Monday 23 August 2010

On University Applications

Around this time of year you can always guarantee three distinct stories related to the A-Level exam results. The first is that "exams are getting easier" (skilfully analysed by Ben Goldacre). The second is a token picture of a fruity young girl leaping for joy - a full selection can be viewed on "It's Sexy A-Levels". And the third, a late arrival to the journalistic fray, is the top student who got all A grades but got rejected by Oxbridge. It kicked off a decade ago with Laura Spence, and has hit a shrill zenith with Ben Scheffer, who despite achieving three A* and three A grades did not receive a single offer from any university, including Oxford.

Everyone concerned seems very puzzled by this:
The head of admissions at Brighton College, Stjohn Rowlands, said Ben was the school's best pupil and that he could not understand why he had not received any offers at all.
The article ponders whether the problem was that Ben was originally from Germany and did not sit GCSEs, or whether it was that there simply weren't enough places. But the answer is much more obvious to anyone who has guided students through the UCAS procedure:
[Ben] also said: "I didn't write the best personal statement, to be fair, it just wasn't special. And it's a really hard course to get into."
His personal statement wasn't "special". I wonder if some students think that their grades will just carry them into university. An application is not just about what the AS grades are and what teachers and lecturers have predicted for A2.

The personal statement

This has to kick some serious ass. It should have evidence that you're committed to the course, that you've been on tasters, that you have relevant work experience, that you've gone over and above what is expected on your course, and that you're a well-rounded individual. I advised two students on their personal statements this year, despite not being a tutor, one of whom is off to study pharmacology (aid work in India and a part-time job in a pharmacy definitely helps there), and the other is my palaeontologist, who has a very exciting three years ahead of him at Portsmouth (enthusiasm for the subject, knowledge of current issues and interests in photography and computer programming that can be applied to much of palaeontology). The only down side of the latter's personal statement was that between us we totally called Google Wave wrong (sorry kiddo!).

The reference

Your tutor has to pretty much say you're brilliant too. And he or she will ask the lecturers for their opinion. And while they will try their hardest to put all the students in the best light, there's no good way of spinning less than 80% attendance (what, this kid misses a day of lessons a week???).

The other universities and courses

Many students are unaware that each university can see the whole of your UCAS application. This means they can see which other universities you've applied for and which courses. So don't apply for Biochemistry at Newcastle, Drama at Cardiff, 16th Century French Poetry at UEA, Law at Edinburgh and Medicine at Nottingham, because you won't get offers from any of those places. Why? Because you lack focus. And that makes you a risk. If you want to do Biochemistry, make goddamn sure you have put down Biochemistry at every single university, the exception being if, say, at once uni there is a Biochemistry and Pharmacy option, or similar. An exceptionally bright student of mine had few offers because she had applied for Medicine and Midwifery, giving the impression that she was committed to neither.

The presence of Oxbridge can be a help and a hindrance. For me, it meant that Durham, upon seeing Cambridge on my UCAS form, made me an offer within a week, desperate to poach me. Birmingham followed within a month with a pathetically low offer considering what I was predicted. For others, Oxford or Cambridge implied to some universities that there was no point in making them an offer because they'd go with one of those two.

Other admissions exams

Prospective medical students are faced with either UKCAT or BMAT (the latter for Oxbridge, Imperial, UCL and RVC, the former for most other UK medical and dentistry schools). The STEP exams I took in Chemistry and Physics are no more - only Mathematics remains. Instead, science students for Cambridge, Oxford and UCL sit the TSA. This is nothing new - in 1968 my father took STEP for entrance into Cambridge. This can make or break an application.

The interview

If all of the above have so far not sucked, then there's a good chance of being invited to interview. And that may be something for another post.

In all seriousness, the meeeeeja does like to complain when Oxbridge turn down a straight-A candidate, but they fail to appreciate that there are many aspects of a student that go into each application, and any admissions tutor worth their salt must check through all of these components before making a decision.

Sunday 22 August 2010

A Campaign For Grand Teton

Some good news, courtesy of a comment Silver Fox made on my post a week ago:
Julia, the NPCA (National Parks Conservation Association) now has a page to submit a letter to Ken Salazar, head of the Department of Interior: click on "Take Action." They think Congress and the DOI need to respond to Wyoming by coming up with a deal.
I am so glad an organisation like the NPCA is involved and spearheading a campaign for the Department of the Interior to reach a deal with the state of Wyoming before the deadline imposed by Governor Freudenthal.

And the survey I put up has reassured me that the vast majority of you are either very or somewhat concerned by the plans, so I feel at least as though I'm not just one person overreacting or anything.

Four years ago on Thursday, Paul and I saw Grand Teton for the first time, and we fell as much in love with that place as we were with each other. Later, sitting round a campfire with the other guests at the ranch we stayed at, we met a couple who had honeymooned there 40 years ago and were celebrating their wedding anniversary.

I want to be able to go back there in 36 years' time, with Paul, and meet a young honeymooning couple. And I want to be able to tell them that Grand Teton is just as beautiful then as it was when we were first there. That's what I've written in my letter.

Thursday 19 August 2010

An Open Letter To My A2s

Dear students,

Any minute now, you will be opening the envelopes containing your A-Level exam results. I still vividly remember the day, 12 years ago, going up to the high school to collect my results. I felt as though my results were Schrödinger's cat - simultaneously excellent and dire, as the cat is simultaneously alive and dead. And I don't mind telling you I feel as nervous today as I did back then.

I was lucky - my cat was gloriously, spectacularly, deliciously alive. I danced out of the hall and into my mother's arms, where we laughed until we cried. I very much hope that today will be a day of laughter for you and I cannot wait to share your happiness.

But if you've missed the grades, please do not despair. You will probably feel as though your world is over. Scream and cry - howl your eyes out. But only for a little while, because you have only a short time to try and sort out alternative plans. Talk to us, your lecturers. Think about a gap year doing something exciting and worthy. Think about whether it is you who wants to be a doctor or your parents. Maybe resits are an option.

Above all, know that I am so incredibly proud of all 13 of you. I have loved teaching you, and I hope you have enjoyed my classes. I think you have had a few novel experiences for A-Level students, such as stroking a newt, recreating a crime scene with real human bones, and using Krispy Kreme doughnuts to demonstrate statistics.

I wish you all the best for wherever your future takes you. I hope you keep that enthusiasm for science that you had in my classes, and that your combined filthy sense of humour doesn't get you into trouble. I can categorically say, without any doubt, that you are the best A-Level group I have ever taught.

Julia x

P.S.: That's what she said.

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Evolution On The National Curriculum

I have just been watching Richard Dawkins' programme "Faith School Menace?" on More4. There have been some worrying examples. I was most concerned by Dawkins' meeting with a biology teacher in a faith school and her students. She freely admitted bringing their religion into her lessons, and said that her students had their own opinions on their origins related to their faith. I hope that section will make it onto YouTube soon so that I can post it, as I simply cannot do it justice.

However, I was distressed to see that when one of the students asked "If we evolved from apes then why are there still apes around?", she was unable to give any answer. This, above all else, should make this teacher unfit to teach science. Every single biology teacher will, when teaching evolution, be asked this question. Any biology teacher who cannot answer that question confidently and accurately has no business teaching science. @davegodfrey gave a superb and elegant response:
If you're descended from your grandparents why do you have cousins?
What is even more depressing is how easy it is for religious topics to sneak into the National Curriculum. This is the specification for Edexcel GCSE Science, the qualification UK students take at age 16:
Students will be assessed on their ability to:
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the principles of natural selection, to include:
    - How individuals within a species can have characteristics that promote more successful reproduction (survival of the fittest)
    - How, over generations, the effects of natural selection result in changes within species and the formation of new species from genetic variants or mutants that are better adapted to their environment
    - How species that are less well-adapted to a changing environment can become extinct
  • Explain how fossils provide evidence for evolution
  • Discuss why Charles Darwin experienced difficulty in getting his theory of evolution through natural selection accepted by the scientific community in the 19th century
The latter point in particular provides a route in for the loathsome Truth In Science organisation. I am unfortunate enough to have seen some of their resources for National Curriculum science, and it is depressingly easy to sneak creationism and intelligent design in to this specification.

Fortunately, the Edexcel A-Level Biology specification for the exams students take at age 18 is a lot more thorough:
Students will be assessed on their ability to:
  • Describe how natural selection can lead to adaptation and evolution.
  • Describe how evolution (a change in the allele frequency) can come about through gene mutation and natural selection.
  • Explain how reproductive isolation can lead to speciation.
  • Describe the role of the scientific community in validating new evidence (including molecular biology, eg DNA, proteomics) supporting the accepted scientific theory of evolution (scientific journals, the peer review process, scientific conferences).
I plan to look more closely at the teaching of evolution over the next year. I am going into the second year of my PGCE, and I will have to produce a research project - looking at strategies for teaching evolution to a diverse group of students is definitely up there on the shortlist of topics. This year I will not be teaching the GCSEs, but I will get to teach both A-Level year groups, so I hope to get stuck in good and proper on the juicy details.

Monday 16 August 2010

Disappointment Peak

It seems appropriate to name this post after one of the peaks in the Teton Range. Following my post just over a week ago, I e-mailed the Governor of Wyoming's press officer to attempt to get some straightforward responses:

I am a British lecturer and science blogger. My connection to the state of Wyoming is an emotional one - my husband and I spent most of our honeymoon there. In particular, we found Grand Teton National Park to be one of the most breathtakingly beautiful unspoilt wildernesses we have ever seen. It is an understated, underrated gem.

So I am distressed to read in the British newspaper The Guardian, and also via NPR that there are plans to sell off two packets of school trust land, potentially to developers. These two news sources have stated that the state of Wyoming is "financially beleaguered", and said that the funds generated from this sale would be used for the educational budget.

However, this appears to be a later version of a story I have seen on Stateline's website, where Governor Freudenthal is quoted as saying:
"We're not short of revenue. We're in pretty good shape. Our revenues are ahead of projections. We’re sitting on about $800 million in cash reserves and we expect the next projections to show revenue probably $200 million to $300 million over projections. So this thing about the Grand Teton is not driven by that."
Stateline are running with the idea that this proposed sale is a means of standing up to a federal government who have simply assumed that because the land all around these school trust lands is National Park, that the state-owned lands can be used as National Park for free.

I can see that, although this news is not overly public, the community of geoscience bloggers of which I am part is likely to pick up on this. Since there are some conflicting reports on the proposed sale, I hope you, one of your policy advisers, or even Governor Freudenthal himself, would be willing to answer some questions for me, with the intention that I put these up on my blog.
  1. Where exactly are these two packets of land? Do you have a map that I could use, or GPS or lat/long coordinates for me to plot a map myself?
  2. All three sources say the land could be sold for $125 million privately. Is this the figure you hope to obtain from the federal government?
  3. Which budgetary areas would receive this money? Is it to be earmarked for education, and if so, can you give me an idea of what the current educational budget is like, and whether there is any shortfall?
  4. Does the state own any other land within Grand Teton National Park, and if so, where are these areas?
  5. Are there any plans to sell this land in the future, if it is held?
  6. This is rather poorly timed to hit the news with the upcoming 60th Anniversary of Grand Teton National Park. Are there any state plans for the celebration of the National Park?
I would be very grateful for any information you can give on this rather worrying development.

Yours sincerely,
Julia Heathcote

I have not received any response. I imagine that, given that I am neither a journalist nor an American, the press office have decided not to dignify my letter with a reply. I don't know, maybe I was too polite? I'm pretty pissed off that the Governor's office hasn't even bothered to e-mail me to tell me that it's none of my business. I don't like being ignored.

I'm also a bit pissed off that I seem to be the only person pissed off!! And this is where it's a shitter being a teeny tiny blogger, because you can betcha that if this story got on Pharyngula that it would be a massive story. Maybe I have to wait for the land to be sold off and a massive CHURCH to be built on it before anyone else gets upset.

Am I being too precious about Grand Teton? Maybe. Do I have as much right to be precious about Grand Teton as the rest of the geoblogosphere has been about serpentinite? Probably. So why is it just me here? At the moment all that's in the public domain on this is a statement given at some point in the past couple of months by Gov. Freudenthal, where he has said something to the effect of planning to sell off the school trust lands.

But is this not the best time to query this, and if it is found to be true, to campaign against it? BEFORE it becomes a big unwieldy juggernaut of legislation? You know, before we need press releases and petitions, and letters to congressmen and representatives and POTUS himself? I've put up a poll to gauge reader interest (since no one has commented on the previous post on here). It's open for the next week, over on the sidebar.

Or should the crappy whiny English blogger go back to complaining about scientific literacy and forget about things that shouldn't concern her?

Sunday 15 August 2010

Breakfast Of Champions

When I was at university, there was a brand of coffee beloved of my friends and me. And then Taylors of Harrogate withdrew it, leaving us bereft of caffeiny goodness (okay, this is a slight exaggeration). So it is with great pleasure that I can confirm that Hot Lava Java is back in stock at Tesco:

What's most impressive is that, in a move reminiscent of Spinal Tap, on a roast scale of 1 to 5, this coffee goes up to 6. Plus it has a tentative geological connection with the name...

I'm up early today for the Kempton Park Reptile Expo. Dooya is not coming with us - she'll only spend all our money on waxworms.

Saturday 14 August 2010

Lizard Behaviour

Paul and I have now owned Dooya the Eublepharis macularis for just over two months, and she seems a very happy little gecko indeed. We are concerned by the recent campaign by Lush to ban the keeping of reptiles as pets: while there are undoubtedly isolated incidents of negligent practice within the reptile-keeping community, it feels like a very personal attack on ALL reptile keepers, in a way that all dog-owners do not get accused of cruelty when some idiots keep their pets in rotten conditions. I can understand the case against wild-caught animals, but I also see the good that can be done from the conservation and breeding point of view.

So over the past few days Paul and I have been taking stock of Dooya's behaviour to reassure ourselves that she is not absolutely miserable, because honestly the thought that she may be thoroughly traumatised by being a pet is very upsetting. This is her setup:

She has a warm hide in the front right, thermostatted at 32°C, a cool hide in the back right, with water and calcium dishes, a cool moist hide in the back left, usually 21-24°C, feeding dish in front of that, and a rock for her to climb up in the front left of the tank. She will variously sit on any of the hides when the light goes out, but during the day she zonks out in the warm or cool hide.

There is a phenomenon referred to by the Lush-APA campaign as "interaction with transparent boundaries", about which very little information seems to be available (the link is to the text of an article from 1990). Is Dooya trying to get out? Perhaps. From watching her behaviour in and out of her tank it seems more likely that she is trying to climb up to a vantage point. She likes being on top of things, whether it's her hide or my shoulder. Most gecko owners will comment that their pets go straight for their shoulders when they're out.

Sure, she's checking for the presence of predators, and not feeling secure until she can see as much of her surroundings as possible. Our family dog Teddy would sit for hours in the front porch if he could, watching everyone and everything.

I think she can tell when this transparent boundary is present and absent, and I think she can tell from a distance. If we go and open the door to the tank, she looks up at us, and for the past few times she has climbed up the rock and stepped out onto our hand:

I would even suggest that a lizard who will crawl out onto our hands does not think we are predators and is not scared of us.

But I know very little about reptile behaviour other than what I have observed. I am fairly confident that she does not behave entirely instinctively - there is some higher thought. She has been classically conditioned to associate the yellow tweezers with feeding time, and will wag her tail and get excited when she sees them. I'd love to find out more about her anatomy and physiology, and then some of the current thought in reptile behaviour. I've had issues tracking down a good reptile anatomy textbook, so am really hoping for some recommendations.

And if you have any ideas what she's up to in the photo above, let me know. Current suggestions include auditioning for one of those shows in Tijuana, and practising to join the Bolshoi.

Friday 13 August 2010

Seeing Pink

I don't have a problem with the colour pink as such. On tropical flowers it is fiery and exciting. On my gardening tools it is a necessary high contrast colour where I might drop a glove or secateurs on the soil or foliage. Shocking fuchsia pink is a colour that suits me and my skin colouring. My "Pink Pen of Mild Peril" has been more popular among male and female students alike than its predecessor the "Red Pen of Doom". It's a nice colour.

But, as this comic from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal shows, the colour pink is being used as a lazy shortcut to getting girls and women interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It isn't a new phenomenon by any means. There is a superb campaign called Pink Stinks, that "challenges the culture of pink which invades every aspect of girls' lives". it highlights many awful examples of this invasion on its blog. As of Saturday morning, I have a further addition to their collection of pink crap.

Ahhh, folks, remember the good old days where anti-intellectual teasing and bullying was unisex, and one could only buy black-framed "nerd specs"? If that wasn't patronising enough, then you can do a quiz on the back of the pack to see whether you truly are a "geek girl".

Particular gems include:
  • Did you have your first drink on your 21st birthday? - Oh that's good, let's have peer pressure straight off!
  • Have you ever dressed up as Slave Leia? - Not entirely sure that the set of women who have dressed up as Slave Leia and the set of women who may identify or be identified as a geek are identical...
  • Do you have an Etsy account? Have you ever knit [sic] something for a friend? - So if you're creative you must be a geek?
  • Does your skin burn rather than tan? - Aha! So only pale Northern Europeans can be geeks...
I just really, really wish this wasn't an issue anymore. But as long as we have pink, substandard items marketed just to girls, and baby boys killed for "acting like girls", this is never going to go away.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Problems At Grand Teton

Of all the places my husband and I visited on our honeymoon, Grand Teton National Park was a particular highlight. Much less crowded than its northern neighbour, Yellowstone, it is an underappreciated gem in the state of Wyoming, with truly astounding geology, landscapes, flora and fauna.

Grand Teton has had a troubled journey towards its eventual designation as a National Park (with its present boundaries) in 1950. In the Creation of Grand Teton National Park PDF, it is cited as "perhaps the most notable conservation victory of the twentieth century", and for me at least few places can match it in terms of sheer beauty.

So it was with some horror that I read this article: US National Park Faces Sale. Now, the vagaries of US land ownership are bewildering to the average Brit, but according to the Grauniad and another article from NPR, there are some parts of the Park that are state- rather than federally-owned, known as "school trust lands". Two of these pockets of land, up to 550 hectares, may be sold to generate revenue, according to Governor Dave Freudenthal, if the federal government don't make a deal.

School trust lands are meant to provide income for state education, and while the land could be worth $125 million, Wyoming only receives $3,000 a year from leasing it to a rancher. Selling the land would provide much-needed funds for a state that could obviously do with some extra cash for education.

In an ideal world, the federal government would buy these odd parcels of land in the middle of the rest of their National Park for near enough the market value. A trade in land hasn't been accepted. This is a wrangle that has been going on for a decade - throughout George W. Bush's entire term and into Barack Obama's. Sadly, I'm not convinced that Dubya left a lot of small change to counter that massive federal deficit, so Obama may not be able to do anything about it.

Which means that the state of Wyoming may sell the land to private developers. The land in question is sagebrush steppe and grazing land, seen in the foreground of my favourite photo:

While I'm aware that Wyoming desperately needs money, and I would certainly rather see the money go towards education than fuel exploration, defence or bailing out corrupt banks, I feel incredibly sad that the Governor is prepared to sell land in the middle of one of the most beautiful national parks in the entire USA.

Of course, I welcome comments, especially if there are any errors or better explanations for what I've written.

Update 23:57, 07/08/10: According to an earlier, evidently unnoticed, interview with Stateline, Governor Freudenthal says:
"No, no. We're not short of revenue. We're in pretty good shape. Our revenues are ahead of projections. We're sitting on about $800 million in cash reserves and we expect the next projections to show revenue probably $200 million to $300 million over projections. So this thing about the Grand Teton is not driven by that."
So clearly the entire state of Wyoming is doing just fine and dandy. Which rather changes things, don't you think?

Friday 6 August 2010

Organising Fieldwork

I have 10 days before I return to work full-time after the holiday, and I am starting to look forward to the first term and what I can plan for the students. I'm also getting all these out-of-office e-mails from contacts, saying they're off in the middle of nowhere playing with fossils, so I'm feeling envious. In any case, fieldwork is on my mind.

As it stands, I have the A2 biology students, one of the AS biology groups, the second-year applied science class, the first-year forensic science class and the first diploma applied science group. The A2s and second-years are going to get fieldwork...

This year we had a very successful three days at Perivale Wood. Being an ancient oak woodland with some conservation and clearing, there are a lot of opportunities for original fieldwork.

If you're Russell Crowe, you should note that the above is what an oak woodland looks like, as you never had the opportunity to act in one. </snark>

We did the fieldwork in late February of this year. It was a good time in that there were lots of bluebells coming up, so density surveys could be carried out of those species. However, it was difficult for the students to identify the different deciduous trees, and any animals were still in hibernation. Waiting until later in the year is not really an option, as the examining board requires that all coursework is submitted by May, so for the A2 students, it looks like we're going this term.

So we can do some animal diversity surveys of the various ponds (and the student who complains the most about being outside will be given the waders and dispatched to the centre of the pond). I think some enterprising students with GPS on their phones can probably do things like measuring circumference of the trees (as a proxy for age) in relation to distance from the railway embankment or the canal, or similar. And we can do the usual number of plants/number of species against light intensity/pH/moisture levels.

The applied science students, however, will get to go in April or May, as their coursework isn't due in until June. They'll be studying plant and soil sciences, so they at least will be relieved that they don't have to go in the pond.

They will, however, have to deal with what this year's A2s considered the most horrific aspect of fieldwork:

Any tips on how to get teenagers comfortable with the idea of going for a pee outside? It would appear that my "Shut up and get on with it" attitude is not overly well received.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Triceratops And Tribulations
Do a Google News search for Triceratops and you'll be faced with some worrying headlines. Screeching at you from the screen are "Triceratops never actually existed, scientists say", "Scientists: Triceratops May Not Have Existed‎", "Triceratops' status as a distinct species threatened" (note that I've italicised the genus name, because FSM knows that subtlety is lost on the majority of journalists). I'm wondering if the Daily Fail will be decrying this as Political Correctness Gone Mad, shrilly complaining about the further destruction of our childhoods...

Of course, as numerous bloggers have already commented, this is all bollocks. Nothing is happening to Triceratops.

The paper that has kicked it all off is this: "Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny", by John Scannella and John Horner (find it here). Before you even look at the paper itself, there are a couple of clues in the title, and you don't need a PhD in palaeontology to pick up on these clues.

The first is that the authors say "Torosaurus is Triceratops". While that could be open to some linquistic interpretation (perhaps more so for non-native English speakers), it is pretty clear (I checked with the Token Non-Scientific Adult, aka Paul) that this means Triceratops is the one that gets to stay.

The second is that Tricertatops was named first. In most fields, it's the first named/discovered/invented item that gets to take priority, and genus and species names are no exception. Naming animals is governed by the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), and if you're feeling a bit nerdy you can look up Article 23.1:
Statement of the Principle of Priority. The valid name of a taxon is the oldest available name applied to it, unless that name has been invalidated or another name is given precedence by any provision of the Code or by any ruling of the Commission.
So the taxon made up of all Triceratops specimens and all Torosaurus specimens is validly known as Triceratops, the oldest available name applied to it. It is this rule that means Brontosaurus is actually Apatosaurus, although in marginally different circumstances.

So what did Scannella and Horner actually do? They measured their specimens using ontogenetic markers - the development of the parietal fenestrae and the elongation of the squamosals. They also looked at osteohistological features, and found a sequence from Triceratops specimens with primary, spongy bone structure to Torosaurus specimens with secondary, compact bone structure. They conclude that this is a growth sequence, and looking at the photos in the paper I see no reason to doubt this.

As for squamosal elongation, they have a fascinating graph of squamosal length/width against squamosal length (and I hope they don't mind me showing this):

Significant overlap between Triceratops specimens and Torosaurus specimens (I presume the categories of "baby", "juvenile", "subadult" and "young adult" are obtained from osteohistology samples - must read this more fully...). I'd have loved to see some of these analysed using geometric morphometrics - in such analyses elongation is most commonly the largest component of variation, but if you start looking at the smaller components you can get some really interesting results.

This paper highlights a problem that Peter Dodson discussed 35 years ago - that there is a real problem with juveniles and adults being incorrectly classified as different species or genera. Cheneosaurus and Procheneosaurus are juvenile lambeosaurines (which is all reminding me to write up my geometric morphometric Ornithopoda paper...), for example. While, with the benefit of more specimens, better understanding of osteology, microscopic techniques and improved communication within the field, palaeontologists may not be splitting juveniles and adults now, there are undoubtedly question marks raised over some of the rapidly-described skeletons from the Cope-Marsh "Bone Wars" era, of which Brontosaurus-Apatosaurus and Torosaurus-Triceratops are two examples.

I imagine my students will have picked up on this over the summer holidays, so we'll be able to use it as a springboard to talking about classification, taxonomy and the all-important "How Science Works" aspect of the curriculum. Time for me to start practising drawing Triceratops and Torosaurus skulls freehand on an interactive whiteboard!

Scannella, J., & Horner, J. (2010). Torosaurus Marsh, 1891, is Triceratops Marsh, 1889 (Ceratopsidae: Chasmosaurinae): synonymy through ontogeny Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 30 (4), 1157-1168 DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2010.483632
Dodson, P. (1975). Taxonomic Implications of Relative Growth in Lambeosaurine Hadrosaurs Systematic Zoology, 24 (1) DOI: 10.2307/2412696

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Another Kick In The Teeth For Micropalaeontologists

Back in June I wrote about the plans to close the Micropalaeontology Division at the Natural History Museum. Looks like there'll be more cuts in that field.

The New York Times has the article: "Gulf Drilling Boom Goes Bust For Key Group Of Scientists". Two companies, Paleo Data and BugWare Inc., look set to fold.

The environmentalist in me doesn't want any more oil wells to be drilled, and I could weep at the destruction the Deepwater Horizon disaster has wrought. But I cannot decry the closure of an academic institution while letting the problems in the industrial branch of the profession go by unacknowledged.

Sad times.

Monday 2 August 2010

Making Evolution Visible

There has been a flurry of discussion over the news that the creationist Noah's Ark Zoo Farm has been awarded a "Learning Outside the Classroom" quality badge. The TES has a summary of the issues, and quotes:
It has attracted controversy for its views on evolution and creation, arguing that science has tried to "remove any notion of God from our understanding of life".

"This is unjustified and we look to put the case for a Creator across to those who wish to investigate," the zoo's website says.
At least, according to one commenter, Noah's Ark is "a really boring place to go to compared to the excellent Bristol Zoo only 20 minutes away", which should be a deterrent to any teacher looking for a good all-round animal experience for their students.

So it's refreshing to see that there are attractions making evolution part of their own stories. Today, Paul and I visited Birdworld, about an hour's drive away. The birds are marvellous, and pretty tame - Paul handfed an avocet.

There's a mural of extinct giant birds, including Dinornis, Aepyornis and Diatryma, seen with Paul (looking extremely dashing) for scale. And a display on the evolution of birds:

I'd have liked to see "There's a dinosaur in your garden!" rather than "Is there a dinosaur in your garden?", but it's great to see a cast of Archaeopteryx on display. The captions read:
  1. One theory is that some dinosaurs first developed feathers (called proto-feathers) for warmth. These dinosaurs were small, light and fast like birds.
  2. Over time proto-feathers became longer to help with balance when running. Muscles in the forelimbs grew stronger with increased use. Together, the use of proto-feathers whilst running and leaping slowly lead [sic] to flight.
  3. In modern birds the large breastbone acts as an anchor for powerful flight muscles. The wishbone helps brace the chest during flight. They have replaced heavy teeth with a lightweight beak.
It's not perfect - it's more narrative than I'm happy with, and there's a bit of a suggestion of Lamarckism, but there is a nice big section saying "Birds have continued to evolve for improved flight since Archaeopteryx".

It's low-tech - it's a (beautifully) painted board with laminated printout labels. The biggest expense was probably the cast of Archaeopteryx and the model Aepyornis egg. But it doesn't need to be son et lumière with computers and holograms. This works, and it would be great if more wildlife attractions could find it in them to put a bit of evolution back into their displays.
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