Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Earliest theropod abdominal air sacs?

Skeletal pneumaticity is the presence of air within bones of animals. This is typically in the presence of sinuses (think of your face and your achey sinuses during a cold, caused by a build up of pressure in the air spaces), or in birds, when the respiratory system projects part of itself into the bones to invade and hollow them, typically seen in in many avian vertebrae and wing bones. In birds, their respiratory system is more advanced than those in mammals, with air flow being separated between oxygenated (the air breathed in), and de-oxygenated (used air being breathed out), while mammal respiration is less efficient mixing both oxygenated and de-oxygenated air.  For more background on pneumaticity and post cranial pneumaticity, check out my previous post on pterosaur pneumaticity (and the lightweight skeleton of birds.

In addition to birds, postcranial pneumaticity is commonly found in some animals in the fossil record, including pterosaurs, and non-avian dinosaurs. Sauropods often have highly pneumatised vertebrae, thought the help keep them light and facilitate movement of their massive necks, while some theropods have pneumatic vertebrae and even postcranial elements in some species. Traditional studies on pneumaticity have used just visual methods to identify pneumatic foramina and determine if elements are pneumatic, but more recently, scientists have started using CT scans to look inside the bones and determine if they are pneumatic. This allows us to see through any matrix present, and see where the foremen leads to, without destroying the specimen.

The presence of pneumaticity in theropod dinosaurs was originally thought to be something leading towards birds, as the efficient respiratory system is believed to be what allows birds to be so successful, allowing for better breathing during flight. However, the exact timing of the bird-like respiratory system has been unclear and controversial. A new study, lead by Akinobu Watanabe from the American Museum of Natural History, and published in PLOS ONE, looked at the presence of postcranial pneumaticity in Archaeornithomimus and other ornithomimosaur dinosaurs, a group of theropods not directly on the branch to modern birds. Using CT scans, they were able to show that Archaeornithomimus had pneumatic cervical (neck), dorsal (back), and caudal (tail) vertebrae, but there was no unequivocal evidence of pneumatic sacral vertebrae, although there were some possible pneumatic fossae. Watanabe et al. (2015) also looked at other ornithomimosaurs to look at the evolution of pneumaticity in this group, but unfortunately these specimens were studied without CT scans. They found that the cervical vertebrae of Nqwebasaurus (basal ornithomimosaur), Pelecanimimus, Gallimimus and Ornithomimus showed evidence of pneumaticity, while the dorsal vertebrae of Gallimimus are also pneumatic. They suggest that the sacrum of Gallimimus is also pneumatic, but without CT scans showing precisely where these foramina are going, it's hard to be sure.
Cervical vertebrae and CT images taken at specific points of Archaeornithomimus (Watanabe et al. 2015)
Now the important part of the paper - what does is mean for the evolution of pneumaticity in ornithomimosaurs? Compared to several other groups of non-avian theropods, ornithomimosaurs are less pneumatic. Basal members are less pneumatic (with just their cervical and possibly dorsal vertebrae showing evidence), while more derived members Archaeornithomimus, Gallimimus, and Deinocheirus may have independently evolved higher levels of pneumaticity, which is especially evident in Deinocheirus. Additionally, the presence of a pneumatic hiatus, or an area where the vertebrae appear not to be pneumatised between two sections that are, suggest the presence of distinct air sacs. In the case of Archaeornithomimus, the dorsal and caudal vertebrae are pneumatised, while the sacral are not, suggesting that ornithomimosaurs may have had distinct abdominal air sacs, the evolution of which has been contentious in theropods. If this is the case, this represents the earliest appearance of abdominal air sacs in coelurosaurian dinosaurs. The authors suggest that this may mean that pneumatic hiatuses have been missed before, without the use of CT revealing other pneumatic features.

This paper highlights the need for CT scans in fossil data, and the numerous questions that still exist in understanding the evolution of post cranial pneumaticity in birds, dinosaurs, and of course in my favourites - pterosaurs. As postcranial pneumaticity evolved in all of these groups, several questions about their evolution exist. Derived pterodactyloid pterosaurs appear to have had abdominal air sacs as well, so did they evolve first in a common ornithodiran ancestor, and were subsequently lost by ornithischian dinosaurs and other pterosaurs? Or did they evolve in a basal saurischian ancestor and pterosaurs separately? Or possibly they evolved several different times? We still don't know the answer.

Watanabe A, et al. (2015) Vertebral Pneumaticity in the Ornithomimosaur Archaeornithomimus (Dinosauria: Theropoda) Revealed by Computed Tomography Imaging and Reappraisal of Axial Pneumaticity in Ornithomimosauria. PLoS ONE 10(12): e0145168. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0145168

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Where to publish?

As a student, choosing where to publish your next paper is extremely important in order to showcase your research and build your reputation. Perspective employers look at the journals you publish in to rate your research and decide how employable you are, which makes it very stressful making the decision.

So how do you decide? This is something I really struggle with. On one hand, I believe in the Open Access movement, and think that papers should be open and not behind a paywall. I also agree with the thought that impact factor is fundamentally flawed, and doesn't necessarily say anything about the quality of research. Often papers published in the highest impact journals are not the best scientifically, but are "sexy", so they make it in, while extremely important and excellent science gets published in lower impact journals because they may not be as sexy. While I don't feel the need to chase for higher impact factors, the more I talk to senior academics and post doctoral researchers, the more I am told that it is still important. Everything I've heard about getting a job later is that employers look at the journals you have published in, even if they maybe shouldn't.

I'm looking for a bit of advice, combined with giving a bit of my own, from what I've been told after talking to other people. Of course in palaeontology there are a few journals specifically for the topic, such as the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Palaeontology, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, and more. These are typically good for descriptions of new taxa, new localities, and more specifically palaeontology-related topics. Other journals such as Biology Letters, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Journal of Anatomy, Journal of Evolutionary Biology are good for papers that have a wider interest than just palaeontology. Then there are open access journals such as PeerJ and Plos One that allow you to publish any aspect of palaeontology that you want, including a lot of data and supplementary material, which is extremely useful. For me, I think about what I'm trying to publish (do I have a lot of data? Is it strictly palaeontological, or is there a wider use for my work? Is it ground-breaking, or just a bit more data to add to an already painted picture?), the reputation of the the journals (more so than impact factor), and personal experiences with specific journals of myself or people I know.

I have a paper that I'm getting ready to submit, that is not sexy, but has some important data. I was planning on submitting it to a Canadian journal that is not high impact, but is well respected and they like publishing palaeo papers. Then I was going to submit it to a new journal, which is completely open (free to submit, and free to access), but after talking to some senior academics (including the editor of the new journal), I was encouraged that as a student I should not submit to any journals that are new and do not have impact factors yet. So my question is, what about submitting to new journals that are published by well known publishers like the Royal Society or Canadian Science Publishing?

What other advice to people have when deciding what journal to submit to? Especially keeping in mind that I'm a student and have a lot of things to think about... And advice for lots of other people reading as well!

And don't forget to do the survey!I've teamed up with Science Borealis, Dr. Paige Jarreau from Louisiana State University and 20 other Canadian science bloggers, to conduct a broad survey of Canadian science blog readers. Together we are trying to find out who reads science blogs in Canada, where they come from, whether Canadian-specific content is important to them and where they go for trustworthy, accurate science news and information. Your feedback will also help me learn more about my own blog readers. If you complete the survey, you will be entered to win a prize, and be given a high resolution science photograph.

It only takes 5 minutes to complete the survey. Begin here: http://bit.ly/ScienceBorealisSurvey