I love them), but couldn't actually see them in their pens. I also got to see a capybara for the first time, which was pretty awesome, as well as a huuuuge fruit bat!
Meerkats are always cool
Sleeping capybara!
Family dispute between the fur seals

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Funding: the bane of my existence

So it's now been just over a month since I have handed in my MSc thesis. I decided that I would put off starting my PhD for a few months while I apply for funding, and go home to Canada for a few months. As I have discovered, being an international student in the UK is very difficult when it comes to funding. For example, at the University of Bristol, there is one international studentship given out each year for the whole faculty of science. Basically what I've been told is that Earth Sciences will never get it, because we can't win Nobel prizes in general. So frustrating! So for funding, I have to look outside of the university.

Now from what I can tell, I'm pretty lucky because there are a number of Canadian funding sources that will fund you even if you're outside of Canada. And when I say a number, I really mean around 5. The big one of course is NSERC, the big government funding body. I just finished up my application for it, and although there was a lot to do, it's at least fairly straight forward. Then there are things like the Canadian Federation of University Women, that offer lots of scholarships, and it's very complicated to apply (like 7 copies of everything, 3 copies of reference letters, I don't even want to know how much paper this will be). Oh ya, then there's the O'Brien Foundation. They are just great. And by that, I mean they suck. Their website says that their grants are "primarily" for residents of New Brunswick. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but "primarily" means that sometimes they make exceptions, right? Well apparently not. I sent in my application, and about an hour later, got an email saying I wasn't eligible because I'm not from New Brunswick. I sent them a very annoyed email asking them to clarify their website if that is the case, since I wouldn't have put so much effort into it. Annoying!

There are a few other ones I can apply for, but they don't have deadlines until the new year, so I'm ignoring them for now. I'm also currently working on numerous funding applications for travel and research, since I plan on doing some museum visits. Hopefully those will come through.

Otherwise, I've run into an interesting predicament. I've heard from people from other universities, that they could help to fund an international PhD, albeit not entirely, but at least partially, through department or school funding. Then the question was raised, if they can do it, why can't Bristol?? To that, I can only say: I have no idea. I'm not sure why Bristol seems unwilling to help international students. All I know is it's very frustrating. All I want is a little bit of money to help me through! Who wants to help? Anyone? Pleeeeease?

Monday, 17 September 2012

SVPCA Experience!

Well the Symposium of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy (SVPCA) was last week: my first ever conference, and of course, first ever oral presentation. The conference was great. I had a fantastic week meeting people, learning about palaeontology, and getting ideas for my PhD. I got to meet some people I had had lots of email/social media contact with, which was nice, as well as some new people I had never talked to before.

My talk was on Wednesday, with pterosaurs being sandwiched between marine reptiles/crocodiles and dinosaurs: it was basically Mesozoic Wednesday. I went right before lunch, the first talk of the pterosaurs. It seemed to go well, although I was a bit terrified when I looked up to see several hands in the air after I finished. Fortunately, people were just very curious in what I did, asking good methodological questions, and being curious about what exactly I found. I had several people approach me afterwards asking me about my data, what I had found, and with ideas for future projects. All-in-all, I think my first talk was a success. Now I can start thinking about my next one, which will hopefully be at Rio Ptero 2013, the pterosaur conference in Brazil.

Most of the talks were excellent, with some bad ones and some great ones spread throughout. Most entertaining talk definitely goes to Jeff Liston, which had most of us laughing throughout his description of some fish fossils (followed up of course by the best auctioneer I've ever seen as he ran the auction Thursday night). As for my favourite talk in terms of content, I would probably say that Dave Hone's Protoceratops aggregation, which was very cool.

The conference in all was very interesting, but I was possibly more interested in the difference between men and women. The first day it became apparent to me that there weren't many women, so I started to investigate, and came up with some interesting numbers. I decided it was worthy of some investigation, so bear with me and my many graphs!

So this is interesting. Although 31% of the total people at the conference were female, only about 25% of presenters were female and males seemed to be much more willing to present their work than women were. Where are all the women? Well it's also interesting if you break it down into multiple author talks and posters. 

Of talks given with multiple authors, the presentations with females as an author increased as the number of authors increased, with few presentations being dominated by female authors. Of 13 talks with more than 5 authors, only 3 had 50% or more authors as females. Similar information is seen in posters with more than one author, although there were few posters to compare. 

What I was also interested in is the breakdown by area of study. I didn't go through everything, but for talks with the primary author being the one looked at, the numbers of female:male for each topic are as follows:
Fish 3:4
Palaeozoic tetrapods 1:2
Marine reptiles and crocodiles 0:8 (although one was presented by Lorna Steel, although the first author was male)
Pterosaurs 1:2
Dinosaurs 1:7
Birds 2:3
Mammals 6:8
I'm especially amazed by the difference between males and females in the marine reptiles and crocodiles, and dinosaur studies. Most other groups aren't statistically significant, while mammals has almost as many females as males. I know that there is a lot of discussion about getting women involved in science, and this was some definite evidence that this field is dominated by men. 

Come on girls! Start doing some science! I want the next conference to be more than 25% female! 

Friday, 7 September 2012

Thesis complete! Now SVPCA ahhh

Today, I submitted my MSc thesis. What a huge weight off my shoulders! Of course, shortly after I printed it, I discovered a mistake. Don't worry, it was minor. I had to resist the urge to re-print it. But now it is handed in and complete. No more work until... next week. Dammit.

On Monday, I'm off to the SVPCA annual meeting in Oxford, where I will do my first ever conference presentation titled "A novel approach to measuring pterosaur bone mass using CT scans". I will be presenting the results of my MSc research, co-authored by my supervisor Colin Palmer. I'm also hoping to get the first publication submitted shortly, but we'll see. Sadly, there are only 3 pterosaur oral presentations, and mine is first (how'd that happen?!). I'm really looking forward to the other pterosaur talks, which involve one on the really awesome Darwinopterus by David Unwin et al, and a small azhdarchoid from the Isle of Wight by Darren Naish et al. There are also a few posters on pterosaurs: a re-appraisal of Istiodactylus latidens from Calum Davies, a re-appraisal of British Jurassic pterosaurs by Michael O'Sullivan, pterosaur tooth anatomy by Steven Vidovic, and azhdarchid relationships by Mark Witton. Apparently no one from outside of the University of Portsmouth decided to submit a poster on pterosaurs since 3 are by UoP PhD students, and one is a staff member. What the heck? Share the love, guys! Speaking of guys, they are also all male... Interesting. Where are the females? I just noticed I'm also the only female pterosaur presenter.

I have to admit, I'm terrified to present next week. I have talked in front of a large number of people once in my life, and that was at my Mom's funeral. This is a little bit different. In that case, I was talking about my Mom. Who could tell me I'm wrong? Now, I have to get up in front of a room full of experts, where lots of people could tell me I'm wrong. AND it's right before lunch, when I'm sure most people would rather be eating. On the plus side, that may mean that no one will ask me questions. This isn't helped by the fact that there are a number of experts in my particular field in the room, including ones that I contradict in my talk. Mark Witton already gave me a heart attack by telling me I couldn't use his results in my presentation because I disagreed with him. He had me convinced that he was serious. (I'll get you back for that, Mark... you have been warned). Wednesday can stay away for now I think... But seriously, does anyone have any suggestions of what to do/not do at a scientific conference? Specifically while giving a talk? Have I mentioned that I've never even been to a real conference? Geez, whose idea was it to give a talk at a conference before going to one. Clearly that was a bad idea.

I've practiced my talk in front of a group of people once, and had some positive response. Plus, Colin took a look at it and gave me some suggestions. I'm hoping it goes well. But lets just say that I will be extremely happy once Wednesday is over.

Now that I'm done my thesis, you might ask what I am going to do with myself? Well immediately, I will start applying for scholarships. I have a PhD position at Bristol starting in January, but it's unfunded, so I'm in need of some way of paying for this. Most of the deadlines are from October-December, so that's what I'll be doing. At the end of October, I go home for a few months to spend with my family. My Mom passed away in January, so I'd like to go home and spend time with my family through that tough time (like her birthday, Christmas, and 1 year from her death). It won't be a happy few months, but at least I'll be with family. Then in January, I'll come back to Bristol and start my PhD. That's the plan anyways. If there's something I've learned this year, it's that nothing goes according to plan...

I'll post my thoughts on the conference when I get back next week!

Monday, 13 August 2012

Updates and All!

So my thesis is due in just under a month, and I have successfully sent a complete draft to my supervisor. He said he'd get it back to me tomorrow, and then we'll see how horribly bad it is. Not really surprisingly, I had a panic attack about getting it done in time, worked my butt off for a while, and finished it a month early. This is pretty much par for the course for me: ultra stress case assuming the worst, then getting it done early and doing ok on it. I still have a few figures to finish, but they are basically done. I basically just need to figure out a title and I'm done. Not sure how that happened exactly.

Update number 2
I finally got word that my abstract for SVPCA was accepted with no corrections, so it's official: I am giving my first ever conference talk in September. I am super nervous for it already, but I've heard the conference is really friendly and a good place to start out. I'm hoping it all goes well, and I don't make a fool of myself. My talk will be titled "A novel approach to estimating pterosaur bone mass using CT scans". It will mainly be about exactly what the title says, with some more detail on what my study found, especially with respect to using birds as pterosaur analogues and the internal structure of pterosaur wing bones as seen in CT scans. The talk will be co-authored by my supervisor, Colin Palmer, but I'll be the one getting up in front of the crowd and talking. 

Next step: work on my publication attempt! Of course, in order to get scholarships, I need publications, which is why Colin suggested I try to publish my preliminary results. I have been working on the paper for months, but because of many things (for example, a thesis to write), haven't submitted it yet. I'm hoping to get it submitted soon, maybe even before my thesis, but that will depend on how many corrections I have to make on my thesis. Hopefully I'll have a publication to put in my scholarship applications!

Friday, 27 July 2012

My side project: Jurassic Forest

Some of you may have heard of this before, or may know that I'm involved, but most of you probably have no idea what I'm talking about. Two years ago, just north of Edmonton, Canada, an animatronic dinosaur park opened called Jurassic Forest. This is an entirely privately owned venture that focuses on being educational, and of course fun for kids of all ages. I was fortunate enough to find out about the park before it opened. Being an undergraduate student in palaeontology at the University of Alberta at the time, I thought maybe I could work as a guide or something so I gave them a call. To my surprise, they had no scientists employed at the time, and I was in the very lucky position of having been told about it and contacting them. And thus began a new and exciting chapter in my life.

Starting in May 2010 before the park opened, I worked on all things scientific and educational. I created signs for the forest ranging from decomposers to amphibians to, of course, dinosaurs. I made content for over 100 signs to be posted around the park, as well as edited material already made for signs and school programs. I was also responsible for training all of our guides, making sure they knew what they were talking about while walking through the trails. In July 2010 we opened to the public. It was an amazing feeling walking around and listening to what people were learning, and hearing the praise about this facility that I was so intimately involved in. We opened with a number of animatronic dinosaurs (about 40 if I recall), some more realistic than others, but most of them are somewhat life-size. It was pretty amazing. Jurassic Forest is set outside in a natural boreal forest, meaning the dinosaurs (and other creatures) are in a slightly more natural setting than in an indoor facility (although the plants aren't quite accurate). The creatures are set back from the paths in a non-frightening, more natural setting, like you may have seen millions of years ago. It's pretty cool.
An Apatosaurus (and Stretch the ostrich) set back in the trees
Jurassic Forest isn't open in the winter though, so we closed down in October 2010, and got ready for the new season. This was a fun winter. We did a major overhaul of all the school programs we had made previously, and made them much more applicable to the Alberta curriculum. In May 2011, we opened for our second season, with an addition: Spinosaurus. After a very rainy and unpleasant May, we had a great rest of the season. Unfortunately, in order to start my Master's in the UK, I had to leave Jurassic Forest in September. It was like my second home, and my second family, and I was sad to leave. But it was time to move on. A career in research doesn't happen while I'm wandering the trails talking to families apparently. I left for England sad that I had to leave Jurassic Forest, but determined to stay connected. I'm still working for Jurassic Forest, running their Facebook and Twitter (@JurassicForest) pages (you should follow us!). I thrive to keep things as scientifically accurate as possible, but still interesting for people. In June, we (they?) welcomed two more new dinos to the park: Pachyrhinosaurus and Troodon. This month, my newest side project has begun: a blog called Mesozoic Mondays where I talk about several aspects of the Mesozoic, each Monday. This is a pretty general, easy blog to follow. The goal is to teach people who may not know a lot about dinosaurs or the Mesozoic. It's been fun so far, but I'm always looking for suggestions and comments! If anyone wants to give me some suggestions, that would be awesome.

I really enjoy working for Jurassic Forest even though I'm in England now. It's a good chance to write about some things I'm really interested in that's not necessarily related to my thesis. It's also nice to be able to put my brain to use and talk about some things I've learned over the years! Anyone who is in the Edmonton region, I would definitely recommend a trip to Jurassic Forest, even if it's just for a walk in the park. It's pretty neat, and from what I've seen, much better than similar parks out there.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Why I may not move back to Canada any time soon

This is a bit of a change from my palaeontology-related posts, but this is something that is pretty important to any Canadian scientists, or anyone wanting to do science in Canada. This is why it is becoming more and more likely I'm not going to return to Canada as a scientist any time soon. 

In the past, people thought of Canada as being in the middle or slightly left-wing hippies that cared about the environment. Not so anymore. A recent story from the CBC looked at "How the world sees Canada", basically interviewing Canadians that live abroad, and are generally in high positions such as university professors. There are some good responses with Canada being a "best kept secret", "fascinating" and more. Unfortunately, it is not all good. Stories of our Public Safety Minister comparing environmentalists to "white supremacists" and "terrorists" and Canadian mining companies "ravaging community after community" in Guatemala. Even worse is when anything about funding or the environment comes up. The one that gets me the most, however, is from a professor in Hull, U.K:
My students, so obsessed these days with environmental themes, revered Canada as a country with more enlightened ideas about preserving the planet. Not any more. Now they talk of oil extraction, of the despoilation of the Arctic North and of Canada's characterization of its environmentalists as subversive.
That pretty much says it all. Canada went from being someone that cared about the environment, to pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol (without really trying to be a part of it), and very nearly denying climate change. Thank you Stephen Harper. On top of that, there is evidence that the Canadian government is keeping it's scientists quiet. Permission must be granted to speak to the media, and in any controversial case, that permission isn't granted. There are two prime examples of this: one with regards to a study on falling salmon stocks, and another on a hole in the ozone layer. Really? Muzzling scientists? I would not expect this from any western country, especially not Canada. Censoring what scientists are allowed to talk about is not cool. Not cool at all.

Now although the above stuff makes me mad, the main reason I may not return, is this: Canada is cutting a lot of it's science funding. A recent budget was passed by the federal government, which names many cuts to science including cutting government research jobs, getting rid of several government-funded research projects, and pollution control. They announced that they are going to scrap the Experimental Lakes Area, which has provided valuable information about acid rain and possible prevention methods. And to take the cake, all funding to the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Science has been axed. Completely. So has funding to the Polar Environmental Atmospheric Research Laboratory. Seriously guys? What are you doing! Furthermore, Harper has shown interest only in projects that have an industrial side, not pure science. There goes palaeontology. Last time I checked, there wasn't much of a palaeo industry.

Fortunately, Canadian scientists are not taking this lightly. According to the CBC, scientists are rallying today in what they call the "Death of Evidence". They are doing an old fashioned march up to Parliament Hill dressed in lab coats or black, to prove a point. I doubt it's going to do anything, but I'm happy to see it's happening, and sad I can't be there.

Basically as long as the Conservatives and Harper are in power, science funding is only going to get worse and worse, and since I'm not in a field that tends to get a lot of funding, that's bad news. It's bad news for all Canadian scientists, but it's even worse for purely experimental sciences. I once had a dream of returning to Canada to continue my research, but that dream seems to slowly be slipping away...

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Thesis time and many thanks!

Well now I'm basically done all of my actual research, and I'm about to start writing my thesis, which will likely be the bane of my existence for the next 3 months. Yay! I've never written anything like this before and this should be interesting.

Giving credit where credit is due:
Just want to give some thanks to people that have helped me out along the way. My project is mainly (or entirely) supervised by Colin Palmer, who I owe a lot to. Not only has he helped me a lot in getting started as an academic, but he has been extremely patient with my lack of understanding math and physics, as well as helping me get through a very hard time when my Mom passed away. Not only that, but if it weren't for him, my project wouldn't be possible since he's responsible for getting most of the CT scans done that I am doing my research from. These scans include wing phalanges from the NHM (thanks to Lorna Steel I believe for doing those), and some specimens from Portsmouth that were scanned at Southampton (not sure who to thank, but blanket thanks to those responsible). I also have a set of scans from Mike Habib, so thanks to you as well. I've had some help from and discussions with Mark Witton, who has been great in sharing his data with me and supplying me with awesome pictures for talks and posters, Mike Benton, whose flexibility and understanding meant I could continue the project through a tough time, and lots of my MSc friends (Davide especially). And of course Josh for putting up with me whining about how I'm going to fail and (trying?) to teach me physics :)

This project has been great so far in teaching me basic pterosaur anatomy, more detailed physics and biomechanics (which I am horrible at), and getting my writing. I'm so glad I decided to do it and I'm hoping I come up with a publishable project at the end. I'm hoping to at least present what I have at SVPCA in September, and the pterosaur meeting in Rio in May (if I can figure out a way of being able to afford that).

Now to write!

Monday, 11 June 2012

How much did that pterosaur weigh?

So a forever perennial problem in palaeontology is estimating the mass of an extinct animal. It's important to know for about a million reasons including ecology, but it's especially important in terms of locomotion and biomechanics. There are of course several methods to estimating the mass of extinct animals, primarily focusing on dinosaurs. Recently, this made the news with the so called 'Dinosaurs and lasers' paper, which you can read about here. Of course, I'm more interested in the mass of pterosaurs, which I'm working on for my MSc thesis (kind of). In flying animals, mass is even more important because it largely dictates whether an animal is able to achieve lift or not. If it's too heavy, it's not flying. Period.

So how is pterosaur mass estimated anyways?
There are lots of different pterosaur mass estimates out there, and several different ways of doing it, but I'm going to focus on 3 (more like 2) main ways.

The first method relies on estimating the volume of the pterosaur, and multiplying it by a density. This was first done pre-computer and relied on estimating the volumes of different portions of the body on paper (by estimating how much muscle there would have been). Bramwell and Whitfield (1974) did this first for Pteranodon and multiplied the volume by an overall density of 1000 kg/m3, to get a mass of 16.6 kg. A similar method was used by Brower and Veinus (1981), but with a density of 900 kg/m3, to get a mass of 14.94 kg. This method is good for a first try, but there are some holes in it. It doesn't account for the huge variation in density between regions of the body, and it relies heavily on using birds as a modern analogue for pterosaurs... which is a big problem. But more on that another day perhaps (or check out Witton and Habib 2010 for details).

The second method is a lot like the first one, but it uses a computer programme to estimate the volumes. Henderson (2010) applied this method to many pterosaur genera, by making 3D computerised models of each animal. This method allowed him to apply a different density to different areas, such as a much lower density to the neck and skull, where there is heavy pneumatisation. He was also able to subtract the volumes of cavities such as the lungs from the equation. This gave him a mass of 18.6 kg for Pteranodon longiceps. He verified this method using birds, and found it was pretty accurate. However, it also relies heavily on the idea that birds are a good modern analogue for pterosaurs... no good!

The third method is definitely the most interesting in my opinion (although I might be biased since it's similar to my project). In birds and mammals, there is a relationship between the skeletal mass and the total mass (Prange et al. 1979). That's pretty cool since with fossils, we basically only have the bones. Mark Witton (2008) used this method to estimate pterosaur masses by first estimating the skeletal mass, then applying the relationship seen in birds to get the total mass. To do this, he first estimated the volume of each bone in a pterosaur skeleton by simplifying it to assume it is a geologic shape. For example, a wing phalanx (the long bones that make up the fourth finger and therefore the wing in a pterosaur) is assumed to be the shape of a cylinder. Knowing the cortical thickness, length, and radius, the volume can be calculated. Once the volume is multiplied by density, you have the mass of the bone! This method is good since it relies precisely on what you have in the fossil record: bones. However, again, it relies heavily on using birds as a modern analogue, and it does some over simplification. For example, a cortical thickness of 0.7 mm was used for the entire bone, when the thickness can very from 0.6-2.4mm in one section. Big difference.

Without saying too much about what I'm doing, I'm working on a new, more accurate method of estimating bone mass using CT scans. This has shown me that the cortical thickness can very A LOT within one bone (specifically a phalanx), and 0.7 mm is a pretty small number for the whole bone. Basically, I'm finding that the previous mass estimates for single bones are underestimated. And underestimated by a fair bit (although not as much as I had thought at first, which I was struggling to explain so I'm glad I figured that out). Does this mean that Witton's entire skeletal estimate is underestimated? Not necessarily... More likely it is further evidence that we can't directly use relationships seen in birds to estimate things in pterosaurs. They aren't the same! Just because a bird did it one way doesn't mean a pterosaur did. They are different animals! Stop assuming they are the same!


Bramwell, C. D. & Whitfield, G. R. 1974. Biomechanics of Pteranodon. Philos. T. Roy. Soc. B 267, 503-81.
Brower, J. C. & Veinus, J. 1981. Allometry in pterosaurs. University of Kansas Paleontological Contributions Paper, 1-32.
Henderson, D. M. 2010. Pterosaur body mass estimates from three-dimensional mathematical slicing. J. Vertebr. Paleontol. 30, 768-785.
Prange, H. D., Anderson, J. F., & Rahn, H. 1979. Scaling of skeletal mass to body mass in birds and mammals. Am. Nat. 113, 103-122.
Witton, M. P. 2008. A new approach to determining pterosaur body mass and its implications for pterosaur flight. Zitteliana Reihe B 28, 143-158.
Witton, M. P. & Habib, M. B. 2010. On the size and flight diversity of giant pterosaurs, the use of birds as pterosaur analogues and comments on pterosaur flightlessness. PloS One 5, e13982. 

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Progressive Palaeontology, Cambridge 2012

The last three days were the Progressive Palaeontology conference in Cambridge, which I attended. As a first conference, it's a great one to go to. It's designed mainly for graduate students, meaning the pressure is taken off a bit. It's mainly attended by students from the UK, but there were a few from Europe as well (Poland and Germany). ProgPal started out on Wednesday with a nice reception in the Sedgwick Museum, followed by the presentations and posters on Thursday, and a field trip to some fossil localities on Friday.

Presentation day started out with a talk from Professor Simon Conway-Morris which was pretty interesting. He discussed his belief that palaeontology is not a dying science, but is in fact just at the beginning of it's "life". Good news for us young'uns! The presentations consisted of a wide variety of topics ranging from the possible first biomineraliser in the Ediacaran (by one of my fellow Bristol MSc student Peter Adamson), to fish, to dinosaurs and biomechanics to climate change. Surprisingly, not a single talk on anything related to mammal palaeontology, but most other groups were touched upon. All of the talks were amazing, but a few stood out to me. I was impressed by the undergraduate student from the University of Glasgow who had the guts to get up in front of everyone and talk about her dissertation project on identifying some possible theropod limb bones from Africa. Definitely give her props for showing up to a conference among a bunch of grad students. My favourite presentation was "Ichthyosaur ontogeny and sexual dimorphism", if not because it was started with "One thing I've learned is that if you put sex in the title of a talk, people will show up", but because it was really interesting (Sam Bennett - Royal Holloway). Top presentation went to a talk on Teleost superiority (John Clarke - University of Oxford), while the runners up were "Surface ocean productivity across the Eocene/Oligocene transition" (Katy Prentice - Imperial College London) and "The Jurassic beetroot stone: an old pink and white puzzle revisited" (Holly Barden - University of Manchester). Top poster went to Edine Pape (University of Bristol represent!) on the Evolution of the actinopterygian dermal skeleton, while the runner up was Alex Dunhill (also UoB) on the Phanerozoic of Great Britain. Some interesting stats showed that UoB made up about a quarter of the entire delegation, even more than Cambridge. Slowly starting to realise how big UoB is in terms of UK palaeontology.

Something that isn't really clear to me is how the judging was done for both the posters and presentations. I was told that it's at least somewhat random by people other than the organisers, but then the organisers said that they read through each poster and they were discussed. I think that Edine's poster was awesome and it should have won, but I was curious about the judging since I didn't speak to anyone from the committee about my poster. I'm still a bit confused about how it worked, but oh well!

Next ProgPal will be next year, and it might be in Portsmouth, which would be cool since there are a bunch of pterosaur workers there. Next up on the conference list is SVPCA, which I'm hoping to present some of my findings at. That would be my first ever presentation and I'm nervous already!

Edit: I forgot to talk about the field trip in my first post! In the morning, we went to a working quarry called Kings Dyke, which is a Jurassic marine deposit. It is kind of shaley/clay, very fine grained and very fragile fossils mostly. In it there are tons and tons of belemnites, some ammonites, and bivalves. We did find one pretty nice fish scale, but that was about it. The belemnites were best preserved while the ammonites kind of crumbled in your hand... After lunch, we headed off to a reservoir near Yaxley where we could collect fossils from the water bank. More marine fossils, but here we found crinoids, some more shells, and really tiny ammonites that were preserved really well. Pretty cool!

Monday, 21 May 2012

Tarbosaurus Auctioned Off

Just a bit of an update on the illegally collected Tarbosaurus skeleton that was on auction at Heritage Auctions in the US.

Ok so despite there being a Temporary Restraining Order against the auction of the Tarbosaurus skeleton, Heritage Auctions went along with the auction yesterday. The lawyer who got the restraining order was present at the auction and when he tried to protest, called the judge who gave the order, he was ushered out and asked to leave. Apparently they have no interest in not only following Mongolian law, but also American law. They have said that the sale of the skeleton is "contingent upon resolution of a court hearing", but we'll see. For more details on the auction, see Brian Switek's blog

Also, the Daily Mail has released some information about how the fossil came to be in the US. Apparently it was collected in 2005 by a private fossil collector in England, and then partially put together in the UK, then it was shipped to the US where it was finished. However, none of these details have been officially confirmed, but the article can be found here.

(I tried to add this update to the bottom of my previous post, but Blogger hates me and it didn't want to work, so I had to write a new post)

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Illegal fossils from Mongolia

So I know a number of people are doing their own posts about the illegal fossil trade that comes out of Mongolia, but I thought I'd give my two cents. In case you haven't heard, there is a Tarbosaurus bataar (referred to as Tyrannosaurus bataar) skeleton going on auction in the U.S. tomorrow. Now for those of you who aren't palaeontologists, you may ask "who cares?" Well in short - all palaeontologists care, and really, everyone else should too.
Tarbosaurus bataar skeleton on auction by Heritage Auctions

Mongolia has very strict laws on fossil exports. Basically, you can't legally export any fossils that come from Mongolia. Now this has been made very clear by a number of palaeontologists who have done work in Mongolia. The auction house selling the skeleton claims that there is no way to know where the skeleton comes from, but they do say that it's from the Gobi Desert. Ok technically, that could mean it's from China, but lets face it, that's not likely. And even if it did, it would be against Chinese law too! That skeleton came from Mongolia, and if it did, there's no way it was exported to the U.S. legally.

How does this happen? Fossil poaching. There are some locals that know how much money they can get for these fossils. After a fossil is uncovered by a scientist but can't be removed for whatever reason, the poachers remove it before the palaeontologist can return to collect it (usually from one year to the next). This has been well documented and has happened to several palaeontologists, including Dr. Michael Ryan (read about it here). So again, you ask, why do we care? Well several reasons really. The main reason is that usually what happens is that these fossils that are obtained illegally get lost to science. They often go to private collectors and it sits in their basement gathering dust. Most palaeontologists aren't interested in fossils that are obtained illegally, so even if it comes to their attention, it doesn't get studied. But what about this specimen? It's going on auction so surely an institution could buy it? Sure it's possible, but again, if it's illegally collected, most scientific institutions will shy away from it. If it is proven to be illegally collected, then they've just wasted a lot of money on something they will have to return to Mongolia. That is, if they even have the money to collect it. Museums these days don't have a lot of extra money hanging around to buy things like this. If it sells, this skeleton could go for around $1 000 000, which is a lot of cash! The other reason it's bad is that it encourages people to do it more. If no one buys these fossils, the poaching will decrease since they can't make any  money off of it. This way, it just encourages the ones responsible. Quite often these poachers destroy specimens to get what they want. They may  hack off bones to get as much as they can from a difficult to remove specimen, or they blast them to pieces trying to remove them. So many fossils get destroyed by this.

Now the president of Heritage Auctions, where the skeleton is set to go on auction tomorrow, has responded with a fairly stupid response. On a petition site to stop the auction, he has said this:

From Greg Rohan, President 
Heritage Auctions
The opening statement in this petition is false and reckless. There is no evidence that we have seen regarding where the fossils were collected, or that they were collected illegally.We appreciate your concerns relating to the Tarbosaurus but it is our conclusion that no impropriety exists with regards to its sale at auction. You should all be aware that this auction has been publicicized broadly for 4 weeks and the Mongolian Governments request issued today, less than 48 hours before the auction is unreasonable and inappropriate.We have no reason to believe that any laws enforced by the United States have been violated and we are unaware that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia. Mongolia won its independence in 1921 and this specimen is obviously quite a bit older than that. Further, we are not aware of any treaty between the United States and Mongolia which would prevent the import into the United States and are equally unaware of any prohibition of export, particularly since Mongolia has not produced any factual or legal document supporting a possible claim.We have asked Mongolia if they had failed to tell us of a known prohibition preventing auction, and so far they have not.  
Our consignor is an individial with a good reputation and he has warrantied in writing to us that he holds clear title to the specimen.
All I can say is: what?! Ok, maybe there isn't direct evidence as to where it was collected or that it they were collected illegally, but if you're unaware of  "that Mongolian law would have prevented export from Mongolia", then you obviously haven't done your homework. AND you have a whole load of palaeontologists that have been working under these laws for years telling you that you are wrong. You obviously aren't trying to fix things. Furthermore, what does the age of the country have to do with anything?? Since when does the age of the country affect whether you can remove fossils? Does that mean that anyone has access to things like fossil fuels all over the world because the country is younger than the fuel is, so the laws don't affect it? I don't think so. Fine, you didn't realise it was illegal in the first place, but now you have clearly been told there is a problem, so do the right thing and take it off the market. 
Dr Mark Norell, curator at the AMNH has issued a letter regarding the fossil, and can be read here, along with another summary of the auction. Many other well known palaeontologists are spreading the word and urging for this auction to stop, including Dr Mike Taylor, Dr David Weishampel, Dr Kevin Padian, and many many more. 
Even if you are not a palaeontologist, I urge you to sign the petition. It may not help, but it certainly can't hurt. The more people that do it, the better. If you support science, and like looking at fossils, please sign it. The petition can be found at
And now my ranting for the day is done. But seriously, sign it. 

Apparently a temporary restraining order has been issued by a judge in Texas to prevent the sale of the Tarbosaurus skeleton. A lawyer was hired on behalf of the Mongolian president and they were able to at least temporarily halt the auction. Unfortunately, it is only for the one skeleton, not the other several fossils that are from Mongolia at all. Read Brian Switek's blog here to see the press release. What happens from this will be extremely important in the future of sales of illegally smuggled Mongolian fossils.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Who am I? Why am I doing this?

Just a quick introduction about me and the blog. I did my BSc at the University of Alberta in Canada under the supervision of Phil Currie. I was looking at variation of skull morphology in Centrosaurus apertus. It was great fun, but I wasn't sure I wanted to spend the rest of my life looking at ceratopsians (although they are pretty cool). On a trip to France, I had a chance to go to a small palaeontology museum  in Esperaza. Although this museum is quite small compared to what I'm used to (the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Alberta), they had something I had never seen before: a complete skeletal replica of Quetzalcoatlus standing at full height. At that moment, standing in front of this huge, strange animal skeleton, I was hooked. I decided pterosaurs were the coolest thing ever and I wanted to study them. Deciding on a location for a postgrad was difficult, since my fiancĂ© was also looking for a postgrad position (in physics, totally unrelated to palaeo). After narrowing it down to three institutions, we decided on Bristol. So far it has been fantastic. Instead of choosing an advertised project for my MSc (which is what we were supposed to do and everyone else did), I contacted Colin Palmer, who is working on pterosaur flight mechanics at UoB, and he designed a project for me. I'm currently looking at basically every CT scan that has ever been done on ornithocheirids (which isn't actually that many) and trying to estimate the skeletal weight. So far, the project is going very well, despite being about a month behind the rest of the program because of a family emergency. I'm currently working on my first attempt at a publication, which I hope will be submitted soon. Eventually, when I have time, I still plan on submitting my undergraduate work on Centrosaurus for publication, but of course my pterosaur work takes precedent! I have been accepted to a PhD next year at the University of Bristol, and I'm looking forward to that for sure.

This blog will mostly be on pterosaurs, my work, and other people's work, but I will occasionally post on dinosaurs, fossils, general palaeontology, etc. I'm mostly interested in functional and biomechanical aspects of pterosaurs, but I'm also interested in their evolution, so I'll occasionally talk about the too. Basically my goal is to start discussing palaeontological things with other palaeontologists, and get some non-experts interested too!

Hope you all enjoy!
Quetzalcoatlus skeletal mount at Le Musee des Dinosaures in Esperaza, France