Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking Forward

Much to my surprise, its almost a year since Prerogative of Harlots started. Not that I wish to toot my own horn, but given the notorious ephemerality of blogs (apparently 60-80% of blogs never make it past the first month) this is quite something. I put it down to the liberating effect of changing jobs and the creativity of working in a university environment again; others might say that it is evidence that I don't have enough to do.

Anyway, it being the end of a year, not to mention a decade, it might seem like a good time for one of those interminable "looking back" pieces that infest the media during the last half of December. But fear not, reader, because I frankly can't be bothered to write one. Instead, I humbly offer some predictions for 2010.

Someone will dig up a fossil and claim that it revolutinizes our understanding of life on earth. It will get its own Discovery/History/Lifetime special. A month later someone else will shoot this idea down. A museum will dispose of collections under ethically questionable circumstances. A dinosaur will be auctioned. There will be job cuts in the museum sector. Museum consultants will write papers suggesting that collections are of limited importance to museums. People will steal fossils and sell them on Ebay. Someone will publish on these fossils. The Large Hadron Collider will break down. A district school board will attempt to weaken the teaching of evolution in public schools. The VP listserver will spend at least 50% of its time expressing collective outrage. About everything.

In other words, I predict that 2010 will be much like 2009. I look forward to being proved wrong.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

(Not) The Year in Science

Scratching my head over how The Independent's review of science in 2009 could devote four paragraphs to Darwinius, but not mention Ardipithecus at all. I suppose you could argue that the hype is a story in and of itself, but I'd have expected better from the newspaper that claimed to be the most thoughtful of the UK broadsheets. Still, who cares? After all, nobody reads newspapers these days.....

Wednesday, December 23, 2009


The adjective "awesome" is thrown about willy-nilly, but in this case it is entirely appropriate. It's definitely not for the faint-hearted, but here is an awesome blog post from Carl Zimmer on some cutting edge research taking place at Yale. I first heard about this work a year ago when I met one of the researchers at a party - there were rumored to be videos, but they were "too much for You Tube." Yikes. Anyway, the videos are embedded in the post. Two little words - "explosive eversion."

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Medium & The Message

Over on the Vert Paleo listserve, the aftershocks of Matt Wedel's blog post on documentary makers continue to rumble on (there are times when I wonder how my colleagues actually get any paleontology done; if I spent my time expressing that much outrage, I'd have to retire to bed for a week afterwards to recover). Anyway, I'd have to say that the balance of the debate seems to be firmly tilted towards a mixture of "how dare they dumb down our science?" and "if only we could find a way to build a better working relationship with these guys, then we'd be able to get our ideas across." As you can imagine, I take a contrary position.

I'll start with a story. Some time ago, I went out for a drink with a paleontologist and a journalist, both good friends of mine. The journalist in question was a science writer - a very, very good science writer, who spends most of his time talking to scientists and translating their research into langauge that a moderately well-educated layperson could understand. He does this so well that he wins awards for it. The last time I won an award for anything was for my Samuel Pepys costume at the Queen's Silver Jubilee party in 1977 (and no, I don't have photos). So, after we had gotten our drinks and sat down at the table, and swapped a little small talk about families and stuff, the journalist says to the paleontologist "hey, what're you working on at the moment?"

About an hour later, as I picked surreptiously at the blood that was beginning to leak from my ears, I realized that was having an out-of-body experience. My paleontologist friend was leaning across the table, face alight with the joy of science, finger waving animatedly as he explained the nuances of the intracranial joint in the neurocranium of fishes and its role in cranial kinesis. On the other side of the table, my journalist friend was sitting frozen with a horrible blank look on his face, like someone had just told him his entire family and most of his friends had been slaughtered by a mad axeman and life had suddenly lost all meaning. I, meanwhile, felt like I was floating several feet above the table, inspecting my surprisingly large bald spot.

OK, so I exaggerate. But only a little. The point is that this scientist (who, BTW, is smart, articulate, and a very good teacher) was speaking to an interested, engaged, well-educated, and sympathetic audience. And he totally killed us. It wasn't that it was a bad summary of cranial kinesis in fish. It's just that it was too much to absorb over a quiet beer.

Now, let's look at the potential audience out there in the USA. First take a look at this 2006 survey from National Geographic. Only 14% of adults think that evolution is "definitely true" - if you're a paleontologist that means that 86% of your potential audience doesn't think at all like you. 33% of them reject the whole concept of evolution outright. And don't start laughing, molecular biologists, because the same survey revealed that fewer than half of American adults can provide a minimal definition of DNA.

Next, let's take a look at what Americans do believe, courtesy of this 2005 Harris Poll. I guess the fact that 82% of American adults believe in some form of God is not a surprise. The 73% that believe in miracles, or the 70% that believe that the soul survives after death are also not that surprising either. But how about belief in ghosts (40%), UFOs (34%), witches (28%), or astrology (25%)? A quarter of American adults believe that their destiny is in some way controlled by the movement of the stars and planets. Under the circumstances, I think we've got bigger problems than explaining that the sacro-lumbar expansion in a sauropod housed a glycogen body rather than a brain to drive its ass.

How about some more statistics? The 2006 American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau reveals that only 23% of the population has a batchelor's degree or higher qualification. Even when you add in students who never finished their degrees, or were awarded associate degrees, barely 50% of the population has set foot in tertiary education of any sort.

There is also a bunch of statistics available on attention spans – see here for a rather nice digest of some of them – and while they differ quite significantly according to how you define “attention span” none of them suggest that the U.S. Cable audience is ready for science programs that carefully weigh up competing hypotheses and then conclude that there is no outright winner.

The reason that I'm hammering through all these statistics is because I'd like my fellow paleontologists to take a long hard look at an assumption that many scientists make - namely that the best person to communicate the excitement and enthusiasm of science is someone who actually does science. Consider how totally unlike you the majority of your audience is. As far as most of them are concerned, you might as well come from another planet.

So, as a starting place, I think paleontologists need to think about the medium and the message. Don't worry - I'm not going to go all Marshall McLuhan on you; as you may know, there are risks involved in quoting McLuhan (see here - watch until the end). But there is an important point here for academics, which is that you need to consider who the Cable audience is (hint - they are not you) and shape the message accordingly. Cable may not be the best medium for transmitting complex scientific ideas.

This is not a problem that's unique to science - they are a bunch of people out there who have complex ideas that they need to transmit to a largely disinterested and undermotivated audience. They include politicians, educators, and anyone who's trying to sell something. What they do, with some success, is pay people who are specialists in packaging and selling messages. And that, I would argue, is the role played by the documentary filmaker in paleontology. I happen to think they are rather good at it.

Consider the National Geographic "Prehistoric Predators" series that I blogged about a few posts back. There are aspects of this show that, speaking as a professional paleontologist, make my hair stand on end. But my 8 year old daughter now knows that there were animals called entelodonts that lived millions of years ago, that they looked like pigs, and that you can discover things about their behaviour from their bones and teeth and from their fossilized footprints. How cool is that? And while she certainly listened to Scott Foss, Greg Macdonald, et al, what really hooked her was the computer animated reconstructions of Archaeotherium, Hyaenodon, Subhyracodon etc. The next day she went into school and told her class all about them. That, I would say, is a prime example of what Cable can do for our profession - it can get second graders talking about fossil mammals. And I think as a profession we should help do this and stop getting hung up on the details.

But we're scientists, I hear you cry; details are important to us! Well, what I suggest you do is this. Once the kids (or adults) have been hooked by Cable, some of them - the interested, motivated ones that we care about most - are going to go looking for more information, probably on the web. And the first place they will look is Wikipedia. So if you're a paleontologist who cares about the availability of accurate scientific information for a general audience, register on Wikipedia and start writing and editing. For example, I notice that there is no entry for "glycogen body." Matt Wedel, if you're out there, there's a tailor-made opportunity for you to use that great summary of sacro-lumbar expansion in sauropods.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Awesome Dino Rant

For anyone who's ever suffered through one of the raft of increasingly lame paleontology "documentaries" ("Most Fiercest Beasts of the Fiercest World Ever," etc) available on cable, here is an awesome rant by Matt Wedel that dissects the way in which scientific advice gets mangled during the production process. As with all rants it's hugely entertaining, although I guess you could argue that in a country where 50% of the population believes that none of this stuff actually happened, simply getting people to understand that dinosaurs were real animals is a major breakthrough.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Another Samson Update

Time for me to eat my words - Samson's owner has found a museum prepared to take it on loan by Christmas. The specimen is going to be on display at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry through the summer of 2010, supported by funding from Comcast, the Science Channel, and Discovery Education. Still no word on the identity of the owner, though the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the name "SAMSON" (actually, I'm guessing that it's the name as written here, in upper case letters) has been trademarked to "TREX SAMSON, LLC" and licensed to OMSI.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cryptozoology (VI)

I so wanted to make it through to next summer's "silly season" without writing about cryptozoology... but then my friend Badger sent me a link to this museum. All I can say is "damn you, Badger!" This one was too good not to share. There are so many gems here. I particularly like the statement that "living fossils" are "the successful cryptozoological stories." What, like horseshoe crabs? Or Lingula? Or ginkos, perhaps? (and if you think there's no such thing as Cryptobotany, then think again)

No, of course they don't mean that. What they mean is "if coelacanths can survive in the unexplored depths of the deep ocean for millions of years, then surely Gigantopithecus can survive in the Pacific Northwest?" To which my answer is "not if your collection of Bigfoot prints is all you've got in the way of hard evidence, because those babies are as fake as the chest of a Las Vegas showgirl." I mean, look at them - they're rectangular! How many primates with completely flat, rectangular feet do you know?

Anyway, there's plenty more where that came from. Now I promise I'll leave the cryptozoologists alone for a least a few weeks.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Museums for Men

The GLW drew my attention to this excellent article that was published a few days ago in the New York Times. Museums (or at least the ones that don't feature large machines or things for killing people) do have a reputation as rather girly places, to which men are dragged either for "family time" or uncomfortable first dates. The article suggests a range of ideas for attracting more men to art museums, including a meat diorama (yay!), exhibits emphasizing the artistic qualities of bombs, and those perrennial subjects of male interest, trains and "naked ladies." Personally I think the Met is long overdue for an exhibition of those naked women that get painted on the front of bombers. Preferably one that includes the bomber as well.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Killer Pig

When my 7 year old daughter starts telling me about entelodont biology based on her watching "Prehistoric Predators - Killer Pig" (a National Geographic special), it's kinda cool. When my students start doing it, it's kinda worrying. Dudes - turn off the TV and go read some of those journal articles I gave you! Sheesh.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Revenge of the Phantom Monkeys

Over the last week or so, there has been much chuntering (or perhaps chuckling) on the VP listserve regarding a paper by Michael Heads that was published in the latest edition of Zoologica Scripta. Entitled "Evolution and biogeography of primates: a new model based on molecular phylogenetics, vicariance and plate tectonics," Heads' paper makes the remarkable claim that primates originated in the Early Jurassic, 185 MYA. That's a mere 130 MYA before the appearance of the first primates in the fossil record. Heads further concludes that the split between strepsirrhine primates (lemurs, galagos, lorises and - of course - our old friend Darwinius maxillae) and haplorhines (monkeys and apes, including us) occurred 180 MYA, that Lemurs arrived in Madagascar 160 MYA, and that New World and Old World monkeys diverged 135 MYA. What is particularly awesome about this paper is that there is no evidence whatsoever for any of this, and yet he still managed to get it published.

This isn't to say that his argument isn't worthy of consideration. It draws on two thorny problems for evolutionary biologists. This first of these is answering the question of how modern groups of animals and plants ended up with the global distribution that they have today. Back in the days before plate tectonics, biologists used to postulate the existence of vanished "land bridges" connecting continents or seemingly unlikely models of colonization such as "rafting" (animals get swept out to sea on logs or other floating debris and get washed up in novel places). Then in 1915 German geophysicist Alfred Wegener proposed that the continents themselves might drift around the surface of the planet carrying animals and plants with them and after everyone had finished laughing at him (which took around 40 years) they came to realize that this was actually true. Of course, Wegener had been dead for over 20 years at this point, having expired from a heart attack on top of a glacier in Greenland, so I guess some people may have felt a bit bad about this. But hey, that's science!

The problem is that continental drift can't account for all animal distributions. When you reconstruct the positions of the continents at critical periods in evolutionary history, it becomes apparent that sometimes animals had to cross water to get to colonize new areas. What it can do is make the gaps between continents narrower than they are today, or create island chains through volcanic and other tectonic processes, which then allow species to "hop" from island to island like stepping stones. But even so, you are still left with models that require animals to either swim or float for quite long distances and for some people that's just too unlikely to swallow.

In the case of the primates there are two major instances where this has to be invoked as a scenario to explain modern distributions - first, the colonization of Madagascar by the ancestors of today's lemurs, which are believed to have arrived from Africa somewhere between 50 and 80 MYA, and second the origins of South American monkeys, which are also thought to have evolved from African ancestors around 35 MYA. In each case, the conventional model of biogeography says that they did this by rafting across the Mozambique Channel and the Atlantic respectively, both of which were narrower at the time when these events occurred.

Phooey - or words to that effect - says Heads. The most parsimonious solution to this problem, given that Africa was at one time connected to both South America and Madagascar, is that the ancestors of these groups were once part of a widely distributed population of proto-primates that fragmented as the continents broke apart. That being the case, you can date the origins of each group of primates, plus some of their close relatives, to the radiometrically determined dates for the separation of the continents. Which all occurred during the Jurassic.

There are certainly animals that look like mammals around in the Jurassic, but none of them are particularly like the modern-day groups and many palaeontologists prefer to call them "mammaliaformes" to differentiate them from the "crown group Mammalia" as the true mammals are known. There's certainly nothing remotely resembling a primate; the earliest known eutherian mammal, Eomania, is 125 million years old. That makes it about the same age as the earliest known ancestor of marsupials, Sinodelphys, and 2 million years older than the oldest monotreme, Teinolophos.

This brings us to the second thorny problem, which is what to do about dating evolutionary events that must have happened (e.g. the origin of primates) but for which we have no direct fossil evidence. Finding the oldest fossils in different lineages is helpful because it enables us to fix the latest date for the common ancestor of those groups. So if Eomania and Sinodelphys are both 125 million years old, and Teinolophus is 123 million years old, then the common ancestor of modern mammals (monotremes + marsupials + eutherians, incl. primates) cannot be less than 125 million years old. The problem is that we can only use the fossil record to fix the most recent date. Absence of evidence, as we all know, is not evidence of absence and given the notoriously patchy nature of the fossil record there may be earlier members of these groups that are as yet undiscovered.

As ever, molecular biologists think they have an answer to this. Back in the 1960s (which is like the stone age of molecular studies) they made the observation that the molecular sequence of a variety of biological molecules, including proteins and DNA, changes over time. It follows, they hypothesized, that the magnitude of the difference between the same molecule in two different groups of organisms is a reflection of the time since the two lineages diverged. Provided that this rate remains constant, you can calibrate your "molecular clock" to figure out how long ago the common ancestor of the two groups. Once again hard science triumphs over the woolly uncertainties of the fossil record. Hurrah!

Of course, it's not as simple as that because the clock does not "tick" at the same speed in different lineages. Albatrosses have molecular clocks that run at half the speed of other birds. Small mammals accumulate molecular changes at 8 times the speed of turtles. Over time and much study it's become apparent that there are several factors affecting the rate of molecular change, including population size, the time taken to reach reproductive maturity, the intensity of natural selection, and physiological differences between species. This means that you have to apply a series of statistical and computation fudge factors to your analysis to compensate for these confounding variables. In short, the molecular clock can provide supporting evidence for a hypothesis, but is not direct evidence. This is a pity for Heads, because the molecular clock for primates does suggest an earlier origin for primates than the fossil record - but only 80-116 MYA, which is still a good way short of his 180 MYA model. Having said so, there's no more evidence for 80 million year old primates than for 180 million year old ones.

Heads' Jurassic primates are a classic example of a "ghost lineage." Ghost lineages are phylogenetic branches that are inferred to exist, but for which there is no direct (i.e. fossil) evidence. Ghost lineages are a plague for those researchers interested in the early history of the modern placental mammal groups because molecular dating suggests that they originated back in the Cretaceous, but so far no-one has found a fossil member of one of these groups that predates the K/T boundary 65 MYA. Open-minded paleontologists (and there are a few of these rare creatures around) are prepared to at least consider the possibility that there might be some late Cretaceous primates kicking around. But no-one is going to swallow the idea of an unrecorded evolutionary history for primates that is almost three times longer than their known fossil record.

Why? Well, the fossil record for Mesozoic mammals isn't great, but it's still good and we know from the fossils that there were other other animals of similar size and ecologies (e.g non-placental eutherians) known from the "missing" time period. That means that you have to start coming up with increasinglt tenuous arguments to explain why the animals in question (e.g., Jurassic primates) are completely missing. Plus, if you accept that there were primates in the Jurassic, then you also have to conclude that the diversification of almost all the groups of placental mammals took place even earlier than this. Not being able to find a fossil of a Jurassic primate is bad enough; not finding evidence of *any* modern group if their ancestors were all present makes this hypothesis untenable.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

More Like What We Were

Many thanks to my colleague, James Bryant, who posted a link on NHCOLL-L to this splendidly Pooterish article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The author is one Thomas H. Benton; "Thomas H. Benton," apparently, is the pen name of one William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College MI. (As an aside, I don't get why you would write an article under a pen name, then tell your readers your real name. Doesn't that defeat the point? Or is it like me saying, "hi, this is Chris, but today I'm writing in my Chuck persona?") Benton/Pannapacker's thesis is that some time in the past natural history museums lost their way - reading between the lines, this seems to have a lot to do with letting children in to run around the place with a lack of "decorum;" as with most things that are bad for you, this began in the 1960s. Damn those Baby Boomers!

I'm being a little unfair, because it's a better article than that. After starting unpromisingly with one of those thumbnail sketches of "man in a cluttered office full of interesting things" that serves as the lazy writer's shorthand for the eccentricities of museum life, Benton goes on to explain that such places as this office "are the accidental accumulations of time, rather than the clean, uniform, and often deadening spaces created by committees governed by the orthodoxies of a narrowly defined mission." Crikey, you can tell he works in the humanities, can't you? I feel obliged to note that they are also places where irreplaceable specimens get lost for generations, armies of cockroaches breed, and fires start in trashcans.

After this, we meander through some warm fuzzy reminiscences of Benton's youthful dalliances in various natural history museums, before finally getting to the meat of his argument. "At some point, apparently back in the 60s, natural-history museums began to focus on attracting children; it made sense for demographic reasons allied to the educational imperatives of the Cold War." Silly me - there was I, thinking that we wanted to use natural history to inspire and awaken their interest in science. Now I realize that we were just slaves to our educational imperatives. Anyway, it seems that grown-ups don't come and visit our museums any more. "Could you imagine a sharply dressed couple walking through a natural-history museum, making sophisticated remarks about the archaeology of knowledge and the frisson of old and new epistemologies?" ponders Benton. I am not ashamed to admit that I wept openly at his vision of what we have lost.

Anyway, the good thing about this article is that Benton does actually make some concrete suggestions about what natural museums should be doing about this. I'm not going to go through these point by point; you can go read them yourself. Some are reasonable; some describe things that museums are already doing; some are provocative; and some are just plain daft ("teach the conflicts"? - oh please, Thomas, you sound like a warm-up act for Kirk Cameron). So I'll just pick a couple of his ideas that I think are worth looking at in more detail.

First, Benton thinks museums should "stop being ashamed of dead animals." What is it with these social historian types? They're obsessed with taxidermy - my wife and I used to joke that the only time that natural history museums turned up in Museums Journal was when someone (and it was never a natural history curator) tried to turn taxidermied specimens into the front line of the culture wars. This happened every couple of years, regular as clockwork. I'd hate to break it to these guys, but the main reason museums take taxidermy off display is that it's really, really bad taxidermy - for every masterpiece like a Carl Akeley or Perry Wilson diorama, there are a hundred sausage-shaped monstrosities with bulging glass eyes and straw sprouting from their seams.

Second, Benton is not a fan of anthropology in natural history museums. "Apart from prehistoric human evolution—a branch of the history of primates—avoid anthropology, which has often led to ill-considered displays of indigenous cultures that are offensive and rightly scare away potential supporters." He's not the first to make this point and there is a case to be made that it is intrinsically offensive to display non-western cultural objects alongside animals in a natural history museum, rather than in a museum of art or ethnography.

The counter argument, of course, is that museum displays exist to share the museum's collections with the widest possible audience (or at least, they should do) and that, like it or not, many natural history museums have extensive and important collections of human artifacts. You could also argue that humans are part of the natural world and that our culture is an integral part of the biology of our species.

Then there is the historical angle. Elsewhere in his article, Benton argues forcefully that museums should not "sacrifice" their history and, like it or not, museums have an unenviable history as promoters of scientific racism in the 19th and 20th Centuries. If you want to read more about this, I'd suggest taking a look at "The Race Gallery" (1995), Marek Kohn's masterly overview of racial science. Forget futile attempts to engage with the creationists - here indeed is a "conflict" worth teaching.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Samson - An Update

Back in September, I posted on the forthcoming auction of a substantially complete skeleton of Tyrannosaurus, called Samson, that was about to go under than hammer at a Bonham's auction in Las Vegas. For those of you who still don't know, it failed to reach its reserve price of $6 million; the highest bid was $3.7 m. The owner initially declined to part with Samson for less than the reserve, but on November 12 of this month Bonhams announced that a sale had been made. As ever, the buyer remains anonymous. Various news outlets trumpted this story as "Sampson is Heading for Museum," or headlines to that effect. This is not entirely true.

What's actually happened is that the new owner is trying to find a museum that is prepared to take Sampson on loan for the purposes of display. Now you might think that any self-respecting museum would jump at this opportunity but, as ever, it's not as simple as that. Sampson will take up a sizeable chunk of display space; will probably require the museum to shell out significantly to develop lighting and display content; and will require hefty insurance cover. And all of this assumes that the new owner will not be charging for the loan. It's far from clear that this will be the case - Bonham's auction catalog was quick to highlight the moneymaking opportunities presented by owning your own T. rex.

All of which means that if it were my museum that was interested in taking Sampson, I'd have lawyers crawling all over the loan agreement. I'd want a long loan period - maybe as much as 10 years - with first refusal on a renewal. I'd push hard for a cast specimen (at a discounted price), to permanently replace Sampson at the end of the loan. I'd want far-reaching waivers of liability for any damage incurred while on display and I'd probably insist on the donor handling care and maintenance, even if I had in-house expertise. I'd also be considering doing a deal to license any exhibit content I develop, for use with casts of Sampson that the owner is selling or loaning to other museums. And I'd want to be able to make the specimen available to visiting researchers as well as the general public; this would be subject to formal approval by the owner, but I'd want a "which will not normally be refused" clause. Actually, I probably want a lot more than this, which is why I raised a skeptical eyebrow when Bonham's spokesman said the new owner was planning on having it on display by Christmas. It may well be on display, but I doubt whether this will be in a museum.

So, is this a bad thing? I guess the answer is "not entirely." Sampson will be on exhibit, which is good. A canny museum, with good negotiators that can develop a partnership with the owner, could actually come out of this with a pretty sweet deal. And while this might be a novel situation for natural history museums, our colleagues in the art world would barely raise an eyebrow at the idea of borrowing a privately owned work for exhibit. Sampson is a bit more complicated than this, because there's more involved than just hanging a painting on a wall, but the general principles are the same. In an age when private ownership of fossils has become rather fashionable, we may have to swallow hard and get used to arrangements like this.

The downside, of course, is the issue of permanence. Another fact that emerged in the post-sale interviews is that the new owner is the third one that Sampson has had since it was discovered. If the skeleton remains in private ownership, it can be sold again and again; in these days of financial upheaval, that's a very real possibility. Which means that for all the good intentions of the current owner there's no certainty of access in the long-term, either for the public or for anyone wanting to carry out research on this specimen. As I've said many times before in this blog, this is why you put things in museums - so that future generations have a guarantee of access. This is why our community gets upset when universities like Brandeis start talking about selling off their collections and why I get twitchy when museum policy wonks get all gung-ho about deaccessioning.

So if you happen to be the mysterious new owner of Sampson, congratulations on your purchase and much kudos to you for moving quickly to get it onto public display. I urge you to put it in a museum (rather than a casino lobby, for example) and to partner with that museum to produce some really high-quality educational and exhibit material to make the best possible use of an extraordinary specimen. But beyond that, you should think seriously about donating the specimen. Yes, it's cool owning a T rex, and it did cost you a ton of money. But anonymous or not, donating it would put you into the big league of museum philanthropy, and earn you the gratitude of an army of future museum goers.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Deaccessioning. Again

Flipping through the pages of Time recently (hey, I don't have time to analyse the news myself. I need someone to do it for me. Preferably with nice graphics and a couple of bar charts) I came across this article, which is yet another "hey, why don't we make deaccessioning sexy by asking the public what they think we should throw away. This time it's UCL. Guys! This is like so five minutes ago. Manchester did it far better with the hermit. At least UCL didn't clutter up their rationale with a bunch of guff about how this is making their institution sustainable - they cheerfully admitted that their major aim was to make space for new stuff. I'm all in favor of collecting; collect-or-die is an excellent motto for museums. Except natural history collections where it's more a case of collect-and-die, especially if you happen to be the unfortunate organism being collected.

The Time article implies that the UCL exercise and ones like it are shining a light on the processes by which museums dispose of material and that this is something that many museums would like to keep hidden because it is contentious; they cite the recent Brandeis case as an example of the passions that might arise. Personally I think this link is a bit tenuous. In 20 odd years of working with collections, I have never disposed of anything where I wasn't 100% sure it was a piece of worthless junk; if I was less sure than this, I kept it. There's nothing at all contentious about that. What aroused fury about Brandeis was not disposal per se (although there were plenty of people unhappy about that as well) but the fact that the university was proposing to sell off the collections and use the proceeds to fund other, non-museum activities. This is generally considered to be a breach of the institution's duty of reasonable stewardship. Now, an article where museums talk candidly about responsibility - that would be worth reading.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


If you've been living under a rock (or perhaps in Utah) for the past few months, you may have missed the fact that a movie called "2012" is opening next week. For the rest of you, I'm sure by now you are heartily fed-up of the barrage of Mayan-inspired pseudoscience whirling around this movie, which posits that the world will suffer a series of planet-shaking catastrophies in a couple of years' time. No? Well, here's some more.

2012 is the brainchild of German director Roland Emmerich. Emmerich is a cinematic bête noire of mine, rivalling that other dollar-guzzling monster Richard Curtis. While Curtis's speciality is cheerily heartwarming tales of middle-class British niceness masquerading as comedy, Emmerich specializes in heartwarming tales of ordinary folk surrounded by the deaths of millions. He has become known as a specialist in end-of-the-world disaster movies, whether through alien invasion ("Independence Day"), climate change ("The Day After Tomorrow"), or giant radioactive lizard ("Godzilla")

My grudge against Emmerich goes back to his Revolutionary War epic "The Patriot" (2000). I could forgive him casting an Australian (Mel Gibson) as the only non slave-owning Southern landowner in the 18th Century, or for having another character who was a heroic Frenchman (obviously a foretaste of Emmerich's later science fiction and fantasy films). No, what I objected to was having him turn my fellow countrymen into a bunch of barn-buring Nazis. Sorry, Roland, but it was your army that did things like that, not mine.

However, like Curtis, Emmerich seems to be a nice man, who has been an active campaigner for gay rights; against racism in Hollywood; and promoting awareness of global warming. And it's not really his fault if there are a bunch of wingnuts out there that think his film is true. He has managed to skillfully weave a bunch of genuine geophysical nasties like the Yellowstone Supervolcano, Mega-tsunamis, and "The Big One" into a tale of planet-crushing horror - all that's missing from the mix is a dose of Asteroid Porn. Setting aside the morality of treating the deaths of millions as suitable subject for entertainment (hey, if you don't want to watch, you don't have to go) and Emmerich's formulaic "ordinary-joe-thrown-into-desperate-struggle-for survival" screenplay, it's probably not a bad date movie.

However, it has given a raft of academics from a variety of fields the opportunity to get onto TV (and into the papers, and on-line) and, in doing so, get some real research into the spotlight. How long has Mayan cosmology been waiting for it's day in the sun? But if there's an astronomical phenomenon that needs explaining, my go-to guy is the awesome Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Nova presenter and Director of the Hayden Planetarium at AMNH. Sure enough, last week Tyson sent all staff at AMNH an email circular that pulled no punches:

Now occupying nearly 50-million web pages on the Internet, the 2012 fears derive from nothing more than a hoax of the scientifically illiterate perpetrated on the scientifically uninformed.

Wow - I'm totally going to steal that line and use it at dinner parties. If you change the "2012" to, say, "H1N1 vaccine," "Darwinius maxillae," or "the millennium bug" you'll see that it has broad applicability for a variety of scientific debates. Of course, Tyson then went on to undermine the considerable force of his argument (IMO at least) by giving readers three video links to calm their fears; CNN, Jimmy Fallon, and a video Q&A. All featuring.... Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Some people may fear the impact of a planet-sized body on Manhattan, but as far as I can see a planet-sized ego impacted there some years ago with minimal damage and is still around today.

[disclaimer: after I pointed out Tyson's self-promotional chutzpah to a colleague of mine, I was accused of being a "hater." So, for the record, I think Neil is one of the best popularizers and advocates for science around today. And I am not a "hater." Except where Richard Curtis is concerned]

Stuck in Perissodactyl Hell

I've not been very productive on the blog front this month, partly because I'm mired in a project to develop a website on perissodactyl evolution. This is something that I should have kissed goodbye to when I left AMNH, but like Brer Rabbit's tar baby, it seems to have come along for the ride to Yale. Between editing the reams of text generated by our consultant; trying to find decent, copyright free images of obscure Eocene perissodactyls (Palaeotherium, anyone?); and manually inserting creative commons links for said images, I've been run ragged.

Then there's the etymological glossary of names of perissodactyls and other fossil mammals mentioned in the site. Why did we ever decide to do this? One of the problems with early authors of names (e.g. Cope and Marsh) is they assumed that their readers would have had the benefit of a classical education and that providing an etymology was a redundant exercise.

Thank God for Theodore Sherman Palmer, who in 1904 published the Index Generum Mammalium, 984 pages giving the authors, citations, and etymology of every genus of living and fossil mammal known at that time. And thank Google for scanning the whole thing and putting it on line - you can view it and download a PDF copy here. Of course, those pesky Greek roots are all in the Greek alphabet (even Palmer wasn't above making assumptions about his reader's education), but armed with MS Word's Greek typeface and the awesome Greeklish Converter even this problem is not insurmountable. God, I love the web.

Anyhoo, I'm on track to deliver the site content to my colleagues at AMNH next week. This is about the time that the content for the Paleoportal Fossil Preparation website should arrive from my other consultant. Which also needs editing for a deadline. Then in the monthly collection managers meeting, I get told that I'm being volunteered to review collections content for the Peabody website.

God, I hate the web. I'm going to unplug my computer and go back to writing letters. With a quill pen.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

One word - plastics

A friend of mine, Terri, sent me a link to this website. It's one of those sites where you don't know whether to laugh or cry. On the one hand, it looks like some bizarre art school project. And on the other hand it's a tragic indictment of just how polluted our oceans are becoming. These photos are the remains of Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis), which nest on Midway Atoll in the North Pacific. Ocean currents in the Pacific cause floating plastic garbage to accumulate in two huge patches, which happen to be right within the feeding grounds of the albatross - you can read a paper on this that was published by Young et al in PLoS ONE by clicking here). The adult albatrosses are attracted to the brightly colored plastic, swallow it (hey, they're birds - noone claiming they can make good choices), then fly back to Midway to feed it to their chicks. The website, which was produced by photographer Chris Jordan, shows what happens to the chicks - they fill up with inedible plastic doohickeys and eventually die. On the plus side, the Laysan albatross is the second most common seabird in the Hawaiian Islands, with a population of 2.5 million birds and a range that is expanding to include new nesting islands. Having said that, they're going to need to breed at a furious rate to offset this mortality.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

A New One for the Policy Manual

Over on Museum-L this week there was a curious request - did anyone have a Paranormal Investigation Policy? You may chuckle, but some museums that own or run historic properties apparently get inundated with requests from "researchers" who want to study paranormal phenomena. Just in case you haven't seen Ghost Hunters, these are people who festoon your historic house with microphones, cameras, thermometers, etc in search of spooks. The two "stars" of Ghost Hunters apparently learnt their trade by working as plumbers for Roto-Rooter. I kid you not. Anyway, I was tempted to write back to the list and say "yes, we have a policy - it's called a collections security policy and it says that letting totally unqualified whack-jobs wander around our museum in the middle of the night looking for ghosts is not in keeping with our duty of collections care." Jeeze, people! I guess this is why we write policies in the first place - to compensate for an absence of common sense.

If there is a serious side to this (and there probably isn't) then it's the fact that the proliferation of these idiotic paranormal shows is yet more evidence for the atrocious lack of respect afforded to science, scientific research, intellect, and scholarship in the USA. On the one hand, people are prepared to put their kids (and other people's kids) at risk of serious illness because they won'tbelieve a stack of hard scientific evidence on vaccine safety. But on the other hand, they'll sit down and watch a couple of ex-plumbers trying to prove the existence of ghosts, on the basis that "science can't explain everything." Those of us who do science for a living - and I guess I'd reluctantly have to include myself in that category - have spent years training, sitting exams, writing dissertations, applying for grants, running experiments, recording observations, testing hypotheses, and arguing the merits of our conclusions through a brutal peer review process. We didn't just wake up one morning and think "Hey, maybe I'll be a scientist today!" It would behove the great American Public to acknowledge the worth of that occasionally.
[PS - Happy Halloween!]

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Absence of Mystery

I was greatly amused by Maev Kennedy's "Insider" column in the latest Museums Journal. In it, Kennedy is critical of the recently-opened Darwin Centre at the NHM for being "as mysterious as a sock drawer." Her argument is that a sense of mystery is a critical factor in the appeal of museums and their collections; remove this, and you remove part of their ability to stimulate the imagination. As the regular reader of this blog will know, I'm all in favor of increasing the accessibility of collections, but she may have a point. One reason why people respond so enthusiastically to collection tours given by my colleagues and I is that we don't do them very often; there is magic in seeing something that most people will never get to see.

Kennedy's critique, of course, is aimed more at the building itself, which apparently lacks the Gormenghastian qualities of darkness, decay, secrecy, and impenetrability that she feels all good museums should possess. I think we can safely jettison this ideal. Having worked in some spectacularly "atmospheric" museum spaces, I have yet to find one in which "atmosphere" wasn't closely associated with ruinous damage to both collections and collections staff. The fact is that modern collections storage is stark, brightly lit, and hopefully clean and free from clutter. The mystery lies in the collections themselves. In twenty years of working with natural history specimens, I have never failed to be surprised - and usually in a good way - by the things you find when you open up a cabinet. If we can convey that to the public, then I think we'll have done a good thing.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Not That Monkey Again

Once again, Darwinus maxillae (aka 'Ida') is back in the news. This Eocene adapid primate from Messel, Germany, was announced to a spellbound world in May of this year as the most important fossil for 47 million years, the closest thing to our direct ancestor, blah, blah, blah. Of course, as various skeptical paleontologists, science journalists (as opposed to the regular variety, who accepted the story uncritically), and many bloggers noted, it was no such thing. Now judgement day has arrived for Ida, in the form of a paper published by Erik Sieffert and colleagues in today's Nature. Or has it?

Sieffert et al's paper includes a large-scale phylogentic analysis of 117 species of living and fossil primates, utilizing 360 characters. It includes both Darwinius and another newly descriped adpid taxon called Afradapsis. Boiling this study down to its bare bones, Sieffert and his coworkers have shown that while the adapids share some characters with haplorrhines, the group of primates that contains, monkeys, apes, and us, the overall distribution of characters suggests that adapids belong in the other major group of primates, the strepsirrhines. This means that rather than being our cousin, Ida is the cousin of that annoying King Julien character from the Madagascar movies. The characters they share with "us" are more likely to be the result of convergent evolution than evidence of shared ancestry. And to add insult to injury, literally, it seems that the absence of some crucial strepsirrhine characters from Darwinius may actually be the result of the less-than-reported perfection of Ida. They are all present and correct in her close relative Afradapsis.

Ever keen to make a silk purse from a sow's ear, the media are selling this latest paper as a devastating blow to Ida and her discoverer, Jorn Hurum. This is the sort of thing that makes a good story. Which is why I find myself raising a skeptical eyebrow. Isn't this how this whole mess got started in the first place? In describing Ida, Hurum and his colleagues cherry-picked a set of 30 characters that they thought would clarify the position of the fossil in the evolutionary "tree" of primates. Understandably, having found that their characters placed the fossil in the "more interesting" branch of the tree (let's face it - no-one is going to win everlasting fame and fortune by uncovering the origins of the aye-aye) they were disinclined to dig deeper. All that has happened is what happens all the time in systematic biology: another research group has come along with a new fossil, more taxa, and a bigger character set and changed the tree topology. This is what science is all about.

Horum actually said this today, but no-one is listening to him because he is one of the main reasons that this has degenerated from a measured scientific debate into the media equivalent of a WWE slamdown. I'm actually less inclined to blame him than some, because I suspect that the History Channel, who orchestrated the orgy of hype surrounding Darwinius, waved a fair amount of money under his nose, and then pushed him very hard to stretch his conclusions to the limit and to remove as much uncertainty from his statements as possible. This is a media problem, not a science problem - you can argue that Horum should have had the spine to resist the hype, but the media are past masters when it comes to nudging people along by small stepwise stages (rather like evolution, readers!) until they find themselves in a position a long way from where they started off. And wondering how they got there.

So ultimately Darwinius is important because it teaches us a lot about the perils and pitfalls of press coverage. Big media companies piously tell us that they want to help educate the public by bringing science to a wider audience. This is crap. They care about science in the same way they care about major league baseball, NASCAR, or Susan Boyle (remember her?) - as a hook to sell advertising time. Unfortunately, they have plenty of money to spend and most researchers never have enough. So the temptation to climb into bed with them will always be there.

There is, however, an answer. If you are interested in science, and you want to want to understand the real issues behind discoveries like Ida, go find yourself a good blog. No, not this blog - I wouldn't trust anything written by me - but one written by one of the many, many excellent science writers out there. I would say Carl Zimmer, but I'm mad because last night in the pub he accused me of "losing my edge" as a blogger. So no free PR for you Zimmer! (Not that he needs it). You might also want to try Ed Yong's Not Exactly Rocket Science. One of the few rays of light in the whole Darwinius mess was the way in which the bloggers rapidly dissected this problem and stripped away the hype. These basic reporting skills seemed to have eluded the mainstream media, even respectible outlets like the BBC. If ever there was proof that the future of news lies with the blogosphere, it was Darwinius.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Great Big Cat

I called this post “Great Big Cat” to match an earlier post called “Great Big Rat.” One was supposed to follow the other, to humorous effect. But then I got sidetracked by other things, and now Great Big Rat is way behind this post and it doesn’t really make much sense any more. However, since it is a post about a great big cat, I thought “why not leave the title as it is?” So I did.

Anyway, the last edition of Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (Vol 29 #3, if you’re interested) attracted a lot of media attention because of a paper by Paul Scofield and Ken Ashwell that showed that the giant New Zealand raptor Hapagornis moorei, which was around recently enough for the Maori to have encountered it, was capable of flying off with a small child. They like that sort of thing, reporters: “giant eagle was maneater, say scientists” etc. It’s the sort of science everyone can enjoy. [Note to cryptozoologists: Hapagornis moorei is EXTINCT. And it lived in NEW ZEALAND. You cannot use it to explain Native American tales of “thunderbirds,” or apocryphal stories of small children in Texas being abducted by giant birds. The only Big Bird in America is the yellow one on Sesame Street. OK? (Sigh)]

Anyway, while you were poring over the giant eagle, you may have missed an equally interesting paper by Per Christiansen and John Harris, which was lurking away like a red-headed stepchild on page 934, just before those little mini-papers where guys discuss an interesting pig tooth they found or ‘fess up to giving some dinosaur a scientific name in an earlier paper that they have now found already belongs to a deep sea worm. Oops. This is a pity, because the Christiansen and Harris paper is really worthy of attention. It’s called “Craniomandibular morphology and phylogenetic affinities of Panthera atrox: implications for the evolution and paleobiology of the lion lineage.” But don’t let that put you off, because this paper is a cracking good read.

Let’s take a little trip back to Pleistocene North America, close to what’s now Los Angeles. 20,000 years ago, this whole area was a mix of sagebrush scrub and oak woodland inhabited by a whole bestiary of large mammals, including giant ground sloths, mastodons, mammoths, camels, horses, and bison. We know quite a lot about these animals, because they used to get stuck in pools of naturally occurring asphalt that were scattered across the region. Once they were stuck, big predators would come in to feed on them and get stuck in turn. The whole mess of bones and bodies then sank into the gunk at the bottom of the pools, where they lay undisturbed until scientific excavations began in 1906 (you can read more about this fascinating fossil site here).

Of the predators, one of the most abundant, and probably the best known, was the sabertooth cat Smilodon fatalis. Most people think of this animal as a bit of a prehistoric badass, and indeed it was an impressive animal, with canine teeth over 10 inches in length. But there was another big cat in the North American ice age, much less common in the tar pits (only 80 specimens are known as opposed to more than 2000 Smilodon specimens) but just as big, if not bigger, than the sabertooth. This was Panthera atrox.

Ever since it was first described by Joseph Leidy, in 1853, P. atrox has been a bit of a taxonomic puzzle. For a long time the consensus was that it was a very big lion; it was even classified as a subspecies of lion, Panthera leo atrox. Today lions are confined to Sub-Saharan Africa and a very small region of India, but they were common in Greece and Israel in classical times and even as recently as the 1940s could be found in Iran. During the Pleistocene they were probably the most widespread large mammal after humans, being found across most of Africa and Asia, together with Western Europe and both North and South America. Or at least, we thought there were lions in North and South America. But now it seems like “we” may have been wrong.

Now, you may have been laboring under the belief that it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between (for example) a lion, a jaguar, and a tiger. But that would be because when you go and look at them in a zoo, one’s spotty, one’s striped, and the other is…. neither spotty nor striped. Reduce them down to a bunch of bones, however, and life becomes a lot more difficult. There are morphological characters but it’s very hard to pick out the variation that separates the different big cat species from the variation that occurs within each species.

Undeterred, Christiansen and Harris attacked this problem from a multitude of angles – morphology of the skull, morphology of the mandible, dentition, allometry (studying the relationship between size and shape), multivariate analyses of 25 cranial variables, and something called a warp analysis of mandibular shape, which sounds like it comes from Star Trek. And the results are….?

Well, P. atrox is not a lion. Its craniomandibular and dental characteristics are more like those of a tiger or jaguar and it’s much larger than any other lion, fossil or extant. It seems to be most similar to the jaguar, and may have evolved from a jaguar-like cat that entered North America around 1 million years ago and subsequently gave rise both to modern jaguars and P. atrox. The South American P. atrox are probably not P. atrox at all, but just more jaguars. So instead of a big North American lion, we now have a giant North American panther with a skull up to 16 inches in length. Cool!

However, before we close the door on American lions, P. atrox is only found South of the American continental ice sheet. North of the ice sheet, in what is now Alaska, there were other Pleistocene big cats and these probably are lions. Unless some of them are tigers. Ugh. That’s enough of big cats.

[Oh dear, I thought I had got to the end of this piece, when I remembered that there was one thing I still had to deal with. CALLING ALL CRYPTOZOOLOGISTS! Panthera atrox is an EXTINCT species of big cat. Its purported survival into modern times, for which there is utterly NO EVIDENCE, does not explain “mysterious big cat sightings” in America. My suggestion is that you leave paleontology alone and start by looking for the guy down the road who’s running an unlicensed “animal sanctuary” and consequently does not report escapes]

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Cryptozoology (V)

For some months, I have been threatening a critical overview of the benighted field of "scientific" endeavour that calls itself "Cryptozoology." I have covered it briefly through posts on bald sloths, the appearance of the Loch Ness monster on Google Earth, what Ecological Niche Modelling tells us about Bigfoot (answer - it's a bear), and the so-called Coulport Cougar. But after reflecting on this, I've decided I can't be bothered. As I look out of my window, it's dark and cold, and chilly rain is lashing the reedbeds of the East River marshes. Cryptozoology belongs to the hot, sun-bleached days of late summer, when everyone that matters is on holiday and there's no real news to put in the newspapers (remember them?). So enough of strange beasties for now.

Even my friend Andrew's apparent discovery of a little-known subgenre of cinematic endeavour, Cryptozoological Porn, cannot tempy me (nor should it tempt you, gentle reader, lest shame and prosecution quickly follow). Apparently he "saw an advertisement" (yeah, right) for a movie in which a busty blonde goes trekking into dark forests in search of the giant cryptozoological hominid. She ends up - as you might expect - having a close encounter of exactly the wrong sort.

Apparently the film does have one authentic note. As the monster disappears back into the woods, our heroine realizes that, after all that, she had forgotton to take its picture. Yup, she's definitely a cryptozoologist.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


That's a sort of phonetic growly-snarly prehistoric roar, which just about sums up this latest offering from National Geographic, which is airing on Monday. I was actually involved in the making of this film - you can see some AMNH specimens in this second clip - and a royal pain in the ass it was too, but the end result looks like its going to be entertaining, at least for my seven year old daughter who loves these computer-generated things. And who couldn't love a show that - finally - gives us a computer-generated oreodont?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Preservation of Knowledge

Kudos to Andy Hamilton, new Vice Chancellor of Oxford (and former Guilford resident), for highlighting "the preservation of knowledge," and the role played by museums in this, as one of the three key functions of a university. Plainly my colleagues at Yale did a good job of educating him during his tenure as Provost! You can watch his inaugural address to the University in its entirety here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

PoH is 100!

Much to my surprise, this is the 100th post for Perogative of Harlots. I have no idea how we got here, but thank you all for being so encouraging. Along the way, I'd like to think we saved Primeval (so that I can waste more gigabytes of blogspace trying to critique its "science"); started off a debate on the topic of "what is a museum?" that actually got picked up by a serious blog; and proved that James Hong does not have a pointy head. Hopefully the quality will improve over the next hundred posts, but I wouldn't bank on it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

An Opinion Piece. Without an Opinion.

It was with surprise and delight that I discovered my former boss, Ellen Futter, had joined the world of blogging with this piece at Huffington Post. I must confess that Huff-Po is not really my cup of tea; the sight (virtual or otherwise) of very wealthy people sitting around earnestly discussing how to make the world a better place always reminds me of "Radical Chic," Tom Wolfe's magnificent skewering of the attempts by New York's social elite to cosy up to the Black Panther Party. Anyway, I was interested to find out what EVF's opinions actually are, since most members of the Museum staff never get to talk to her at all (I, at least, got to spend an uncomfortable 5 minutes with her at a cocktail party a few years ago, where I was horribly aware that instant termination of employment was only a conversational gaffe away).

As it happened, having read and re-read the piece several times, I remain none the wiser. Knowing the Museum as I do, I'm sure that "Ellen's" post was actually written by a committee comprised of the Operations, Government Relations, and Development Departments, in response to an invitation received at least a year ago. It has been carefully honed and crafted, through multiple iterations, to say nothing that might offend the City, the State, the Federal Government, the Trustees, and the Museum's donor base, both corporate and individual. As a result, there's little or nothing of actual substance. The post talks in general terms about the challenges facing humanity, but it doesn't actually define what they are. It says we need to change our ways of working in response to these challenges, but doesn't offer any suggestions as to how we will do this. And it slaps a very thin patina of punctuated equilibrium, dinosaurs, and extinction onto the subject to give it a natural history spin without saying why any of this is relevant.

Ex-employee sour grapes on my part? Maybe - although I'm not the only one. Other people have pointed out on the Museum's Facebook page out that EVF's concerns about climate change might carry more weight if she didn't ride around NYC in a chauffeur-driven car. Or if the Museum's sustainability officer hadn't been an early casualty of the last round of job cuts. For me, I think it's more a sense of frustration that, faced with the opportunity to say something significant, in a forum that actually encourages discussion, the Museum has once again bottled it. Museums are a trusted source of information and this is especially so for big, respected ones that get more than 4 million visitors a year. Museums like AMNH have an enormous potential for shaping public opinion. But to do that, they have to have an opinion themselves and not be afraid to express it.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ardipithecus. Finally

For the last 15 years, paleoanthropologists have been bitching and moaning over the reluctance of their colleague, Tim White (UC Berkeley) to give them access to the skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus, a 4.4. million year old hominid that he and his co-workers discovered in Ethiopia in 1992 and briefly described in a paper published in Nature in 1994. Whatever. As a community, the paleoanthroplogists are a fractious and disputive bunch (quite unlike the vertebrate paleontologists, folks!) and if they weren't complaining about this they'd be moaning about some other specimen that they're not being allowed to look at. Anyway, later on today they can put their kvetching aside for just a few minutes and curl up with the latest edition of Science, which contains the first detailed description of the specimen.

For those who want a measured, even-handed account of the significance of Ardipithecus (and yes, it is a much, much more important find than the stupid monkey everyone got excited over in May) and exactly why it took so long to describe it, I refer you to this excellent blog post by Carl Zimmer. For everyone else, here's a list of things that took less time than Tim White's description of Ardipithecus:
  • First circumnavigation of the Earth: 3 years (Magellan et al)
  • Digging the Channel Tunnel: 6 years
  • Defeating Hitler: 6 years
  • Conquering the Known World: 10 years (Alexander the Great)
  • Writing Lord of the Rings: 12 years
Plainly this is science on an Epic scale.
BTW, I'm hereby launching a campaign not to refer to this fossil as "Ardi." Enough with the cutesy names for fossils (Ida, Ardi, etc.). We're grown-ups, OK?

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Smithsonian Vision

The Smithsonian has published its strategic plan for Fiscal Years 2010-2015, an executive summary of which can be downloaded here. OK, these summaries have a fair amount of puff in them, but there's also some good stuff as well. It's good to see that the plan places enhanced digital access at the heart of so many of their activities, but that there's also recognition that "even in the digital age, physical access to the 'real thing' has enduring value." Likewise there is a positive statement that SI will "support our dedicated workforce of employees and volunteers through ongoing learning, enhanced responsiveness, encouraging excellence, valuing diversity, and rewarding innovation." Too many museums spend too little time thinking about the staff that work in them and in a time of layoffs it's important to recognize the value of people. But I wonder what "public/private partnerships that strategically enhance collections care" might be (see page 4)? The Smithsonian has not had the greatest of track records in this area. Watch this one with interest, say I.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


In the biggest news story of the year, the ITV has resurrected Primeval for another 13 episodes of Primeval. That's two whole series! No longer will Danny be left wandering the Pliocene, sweet-talking hominids. No longer will we be left wondering if Connor and Abbie ever make it down from that Cretaceous tree. The first episodes will go out in early 2011. OK it's a long wait, but I think I'll survive.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Great Big Rat

I was flicking through the pages of Time magazine a few weeks ago when I came face-to-face with something extraordinary. No, not Glen Beck – that was the following week’s edition. What I saw, was a giant rat – no, seriously, I’m still not talking about Glen Beck. This was a member of the genus Mallomys, a group of large murids that live in montane and mid-montane forests in New Guinea. As a former student of New Guinean mammals, I have a search image of Mallomys seared onto my visual cortex, along with cuscuses, tube-nosed fruit bats, and the earless water rat (Crossomys moncktoni – a truly bizarre creature which I encourage you to go away and investigate if you are a fan of odd animals). So I actually absorbed the fact that this was a specimen of Mallomys before I even noticed that the title of the article was “The Moment: 9/7/09 Papua New Guinea.” Yes, I’m that good.

Anyway, the gist of the article was that the BBC had sent an expedition to Mount Bosavi, a large extinct volcano in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, where they had discovered a “Lost World.” The BBC is always discovering Lost Worlds – a couple of years ago, it was reporting that another Lost World (containing another giant rat - obviously a winning formula) had been found in the Foja Mountains, which are in the Western, Indonesian half of New Guinea. Every time I read one of these pieces, I wonder who lost the World, and whether it was the same when they found it as when they last saw it. But then I’m just jealous. Anyway, I was delighted to read that the BBC team included my old Oxford chum, Dr. George McGavin. 20 years ago (yikes!) when I was a graduate student and George was the assistant curator of the Hope Entomological Collections, we would sit with our museum colleagues in the Eagle & Child on a Friday evening and George would tell us, with great earnestness, that he was destined for bigger things than this. And it seems he was! George is now a media scientist. (I’m jealous about that too)

Anyway, the Time piece went on to report, rather breathlessly, that the team had discovered 30 new species of animal on Bosavi, including the rat. “Oh yeah?” was my reaction, “Who’s your Mallomys expert then?” knowing full well that for all his entomological talents, George couldn’t tell a Mallomys from a Melomys (that’s a little murid joke for you). However, I managed to track down a video clip of the new Mallomys on the BBC website and there were the dulcet tones of another chum of mine, Kris Helgen, saying that this was a new species. Now Kris is one of the few people in the world who I would trust to be able to ID a new species of giant rat from New Guinea. So that was that. I just had to sit and sulk while watching the rest of the clip.

The BBC guys were all cooing over the rat, which one of them described as being “like a puppy.” Admittedly it was not much like the only live Mallomys that I encountered in my trips to New Guinea – that one was a snarling ball of shaggy black fur, whose only visible feature was a massive pair of incisors, which was hurling itself at the bars of its cage in an attempt to get at my throat. The Bosavi specimen was so docile that I wondered if they’d shot it full of ketamine. That got me thinking about something else; if this really was a new species, someone was going to have to take this little bundle of fun and turn it into a type specimen. Which means (gulp) killing it.

Now at this point, I was all set to use this as a jumping-off point to a much longer post. I was going to talk about the way in which museums have to respond to changes in public attitudes; how repatriation of human remains and artifacts, once almost unthinkable, has become commonplace; whether one day these moral/ethical concerns would grow into an organized campaign against collecting vertebrate specimens; if so, whether we, as museum professionals devoted to ensuring the long-term viability and utility of our collections, should be limiting the the extent to which we respond to emotive issues like this. About whether we need to balance responsiveness to this generation's concerns with responsibility to meeting the needs of future generations.

I spent two weeks writing the piece. Then I stopped and thought "Are you crazy? No-one's going to read this." So instead, here's some film of the new giant rat. They probably just took a couple of blood samples and some photographs and let it go again. Probably.....

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Expertise: a Non-Renewable Resource

Reading an excellent article by Joelle Seligson in the September-October issue of Museum, I found myself brought up short by a couple of quotes. No, it wasn’t another round in the “it’s all about Community” debate that we had a few weeks back. Seligson was describing the after-effects of the belt-tightening exercises that most museums have gone through in the last year. She made the point that it’s not a case of trimming fat; we were already pretty lean to start off with. Now we’re hacking away at the meat of our operations.

So what was it about this piece that raised my hackles (not difficult, as my regular reading knows)? Well, it was a couple of quotes from people who ought to know better. They were so jaw-dropped that I feel they deserve to be reproduced more or less in full.

First, Graham Beale, Director of the Detroit Institute of Arts: “What we did in this reduction was keep the profile of DIA as a major, universal, full-service museum. As far as the public is concerned, we look the same.” DIA implemented its reductions in ways “that came as a surprise to some people…. Areas that in the past have been held as absolutely sacrosanct and regarded as the core of the museum – that still are, really; the curators and conservators – they were affected in ways that the public, the visitors were not.”

I was just getting my brain around that statement when Seligson hit me with another killer quote. This one was from, Harold Holzer, a spokesman for the Met. The Met had the choice of implementing its cuts by either firing staff, or temporarily closing galleries. Can you guess which one they went for? Yup, that’s right. “The raison d’étre of the Museum” says Harold (there, you can tell it’s the Met – I bet you wouldn’t catch the DIA using “raison d’étre” in a quote) “is to provide enlightenment to the public at the highest levels of quality and access, and we take the mission particularly seriously in tough times, when inspiration is just what people need.” People like the 357 staff that the Met is eliminating from its workforce, or the ones that are still there, but are now doing the work of more than one person for the same salary.

Extraordinarily, you get the impression that these guys think that they should be applauded for this course of action. This at a time when we have reports from Heritage Preservation, the Inter Agency Working Group on Scientific Collections, and the National Science Foundation, all of which document the precipitous decline in the care of our national collections; a decline driven principally by cuts in resources and the loss (without replacement) of specialist staff.

Of course, I suspect that they don’t really think this (or at least Graham doesn’t; Harold is probably speaking from someone else's script). What they are doing is performing the age-old administrative art of taking something brown and stinking and describing it as “fertilizer.” There are two main reasons why they’re cutting Behind-the-Scenes, and neither has anything to do with lifting the public's spirits in time of trouble.

First, Front-of-House is relatively cheap compared with Behind-the-Scenes. Collections and conservation staff require a lot of expensive training and command relatively high salaries (although nowhere near as high as senior administrators). By contrast, front-of-house staff require minimal training, get paid less, and are often heavily unionized. This makes it a simple balance book issue; you can eliminate “backstage” positions more easily and get a much bigger financial bang for a smaller number of layoffs. And if you can strong-arm some of your more ancient curators into taking an early retirement package (they’re usually tenured, so layoffs aren’t an option), you can make some really big savings.

The second is a question of appearance. Gallery closures say “we’re not in control of the situation.” With all galleries open as usual you’re saying “times are hard, but through shrewd financial management we’ve maintained control.” Things can be going to rack and ruin in the collections, but this is largely invisible, not just to the public but to the far more important audience of trustees and donors, who rarely get to delve into collection operations and who might otherwise be tempted to ask hard questions of the museum’s administrators.

Whatever short-term hardships may ensue, a program of gallery closures is only temporary. You can always open them again when conditions improve. Your guards and custodial staff can be replaced. But what is happening in our collections now is the steady erosion of expertise (something we've covered before). Staff are not being replaced, and even when they are you’ve lost the opportunity for the new generation to learn from the last one. The staff that are left are battling to keep core, short-term activities alive. Longer term scholarship and collection improvement is dying out in many institutions. And if the various reports that I’ve quoted above are to be believed, we are rapidly approaching a point from which these collections will not return. If I were a member of the public visiting the Met or the DIA, I’d be less concerned about whether I get to see every gallery I want this year, and more worried about whether any of this stuff will be around for my grandchildren to be “enlightened” by.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

PNAS publishes "Worst Paper of the Year"

To those of you that follow science blogs, or even - heaven forbid - read academic journals, this will be (relatively) old news, the paper in question having been published at the end of last month. For for the benefit of my other reader, however, I thought it was worth re-hashing here. Donald Williamson is a retired prof from the University of Liverpool who has some decidedly... um... eccentric views about evolution. Specifically, he believes that caterpillars and butterflies were once two separate organisms: a worm-like ancestral caterpillar and a flying insect ancestor. These then hybridized to produce a single lineage with two life stages. He also proposes that velvet worms (Phylum Onychophora) are the most likely candidate for the wormy ancestor.

OK, let's stop for a moment and review. Onychophora and Insects. Two separate PHYLA. This is not like making a mule or a liger. Short of my mating with a rhododendron and producing a weird man-shrub creature, that's about as extreme as it can get. Now as you all know, there are many people in the world who hold, to put it mildly, odd views on life. The internet is a mine of weird and wonderful stuff that would previously have struggled to find an outlet. But this paper did not appear on a obscure website devoted to extreme hybridisation. No. It appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is (or perhaps - in the light of recent events - was) one of the world's finest academic journals.

How did this happen? Well, for those of you of a non-scientific bent, we scientists have a system called peer review, which means that before your paper can get published in a reputable journal a bunch of other scientists in your field get to scrutinize the manuscript for flaws, or to make sure that you are not stark raving mad. But PNAS is also the house journal of the American National Academy of Sciences. Election to membership of the Academy is one of the highest honors that can be bestowed on a scientist and is a recognition of the member's prodigious intellect. So as far as PNAS is concerned, if one of their members thinks the paper is OK, then why bother putting it through review by lesser mortals.

In this case, the paper was communicated to PNAS by Lynn Margulis, a professor at UMASS Amherst. Margulis is enormously respected, having come up with her own extremely wacky evolutionary hypothesis that cellular organelles (the small, membrane bound structures inside eukaryotic cells that perform many of the cell's physiological functions) actually originated as small, free-living bacteria that were ingested by proto-Eukaryotes in the extremely distant past. Amazingly, Margulis proved to be right and rewrote our understanding of the early evolution of life on Earth.

So is Williamson also right? The answer (sadly for Onychophoran fans) seems to be "no," or at least not on the basis of this paper. Basically, rather than providing proof that he's right, he's challenged his detractors to prove that he's wrong. This wasn't good enough for the seven academic journals that he approached with this paper prior to having Margulis take it to PNAS. But as far as PNAS was concerned, as long as an Academy member thought it was OK, then OK it was.

Apparently the National Academy of Sciences will be dropping this method of manuscript submission next year. For now, you can enjoy Williamson's paper here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

One Small Victory

For anyone who's ever been horrified by the sheer volume of Chinese fossils available for sale through outlets like Ebay, news of this seizure by US Customs is welcome, but long overdue. It begs the question of just how much of this stuff is entering the country every day; this is certainly just the tip of the iceberg.

In Praise of Notoungulates

I've spent the last couple of weeks having my first experience of teaching at Yale. Naively, having tutored a small army of Oxford undergraduates in during my time there, I thought that Yale students would present few surprises. However, from my limited experience to date, I'd have to say that they are scary-smart and very motivated. Either Yale knows how to pick 'em, or else things have got a lot tougher since my day.

The course in question is E&EB 171a, "The Collections of the Peabody Museum" taught by YPM's Curator of Invertebrates, Leo Buss. I think it's a great course (and no, I'm not just trying to kiss up to Leo, who is a very nice man, but also a very smart one, and would see through my ruse in an instant). What it does is take freshman or sophmore biology students and teaches them, through a short research project, how we use museum collections to underpin research.

Personally I think this is a great idea; there are significant numbers of people (including a few curators) who actually work in museums who have no idea what collections are for, let alone the wider community of researchers. So when I was asked to come up with a couple of projects for undergraduates, I didn't hesitate for an instant when it came to saying yes. All the hesitation came later on, when I actually had to devise the projects. Which is where notoungulates come in.

One of the biggest challenges for paleontologists is that they have to learn about the biology of their organisms indirectly - it may seem obvious to say, but most of the things that they are studying are extinct. Sometimes they have living relatives that you can examine for clues as to how your fossil beasties lived. But often you're totally out of luck. And problems don't come more acute than the South American ungulates.

For most of the last 80 million years, South America was an island continent. After the breakup of the supercontinent of Pangaea and its southern portion, Gondwana, tectonic plate movements kept the South America’s mammals isolated from those of other continents. So while mammals in the northern hemisphere were busy evolving into the familiar forms that we see today, South America developed a unique mammal fauna, most of which went extinct after the formation of the Isthmus of Panama led to an influx of mammals from North America.

With a few exceptions (opossums, sloths, anteaters, and armadillos), almost all of the modern mammals that we think of as typically South American are either relatively recent arrivals from North America (lamas, jaguars, tapirs) or more ancient immigrants from Africa (primates and rodents). So what was living in South America pre-Panama?

The answer is some very weird things. First, there were a whole gang of marsupials. A lot of these were much like that familiar opossum that you see pancaked on the highway in the morning, but there were also the Sparassondonta, a huge radiation of carnivorous marsupials that included just about every body plan you would expect for a carnivore, up to and including a jaguar-sized, saber-toothed animal called Thylacosmilus (the name means "pouch-knife," which says it all really).

As a former student of marsupials, I used to think that these big metatherian carnivores were the coolest thing about pre-Isthmian South America. And indeed, they are very, very cool. But that was before I gained a true appreciation of the ungulates. And to my mind, they are even cooler.

Consider these basic facts. South America split off and went its own separate way back when dinosaurs (of the non-flying, non-feathery variety) still roamed the earth. So the ancestors of those ungulates were extremely primitive. They parted company with the rest of the mammalian family tree so long ago that no-one really knows where exactly they fit - to try and place them in the tree requires poking around some very deep nodes, of the sort that can prove quite intractable to phylogenetic analyses. This (plus the total absence of any preserved DNA) may explain why most "super-trees" of placentals ignore them altogether. They then survived in splendid isolation for 80 million years, diversified spectacularly into 13 families and around 150 genera, then went extinct leaving nothing that is even remotely related to them. How cool is that?

Anyway, all of the above makes notoungulates a great teaching tool for the budding vertebrate paleontologist. To my way of thinking, there are two skills that are critical if you want to study fossils. First, you need to be able to observe - to look at something and truly see it. This may sound a little bit Zen, but it's a genuine ability and not everyone has it. The second is that you have to be able to compare - in the absence of relatives, you may need to cast your net very widely to find analogues. And these are two activities that our collection is well-placed to support; we have an exceptional collection of fossil mammals from South America and a large teaching collection of comparative osteology to refer to.

S0 I turned my student loose in the collection and she came back with a specimen of the Miocene notoungulate Hegetotherium which she is now in the process of describing. Without access to any publications on notoungulates. Yes, I am that much of a sadist. My rationale is that she needs to learn to observe without preconceptions. I am like a paleontological Mr. Miyagi. Anyway, we'll see what she makes of it. Meanwhile I have just a few weeks to flesh out project #2. On paper this looks like an exciting chance to delve into the evolution of whales. Sadly, I fear the reality is several weeks of poking around in mesonychid ankle bones for the unlucky candidate. Whoever said working with fossils was glamorous?

[By the way, I'm just a tourist where South American ungulates are concerned. If you want to really experience how cool these things are, go take a look at Darrin Croft's webpage]