Wednesday, May 20, 2009

OK, I know I'm on holiday but....

... this really is too much. I had decided for various reasons that I wouldn't comment on this story but it's becoming a fascinating example of what can go wrong when the media gets into the business of supporting science. To my way of thinking, when the manager of the History Channel says “We made a commitment early on to get behind it in a big way: to see it through peer review, and see that it is the media event it should be” there's something very wrong; "peer review" should not be appearing in the same sentence as "media event." This is a very important discovery and it's an outstanding fossil - although you could argue that Messel has produced a hatful of equally impressive finds that haven't got the same exposure because they are not primates - but it is not true that "this changes everything" (as the History Channel's promotional campaign claims), nor can it be compared to the Kennedy Assassination or the Moon landings, nor is it in any meaningful way a "missing link." But I guess that's what happens when you sell your science to the people that made UFO Hunters and Monster Quest.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Taking a Break

Even the most driven of bloggers has to take a break once in a while. So I'm off to the UK next week to bury myself in the wilds of Wales far from any internet connection. Back (with a vengeance) in June....

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


As you know, where science is concerned it takes quite a lot to get me excited, even when it related to paleontology. But this paper by Akerman & Willing, which was published in the March edition of the journal Antiquity, is very, very cool. It seems like Willing may have discovered the first authenticated cave painting of Thlacoleo carnifex, the marsupial lion.

The name is a misnomer. Thylacoleo ("pouch lion") was actually a possum the size of a leopard. It lived in Australia during the Pleistocene; it is fairly well-known from fossils, and the last ones seem to have gone extinct around 30,000 years ago. Since the ancestors of the Australian aborigines arrived in Australia about 50,000 years ago, they would have been more than familiar with it. Probably more familiar than they wanted.

Now you may be thinking, "big possum, huh? What's so scary about that?" Well, listen to one who did his PhD on possums - even the modern ones, which are about the size of a cat are scary animals. I once worked on a project in a Papua New Guinea where we fitted radio telemetry collars to possums. It took two of us to do this, wearing heavy duty gauntlets; one to fit the collar and the other to restrain the angry, snarling possum. "Restrain" in this case meant putting your whole weight on the thing's body to pin it to the ground. Even so, they sometimes got loose - under the wooly fur, they were solid muscle. And this was an animal that weighed maybe 5lbs and ate fruit. Now imagine tackling something with the same basic anatomy, but weighing 300lbs and eating meet. Nightime in the Outback 40,000 years ago can't have been much fun.

The first artists often drew pictures of the megafauna on which they lived, or which lived on them. From the caves of Europe we have richly painted bestiaries of horses, deer, bison, mammoths, lions, ibex and a host of other big Pleistocene mammals. Sometimes these are stylized, but often they are remarkably lifelike and consistent in appearance across different sites, such that we can use them to reconstruct the appearance of long extinct animals - the fact that the Steppe bison (Bison priscus) had a reddish body and black fur on its face and hump, that the giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus) had a brownish back, creamy chest, and dark markings around the neck and shoulders, or that Pleistocene lions in Europe were mostly maneless.

By contrast, despite the number of aboriginal petroglyphs that are known from Australia, paintings of the continent's extinct fauna have proved frustratingly elusive. Pleistocene Australia sported an impressive range of odd animals, including giant short-faced kangaroos, rhino-sized herbivores, 10 foot tall flightless birds, and a 20 foot-long relative of the Komodo dragon. However, prior to the Thylacoleo discovery the only contemporary representation of the Australian megafauna known was an animal in rock art from the Kakadu national park which has been indentified as the "marsupial tapir," Palorchestes.

So the current image, which was found by Tim Willing on the wall of a rock shelter in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, is very important. It shows a large, striped animal with powerful forelimbs, a short muzzle, and pricked ears. The arrangement of the genitals shows testes in front of penis, which is typical of marsupials. The tail is long and sticks straight out from the body. There was another stripey carnivore in Australia during the Pleistocene - the thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), which became extinct on the mainland about 2000 years ago but clung on in Tasmania as recently as the 1960s. However, there are also many cave paintings of thylacines and none of them look like the one that Willing discovered. So it seems this may be the real deal.

The feature that really resonated with me was the way in which the artist had emphasized the size of the forelegs. Thylacoleo had a battery of weaponry at its disposal, including huge shearing premolars like scissor blades and pairs of stabbing incisors, both upper and lower, but it is clear that the feature that most impressed the ancient aborigines were those arms. I clearly remember trying to extract angry possums from cages in New Guinea. The animals would rear up on their back feet, supporting their weight on their stiffened tails, and strike out at me with their clawed forepaws, all the while emitting a chorus of snarls and growls that sounded like a baby's cry mixed with a buzz saw. Bad enough with something cat sized, but in a 300lb animal, when all you have is a spear, it doesn't bear thinking about.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Great Quotes #2

"So thanks to Web 2.0 we museum web managers are no longer the invisible drones in the boiler room digitising mountains of content for the benefit of two specialist researchers in Alaska." Sara Wajid, Museums Journal, May 2009

The Sexy Paleontologist - a literary conundrum

The other day, a very nice lady called Anna Richland who writes for a blog called “Dammed Scribbling Women” wrote a response to one of my posts in which she asked why there were so few literary paleontologists. The question was a follow-up from this post on DSW. If you scroll down you’ll see that Jerry Harris has made a pretty good stab at some reasons why this might be (I particularly like the “Grizzly Adams” hypothesis). Initially (and rather glibly) I commented that I’d never met a sexy paleontologist, and I will hold fast to this contention, but on reflection I decided that Anna’s question deserved better than that. So here are a few thoughts.

“His heart racing, he tore the fossil from the dirt with his bare hands”

Science is a methodical process – exciting as the results may be, the process by which we arrive at them is long and often tortuous. As I’ve discussed before, paleontology may give the superficial appearance of being easier than lab science, but in its own way it’s just as exacting. The problem is that methodical is the polar opposite of sexy. Sexy people are impulsive, unpredictable, and passionate. I’m sure there are some scientists that are like this outside of the workplace (although honestly, after over 20 years in science of one form or another I’m struggling to think of any) but you won’t last long in any scientific career by being careless or impatient.

Take, for example, Roy Chapman Andrews, the Indiana-like leader of the AMNH’s Central Asiatic Expeditions. If you had to come up with a sexy paleontologist, RCA would be your man; hat at a rakish angle, clutching a pistol, and off to do battle with fiendish Mongolian bandits. The only problem was that, by his own admission, he was hopelessly unsuited to the actual business of being a paleontologist, which is the patient excavation of fossils. He was more likely to reach for a pickax than a brush and needle, and was actually forbidden by his own staff from going anywhere near the fossils. The real paleontological discoveries of the CAE were made by his chief paleontologist, Walter Granger, who whatever his other merits could never be described as “sexy.”

“My God,” she gasped, “You’ve consolidated that fossil using a cyanoacrylate! Don’t you know the accelerators for that are highly unstable?”

An old adage of mine (often told to staff who are panicking because they’ve dropped something or inadvertently issued a duplicate catalog number) is that nobody dies when we screw up. That puts paleontologists in stark contrast to the doctors, pilots, soldiers, and explorers that make up many of the protaganists of romantic fiction. There are certainly some fields of science where horrible death is a possibility – working in a Biosafety Level 4 containment lab, for example – but the only paleontologists that I know of who’ve died on the job are a guy who was crushed when he undercut a cliff too far in pursuit of a mammoth skeleton, and Hugh Strickland, a Victorian paleontologist who in 1853 was hit by a train while examining geological strata in a railway cutting.

Of course, it would be far more exciting if you ran the risk of being eaten by the subjects of your research. This is why field biologists rank higher than paleontologists on the ladder of sexy fictional scientists. To get around this you have to play fast and loose with either the laws of space and time (Primeval) or genetics (Jurassic Park).

“This is the first ever dinosaur egg! Men would kill for such a prize!”

Lately there’s been a lot of talk about the increasing monetary value of fossils. It’s true that a big skeleton of one of the really iconic dinosaurs can fetch a large amount of money, but most fossils that end up on the market make their finders a lot less than this. Even “Sue” (which at $7.6 million is easily the most expensive fossil sold on the open market) comes nowhere near even the cheapest items on Wikipedia’s listing of most expensive paintings and is worth barely a twentieth of the money paid for Jackson Pollock’s “No. 5, 1948” in 2006. Why this might be is a subject too lengthy to debate here. Maybe, as naturally occurring objects, fossils don’t “speak” to people in the same way that art or archaeological artifacts do. There’s no hidden message from a creator. It may also be that fossils are not seen as an acceptable interest for adults, in contrast to the way that a passion for art or music is seen as evidence of sophistication. Or it may simply be that the market for collecting fossils is too new to have reached the giddy heights of the art world. Whatever the case, you’re more likely to make your fortune by winning the lottery than by finding a fossil.

“I shall have tenure, dammit! And nothing shall stop me!”

Fictional characters are often driven by grand passions or the pursuit of barely obtainable goals. The passions of the average academic are a good deal more mundane, and usually revolve around tenure, funding, and getting into press before your competitors. Also, the grand prizes tend to elude paleontologists – it’s possible that one day a paleontologist will win a Nobel prize, but it’s hard to see what for. We may add to the sum of human knowledge, but we’re unlikely to come up with a cure for the major ills that plague humanity.

“Your father was responsible for the rejection of my PNAS paper! Now I shall have my revenge!”

The blood feud is a staple of much pot-boiler literature, and it is here that science can at least make some claim to relevance. There are no feuds as passionate as academic feuds. The problem is that when they’re written down on paper they usually look quite silly and not the sort of thing that two grown men should indulge in for more than a few minutes, let alone decades (unless, of course, you believe that academia is a mechanism for prolonging childhood, in which case it all makes perfect sense).

The renowned paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson had an epic feud with AMNH Trustee and mega-donor Childs Frick that lasted from the thirties until Frick’s death in 1965. The source of this conflict? Frick was responsible for AMNH declining to publish a project undertaken by Simpson when he was a student. Simpson was unaware that Frick had funded his study as a prospecting trip and Frick wanted to protect the sites for future study. You can argue that their feud had a huge effect on the history of paleontology in the 20th Century, but it’s hardly the Montagues and Capulets. Or even the Sharks and the Jets.

“Robbing the BLM? Why, no man has ever tried that… and lived!”
Crime is another big plot point of thrillers and even bad-boy romances. It’s possible to conjure up romantic criminals – pirates spring to mind, for example, or perhaps Wild West outlaws. And there is certainly a thriving trade in illegally-collected fossils. However, on the one hand there’s robbing a stagecoach or plundering galleons on the Spanish Main and on the other.… there’s poaching fossil fish from the Bureau of Land Management.

Now fossil poachers do a great deal of damage and they’re probably not the sort of people you want to confront on top of a butte on a dark and windy night. But crime-wise they’re still a long way short of the major leagues. This is the sort of crime that lets you scrape a living in a rural community rather than buy yourself a mansion on Long Island. I guess someone might kill for a $100 fish, but he’s more likely to be living in a trailer, smoking meth, and dating his sister than romancing glamorous investigators in the manner of Thomas Crown.

So that's my 2 cents on the issue of the mysterious lack of paleontolgical heroes in literature. I’m sure there’s a great paleontological novel out there just waiting to be written. But it might be too tall an order for me.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A First

After 20 years in the same profession and nearly 18 years of marriage, my wife and I were actually in a meeting together today. Which she chaired. And, despite it being rather surreal, it all went very well. I'm just in a mild state of shock.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Book Review

Just for a little change of pace, I thought I’d write a book review. Not really about museums, except in passing, and certainly not about paleontology. Instead, it harks back to the time before I was a paleontologist (which some people might argue has never ended).

Last week, a book arrived at my house. I was excited, because I had been waiting for this book for nearly twenty years. Not literally, like I’d bought the book twenty years ago and it had taken this long to get here. That would have been miraculous, but I’d probably have been pissed off rather than excited. No, I had been trying to acquire a copy of this book ever since a friend of mine showed it to me back in 1989.

It turned out to have been printed in quite small numbers, and by the time the era of used books on the internet rolled around the few copies available were selling for outrageous sums of money. However, a few weeks ago, through the miracle of Abebooks, I managed to find one at a price that would not leave my family on the streets. Its name is “The Lost World of Irian Jaya” and the author was a man named Robert Mitton.

If you go looking for references to Bob Mitton (which are, sadly, hard to find) you’ll often see him described as a geologist, and it is true that he spent much of his short professional life working for mining companies. But Mitton was much more than a geologist and a much, much more interesting person than this shorthand description would suggest. If the fates had been kinder, I think he would be quite well known today as an author, photographer, ethnographer, natural historian, and explorer. His story is as fascinating and as sad as the country in which he worked.

Irian Jaya is one of the names that was given to the western half of the island of New Guinea; over the years it has also been called Dutch New Guinea, West Papua, West Irian, Irian Barat, and Papua, which is the name it has now. New Guinea itself is over 1,000 miles long, most of which is taken up with a precipitous chain of mountains that rises to over 15,000 feet, the highest peaks between the Himalayas and the Andes. The flat bits that surround these are mostly swampy and the whole lot is covered in dense rainforest.

In the eastern half of the island, which forms part of the independent nation of Papua New Guinea, there are broad, high altitude valleys suitable for agriculture. But in the West, the mountains are for the most part pierced only by deep, steep sided gorges. The Dutch made few efforts to penetrate into the interior until it became apparent that it was a geological treasure trove with extensive deposits of gold, copper, and oil. The Dutch weren’t the only ones to notice this, and in the 1950s neighboring Indonesia began to loudly agitate about putting an end to Dutch colonialism in the region.

Panicked at the thought of losing control of all that natural wealth, the Dutch launched an ambitious (for which read “virtually impossible”) program to grant full independence to West Papua by 1970. Instead they were comprehensively outmaneuvered by the Indonesians, who in 1963 persuaded the US to back a move to Indonesian control by the simple gambit of threatening to turn to the Soviets for support if America didn’t force the Dutch out. So the unhappy West Papuans passed from European colonialism to Javan colonialism, which they have been fighting against on and off for the past forty years.

This was all fairly recent history when Bob Mitton first arrived in West Irian in 1971. He’d graduated with an arts degree from Monash University in 1970, where he’d studied anthropology and geography. Officially, he worked as a camp manager for various mining companies who were prospecting in the region, but his great energy and physical and mental toughness meant that he was frequently sent out into the field to survey as well. He soon discovered that

Irian Jaya is such a raw field academically. I have often found that a passing interest will soon throw you into the region of discovery. Very disconcerting; one minute you’re reading up the available literature, the next you’re looking over your shoulder wondering where you go from here.”

Mitton was able to use the considerable resources of his employers to get into some of the most remote and inaccessible corners of the province. This was largely uncharted territory, where tribal war and cannibalism were still comparatively commonplace. He quickly became absorbed with collecting artifacts (now part of the collections of Sydney’s Macleay Museum) and photographing the people and country. He was a polymath, who was more than capable of covering such diverse interests as Pleistocene glaciations, archaeology, and art styles. By 1974 he was writing

I am feeling my way into the world of museums… I feel I should make the break away from mining as there is little in it apart from money.”

The paradox of Mitton’s work was that he was aware that the cultures he was documenting were dying out under the impact of external forces that he was himself a part of. He felt guilty that the artifacts he had collected were no longer available to local people. Irian Jaya had flourished in isolation – now that same isolation was threatening to destroy the province’s unique environment and culture because not enough was known about what made it unique and the forces that were conspiring to destroy it.

The answer, Mitton believed, was a book – a book that would bring the Irian Jaya, its people, and their varied and diverse cultures to a much wider audience. Unfortunately time was against him. In April 1976, making what would be his last trip to the spectacular Balim Valley, he wrote

It is probably the last chance I get… the Balim Valley is as close to Paradise as one could get…. The whole journey saddened me tremendously… when I left I was utterly heartbroken.”
A year later he was dead from leukemia. He was only 30 years old.

The story might have ended there, had not Mitton’s prodigious energy and enthusiasm deemed otherwise. Although hospitalized and extremely ill, he managed to sketch out a plan for his book and select the photographs he wanted to use.

I have decided to highlight the people and land of the Balim Sirets River because of the incredible variety: there are five distinct cultural groups and areas along the course of the river from the headwaters of the Balim, through the unique Grand Valley, the Balim Gorge and out onto the plains and eventually to where the river meets the sea along the central Asmat coast.”

Ultimately there was enough material for his friends and colleagues to pull together a manuscript for publication. This was “The Lost World of Irian Jaya” which was finally published 6 years after his death, in 1983. It is a spectacular work – an amazing photographic record of the peoples of this region, augmented by Mitton’s detailed notes, diaries, and letters. Strangely, these excerpts in Mitton’s own voice - opinionated, amusing, sometimes self-righteous, and occasionally contradictory - have a warmth and vitality that might not have come through in a more conventionally authored work.

And yet… you can’t read the book without wondering. What more could Mitton have done had he not died so young? What kind of an advocate could he have been for the people and environment of western New Guinea, which continues to be ravaged by the combined effects of mining, forest clearance, missionaries, and the Indonesian army? You can't look at the picture of the smiling, bearded man in shorts, perched with a couple of New Guinean friends on a rock high above the Balim Gorge, and not be haunted by the thoughts of what might have been.

Mitton, R. (1983). The Lost World of Irian Jaya. Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 235pp. ISBN 0-19-554368-8

Saturday, May 2, 2009

All Fish, All the Time

Congratulations to my colleagues Marilyn and Cap, who just got a chunk of money from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to rehouse YPM's fossil fish collection. Fossil fish tend to be the poor relations in many vertebrate paleontology collections - despite the fact that they often verge on the beautiful, it's hard to get people as excited over them as, say, a bunch of dinosaur bones. This project will see the fish collection reach new heights of care, even if it does mean "all fish, all the time" for the next few years.