Monday, 27 March 2017

Algae or Fossil?

I'm currently basking in the sunshine on the Isle of Skye. I'm actually a bit sunburned. The group of palaeontologists I'm part of, are here not just to appreciate the stunning scenery, but to find and collect the fossils of micro-vertebrates (small vertebrate animals, like mammals and salamanders) from Middle Jurassic rock formations.

Last year around this time, I was on Skye for the same reason. We found a lot of good fossils, but it always takes some time to recognise what you're looking for in the field. One splodge on a rock is a bit of scrappy plant, the next might be a nice bone. It takes time to 'get your eye in', as they say.

I blogged a game of Plant or Bone? last year to illustrate how hard identifying things in the field can be. This year, I'd like to share a new game: Algae or Fossil? Our fossils of interest are incredibly small, and often resemble the black algae that populates the shoreline. Can you tell the difference?

1. Blob of algae, or fossil bone?

2. It's a splat, it's a fossil, it's a bird poo - who can tell?

3. That has to be a bone, right?

4. Yet another scattering of bitties, but should we be collecting it?
5. Oh look, another black thingy.

6. Your last chance to get it right....

Now check your answers below...

Answers: 1. Yup, it's a limb bone of something or other. 2. It might look like a bunch of tiny bones, but it is algae. 3. A blob - of algae again. 4. Yup, these are bones. Teensy weensy little Jurassic bones. 5. Yummy black bone, though not worth collecting. 6. Nope, tis algae.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Check out the azhdarchids

In case you missed it, I wrote recently about the amazing and unlikely creatures of Cretaceous Romania, giant predatory azhdarchid pterosaurs.

I'll blog here again soon!

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Let's call a fascist a fascist

When I began this blog a few years ago, I made decisions about content. One thing I was certain of, was that politics should have no place in it - I'm a Science lady, not the First lady (or, thankfully, the Iron lady). However, there are some times when we must break our own rules because silence is not acceptable.

Now is such a time. So please excuse this spillage into the dirty world of human politics. I feel the need to say just a few things before returning to my mammal's teeth and museum visits.

What is happening in the United States of America right now is not okay.

We are not used to bare-faced lies from politicians. They usually wriggle around the truth like earthworms in the rain, not quite uttering untruths, but avoiding saying anything quite true either. You can't get a straight answer out of them, it's in the job description. So when someone like Mr. Trump (he is no President), or one of his lackies, bare-faced lies to people on international television, we just don't know what to do with it.

Perhaps it is the truth? Surely no one would lie, right to our faces, like this? He's just stood there and said that black is white, and cats are actually dogs. Perhaps the media have just been showing us cats from a dog-like angle...? 

I understand your doubts, but this is exactly how regimes like his work. And when you try to pin them down, the people who run such regimes espouse stirring speeches that make you forget what the original question was - because things are bad, and won't they just make everything good again?

Why did the press secretary lie, asks Chuck Todd of the now infamous adviser to Trump, Kellyanne Conway. "Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck... our press secretary gave alternative facts". While Orwell spins in his grave, Conway ploughs into a rousingly passionate speech asking if it was a fact that women and children were poor, schools were failing, and people have no health care. By the time she finishes, you might find yourself riling at the injustice of it all - something has to be done!.... but these statements have nothing whatsoever to do with the question. Like the audience of a proverbial magician, we are the victims of misdirection. We're dazzled by the show, while Trump's regime tucks it's knives back into those deep, dark sleeves.

Lies are the least of our worries. Trump's openly hostile attitude to muslims and dehumanising of refugees is on level with history's most vile fascist leaderships. Don't let his seemingly democratic election win put you off. Just because people voted for him, this doesn't sanction his immoral, unconstitutional actions.

And as for what this fascist regime means for science? It is beyond Orwellian. Trump's lot like science if it does something commercially useful. He and his cronies, after all, have made their money - and will make shedloads more money - through the exploitation of the finite natural world. Petroleum is good. Conservation is bad. Space is good (there's resources in them there asteroids), but environmental science is bad.

Bringing back jobs to the industrial heartlands by resurrecting the ghosts of obsolete oil technology is like telling a friend she is better off going back to her abusive husband than trying to make a new life for herself. Okay, so you got some black eyes and broken bones, but at least when you lived under his roof he bought you pretty things, didn't he? Don't believe for a moment that Trump is doing it to benefit Joe Plumber. Trump's corrupt cronies want this industry to come back not for the working man, but because they will all make a personal fortune. Another fortune, to add to the ones they already enjoy. 

Trump's people want money, our climate and the future of our planet be damned.

In the UK meanwhile, our Prime Minister even seems intent on jumping on the Fascist-wagon. Darth May sings songs of how the good old Empire could strike back, because remember how good it was when we ruled the world? I mean, nothing bad ever happened to anyone back then, did it?

I'm horrified to find myself living through the beginning of what could become another dark age in the human story. Instead of building on decades of knowledge and debate, these people are intent on throwing it all out: babies and bathwater. 

Trump is not an amusing buffoon, he's dangerous. 

Why am I saying all this? Because I want to encourage you to do something about it. Read 1984 and Animal Farm. Read It Can't Happen Here. If you've already read them, read them again. Those books weren't written to make a buck, they were crafted as a warning to future ordinary citizens like us. Here, they say, this is how easily it happens. And if you voted for him, it is okay to change your mind. #WomansMarch #ScienceMarch - damn well march till your shoes wear thin, whether you join thousands in the streets of DC, or you and your mates stand and yell in the high street in Inverness. Tweet about it, shout about it. Help those who are suffering because of it. Support good journalism. Remember the lessons of history. 

Most of all, don't forget how lucky you are that you can do something. In many countries around the world, it isn't safe or possible to have such a voice. Yet.

I can assure you, cats are cats and dogs are dogs. And Trump, come on, you and I know exactly what he is.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Cutting out the talking platypus

 (This blog was written as part of the multi-disciplinary workshop: Popularising Palaeontology: Historical & Current Perspectives, held in 2016 (Find out more)

You can’t say half of what you want to say in a public talk. Whether it’s at a huge international conference or among a small cosy research group, whether enthusing children or sharing your subject with keen-minded adults, there is always so much more to share than can ever fit into your allotted time.

There are a few approaches to this problem. Some speakers can’t bring themselves to part with a single slide. They get three-quarters of the way through their talk, then tear through the unwieldy number of slides still remaining while the session Chair stands behind them, tapping their wristwatch and impatiently clearing their throat. Another approach is to cram oodles of information onto each slide, hoping that even if you can’t say everything, the audience can at least see your copious thoughts, packed between the dense text and brain-boggling array of images.

For the rest of us, we admit defeat. You just can’t say everything you want. Embrace the burn: pick out the very best slides to illustrate the main themes, and then have a stiff drink to lament the creativity and knowledge you have no time to share. You can even allude to these “lost slides” during the presentation, or perhaps invite your audience to ask you about them afterwards.

I’d like to share with you my forgotten slides from Popularising Palaeontology: Historical & Current Perspectives. In it, I discussed the challenges of popularising my animals of study: mammals from the Mesozoic (#MesozoicMammals).

The title slide from my talk at the workshop - but as with all presentations, some of the slides I created never made it to the final version.
My omitted slides involve a talking platypus. I know what you’re thinking: how on earth could such a thing not be of utmost importance for any talk, whatever the subject? In this case, despite it being my favourite part of the research I did for my presentation on the challenges of popularising mammals from the time of dinosaurs, these slides didn’t contribute enough towards the main narrative of the presentation.

While doing research, I was exploring the appearance of early mammals in the public consciousness. These creatures - scientifically perhaps the most important fossils to come from Mesozoic rocks - have long been overshadowed by the giant reptiles they lived alongside. I went spelunking for popular references to Mesozoic mammals in art and literature, and in doing so came across the wonderful, Dot and the Kangaroo.

Frank P. Mahony’s lovely illustration of a scene from Dot and the kangaroo (1899).
In this Australian children’s book, written by Ethel C. Pedley and published in 1899, a little girl named Dot wanders into the outback near her home, and gets lost. As children are wont to do in fiction, she befriends an animal: a kangaroo who has lost her joey. The kangaroo agrees to help Dot find her way home, and suggests they consult the platypus, who has been around so long it knows everything. The platypus, according to the highly strung creature in Pedley’s tale, existed “millions of years before the ignorant Humans”. While the same can be said of a great many animal lineages on earth, what Pedley is specifically referring to is a hangover from early Victorian misunderstandings about mammal evolution.

The first scientists to encounter mammals from the time of dinosaurs misidentified them as marsupials (animals with pouches, such as the kangaroo) and monotremes (the platypus and echidna). They considered life to have “progressed” up a ladder; with humankind wobbling on a throne at the top. In early evolutionary scientific models, mammals began as primitive egg-laying monotremes, then stepped up a rung to become marsupial, before reaching the perfection of the placental (giving birth to live young). This led to depictions of Mesozoic platypuses being gobbled by crocodiles beside fern-lined swamps.

The true course of evolution is more beautifully complex than this. Monotremes, marsupials and placentals all share an ancestor. These lineages have lived alongside one another for millions of years, rather than evolving from one another along some anthropogenically judged scale of “primitive” to “advanced”. While platypuses and echidnas share many characteristics with our Mesozoic ancestors (which provides clues to ancient mammal biology) they are as advanced along their own path of evolution to the present day, as we are along ours.

From H.R. Knipe’s Nebula to Man (1905). A depiction of Mesozoic platypuses being eaten by crocodiles.
While science moved on from this misunderstanding before the end of the 1800s, the misconception of monotremes somehow belonging to the time of dinosaurs and being more ancient than placental mammals, remained alive and well in popular culture for decades (arguably, vestiges of it still remain). The platypus in Pedley’s story rants at Dot about its multi-million year origins; “I can prove by a bone in my body that my ancestors were the Amphitherium, the Amphilestes, the Phascolotherium, and the Stereognathus!"

This speech stunned me. Where did Pedley dig up these names for creatures relatively unknown to the public? How amazing to see them in a child’s story, when our current culture is hell-bent on over-simplification for fears of frightening the villagers with fancy science-talk. As palaeontologists know well, children are not afraid of scientific nomenclature (though many adults are). Pedley lifted her monotreme’s ancestry from Charles Lyell’s Elements of Geology (1841). How wonderful to think that a generation of Australian kids might be familiar with the obscure early mammals I’m endeavouring to popularise over 100 years later.

One of the deleted slides from my presentation, containing a short film clip from the 1977 adaptation of Dot and the Kangaroo. (Watch from 42mins 20secs into the film, but be warned, it ends with singing.)
By the 1970s, the feature-length animated adaptation of Dot and Kangaroo had already begun to whittle the number of names: “…my ancestors were the famous Amphitherium, the illustrious Phascolotherium, and the renowned Stereognathus!" It is maliciously delicious to hear the voice-actor strain over pronouncing these unfamiliar beasts.
I screen captured the platypus scene from the film for my slides, but admitted to myself later that including the story of Dot and the Kangaroo was an indulgence on my part. It excited me to hear the beautiful little mammals I study mentioned in literature and blurted out in a cartoon. However, the clip ate a large chunk of presentation time, without adding a great deal to my point.
While I shed it for the workshop, I can share this delightful morsel of Mesozoic mammal cultural history with you here. I hope it tickles you, as it did me.

(This blogpost is dedicated to the memory of all the slides that never made it into our talks. May they live on it our memories - and in uncut powerpoint files on our computers.)


This blog was also published on the Popularising Palaeontology website - here.