Saturday 28 March 2009


Off on a fieldtrip tomorrow. Communication may be patchy but there is a promise of free wi-fi in the hotel. Times have changed since I was an undergrad. We thought piling four people into each room at a B&B with a high sheep poo quotient in the bathwater was good 10 years ago. This place is free internet, rooftop swimming pool and minibars all round.

I think I went to the wrong university.

If you miss me, listen to my debut on the podClast. I'm the giggly one with the speech impediment talking about how <insert teenage slang superlative> everything is.

PS: Hiatus over the past fortnight due to quitting job and having to get a new one (which I managed pretty successfully). Normal service may be resumed around Easter, mmmkay?

Wednesday 11 March 2009

My Dinner

In addition to the sumptuous feasts I prepare on a nightly basis for my darling husband, we have the occasional quick frozen meal that in theory even he could prepare (actually I do him a great disservice - he cooked some amazing quesadillas a month or so ago).

Yes folks, Bernard Matthews Turkey Dinosaurs. In theory there is some turkey in there (according to the ingredients, as much as 42%!), much like there's apparently chicken in a Chicken McNugget.

You'll see there are only three types of dinosaur available - a generic theropod, a generic ceratopsian and a generic stegosaur. Paul likes the stegosaur but will never turn down a theropod.

Now, apart from the fact that I actually photographed my dinner, here's an example of how I perhaps have too much time on my hands to think and plan mischief. I read the "facts" on the back of the packet.

I must apologise for the blurriness of the photo. It looked fine on my phone and on my teeny laptop screen, but looks shite at work. Anyway, the top "fact" said:

Did you know? Stegosaurus had a brain the size of a walnut!

As far as I know, that's moderately accurate. I've seen a brain size of 2.8oz quoted, but as I've tended to regard any non-sauropodous dinosaurs as a bit less cool I'm not up to speed on the literature. Gets more dubious though:

Triceratops had the biggest head of any land-living animal.

Definitely not true. The largest skull of any land-living animal belongs to Torosaurus at over 2.5m long. Triceratops still had a pretty big skull, but this is the sort of fact that any self-respecting six-year-old would be able to correct Bernard Matthews on.

Tyrannosaurus rex's closest living relative is the chicken.

Aaaaaaggghhh! Okay, I would have allowed this, IF they were Bernard Matthews Chicken Dinosaurs. But they're not, so I won't. According to the Tree Of Life, the most basal birds are the Palaeognathae, which include the ostriches, emus, kiwis and tinamous. So they, and not the chicken, are the closest living relative to Tyrannosaurus rex.

Does anyone else pick up on these little errors? Should I seriously get a life, stop photographing my food, realise that processed turkey, chips and barbecue sauce does not constitute a balanced meal for two adults, and consider adding some vegetables to the mix?

Thursday 5 March 2009

How We Know

I used to listen to Radio 2 in the morning. The breakfast show was, and still is, presented by "national treasure" Terry Wogan. The 8:00am news bulletin was always where the big palaeontology discoveries were reported, usually in the "and finally" slot. Invariably, immediately following this, Terry would, with absolute incredulity, complain: "How do they know?".

And "How do they know?" is a question palaeontologists often have to deal with. You can explain the scientific method all you like, about testing hypotheses, observation, interpretation and conclusion, but knowledge is a weird concept, and philosophically we will never know about dinosaurs the way we know about pure mathematics.

But sometimes we can get a bit closer. Until a few years ago, most constructions of theropod dinosaurs showed them with palms facing downwards, or ventrally. A couple of studies of the wrist suggested that, in fact, theropods held their arms such that the palms of their "hands" faced towards each other - a palms-medial manual posture. Or think of it another way (as commonly quoted in the last few days): holding the basketball, not dribbling it.

With anything a little abstract (or at least abstract to the general public) like functional morphology, it's hard to avoid the "How do they know?" comments. So it's nice to have other evidence to back up one's conclusions. Which is where the really cool dinosaur above comes in.

The Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, St George, UT, is home to some of the most impressive dinosaur tracks I have ever seen (see a depressingly young-looking Ethical Palaeontologist at Johnson Farm back in 2005):

And the palaeontologists that work with and for the Site have made a whopping discovery. The trace of a crouching theropod at rest with its forelimbs on the substrate. Firstly this is awesome because it shows an Early Jurassic theropod in a bird-like squat. Secondly this is even more awesome because the forelimbs are resting pinkie-side down. This dinosaur is holding the imaginary basketball.

Spot the red outlines in the diagram above right, labelled "lm" for "left manus" and "rm" for "right manus". It also looks as though this is another example of Neffra Matthews' excellent work on digitising trackways with photogrammetry, but I confess I have only had time to scan the paper so far.

So we have prints made by an actual living dinosaur (at the time, obviously) confirming the functional morphology work already carried out. There is the caveat that the functional morphology work has only been done on Late Jurassic and Cretaceous theropods, and we could really do with some good Early Jurassic functional morphology, which would of course require some good Early Jurassic forelimbs. But I don't want to detract from just how exciting it is to find a resting trace of a dinosaur, not least one that can give us so much information. Nice work.

Milner, A.R.C., J.D. Harris, M.G. Lockley, J.I. Kirkland, N.A. Matthews. 2009. Bird-Like Anatomy, Posture, and Behavior Revealed by an Early Jurassic Theropod Dinosaur Resting Trace. PLoS ONE 4(3): e4591. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0004591
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